Around the Bend in Michigan

Domain Berrien & Free Run Cellars (photo by Steve Salisbury)

Domain Berrien & Free Run Cellars                                 (photo by Steve Salisbury)

Just around the bend, skirting the tip of Lake Michigan, travelers winding their way north into the state of Michigan expect to see the famed fruit orchards lining the roads spreading out for miles on either side.  Imagine you are in a convertible on a Sunday afternoon with the warm sun on your face and shiny red apples, crimson cherries and juicy plums enthusiastically bobble in greeting as the breeze blows effortlessly through their tree branches. Take a few detours off of Highway 94, however, to Union Pier Road, Red Arrow Highway or Lake Street, and you will find  a number of micro climates beautifully suited to the production of grapes.  These are not the table grape varieties destined for jam; you know the starts with a “W”…, but the kind every hopeful viticulturist and winemaker envision as flowing out of a bottle, a perfect accompaniment to food.

I confess that, until a few short months ago, I had not tasted any wines from Michigan. I have tasted wines from other parts of the Midwest, but  with mixed results.  Part of the challenge for a wine professional is the ability to stay open-minded when the opportunity to try something new presents itself.  Normally, trying something new translates to a wine from a producer, a region or a grape we already know. I am disappointed with some of my colleagues’ dismissive attitudes who automatically assume that outside California, Washington, or Oregon, quality wines are not to be found in the US.  I was determined not to be hailed as another wine snob; and so, a very enthusiastic Michigan native convinced me that I need not go far from Chicago to find wines that are indeed not only worth tasting myself, but that others just might enjoy as well.

For those of you unfamiliar with Michigan’s wines, here are a few facts from Michigan’s official wine industry website,

  • Michigan has 15,000 acres of vines, making Michigan the fourth largest grape producing state in the nation.
  • 2,650 acres are devoted to wine grapes, making Michigan the fifth state in wine grape production in the United States.
  • Vineyard area has doubled over the last 10 years.
  • Michigan’s 101 commercial wineries produce more than 1.3 million gallons of wine annually, making Michigan 13th in wine production.  The vast majority of production is from Michigan-grown grapes.
  • Wineries attract more than 2 million visitors annually

Recently, atop the Willis Tower at the Metropolitan Club, a group of fellow wine lovers spent an evening with Wally and Katie Maurer, owners of Domaine Berrien, and Matt Moersch, winemaker at Round Barn Winery.  Both of these wineries are located in the southwest appellation of Lake Michigan Shore.

The Round Barn label has developed several different brands (including a brewery and distillery) with Free Run Cellars representing the premier wine category.  First in the lineup, the 2012 Riesling, a 100% varietal wine. The first whiff of fragrant floral and citrus aromas assured me that I had indeed met with a Riesling true to its character. Bright, straw-colored with a tinge of green on the rim, the wine was very clean, dry (.5% residual sugar), a bit broader in style than its German counterparts.  The wine making techniques of whole cluster press and stainless steel fermentation at a cool temperature belie the winemaker’s vision of creating a fresh, aromatic style of Riesling with mouthwatering acidity.

The 2012 Gewürztraminer, Fox Hollow Vineyard followed.  The word “Gewürz” in German translates to “spice” in English, and, again, after assessing its brilliant appearance, my nose twitched in appreciation of the familiar lychee and rose wood aromas. More golden in hue than its Riesling counterpart, this medium-bodied dry wine certainly dispelled any doubts that Michigan is not capable of producing quality, complex wines.

Finally, the 2011 Cabernet Franc, rounded out the list.  The most widely planted red wine grape in Michigan, Cabernet Franc (one of the parents of Cabernet Sauvignon) manages to ripen in the cooler climate of Lake Michigan Shore and the sandy loam soil native to the area. Matt decided to add 5% Cabernet Sauvignon to the blend which added complexity and color to the finished product.  Lighter in color than your Napa Valley counterparts and more like its Loire counterpart, this Cabernet Franc was  medium ruby in appearance and was fermented and aged in oak for about 18 months.  Black cherry, vanilla and a soft, supple texture invites the imbiber to drink now and enjoy.

Lest I forget, in case you are hankering for a creamy delight, Round Barn makes a DiVine Black Walnut Creme “wine” from grape wine, walnuts and creme. Similar to a Baileys in style, add to a crème anglaise and you have a decadent dessert topping or substitute in your favorite cocktails for a new favorite.

Stay tuned, and I’ll introduce you to Domaine Berrien in my next blog post.






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Tasting On the Circuit

ImageWhenever I step into a room with wines stretching from one end to the other, I know good wines are waiting to be tasted. Not only will I enjoy seeing old familiar faces, but I always feel a real sense of gratification when I try something new, a yet undiscovered gem to add to my repertoire of terroir.

I was not to be disappointed.  Mr. Ramzi Goshn, one of the owners of Massaya Winery in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, introduced me to his family of wines.  The 2012 Massaya Blanc proved to be a conversation starter when he described the blend.  In addition to Clairette, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, Obeidi was a part of the blend.  Believed to be an ancestor to Chardonnay, it is also used in the very traditional and aromatic aniseed-flavored spirit, arak.

Ramzi GhosnOne cannot help but be in awe when drinking wine from an area that has a 5,000 year-old history of wine making.  We know that the Phoenicians made wine in this area possible because of the long dry sunny summers and mild winters.  Not as susceptible to rot and mildrew as our Burgundy counterparts, sunshine and dry heat offer a longer growing season providing riper grapes. Many of the grape varieties used in Lebanon and the Mediterranean region in general are familiar: Syrah, Cinsault, Grenache, Mourvedre, Cabernet Sauvignon.

Following a refreshing Rose, I delved into the three reds: the 2011 Classic, 2010 Silver Selection and 2008 Gold Reserve, all reds.  Overall , they expressed a lean, minerally style more in line with their French counterparts in the Rhone rather than Napa Valley or the coastal US. Whenever a winemaker offers a taste of an older vintage, one should not miss it.  As we know, a good quality wine almost always benefits from age, and the 2008 Gold Reserve was no exception.  Fuller-bodied than the Silver Selection, wonderful tertiary aromas of dried plum, cherry, leather, graphite enrobed in an exotic layer of smokiness.  After a meal with this wine, a hookah is in order….Cheers.

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Grand Cru Chablis: The Finer Side of Chardonnay

Les Bougros, Les Preuses, Vaudésir, Les Grenouilles, Valmur, Les Clos, Blanchot: these are the seven Grand Crus of Chablis. Adjacent to one another, covering about 250 acres, these vineyards of northern most Burgundy represent the pinnacle of quality that can be achieved with Chardonnay in this northern wine region of France.


Domaine Laroche Grand Cru

I recently went to a tasting sponsored by the L’Union des Grand Crus de Chablis to taste the 2012 vintage (mostly tank samples). A particularly hair-raising vintage due to a long frosty winter, I can only imagine how winemakers must have paced back and forth at night supplicating to St. Vincent, the venerable patron saint of winemakers, for sun and warmth. Midnight scampers into the vineyard in a vain attempt to keep the smudge pots emanating their smoldering heat so as to prevent the onset of frost. The cold dragged on with brief, hopeful hints that Spring might come after all (does this seem familiar??). In the end, even with approximately 30% of the crop lost, 2012 produced good age worthy wines with their characteristic minerality and mouthwatering freshness.

Chablis has a terroir all its own. The soil is classified as kimmeridgian, a gray-colored limestone found also in Champagne and the Loire, made up of tiny fossilized oyster shells formed over millions of years. It is this soil, along with the climate, that marries so well with the Chardonnay vine that gives us the steely, firm and complex whites that beg sip after sip.

The tasting covered wines from all seven GC sites. I began with Les Grenouilles (frogs), the smallest of the Cru, and couldn’t resist asking how the name came about. Not surprisingly, the vineyard site, or climat en francais, is located close to the river Serein, which was home to a large congregation of frogs. The number of frogs have dwindled, but Chateau Grenouilles continues produce low yield, high quality wines fermented in both stainless steel and oak barrels aged slowly on the lees “…parce que élèvage donne la personalité..” (because ageing gives personality…) according to the winery rep. I found the 2012 vintage to be refreshing and youthful, but, comparing it with the 2010 after that, I could begin to see the promise of the texture, structure and polish the wine was beginning to take on. It will be a fine day in 10 years when I pop the cork on another bottle of 2012 (or even 2010, for that matter!).

I could easily continue on describing all the wines and how I anticipated each sip of a new bottle, but, in the interests of space and time, I will end with the wine of the day, the 2006 Chablis Gran Cru Moutonne, produced by Domaine Long-Depaquit. Here, the winemaker has a “non interventionist” approach, a philosophy of sustainable farming that encompasses the environment. A beautiful golden color, it had a dominant earthy, mushroom aroma described as “mousseron”. A warm vintage producing wines with slightly less acid, this wine was worth the wait as the persistent finish carried me off to visions of fresh oysters on the half shell.


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A Note on Zinfandel

zinfandel photo: Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel 2003 ridgelyttonspringszinfandel2003.jpgWhen we hear someone ordering Zinfandel we thing “ah, another California wine lover”. Prevalent in California’s Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties, Zinfandel has been growing in our country for hundreds of years.

When the Italians immigrated to America, they tended the vine in Northern California and many thought that “Primitivo”, grown in Puglia (the heel of Italy), was Zinfandel’s original home.  Thanks to DNA testing, we find that Zinfandel is also known as “Crjlenak Kastelanski”, a red variety grown even today in the small country of Croatia just East of Italy.

Notorious for uneven ripening and rather thin-skinned, Zinfandel is California’s little darling. Making robust, fruit-forward, and full-bodied wines, Zinfandel can reach alcohol levels of over 16% due to the warm and sunny climate of California. Most Zins are at their best in 6-8 years, but producers such as Ridge and Storybook are raising the bar.  More care is taken with the handling of the grapes, triage (selective harvesting) is practiced, and, once oak barrel ageing was introduced, the love affair began adding complexity to the aromas, flavors and textures.

Of course, Zin’s sister wine, White Zinfandel, must be given the credit it is due.  Made from the same grape but lighter in color and body, not to mention sweeter, it was this wine that clinched Zinfandel’s rise to fame and its success in becoming a household name selling many times over its higher quality more expensive sibling. 

Pass the Ridge, please.

It was once said: In victory you deserve Champagne, in defeat you need it  Napoleon Bonaparte


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Appreciating Italy’s Tirolian Gold

Endrizzi’s Teroldegos

When I heard about the Simply Italian US Wine Tour, I geared up for tasting the many interesting indigenous varietals.  Alas, while  there were quite a few varietal wines, many were the ubiquitous cabernet sauvignon and pinot grigio.  While perusing the tables, a friend happened to mention that way in the back corner of the room was a wonderful little wine from the Teroldego grape.  Having made  wine from this grape gathered from research plots in Mendocino County during my stint as a Viticulture Research Assistant, I weaved my way through the throngs with outstretched wine glass.

Teroldego (ter-OHL-de-go) is a red grape variety from the Trentino-Alto-Adige region. The name derives from a system of wire trellises known as “tirelle” which is a much less romantic, but more plausible explanation for its origin than “Tiroler”, or “gold of Tirol”, as it was known.

A uniquely Italian varietal, thanks to DNA research, we now know that it is related to Syrah.  Perhaps that would explain, in part, the rich ruby often purple-hued color of its wines.  When young, Teroldego exhibits a lively, fruity character with approachable tannins and a refreshing acidity.  Add a little oak and you have complemented the rich black fruits of blackberry and black cherry with attractive spices.

All of these characteristics were evident as I tasted my way through the three wines from producer Endrizzi, a winery celebrating its 125th anniversary in a region that proudly displays its region’s appellation on the labels.  The Teroldego Rotaliano DOC Tradizione delighted my senses with its immediately appealing fruity aromas of ripe raspberries and blackberries and a fresh spiciness.  Fifty percent of the wine was aged in 7,000-8,000-liter casks called Boti.  Forty-year old vines went into the Teroldego Rotaliano DOC Riserva which were planted at 600 m (1,800 ft).  Aged for one year in 2-3 year-old barriques, the wine’s appearance displayed a deep ruby color.  The fruit aromas of plum and blackberry were enticingly intertwined with a spiciness that added to its complexity. Flavorful, mouthwatering with rounded tannins, I could eat this with my osso bucco!

Finally, the Gran Masetto, Vigneti delle Dolomiti IGT.  Similar to an Amarone, grapes used in this wine were dried for 1-2 months; specifically, the top third of the bunches were used in the drying process while the bottom third were vinified as usual.  The remaining portion was late harvested.  Noticeably more extracted than her siblings, the Gran Massetto’s aromas had the distinctive sweet raisin quality along with spicy cherries.  Again, smooth and attractive tannins, medium + acidity, well-balanced.  This is what I love about the quality-minded producers, the presence but balanced approach to oak.  In this case, 2-3 year-old, lightly-toasted barrels from Alliers.


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Make Way for Sake

Chicago welcomed several Japanese organizations which hosted a Sake tasting and pairing event.  Two consummate professionals spearheaded the lively seminar, John Gauntner, the world’s leading non-Japanese sake expert also known as Sake Dendhoshi or “The Sake Evangelist” and Takashi Yagihashi, Owner/Chef of his recently awarded one star restaurant, Takashi Restaurant.

While Chef Takashi prepared a delicious Sashimi of Hamachi with Prosciutto & Buffalo Mozzarella,  a lively discussion ensued.

Sake, while incorporating some elements of beer as well as wine making, is, nevertheless, a unique beverage in a class all by itself.  There are few westerners who truly understand this refined drink, but the interest was clear from the well attended event by industry professionals.

Here are some of the basics you might be interested in knowing:

Sake has been around in some form for the last 2000 years with the premium “ginjo” style for only about 40.  It is brewed, not distilled or simply fermented, from only rice. Other elements included in the production process include water and koji (moldy rice).

Sake quality is divided into several categories known as grades, and the key to understanding this official pecking order is the milling or “polishing” of the rice itself.  In general, the more the rice has been polished, the cleaner, lighter and more fragrant the flavor.  Quality sakes will be milled anywhere from 30-50%.  Some of the “garagistes” producers will  polish away even more.

with John Gauntner

It is interesting to note that whereas wine producers will sometimes add pure alcohol to “beef” up their wines, but are hush-hush when it comes to informing the public, an entire class of premium sakes, Daiginjo-shu, Ginjo-shu and Honjozo-shu, are brewed with small amounts of distilled alcohol.  This is openly acknowledged and viewed by sake professionals as producing a lighter, more fragrant, and hence, high quality product.

Throughout the ages, endless stories and verses tout the amazing ability of wine to age and become an icon of aroma and taste.  Compare that to sake, which, with the exception of very few cases, is meant to be drunk young within a few years.  When drinking premium sake should be drunk slightly chilled though warm sakes becoming popular once again (usually with the more cheap and cheerful versions).

The good news is sake is one of those few items that are almost always priced fairly.  Paying a premium is worth it.  Traditionally, bottle size is 720 ml, slightly less that a bottle of wine.  But, if you are with your friends, the proper way to be social is to order that 1.8L bottle so there is some for everyone around the table (more than once).

I have been privileged to take John’s first level certification course, and for those who are interested, it is worth it.


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Killer Cava from Spain

Marques de Gelida Tasting at The Purple Pig in Chicago

Marques de Gelida from Spain was the focus of a trade tasting at the Purple Pig in Chicago yesterday.  Maite (short for Marie-Theresa) Esteve I Julia, the owner, poured several of her sparkling wines starting off with her 2008 Kila Cava, made from the three traditional varieties: Macabeo, Xarel-lo, and Paralleda.  A tasty, refreshing entry wine with a minimum of 12 months ageing, produced from 20 year-old vines. The 2006 Brut Exclusive included 20% Chardonnay in the blend in addition to the local varieties, hand harvested from 40-50 year-old vines and spent 5 years slumbering in bottle before being disgorged and released.   Time’s indelible influence manifested itself on the personality of this as well as the 2007 Brut Exclusive.  Not only did the wines have more color, but also more evidence of secondary aromas including mushrooms, and sweet biscuit. Still fresh and youthful, there was an attractive minerality which became more pronounced with the 2007 vintage.  With only 13,000 bottles made, you’ll want to get your hands on some of these!

My winemaking lesson for the day was from Maite who explained that fermentation temperatures directly affect the size of the bubbles produced.  The lower the temperature, the slower the fermentation and the smaller and finer the bubbles.  The converse is true: the warmer the temperature, fermentation will speed up thereby causing larger bubbles to be produced.  This noted when tasting the mousse on the palate.  As with all good sparkling wine, especially those made in the traditional method with the second fermentation in bottle, it is the goal of every winemaker to make the bubbles as fine as possible.  After all, sparkling wine tasting is all about the texture.

Also interesting was the 2007 Brut Rose made exclusively from a few precious hectares of Pinot Noir.  Dark salmon in color, the nose was on the restrained side, but offered up subtle strawberries a mouth-filling mid-palate and a clean finish.  Plus, it went wonderfully with the tapas-style dishes we were served including Sepia (cuttlefish) with roasted almonds and rosemary and beets with whipped goat cheese and pistachios.  My mouth is watering all over again…..

Let’s hear it for Cava!

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