Stretching out into Lake Michigan, the Old Mission Peninsula forms the easterly arm of Grand Traverse Bay. The smaller of the two peninsulas, it has only a handful of wineries, but at three of them, the wines I tried were surprisingly good.
Chateau Grand Traverse was the biggest and oldest, producing wines since 1974. Here, 85% of the wines are white, and a full 60% are Riesling.
Bracing acidity is a hallmark of the Traverse area Rieslings generally, and this is exemplified at Chateau Grand Traverse. The 2010 Dry Riesling showed good Riesling character with floral notes and apple/pear on the palate. It closed with mouth-puckering acidity on the steely dry finish. This reflects the modern preference, even in Germany, for wines with less residual sugar.
The 2011 Whole Cluster Riesling shows good peach and apple fruit counterbalanced again with a good crisp jolt on the finish. With handling minimized, the fruit shows through in a wine that is slightly less dry.
The 2011 Late Harvest Riesling has a light golden hue and honeyed mid-palate. The late harvest allows for greater sugar development in the grape and more intense flavour, but the citric notes on the finish provide that expected balance.
These wines are all very reasonable, priced between $13 and $15.
I enjoyed the Pinot Noir “Vin Gris”, a rosé with an almost golden timbre. It is a bit off-dry, with some French oak treatment – unusual for a rosé – resulting in a relatively lush effect and berry flavours. Just $14.
The Gamay Noir Reserve 2008 was impressive. Another cool climate grape, this wine spent 18 months in oak and is very tasty with spice and cherry notes. It took best in class and the 2012 International Eastern Wine Competition. It’s $18, but for a wine given this kind of treatment, it’s fair.
Just a short distance from Chateau Grand Traverse up M23 is Brys Estate Vineyard and Winery. Brys had its first harvest in 2004, and since then has produced a number of award-winning wines.
The commitment to quality is apparent in the wines – and the prices reflect that, with the dry whites and reds selling for more than $20. With the whites, I was impressed with the Naked Chardonnay. “Naked” is currently in vogue for describing wines that haven’t had any oak treatment. (Oak imparts some tannin and structure to a wine, giving vanilla and toasted notes as well as potential for aging.)
The Brys Chardonnay combined a champagne clone with the “musqué” clone, resulting in a delicious wine with lifted tropical fruit and more muted acidity. With wine, “clones” are strains of the generic grape – chardonnay in this case – which impart particular characteristics to the wine. Depending on the area of production, one clone could be more effective than another. The “musqué” or Muscat clone is known for its aromatics.
The red wines I tasted were very good, but in the $45 range. The 2010 Merlot won gold in California and was very round with dark berry flavours and mocha on the finish. A ripe, round wine with good structure. Expensive as it is, it shows that the area can produce some beautiful wines.
The newest winery, a bit further out the Peninsula, is 2Lads which opened in 2008. Winemaker Cornell Olivier is a young South African who grew up in the Stellenbosch region on a farm which grew peaches and grapes. After studying Viticulture and Wine Science, he worked in the South African wine industry before taking an internship at Ohio State University sponsored by Chateau Grand Traverse, and that brought him to Michigan and cool climate winemaking.
He became the original winemaker at Brys Estate. In 2008 he established 2Lads with Chris Baldyga, a Traverse area native with lots of local experience in farming and grape growing.
Though we showed up at the tasting room just off our bicycles, Cornell generously sat down with us and poured his wines while we talked about his efforts. If dedication, enthusiasm and attention to detail are any measure, we can expect very good things from 2Lads as the vineyards come into their own.
Cornell explained some of the approaches to farming they are taking that will result in a more organic wine, including cover cropping that will act as a biofumigant, add potassium, and help in drainage while attracting beneficial insects. He tries to deal with weeds by burning them off when they’re small in the spring.
In every aspect of grape-growing and wine-making, there is evidence of a lot of thought and commitment. He explained how he controlled the canopy of leaves on the Riesling vines on the western slope which receives no morning sunlight in order to retain warmth. The end result: wines with less of a green apple effect.
The modern winery is designed to take advantage of gravity so that the wines are handled more gently as they move from one phase of the process to another.
He explained, too, how he likes to taste wines he admires each year before harvest to help him focus. He said, “I do a lot of work outside - I don’t want to mess it up with the wine-making. “ My impression? A lot of skill, and a lot of humility.
2Lads wines are priced between those of Brys and those of Grand Traverse – not inexpensive, but in context fair value.
The $17 Pinot Grigio is a successful wine with “good chemistry” in the grapes. Dry and gentle, it leads to a lovely tart, lemony finish.
The 2011 Chardonnay along with the 2010 Reserve is just being released. 2Lads uses large oak tanks for fermentation for the 2011 chardonnay. These are more neutral than new oak barrels, but they still add some character to the wine. Malolactic fermentation converts some of the tart apple-like acid to the creamier lactic acid for a softer, more rounded effect. The Reserve starts fermentation in stainless steel, but half is transferred to new French oak which emphasizes caramel and vanilla overtones. This is a very successful wine. Though in screw-cap, attention is paid to the lining of the cap to allow for some aging.
The 2010 Pinot Noir, $26, has the “barnyard” nose often associated with a good Burgundy, and plum and cherry flavours. It’s their first crop, and shows persistent spice/cinnamon nuances. It is quite European in style.
2Lads is also a sparkling wine producer. The Reserve consists of 75% Chardonnay and 25% Pinot Grigio. It’s made in the traditional Champagne method, with the secondary fermentation taking place in the bottle. It has a soft beautiful mousse which just flows over the tongue. Toast on the nose, and stone acidity on the palate. The wine rests for two years on the lees in the bottle before it’s finished for consumption. $32 makes sense.
Production at 2Lads is small, with many wines selling out from vintage to vintage. As the vines age and the style evolves, I expect very good things from 2Lads.
In all, the Traverse City area can produce very respectable wine. The price point isn’t always what we would hope for, but it’s a reflection of the cost of doing business in a new and challenging region. It will be well worth a return visit.
Meanwhile, the LCBO is currently in the midst of a huge beer promotion, featuring 418 beers from 39 countries. Many are available in our stores, especially the Great Northern Road location. I am a fan of Creemore Springs Kellerbier, an unfiltered German lager, $2.70 per can. Just to confuse you, I also like Keller Premium Lager from Belgium, at only $2.00 per can. With the hot humid weather, there’s nothing like a good beer after working in the garden.
On the August 4 Vintages Release, try the L.A. Cetto Petite Sirah from Mexico. Just $11.95, this wine took gold in Brussels with its big dark fruit and jammy notes. On the 19th the Reserve is being released for $19.95. I hope to be able to compare them.
From the excellent Pfalz region in Germany, the Darting Dürkheimer Nonnengarten Gewurztraminer Kabinett is a medium sweet jewel for $16.95. Try it with Asian cuisine.
Another good value is the Dante Robina Bonarda 2009 from Argentina for $13.95. A bit of a mystery, Bonarda may be one of a couple of grapes from Piedmont in northern Italy. Apparently Charbono from California is the same grape. In any case, it is not widely found anywhere. Described as having black fruit, mint and leather on the nose, and being fruity with a salty quality and moderately deep, it makes me want to try it against Henry of Peham’s Baco Noir.
The Ksana Malbec 2009,$15.95, carries a “90” from the extremely influential wine critic, Robert Parker. Parker emphasizes balance, elegance and structure with black cherry, black raspberry and spice notes. It will drink well for the next 7 years.