March 3 2010 12:00 AM

Burgess Cellars unveils tantalizing tastes

Kellogg Center’s State Room provided the perfect setting for a tasting of current vintage and library wines from Burgess Cellars. Small family-run wineries in Napa Valley are becoming an increasingly rare commodity. A Howell Mountain winery with wines crafted by the same winemaker for nearly 38 years is even more unusual.

Before jumping into the big reds, palates were whetted with a sample of Mirabelle Brut, a second label sparkler from California’s Schramsberg Vineyards, a notable sparkling wine producer.

Vintners Club board member Teresa Hyndman commented upon the yeasty aromas and soft mouth feel. Paradoxically, there was a zing of tangy acidity hitting the back of the tongue, which acted as a perfect foil to shrimp and scallops with bearnaise sauce. Reportedly, this wine has been used as a house sparkler at the White House.

Fellow board member David Hyndman observed the 2006 Burgess Estate Merlot displayed a beautiful, earthy bouquet and rich fruit on the palate with cocoa, dark berry, and chalky notes on the finish. Tannins are very well integrated, but the wine opened and softened with airing.

Burgess 2005 Syrah is very dissimilar to Australia Shiraz (remember Syrah and Shiraz are the same grape), nor does it have the intense earthiness and occasional austerity that sometimes defines a French Syrah. As is typical in the northern Rhone region of southern France, the grapes were grown in rocky soils. Like some regions of the Rhone, Grenache wine was included in the blend, adding bright red fruit notes to an otherwise dark fruit profile.

Teresa detected overtones of buttered popcorn, along with notes of green and yellow peppers and ripe prickly pear.

Next were two “library” wines. Burgess has a rather unusual library wine program of holding wines back as long as 10 years and then releasing them. We sampled a 1995 vintage Napa Valley Cabernet followed by a Napa Valley Cabernet from the outstanding 1997 vintage. Both were blended with small amounts of Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

At 14 years and 12 years of age, clearly these ready-to-drink wines have lost the intense fruit forwardness that may characterize a young wine. The 1995 Cabernet was a bit more muscular and bold, with a bright ruby color, a bit of angularity on the back palate, and a lengthy finish. Teresa commented upon the smoky flavors and nice blend of fruit and acid, with classic older Cabernet flavors.

The 1997 Cabernet had bright color without the browning sometimes present in evolving red wines. Softer and more elegant than the 1995, the tannins were fully resolved. Drink now.

The 2005 Napa Cabernet provided a counterpoint to the evolution of the older wines. David found a buttered popcorn nose and young tannins, which blended well and integrated with the flavors. Rich, concentrated, sweet fruit and impeccable balance made this a crowd favorite.

Capping the evening was a surprise taste of 2002 Ilona Howell Mountain Red Wine from a neighboring 10-acre vineyard. This intense red wine screams “old-world” in its earthy nose before kicking in with intense, rich fruit on the palate and complex flavors enhanced by French oak aging.

Wine tasting alert

The Michigan State University Museum will hold its annual wine tasting benefit at the Kellogg Center on March 26, beginning at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $40 and can be purchased at the MSU Museum Store, Goodrich’s Shop Rite, or online at

More than 25 wineries will be represented, some by owners or winemakers. As many as 200 wines reflecting a wide spectrum of styles and prices will be available for sampling, along with light hors d’oeuvres to complement the wines. All wines will be available for purchase by the bottle, plus there will be an extensive silent auction. At $40, this event is a bargain and a great educational opportunity.

In vino veritas.

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