Feb. 24 2010 12:00 AM

Festival showcases latest wines from Leelenau, Old Mission

On June 13, the northern Michigan community of Leland welcomed thousands of guests for the 24th edition of the Leland Wine and Food Festival.

The festival always provides a one-stop opportunity for wineries on Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas to showcase new releases, while many of the area’s finest restaurants present specialties (blackened whitefish from the Bluebird kept this writer coming back) amid rockin’ rhythm & blues by the Fabulous Horndogs. This year’s festival also served as a proper christening for the extensively renovated Leland Harbor complex (but fear not, historic Fishtown remains untouched).

An abundance of 2008 whites were featured, along with many 2007 reds and a few 2008 reds. These vintages are yin and yang. The 2007 vintage was unusually warm, producing extremely ripe fruit, often with higher alcohol and uncommon depth and richness. Reds, in particular, benefited from the warmth of the season, whereas the cooler 2008 season led to greater variation in quality among its red wines. The 2008 vintage proved ideal for Michigan’s cool-weather white varieties, such as Pinot Gris (AKA Pinot Grigio), Chardonnay, Riesling and Gewurztraminer, which frequently showed classic balance of fruit and acidity.

Comparing 2007 and 2008 iterations of wines from Leelanau’s Willow Vineyard exemplified the fallacy that one can make sweeping generalizations about vintages. Winemaker and proprietor John Crampton crafted a 2007 Pinot Noir exhibiting elegant, tart cherry and strawberry notes, yet a 2008 barrel sample displayed earthy, French-like aromatics, spice and a peppery finish, opening to more cherry-like notes with time in the glass. The 2007 Willow Chardonnay was crisp, with an oak backbone and a touch of melon, whereas the 2008 version was viscous, with just the right touch of toasty oak and a pleasing acidity tingling the sides of the tongue.

No Michigan wine festival is complete without cherry wine. Black Star Farms’ version is made with Balaton tart cherries plus dark sweets. The Balatons contribute surprising acidity and a cleansing palate, while the sweets add dark fruit aromas. Bel Lago Cherry wine, with 65 percent Balaton, is a bit softer and very smooth. Chateau Fontaine’s version showed bright cherry fruit with darker cherries in the finish.

Dry and off-dry rose wines are gaining popularity as refreshing summer quaffers. A 2008 Pinot Noir Rose from 45 North displayed bright strawberry fruit and impeccable balance, with the barest touch of sweetness. A 2006 Pinot Noir Rose from Shady Lane was light, crisp and refreshing.

Shady Lane Winemaker Adam Satchwell’s conventional Pinot Noir from the 2007 vintage demonstrates the advantages of intensive, crop-limiting vineyard management under the supervision of MSU viticulture grad Jay Briggs. Aged in French oak, the wine is impeccably balanced, showing dark cherry, a hint of cinnamon, bright fruit and a long finish. The 2007 Pinot Noir from 45 North displayed lighter, dry character with red berries and a mouth feel which softened and opened with swirling.

Michigan vineyards can create Rieslings on par with any region in the world. Shady Lane’s 2007 Semi-Dry Riesling was all about bee’s wax, honey and peaches, with a soft finish and zingy acidity. Bowers Harbor 2007 was soft, medium bodied, moderately viscous and, again, showed that peach character. Other dependable producers include Peninsula Cellars, Left Foot Charley, Bel Lago, Chateau Fontaine, 45 North and Black Star Farms.

Pinot Gris/Grigio is gaining momentum in Michigan. Curiously, it sells better when called Pinot Grigio, yet it is the same grape. 45 North’s 2008 was soft and round, viscous, and seemingly sweet, yet it has only 0.5 percent residual sugar.
Bowers Harbor’s 2008 displayed a crisp balance of fruit and acidity, not as viscous as 45 North, but refreshing, with a palate cleansing finish. Chateau Fontaine 2007 showed a hint of amber color, great balance and a clean finish.

A not-to-be-missed wine is 2008 Left Foot Charley Island View Vineyard Pinot Blanc. Winemaker/proprietor Bryan Ulbrich has crafted another stunning wine from this vineyard. A combination of huge fruit (think ripe pear) and razor sharp acidity, it is a wine in perfect harmony.

This barely scratches the surface of the wines hitting the tasting rooms and retail shelves. For fun, consider buying 2007 and 2008 versions of the same wine, and sample side by side. Which style do you prefer? In vino veritas - Michael Brenton

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