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.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Gabbiano Chianti, 2006

At $4.50 a glass at TraVino Restaurant north of Traverse City, this has to rank as one of best values I have encountered. Most house wines are either innocuous or all dressed up with oak chips. This Gabbiano Chianti offers honest fruit aromas and flavors--dark cherry and mushrooms--in a traditional format. There is no evidence of new oak or oak chips, but there are plenty of fruit tannins to give substance and backbone. A delightful match for Gorgonzola-crusted strip steak.

Gabbiano wines are widely available and decent values for about $8 to $12 a bottle. All that may change soon as the Australian makers of Foster's Beer have purchased the property and plan to "modernize" the wines. No thanks, I say.

Chapoutier Cotes du Rhone Belleruche, 2006

Chapoutier has vineyards in Hermitage in the Northern Rhone but for this simple Cotes du Rhone, he buys grapes from growers near Sablet and Seguret in the Southern Rhone. He clearly made some good choices; this is an admirable example of a negotiant's Cotes du Rhone.

The color is deep and dark, and the wine is relatively big boned. It is more like the Trois Couronnes than the Pont du Rhone. Aromas and flavors include freshly ground black pepper, red berries, dark cherries and garrigue. Flavors are sharply defined and there are no sharp edges or alcoholic heat. The deep color and body can probably be attributed to a lengthy maceration on the skins. The wine was raised in stainless steel with no oak contact.

Chapoutier's wines are ordinarly not available in my marketing area. I chose a glass of Belleruche ($8) to accompany an excellent entree of lamb shanks with beets and parsnips at Amical Restaurant in Traverse City.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Pont du Rhone Prestige Cotes du Rhone, 2006

I enjoyed the 2007 of this wine earlier [August 31, 2008] and described it as a charming introduction to the 2007 Southern Rhone vintage with its yeasty, upfront red berry smells and tastes. This 2006 gives a good indication of where the 2007 is headed. And I approve.

The 2006 Pont du Rhone Prestige is fruity but considerably deeper at this stage than the 2007 with pepper, tobacco and black fruits adding backbone and substance. It's spicy in the Cotes du Rhone mode and has just the right amount of warmth and ripeness. The medium long finish is ripe but leaves a pleasantly spicy impression that goes well with a tomato-based pasta sauce. This is not a simple wine, although it is inexpensive ($5.99 at Trader Joe's).

Pont du Rhone is produced by duPeloux, a Southern Rhone negotiant. The Valreas available at Trader Joe's for the same price is also a duPeloux production.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Folie a Deux Menage a Trois California Red Wine, 2006

If you're a casual wine drinker, you're going to love this wine. If you're seriously interested in wine, you're also going to find a lot to like. And at $8 to $10 a bottle, it's a good choice for frequent drinking. I paid $10 a glass for Menage a Trois Red at a fancy restaurant beside a creek bank in Sedona, Arizona and did not feel at all cheated.

Menage a Trois refers to the sexy mix of three grapes--Zinfandel, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The grapes were fermented separately and then blended just before bottling. Zinfandel dominates the nose--fresh blackberry cobbler, ripe and straightforward. Lurking in the background though are more subtle smells of black cherries and currants. On the palate the wine is smooth and full bodied. It's fresh and fruity but not at all trivial. Menage a Trois has the texture and feel that Cabernet lovers expect from a serious wine but with the soft, rounded finish of a young Merlot.

For me, this is the New World equivalent of La Vieille Ferme. It has everything you might want in a wine in a drink now format. I believe it's available right now at Cost Plus World Market for $8.99.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Domaine Sainte-Anne Cotes du Rhone Villages Cuvee Notre Dame des Cellettes, 1998

This wine is not going to knock your socks off, and that's why I like it so much. As the Winedoctor pointed out on his excellent web site four years ago, this is a "drinker's wine which has a lovely, elegant style."

It's medium deep, still looks young. The nose is a bit reticent, still young. After 15 to 20 minutes in the glass, it opens up a bit, revealing scents of fresh cherries and black raspberries, deeper and more complex even than Sainte-Anne's Cotes du Rhone or Cotes du Rhone Villages (both excellent wines). Grenache is 60% of the blend, but at this stage the wine smells more like Syrah--reminiscent of a good Hermitage or Cote Rotie from the Northern Rhone. There's Mourvedre in the blend too, but it's still a bit shy, with only hints of the characteristic spiciness. In the mouth, it's appropriately ripe and very classy with a silky texture. The wine has substance and concentration without thickness, tannins or alcoholic warmth. Beautiful.

This Cotes du Rhone Villages is drinking beautifully now, but I have no qualms about keeping a few bottles for another five or even ten years. I'm looking forward to more of the Mourvedre spiciness.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Clos Saint Jean Les Calades Vin de Pays de Vaucluse, 1998

Now this is my style--a mature wine offering gentle but persistent flavors of complex fruit, herbs and spice--Grenache at its best. Yes, I know that it's a Vin de Pays, and I paid only about $5 for it nearly a decade ago. But tonight I can sit back and savor it as if it were a priceless treasure.

It has a mature Grenache color; it has lightened considerably since its youth. The nose is also typical of mature Grenache--dried and fresh strawberries with hints of black pepper, spice and Provencal herbs. The flavors are savory, almost salty, but also very ripe and compact like a rich fruit cake. Everything about this wine is gentle and laid back. One sip leads to another.

Don't get me wrong; very few Vin de Pays wines are capable of aging this well. I experimented first with one bottle of the 1994 (consumed in 2004) and the 1995 (consumed in 2005). Then I laid away a case each of Les Calades from three very good vintages--1998, 2000 and 2001--for drinking over an eight to ten year period. So far, I have no regrets.

Edna Valley Vineyard Edna Valley Paragon Vineyard San Luis Obispo County Chardonnay, 2005

I've had my ups and downs with this wine; this bottle definitely shows the wine at its best. The bouquet offers up ripe pears and white peaches in a brown butter sauce. On the palate, it has plenty of buttery oak qualities (probably barrel fermented) but well integrated with focused Chardonnay fruit. It's ripe up-front and the sweet flavors follow all the way to the finish. Smells rich, tastes rich and has enough acidity to keep you coming back for more.

To be honest, it's not my style of Chardonnay, but I can respect and enjoy it. If you like this style of Chardonnay and have a few bottles in the cellar, now is the time--carpe diem!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Martin Ray Angeline Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, 2004

Compared to the Umpqua Valley Oregon Pinot below, this Sonoma Coast wine presents yet another profile of Pinot Noir. It's very light in color, and the aroma is delicate, although very finely focused with tones of vanilla, ginger, cherry and pomegranate. On the palate, the wine has an essentially sweet core but wrapped in some dry, smoky earthiness that is characteristic of some Pinot Noirs. The finish is shorter than I would expect, but the wine is a very enjoyable accompaniment for my leftover salmon and sweet potato tart from Every Day People Cafe.

I was very disappointed by an earlier bottle of Martin Ray's 2004 Angeline Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir [May 25, 2008]. It's now apparent to me that the earlier bottle was defective--probably because of heat exposure during transportation or storage before the wine reached me. Pinot Noir seems particularly susceptible to heat damage.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Rivers Edge Umpqua Valley Pinot Noir, 2006

This Oregon Pinot Noir has a distinctive personality that I associated with Oregon Pinots. It's darker in color and bigger in body than the Louis Latour Domaine Valmoissine. This may be in part because of the 30% new oak but also because of the distinctive terroir of Oregon. There's a beautiful earthy, ginger quality that serves as a backdrop for the ripe cherries and vanilla. A bit of smoke and more of that spicy earthiness dress up the finish.

I had this wine with an equally delightful entree of cedar planked salmon filet and sweet potato tart at Every Day People Cafe in Douglas, MI--my favorite West Michigan restaurant.

Etienne Loew Alsace Pinot Gris Cormier, 2004

I was a bit worried the last time I opened a bottle of this wine [September 4, 2008]. The color was much deeper than I had remembered from an earlier bottle [July 14, 2008]--deeper than I would expect from a 2004. This bottle, though, reverted back to the first bottle. It's a medium deep gold with healthy bright tones. It smells and tastes ripe, but pleasantly so like a good dry Vouvray. White peaches, ripe pears, Golden Delicious apples and almonds. The honey notes that seemed so dominant in bottle No. 2 are barely noticeable tonight. A very enjoyable Pinot Gris for drinking with Chinese food or on its own. Enough sweetness to please; enough acidity to keep you coming back for more.

Hamilton's Ewell Vineyards Barossa Valley Railway Shiraz, 2000

This wine is a pretty typical Barossa Shiraz. The color is dark and bluish. The nose offers scents of blackberries, shoe polish and very ripe cherries--qualities that carry over nicely to the palate. With rich, ripe fruit and 14.5% alcohol, the wine has a big mouthfeel, almost oozing with ripe cherries and oak and fruit tannins. The oak and fruit have become pretty well integrated, and the wine is drinking well, particularly with aeration.

At parties and holiday gatherings, Australian males frequently gather in a circle to taste and comment on what sometimes seems to be an endless array of wines--nearly all red and nearly all designed to impress. This wine meets both criteria. "Very big wine."

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Domaine du Grand Prieur Cotes du Rhone, 2005

An email from my local grocer, D&W Fresh Markets, confirmed what I had always suspected about Domaine du Grand Prieur: this wonderful little wine is not the product of a superstar winemaker with a bag of tricks but rather of very special vineyards owned by Bertin Gras. Actually, the wine is made by the Vacqueyras Growers' Cooperative, one of several very good coops in the Southern Rhone. Recognizing the quality of Gras' vineyards, the coop makes the "little guy's" grapes into a separate wine with its own label rather than blending it with grapes of other growers. As the email pointed out, Bertin Gras is the "Prieur" pictured on the label.

Like most of my favorite wines, Domaine du Grand Prieur is a discovery of Robert Mayberry, author of the excellent book, "Wines of the Rhone Valley: A Guide to Origins." Roz Mayberry, Robert's wife and an excellent judge of wines herself, is the wine director of D&W Fresh Markets.

A new shipment of the 2006 Grand Prieur arrived this week, and, while I regret the higher price ($11.29), I appreciate that the wine is still a bargain. Fortunately, I still have a good supply of the 2006 and decided tonight to dip into the 2005 while it is still drinking so beautifully.

It's medium deep with a crimson color indicative of the 75% Grenache in the blend. Although it takes a few minutes to open up, the aroma is still redolent of fresh blueberries, Provencal herbs and flowers. The initial impression on the palate is pepper and spice, then the fruit flavors start to take over and grow with each sip. The wine has all the charm of a young Cotes du Rhone plus the structure and depth that you might expect from a Vacqueyras. Pepper and spice upfront, melting into lovely ripe fruit flavors on the finish.

On the second night, the wine was even better--an elegant, complete Southern Rhone with the qualities of a very good Vacqueyras or Gigondas. The 2005 vintage is special and 2006 not far behind.

I have been drinking Domaine du Grand Prieur every vintage for about 20 years and have never had a disappointing bottle. Congratulations to Bertin Gras for producing the grapes; to the Vacqueyras Cooperative for recognizing the special qualities; and to Robert and Roz Mayberry for making the wine available to those of us in Southwest Michigan.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Domaine le Couroulu Vacqueyras, 1998

The initial impression I get from this wine is a stinky smell--gassy, tanky, somewhat like burnt rubber. This funkiness is the reason many have turned away from Rhone wines in the past, and it's unfortunate because the fruit comes from old, low-yielding vines. And once you get past the initial funky smell, what's in the glass is real wine, better than 99 percent of the manufactured crap on the market.

The 1998 Couroulu is a deep plummy color, showing no signs of advancing maturity. After the initial funky scents blow off, the wine reveals a Vacqueyras profile of red and black fruits, pepper and licorice--deep, concentrated berries and garrigue. It's ripe and full, and the flavors explode on the mid-palate.

The stinkiness undoubtedly comes from a flaw that could and should have been corrected early in the winemaking process. Traditional winemakers don't always have the expertise to do that, but I know from my experience with other vintages that the fruit from the Couroulu vineyards is capable of producing very fine Vacqueyras, among the best in the appellation. The funkiness is similar to that I've encountered in a few older vintages of Clos Saint Jean's Vin de Pays de Vaucluse (such as 1994 and 2000), and it tends to fade, not only in the glass as the wine is exposed to air but with a few years of aging. I've had two bottles of the 1998 Couroulou this year but will put the rest away for a couple of years.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Villa Borghetti Pinot Grigio delle Venezie, 2007

Of three Pinot Grigios I bought recently at Trader Joe's (all less than $4/bottle), this is my favorite. After less than a year in the bottle, the color is still very light. It has pleasing fresh scents of lime, barely ripe pears and a hint of hazelnuts to give it a sense of seriousness. On the palate, it has some of the rich mouth feel of an Alsace Pinot Gris but with a crisp finish of fresh fruits and herbs. At this stage, it's a step up from most of the inexpensive Pinot Grigios on the market and a terrific buy at $4/bottle.