Aug. 4 2010 12:00 AM

Michigan wines impress at Leland festival

The agro-tourism season near Grand Traverse Bay once again got a jump start when the village of Leland hosted its annual Wine and Food Festival.

I was curious to see if there would be many wines from the challenging 2009 vintage, and how they would show, but most of the wines continued to be 2007 and 2008 juice. It was impossible to taste all the wines, or even evaluate wines from all the wineries (especially while enjoying cuisine from the area’s finest restaurants), but a representative sampling suggests that lovers of Michigan wines will not be disappointed by current offerings, including the 2009 whites starting to hit the market.

French oak aged Willow Vineyard 2008 Chardonnay offered hints of vanilla and butter in the nose, tropical fruit, and a nice acid balance on the finish. Bel Lago 2008 Pinot Grigio Chardonnay (25 percent Chardonnay and 75 percent Pinot Grigio) yielded overtones of peach and melon — the complexity of blending two grapes — and a long, lingering finish.

The 2007 Chardonnay from Circa was a different style. With 14.2 percent alcohol, this stainless-steel-aged wine, marketed in a long, slender, curved bottle, has a very crisp mouth feel and clean finish.

Chateau Grand Traverse 2008 Barrel Fermented Chardonnay was a counterpoint, with a fair amount of oak on the palate, and a buttery bouquet. Yet another counterpoint was Bowers Harbor Vineyard 2009 Unwooded Chardonnay, the yang of its peninsular neighbor. The acidity of the 2009 vintage was nicely balanced by a winemaking decision to leave 0.65 percent residual sugar in the finished Chardonnay, nicely rounding out the palate.

The 2009 vintage was particularly challenging, with many growers struggling to achieve ripe fruit, although recent tastings of 2009 wines, to be discussed in a future column, demonstrate there will be many successful wines.

Michigan’s climate is ideal for Riesling, and these wines showed well. Bowers Harbor 2008 Riesling was medium sweet with a broad palate and complex fruit. Gill’s Pier 2008 Semi-Dry Riesling, a double gold winner at the International Eastern Wine Competition, filled the mouth with zingy acidity as a counterpoint to the soft, broad fruit.

2007 Bel Lago semi-dry Riesling, reviewed in another column and a winner in international competition, is another sure bet. 

Northern Michigan winemakers continue to impress with Pinot Grigio, a.k.a. Pinot Gris (it is the same grape). Willow Vineyard 2009 Pinot Grigio was ever so pleasing with soft mouth feel, good viscosity, overtones of melon and peaches, and just the right balance. Ciccone 2008 Pinot Grigio is a nearly colorless wine, with crisp, light body and a short, finish, as if it was evaporating on the tongue.

The 2007 Pinot Grigio from Circa contrasted soft, aromatic fruit on the nose with somewhat tart fruit on the palate, acids that were a bit more dominant than some of the others, and less viscosity. This is a Grigio for fans of the bone-dry style.

Bowers Harbor Vineyard 2009 Pinot Grigio was nearly as clear as water, but had a big fruit nose, and firm broad flavors, belying the nearly colorless juice. A good mineral backbone contributed to the balanced presentation.

Gill’s Pier offered the rather idiosyncratic 2008 Whitewater, made from 100 percent vignoles, a high-acid white wine perfectly harmonized by 5 percent residual sugar.

Several wineries were offering pink stuff, including Black Star Farms’ Red House Rosé, a soft and refreshing blend of multiple red grape varieties in a somewhat sweet style, with no noticeable tannins. Willow Vineyard’s Pinot Noir-based 2009 Baci Rose teases the front palate with soft fruit and a kiss of sugar, rounding the blend with bit of Pinot Gris. 

Michigan winemakers continue to make strides with Pinot Noir. Don’t expect dark, brooding West Coast fruit bombs. Light-colored juice can still pack a punch of balanced flavor. The 2007 Isidore’s Choice Pinot Noir from Black Star Farms displays a blend of strawberry and tart cherry flavors, modest tannins, and a medium finish. Willow Vineyard 2008 Pinot Noir, aged in French Oak, offers a delicate bouquet, more strawberry and tart cherry flavors, and a broad, palate-coating finish.

Black Star Farms Red House Red and Bel Lago Red are wines made from a long list of different grape varieties. Both are reasonably priced and should be crowdpleasers, with their soft tannins and concentrated flavors.

Of course, no trip to Northern Michigan wine country is complete without sampling a couple of cherry wines. Black Star Farms’ Cherry Wine is made from Balaton cherries, and is a tart, flavorful wine that traditional dry red grape wine drinkers may appreciate. It is soft, with very concentrated fruit. Bel Lago’s Cherry Wine blends several cherry varieties, creating a complex mélange of flavors with a smooth, sweet finish.

This barely scratches the surface of the bountiful array of wines currently offered by Michigan’s ever-expanding list of quality winemakers. Summer is a great time to enjoy the bounty.
In vino veritas.

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