Friday, October 31, 2008

Tasting Old Mission Peninsula Wines

I've long considered Old Mission Peninsula to be one of the best sources of wine in Michigan. So on a recent trip to Traverse City, I took the opportunity to taste a few.

Old Mission is a sliver of land, about three miles wide and nineteen miles long, that juts into Grand Traverse Bay north of Traverse City. It was named an official appellation in 1987 but wine enthusiasts recognized the unique qualities of Old Mission wines long before that time. Vines are constantly exposed to cool breezes from the lake and get unobstructed southern sun exposure. The lake also provides a moderating influence and protection from spring frosts.

CHATEAU GRAND TRAVERSE: During the 1980s, Chateau Grand Traverse was the only Old Mission winery that I knew about, and I enjoyed the CGT dry Riesling frequently. The 2007 was one of my favorites on this visit as well. Well defined apple and pear flavors are nicely balanced against citric acidity. This is not a showy wine but a good choice to accompany seafood. (I enjoyed it last summer with whitefish at the Blue Bird in Leland.) My other top choice from Chateau Grand Traverse was the 2007 Late Harvest Riesling. Compared to the "Sweet Harvest Riesling," it's a much deeper, more serious wine. Flavors are concentrated and interesting enough to drink on its own after a meal or to accompany dessert. I also enjoyed the 2006 Ship of Fools, a blend of Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay. It's an aromatic wine with dramatic aromas and flavors. These probably come from leaving the wine on its spent yeast cells, creating a "leesy" rather than "oaky" trait which can be quite enjoyable at the front end of a meal.

CHATEAU CHANTAL: I simply can't go to Old Mission Peninsula these days without visiting Chateau Chantal, but I have to admit that I'm attracted as much by the view from the winery as by the wines. Perched at the top of a vine-covered hill, the winery offers a spectacular view of the Bay from either side. Standing outside the winery, I always feel as if I've been transported to Tuscany.

I've always enjoyed the Chateau Chantal Malbec. But, of course, this big, full-bodied red did not come from vineyards in Northern Michigan. The owners bought a vineyard in Argentina where Malbec is king. My favorite Chateau Chantal wine from this tasting was the 2005 Proprietors Reserve Pinot Noir. Even from the warm 2005 vintage, the color is only medium deep compared to most West Coast Pinot Noirs. But there's nothing shy about the aromas and flavors. The wine has had some barrel aging but it's fruit rather than oak that strikes me from the first sniff.

LEFT FOOT CHARLEY: There's no view at Left Foot Charley's. The winery and tasting room are in an old building at Grand Traverse Commons--a trendy development of shops and offices in what was once the site of a state mental hospital. Both the winery and tasting room are immaculate and high tech, and the staff there are anxious to talk about things that matter to a wine enthusiast: vineyards, grapes and growing seasons. These are serious wines, and I was impressed by the quality. Every wine I tasted was very good now but with the promise of more to come. In fact, I was told that the Pinot Blanc and Riesling would age well for 10 to 12 years.

Unfortunately, I didn't get to taste the Pinot Grigio; it was sold out. The 2007 Pinot Blanc from Island View Vineyard, however, was a good introduction. I don't think I can do any better than the winery's own description of this wine: "chin drenching, gritty, overripe, juicy yellow pears." At this stage, though, "overripe" may be misleading. There's a very pleasant tartness that keeps me coming back for more. For my tastes, I would try this wine again in three to five years; then, I think, the "overripe" pears will be singing even louder than they are today. The 2007 Old Mission Peninsula Dry Riesling is even more backward, but the apple/lime/citrus aromas and flavors are concentrated and well defined. Again, I would like to taste this wine with three to five years of aging.

At Left Foot Charley's, I also tasted the 2007 Leelanau Peninsula Chardonnay (limey French oak traits framing elegant Chardonnay fruit); the 2007 Leelanau Peninsula Gewurztraminer (all the Gewurz perfume and spice in a dry, somewhat-high-alcohol format) and the 2007 Red Drive, a blend of Dornfelder, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Regant from Old Mission Peninsula. Red Drive is not for those who like high-powered New World Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz. It's rather a medium bodied, light-colored red that has the drinkability of a Loire Valley Chinon or Cab Franc. It's not tannic, but I would guess that it has enough acid for graceful aging.


  1. Hi Fred, long time no see!

    Total agreement about Chantal. Go for the view, the wines are optional.

    I'd mention two other wineries on Old Mission worth a stop -- Brys Estate and the new Two Lads. They're both doing some high-quality stuff, and have some excellent 2007 Cab Franc in barrel.

  2. Hi Joel, glad to see you here! Feel free to leave a comment or post any time. I'd love to have some good discussions.

    I drove past the Two Lads entrance and was tempted to go in. Brys Estate I've noticed but haven't tasted. Thanks for the tip; I'll give them a try next time.