Aug. 13 2013 12:00 AM

Touring the wineries of Traverse City's Old Mission Peninsula


Jutting north from Traverse City is Old Mission Peninsula, a jagged tendril of land separating the west and east arms of Grand Traverse Bay and home to some of the finest vineyards in Michigan. Its rolling hills and varying soil types, combined with the moderating influence of Lake Michigan, create a superb environment for growing fruit which reflects its terroir. Of course, vintage variation can always be expected, and that is part of the intrigue of producing great wines. Old Mission Peninsula boasts eight wineries: Black Star Farms, Peninsula Cellars, Chateau Grand Traverse, Brys Estate Vineyard & Winery, Bowers Harbor Vineyards, Chateau Chantal, Two Lads Winery and Hawthorne Vineyards.

Brys Estate’s vintner Coenraad Stassen is one of the most decorated winemakers in the state. Born, raised and educated in South Africa, he brings a varied background to the art of creating wine in the Grand Traverse Bay region. I asked Stassen to comment on the 2010-‘12 vintages, which encompass the majority of wines on Michigan retail shelves.

Stassen said an early frost in 2010 caused a crop loss of approximately 20 percent; however, the ensuing warm summer, which continued into the fall, created the opportunity for deep, concentrated reds and whites with lower acidity levels. Sometimes crop loss in the spring can create the blessing of higher quality among the grapes that survive. He also said that 2011 was the largest crop in history for most Old Mission wineries. The 2011 vintage generated many clean, lean whites and medium-bodied reds with good aging potential.

2012 was an atypical Michigan vintage; the summer was hot and dry, with below average rainfall, but the weather cooled in the fall. Virtually all varieties of grapes achieved full ripeness, in many cases far greater ripeness than growers had previously experienced. Stassen notes that the wines are amazing with lower than normal acidity, but bigger fruit on the mid palate. The reds are still in barrel, but look for rich, full flavored wines upon release. The white wines have generated such buzz that some of the 2012s are already sold out.
As for the 2013 vintage, Stassen reports that a slow start to the spring yielded no frost damage. There has been little rain, so disease pressure on the vines is down. It looks like 2013 is going to be another banner year.

Each year, Trattoria Stella, an exquisite Traverse City restaurant, hosts a dinner which serves as the inaugural presentation for many Old Mission wines. Tasting through these wines certainly supports the buzz about wine quality. A Bowers Harbor Cuvee Evan Blanc de Blanc, a white sparkling wine made from white grapes, displayed rich fruit with a great acid backbone. It was refreshing and clean.

Three 2012 Pinot Blancs were sampled, one from the new Hawthorne Vineyards, one from Brys Estate and one from Left Foot Charley, a perennial award winner for its Island View Vineyard Pinot Blanc. The three wines had very different styles. The Hawthorne had a dry presentation with a leaner, crisper mouth feel. Brys Estate Pinot Blanc displayed a strong floral component to the nose and a sweeter, more viscous presentation with nice acids but still broad mouth feel. A good companion to halibut with morels and caramelized onions. Left Foot Charley Pinot Blanc has a touch of natural residual sugar and is riper and fuller than past iterations of this wine.

A 2012 Riesling flight included Left Foot Charley Terminal Moraine, Chateau Grand Traverse Whole Cluster and Chateau Grand Traverse Lot 49. The Terminal Moraine was dry, crisp, and clean: my style of Riesling. The Whole Cluster presented with a sweeter profile and a softer mouth feel, while the Lot 49 was still softer, with more subdued acids. These were good accompaniments to smoked pork belly with green tomato jam and arugula.

Two 2012 Rosé wines — Black Star Farms Arcturos Pinot Noir Rosé and Two Lads Rosé of Cabernet Franc — were paired with tortellini with squid ink pasta shrimp filling, Calabrese sausage and tomato. The Black Star Rosé was a medium rose color and clean with a hint of sweetness, strawberry overtones, and a bright clean finish. The Two Lads was a bit less fruit forward, clean and crisp — an excellent food wine, perhaps with a peppery overtone.

Two 2011 Pinot Noirs were paired with foie gras. Bowers Harbor Nicholas Vineyard had great nose, nice mouth feel, broad flavors, good depth of flavor and a good finish, belying its modest pink color. The Two Lads Beatrice, aged 12 months in French oak, presented with moderate tannin, bright red berry flavors and a touch of vanilla. Give it a bit more time to fully integrate the oak, then enjoy.

The 2011 Bordeaux varieties including Black Star Farms Leorie Vineyard Cabernet Franc, Chateau Chantal Trio Merlot/Cabernet Franc/Pinot Noir, and Brys Estate Merlot. The excellent Leorie Cab Franc was rich, broad, deep, and concentrated. The Chateau Chantal Trio has a flavor profile emphasizing red and dark fruits under an oak backbone. The Brys Merlot presented with a fruity, soft bouquet emanating from a wine that was concentrated with peppery overtones, modest tannins and good acids.

For dessert, a 2011 Black Star Farms Tribute Montague Vineyard Riesling, despite its sweetness, tasted surprisingly dry, probably a testament to great acid balance. Find more information about the wines and wineries of Old Mission Peninsula at

Wine event
Lansing-area oenophiles will have an unparalleled opportunity to taste some of these wines and sample dozens of medal winners at the 2013 Michigan Grape & Wine Industry Council Gold Medal Wine Reception. The reception will be held at Kellogg Center at 5 p.m. Thursday. Tickets are $40, or $30 for Vintage Michigan members. For more information and to purchase tickets go to

In Vino Veritas

(Michael Brenton is president of the Greater Lansing Vintners Club. His column appears monthly. You can email him at