Leelanau Wines

Steve and Maynard at Domaine CarnerosMy 1st visit to Leelanau occurred in September of 2006. I was immediately impressed by 2 things, the beauty of the place and the friendliness of the people. During that 1st visit, I visited ~6 wineries during that short stay. I quickly learned that the majority of the wine being made there was coming from the vinifera family of grapes, the quality family, the European/California family. There were also wines being made from French Hybrids such as Vignoles and Vidal Blanc as well as native American varieties such as Cayuga. However, the greatest focus by far was on the vinifera varieties. I was surprised at this. I didn’t think that Michigan could grow Vinifera due to the cold climate; but I learned about the ‘lake effect’; and by being there, I saw what that meant. Leelanau being surrounded on 3 sides by a huge body of water meant that the climate would be more moderate and this would allow for the Vinifera to over-winter and not be killed by the much colder temperatures that are found only 20 miles inland.

I tasted not good but great Rieslings, Syrahs, Pinot Grigios (Pinot Gris), Cabernet Francs, Pinot Noirs, Gewurtztraminers and Chardonnays. Wines that would easily stand up to California’s best. I also tasted great fruit wines and sparkling wines and wines made from French Hybrids and Native American Varieties.

Another surprise was how ripe the grape growers could get their grapes. This year, probably Michigan’s greatest year for winegrowing, saw Vinifera sugars reaching the 25 Brix levels. Unlike California, these levels were attained with low pH’s and high acids. The wines of Leelanau have a rich mouth feel and come across as slightly sweet when, in fact, they are nearly bone dry. The low pH’s and high acids give a liveliness that one doesn’t see in California wines, especially the whites.

Frozen GrapesThe Rieslings are really special. They can be and often are dry yet have a richness and minerality that you don’t see in Rieslings from California (except for the wines coming out of the Anderson Valley in the northern part of the state). The Leelanau dry Rieslings and Gewurtztraminers don’t have a bitter finish like the dry Rieslings and Gewurtztraminers do when made in California. To overcome this bitterness, California nearly always has to finish these wines with some residual sugar. Also, the sweet wines made from Gewurtztraminer and Riesling are not cloying like the California ones often are. The Leelanau sweet Rieslings and Gewurtztraminers have a freshness, crispness and tartness that are missing from California’s similar wines. The Rieslings and Gewurtztraminers remind me of great German, Austrian and Alsatian wines made of the same grapes. I’ve alluded to the minerality of the Leelanau white wines. This is what you find in the German, Austrian and Alsatian white wines as well. Washington State, New York, Australia, and New Zealand are famous for their Rieslings. I have tasted many Australian and Washington Rieslings but they disappoint. They remind me more of California Rieslings than German ones. The German ones are the ones that I like the most and that character is what most winemakers are striving for when they make Rieslings. Leelanau makes German-style Rieslings with a richness, acidity, balance and minerality that is only rarely found.

The Leelanau Chardonnays remind me of the Chardonnays made in Chablis: crisp, fresh, well balanced with an apple/lemon underlying aroma. Leelanau’s Chardonnays don’t need oak to become something special. They can stand on their own without oak just like the great Chablis do.

Another thing that impressed me about Leelanau and its wines was the deep color that the red wines attained. The Cabernet Francs, Syrahs and Pinot Noirs were especially impressive. The aromas and flavors of these wines were as rich and flavorful as similar wines made in France, Australia, California and other parts of the world.

Frozen Grapes Up-CloseLike Europe and most of the United States, except for the West, Leelanau is subject to a lot of vagarities of weather. 2005 was a great year, only surpassed by the 2007 vintage. 2006 was very challenging. The winemakers I met were able to fashion good wines from not so good vintages. The style in the ‘off’ years was different but was generally a very drinkable style. In California we are spoiled. All years are vintage ones with some being more vintage than others. I think that the variation in the growing seasons in Michigan, and other states in challenged areas, brings out the best in winemakers. They are more innovative and resourceful that their counterparts from the ‘spoiled’ areas of the world. This I think is a good thing.

The 45th parallel goes through Leelanau County and Forty-Five North’s vineyard. This is the same latitude as Washington’s Columbia Valley and France’s Southern Rhone. Leelanau is in great winemaking company in this regard. If asked, most people would say that Michigan and especially, Leelanau, is too far north to make wine at all, let alone great wine. Looking at Leelanau’s ‘neighbors’ would seem to prove them wrong.

Two more visits to Leelanau in September and October of 2007, confirmed what I learned in 2006; but two other things really brought things into perspective: 1) tasting the unfermented juice, tasting the fermenting juice, tasting the fermented juice, and tasting the nearly finished wines (as well as those in barrel) of the wines made at Forty-Five North made by Shawn and David. There had to be at least 20-30 different lots being made at the winery from vineyards from all over the county and they were all good and most were special; and 2) I’m involved in a winery that is here in California. The winemaker is very talented and very well known. He was trained in Germany and has been making wine for close to 35-40 years. Before Steve Grossnickle started his winery, this winemaker, who in 2005 made a Riesling from the Finger Lakes Region of New York, and who has been making a Napa Valley Riesling for a number of years, and who judges at the Michigan State Fair Wine judging, stated that he was impressed with the Rieslings coming out of Leelanau. He also expressed a desire to make a Riesling from Leelanau in 2007 and then bring it to California. That has been done and it was done at Forty-Five North. It will be bottled soon with a March, 2007, release date. I’ve tasted that wine and the Forty-Five North version, as have many others. All agree, but especially the respective winemakers, that these two wines are nothing short of outstanding.

The topography of Leelanau with its rolling hills, besides being beautiful, is an obvious place to grow great wines. These rolling hills along with the varying distances to Lake Michigan make for the development of many microclimates. It will takes years to identify these varying microclimates and to find out what grapes grow best where. As this discovery moves along, (along with the wine and grape growers moving along their learning curve) the wines can only get better. I do not know much about the soils of the area. I know there is obviously a lot of Sandy soil which is unique to this area and is a soil for great drainage. There is Sandy Loam as well. Add the soils to the elevation variations, the proximity to the ‘Big Lake’, and other factors and this makes for some interesting challenges for finding the right spot to plant that perfect grape. If winegrowing were easy, it wouldn’t be any fun.