Leelanau Peninsula is one of four federally approved viticultural areas in Michigan, and the winery scene there continues to expand and impress. An early core of four wineries — Boskydel Vineyard, Leelanau Wine Cellars, Good Harbor Vineyards, and L. Mawby Vineyards — has expanded to a growing list of 25, including some names not yet familiar to Michigan wine enthusiasts. These wineries are clustered north and south of the 45th parallel, the same latitude that has attracted development of vineyards in some of the finest grape growing regions in the world, including the wines of northern Italy, southern France and Oregon.
Leelanau gets the added boost of the moderating influence of Lake Michigan to the west and Grand Traverse Bay to the east. In the winter, lake-effect snow generates a deep, insulating blanket to protect the tender vines. The moderating influence of the lake helps protect against frost in the spring and lengthens the ripening season in the fall. Gentle, well drained slopes and varying soils create a most hospitable environment for growing vines, yet site selection and grape variety selection remain paramount, as do vineyard management practices and, ultimately, wine making skill.
The quality of wines from the region has not gone unnoticed. Dan Matthias, co-proprietor of Chateau Fontaine Vineyards, and perhaps the area’s preeminent authority on winery and vineyard land sales, said that demand for Leelanau grapes would support another 500 acres under vine.
Given the multitude of winery tasting rooms beckoning visitors, the Leelanau Peninsula Vintners Association (lpwines.com) has loosely organized the region into three suggested wine trails. The Grand Traverse Loop consists of the wineries closer to Traverse City and includes nine wineries. The Northern Loop, with 10 wineries, is roughly bordered by Suttons Bay on the east, circling north around the peninsula then south through Leland on the west, and then traversing M-204 back over to Suttons Bay. Finally, the six wineries in the Sleeping Bear Loop populate the region encompassing the southwest portion of the peninsula below M-204 down to Glen Arbor and east to the southern tip of Lake Leelanau.
Of course, several weekends would be consumed visiting all of them, not to mention the need for a designated driver. Fortunately, Traverse City now boasts several limo and coach companies to assume that role, a fact that has not gone unnoticed with the bachelor and bachelorette party crowd.
A recent “media tour” through these loops provided an opportunity for wine writers from across the state to sample offerings from Leelanau Peninsula’s wineries. The reds from 2010 and 2011 continue to show well, and the whites from 2011 and 2012, while very different in character between these vintages, are of very high quality.
“The 2011 wines are following what was already a very good vintage in 2010, but with better volume and consistency,” said Lee Lutes, winemaker at Black Star Farms. “There are more of these wines to enjoy, and they drink more like our wines typically do from this region. The fruit is bright and fresh and acidity is pronounced, as you’d expect it to be.”
Lutes says that the 2011 reds are just being released, and most are of good to very good quality, with Cabernet Franc and Merlot showing best at this time. He said the fruit in these wines is “vibrant and pronounced with modest tannins and good palate balance.”
Of course, not every grape variety grows well in all regions. Leelanau Peninsula does particularly well with the white varieties Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Gewurztraminer and Chardonnay, with Sauvignon Blanc making a push. Among reds, the quality of Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Blaufrnkisch (also called Lemberger) are competing on a national and international stage.
Last year’s growing season created extraordinarily ripe fruit, exemplified in the breadth and depth of the white wines. Lutes called some of the varietals “flat-out big,” with many showing higher alcohol. Lutes said he finds more tropical characteristics and lower acidity in the 2012 whites, which he added should have broad appeal.
Likewise, the 2012 red wines should generate substantial buzz when they leave their barrels and start hitting the market. Look for deep, concentrated fruit with very broad flavors, but perhaps with less structure and acidity.
The Leland Wine and Food Festival and the Traverse City Art and Wine Festival provided additional opportunities to sample wines from both established wineries as well as establishments that just opened their tasting rooms. Among the newer names, Laurentide Winery, named after the ice sheet that once covered the area, and which was a primary influence on the soil of the region, is perhaps the newest kid on the block. Sauvignon Blanc is not widely grown in Michigan, but Laurentide’s inaugural 2011 Sauvignon Blanc is as classy as an old standard. It shows great texture and concentration, good minerality and a smooth mouth feel. It wasn’t as citrusy or acidic as a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, and was more delineated than wines from warmer growing regions.
Brengman Brothers’ 2011 Gewurztraminer was intense; not too bitter, with viscous and palate coating texture. Blustone Vineyards, named for a beautiful local slag stone, presented a 2011 Riesling that was bone-dry and had amazing viscosity, texture and mouth feel. This is an extremely well-balanced wine and should be appealing to a wide range of consumers — very food friendly. Blustone’s 2011 Pinot Grigio also showed nice mouth feel, had a good flavor profile and had a bit of acid tingle on the side palate. The 2011 Late Harvest Riesling was sweet and broad. The French-like 2011 Rose of Pinot Noir should be a great summer sipper, presenting with a light salmon color, strawberry aromas and bone-dry crispness.
By contrast, Verterra Winery’s 2012 Rose of Pinot Noir was bright pink with a big strawberry nose, had a bit of watermelon and raspberry flavors and had an expansive palate with good balance and smooth mouth feel. Verterra’s 2011 Pinot Grigio was crisp and bright with a good acid backbone. Its 2011 unoaked Chardonnay has a hint of residual sugar and would appeal to consumers preferring just a bit of sweetness in their Chardonnay. For fans of oaked Chardonnay, the 2011 from Silver Leaf Vineyard, aged primarily in used oak, was well-balanced with a touch of vanilla.
The hundreds of wines from Leelanau Peninsula vintners are receiving well-deserved accolades. Go out and sample!
In Vino Veritas
(Michael Brenton is president of the Greater Lansing Vintners Club. His column appears monthly. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)