May 4 2011 12:00 AM

Leelanau’s vinters rebound gloriously after weathering a tough season in 2009


The annual spring media event sponsored
April 16 by the Leelanau Peninsula Vintners Association provided ample
support for the buzz about the 2010 wine vintage in northwest Michigan.
The year 2009 was an incredibly challenging vintage for growers and
winemakers: cold and wet with an amazingly low number of “growing degree
days” (in simple terms, a measure of heat over time). Heat is a key
component for grapes to reach full ripeness.

As in real estate, the 2009 growing
season was all about location, location, location. Vineyard exposure,
elevation, soil type and microclimate, combined with vineyard management
practices, were at a premium. Red wine quality was uneven, although the
whites held their own, showing clear, delineated fruit, sharp focus,
and zingy acids.

If 2009 was Yin, then 2010 was Yang.  Growing
degree days came back with a vengeance. John Crampton, proprietor and
winemaker at Willow Vineyards, observed the season was characterized by a
very hot summer, followed by a cool September, and then a warm October,
which allowed the grapes to develop high sugar content and the
physiological balance and aromatics one hopes to achieve in finished
wine.  Because most of the 2010 red wines continue to mature in oak barrels, this tasting focused on the whites.

One can never go wrong starting with a bubbly, and a non-vintage L. Mawby Blanc de Blanc Brut certainly set the bar.  By
definition a “white wine from white grapes,” this Blanc de blanc dry
sparkler is primarily Chardonnay. A bright, yeasty nose is followed by
fizz which pops in the mouth, and then simply seems to evaporate into
the palate. Extremely refreshing.

The “Detroit” sparkler from Larry Mawby’s
“M. Lawrence” label is a much sweeter wine. A blend of four white grape
varieties, it has a softer, fruitier style, and is likely to have great
mass appeal, although I prefer the Blanc-de-Blanc.

Longview Cellars has been on a tear with
awards in recent years, and its 2010 Riesling virtually jumped out of
the glass with a huge, floral bouquet, creating an immediate “wow”
factor.  What was in the glass was palate coating and viscous, with big fruit. A winner.

Willow Vineyards’ 2010 Dry Pinot Gris
exemplified the benefits of harvesting very ripe fruit (25 Brix for
these berries). Great aromatics and mouth filling fruit create an
illusion of sweetness. But the sweetness is from the fruit, not from
sugar. It is a fine example of what Willow can do with the Pinot Gris

I couldn’t miss the opportunity to sample
the 2010 Auxerrois from Bel Lago Vineyards. Bel Lago is one of the few
wineries in the state — or the country for that matter — to make wine
from this Alsatian grape variety. In the hands of winemaker Charlie
Edson, this Chardonnay relative presents with medium body and good
balance, somehow managing to be delicate, yet aromatic and fruity. 

A much more “in your face” grape is
Gewürztraminer. An unmistakable flavor profile makes it a
love-it-or-leave-it wine for many consumers. I am in the “love it” camp
when the wine is balanced, but it can be overpowering, even bitter, when
not in balance.

Gewürztraminer typically is finished with
just a bit of residual sugar which, combined with dominant aromatics,
makes it a great companion for its Asian cuisine. Shady Lane’s 2010
Gewürztraminer is all in harmony, with everything at just the right
intensity; a fine representative of Gewürztraminer from the Peninsula.
Although not tasted, Bel Lago also can be counted on to create superb
Gewürztraminer year in and year out.

Wines from other vintages also were
represented at the tasting, including a totally idiosyncratic 2009 Late
Harvest Chardonnay, from 45 North. Sweet, late harvest wines typically
are produced from grape varieties such as Riesling, Vidal, Pinot Gris,
or Gewürztraminer, but rarely Chardonnay. One would not have guessed the
residual sugar content of this wine at a hefty 9.5 percent because the
acid so perfectly counterbalanced the sweetness.

Red wines available for sampling included
Bel Lago’s flagship red wine, Tempesta, from the 2007 vintage. A blend
of multiple red grape varieties, it presented with a very dark color and
dark fruit flavors — a fabulous example of northern Michigan red wine
grape growing, which is in a perfect drinking window.

The 2008 Shady Lane Blue Franc (a.k.a.
Blaufrankish or Lemberger) manages both a soft, pleasing presentation,
but with a tingle of acids in the back of the palate and very modest
tannins. Smooth drinking. 

Iterations of Pinot Noir from the 2008
vintage were provided both by Willow Vineyards and by Black Star Farms’
Arcturos label. The Willow presented with a light to medium ruby color,
nice aromatics, medium body and strawberry fruit. The Arcturos was a bit
bigger, with an earthy edge to the fruit flavors. Both wines benefited
from the complexity of French oak aging and were good examples of the
quality of Pinot Noir grown on the Peninsula’s fringing Grand Traverse

The final wine tasted in this
too-abbreviated session was 2008 Black Star Farms Vintners Select, a
blend of 80 percent Merlot, 10 percent Cabernet Franc and 10 percent
Regent Franc.

This is Old Mission Peninsula fruit. This
wine has darker fruit flavors, contrasted with the red berry flavors
more inherent in Pinot Noir, and also a fuller bodied presentation.
Drinking well now, moderate tannins could also justify near term aging.
It will go well with fuller flavored foods.

Michigan wines and winemakers continue
improve and impress. Watch for future updates as the summer touring and
tasting season gets under way!

In vino veritas

(Michael Brenton is president of the Greater Lansing Vintners Club. His
column appears monthly.)