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Tasting Leelanau: Left Foot Charley

Continued from the article Tasting Leelanau


It might be argued that a visit to Left Foot Charley is out of place with the Tasting Leelanau theme of our three-day excursion to northern Michigan wine country.  After all, the winery itself is located in Traverse City, and at the time of our first report on Bryan Ulbrich’s upstart start-up project, only wines from Old Mission Peninsula fruit were made.  But from the start, Ulbrich had ideas about also sourcing grapes from the Leelanau, and now he’s doing so.  There’s also the Gill’s Pier connection, so Bryan is no stranger to the “other side of the bay.”  Besides, it just wouldn’t be right to be in the area for three days and not drop in to see what’s new at LFC.

“The cider has taken us by storm!”

One new thing (at least in our experience) is that Ulbrich is now producing fermented cider from both apples and pears and selling it under both his Left Foot Charley and “Uncle Charley’s” labels.  “The cider has taken us by storm,” Bryan told us, adding that he made and sold 600 gallons last year and upped that to 1,800 in ’09, which has been a bonus for the bank account.  Bryan has more to say about the ciders in the accompanying video.

Then there is “Cafe Leftique,” which has opened since we last visited and serves such things as a Plat du Jour of fresh, brick oven bread, with a cheese selection, and olive or fruit assortment, which proved to be quite enjoyable to nosh on while we tasted the wines and cider.  The Cafe also services a patio on the front lawn that is open during warm weather.

Beyond that, Bryan says that things are going very well, and that the wines are selling briskly.  The tasting room itself is a modern, attractive space that is also available for rental to accommodate meetings, parties and fund raisers.  Large windows in the back of the room allow a good view of the winery facility where Left Foot Charley and wines for a number of clients are made.

Werner Kuehnis - click to enlarge

Werner Kuehnis - click to enlarge

When we first tasted Left Foot Charley with Bryan, before the winery was even opened, Werner Kuehnis, owner of Island View Vineyard, was something of a silent backer of the project.  These days, the Swiss-born grape grower and home wine maker takes a more active and visible role in the winery’s operation, and he joined us for this tasting, adding both insight and good humor to the proceedings.  We tasted three wines made from fruit sourced from his 1,100 vine plot, but we started off, appropriately enough, with one made with Leelanau fruit.

Prices listed are by the glass in the Tasting Room, by the bottle in the Tasting Room and bottle carryout.  Wines not priced are sold out or not yet released.

2008 Left Foot Charley Leelanau Riesling Brengman Brothers Vineyard, $5/$25/$18: Pale to medium color, with a pretty, if delicate nose that accentuates the fruit; the pure, delicate flavors echo nicely, reprising the style of past LFC Rieslings that we’ve enjoyed, with that “glass doll” personality.  Medium bodied, with good acids, depth and length, this is more floral than mineral, and nicely so.

2006 Left Foot Charley Old Mission Peninsula Pinot Blanc Island View Vineyard: We loved this wine two years ago, and it’s still in great shape, showing pale to medium color, and offering pretty flavors and aromas of floral green apple and lime; medium bodied, with good acids, this is still very lively and refreshing and in no danger of fading any time soon.  From a cool, classic Michigan vintage.  The LFC lists this still available as a Library selection for $18, which is definitely a BUY in my book!

Left Foot Charley Pinot Blanc

click to enlarge

2007 Left Foot Charley Old Mission Peninsula Pinot Blanc Island View Vineyard: Pale color, with a pretty floral nose and nice intensity in the mouth; green apple and lime character, with subtle minerality in support.  The smooth, silky mouth feel belies the ample acids, making for a bright, lively and refreshing glass of wine that’s right there right now.

2008 Left Foot Charley Old Mission Peninsula Pinot Blanc Island View Vineyard, $18: From another classic Michigan vintage, and more like the ’06 in that regard; pale to mediun color, with attractive herbaceous and piney notes that grace the nose and gain an intense core of green apple and lime on the palate.  Silky smooth, yet with zippy acidity; very nice.

2009 Left Foot Charley Old Mission Peninsula Pinot Blanc Island View Vineyard Tank Sample: Bryan said this milky, cloudy looking juice was almost finished fermenting when we tried it and that there will only be 200 cases made, due to the difficult vintage.  It exudes pretty aromatics and is bright and lively in the mouth, giving every indication that it’ll be another winner.

2008 Left Foot Charley Old Mission Peninsula/Antrim County Pinot Grigio, $5/$25/$15: Pale to medium color, with green apple and grapefruit flavors and aromas, underscored with a subtle minerality; smooth and harmonious, with balanced acidity.  Sourced from Tale Feathers, Vineyard Old Mission Peninsula (74%) and Torch View Vineyards, Antrim County (26%).

2008 Left Foot Charley  Old Mission Peninsula Murmur, $5/$25/$15: Ulbrich declared that this is not “a garbage blend,” but one that was well thought out before making, adding that it’s intended to to be LFCs version of an Edelzwicker or Conundrum.  It weighs in at 1.5% residual sugar, and exudes a pretty, floral nose; bright and delightful in the mouth, with good acids, intensity and a touch of sweetness, but not too much.  A blend of Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Grigio, and Traminette.

2008 Left Foot Charley  Old Mission Peninsula/Antrim County Riesling MD, $5/$25/$15: In a tongue-in-cheek reference to a famous German Riesling, the catch phrase for this one is “It’s not the Doktor…its the MD – Medium Dry!” Pale in color, with clean, bright, pure Riesling fruit underscored with some subtle mineral.  Bryan called it “a classic example of sugars wrapped around acids.” “We make Riesling to age, no bones about it,” he told us, adding that he expects this to really start singing next summer.  600 cases made, with some set aside for future release from the Library selections.  Sourced from Reehorst Vineyard on Old Mission Peninsula (60%), Torchview Vineyard in Antrim County (40%).

2008 Left Foot Charley Riesling Old Mission Peninsula Seventh Hill Farm, $5/$25/$22.00: Ulbrich laughingly refers to this as “22 Buck Chuck;” the vines are now 12 years old and the roots have delved deeply into their plot on Old Mission Peninsula.  Pale to medium color, and drier, yet richer than the MD, it offers rich, ripe apple character, more red than green, shaded with a note of mineral.  Bryan said that it’s just starting to open up, but it’s already lovely, with tons of promise for the future.  Good thing, that, as he’s set aside 30 cases for re-release at a later date.  Claudia called it “a thrilling wine, soooo long.”

2008 Left Foot Charley Leelanau Riesling Brengman Brothers Vineyard, $5/$25/$18: Pale to medium color, and a true late harvest wine, sweet, but not too sweet or in any way cloying; approximately Spatlese level.  Beautifully harmonious, with marvelous acids and rich, lovely fruit.  Textbook Michigan Riesling.

I keep coming back to the term “harmonious” when tasting through these wines, because they all display that quality.  They are a testament not only to Bryan’s winemaking skill, but also to his knack for sourcing high quality fruit from a variety of regions.  His whites are classically Michigan in character and “Ulbrichian” in style.  The Rieslings, in particular, acheive that “glass doll, but one that won’t break” personality that he’d previously told me he strives to fashion, and the more I taste them, the more I want to drink and enjoy them.

He also poured us examples of three of the wines he’s crafted for clients, starting with a Riesling from Gill’s Pier (we also visited there).

2006 Gill’s Pier Leelanau Riesling: Pale color, with a note of petrol on the nose, following through on the palate with plenty of fruit to balance and some subtle mineral as well; medium bodied, with great acids.

Ulbrich also consults with Spencer Stenenga at Bowers Harbor Vineyards, and their collaboration produced the following two reds.  Bryan informed us that Stenenga has developed a relationship with two master coopers from Bordeaux who visit the estate every year because of the Bowers Harbor red program, and these two wines are the result of that collaboration, as well.

2006 Bowers Harbor Old Mission Peninsula Cabernet Franc Erica Vineyard, $25.00: Clean medium dark color, with a nice, subtle note of toast and a hint of mint on the nose; pretty, ripe blackberry with a hint o’ blueberry on the palate.  Substantial in the mouth, but not at all heavy, with good depth, structure and length.  A very nice northern Michigan red.

Bryan says that Spencer likes to give his reds some bottle age, and that the following wine will be released in May, 2010.

2007 Bowers Harbor Old Mission Peninsula 2896 Langley Vineyard, 65% Cabernet Franc, 32% Merlot, 3% Cabernet Sauvignon, $40.00: Clean, dark color, with toast and coffee on the nose, and more of the same on the palate, along with a solid core of black currant and blackberry shaded with some spicy nuances.  A lovely wine that has the depth and structure to age and develop for years.


Vintage kegerator - click to enlarge

Vintage kegerator - click to enlarge

Left Foot Charley Perry Cider, 1.89 L “Growler, $10, w/$5 one time bottle purchase, refillable: We finished off with a glass of this, poured right from the vintage kegerator, and it’s a delightful quaffer, showing clean, medium wine-like color.  It’s light on its feet, balanced and spritzy, with an almost wine-like character to it.  My final note reads, “Very nice!  I could drink this on a regular basis!”  Indeed, we brought one “Growler” home and it disappeared so quickly, in retrospect, we should have bought a case.  We won’t make that mistake the next time!

When Kim and I first tasted Left Foot Charley, the winery was still essentially a construction site that had a good way to go before being finished.  Now seeing it two and a half years later, we can’t help but be very impressed with how far things have come.  Ulbrich may have gone out on a limb in breaking away from Peninsula Cellars and going on his own, but it was a strong branch supported by ample financial backing, his considerable winemaking skill, a solid network of grape growers and a singular and unyeilding vision for what he wanted LFC to be.  All indications are that he is succeeding brilliantly on every level.

Left Foot Charley’s wines have limited availability on the Internet.  Contact the winery for more information on ordering – 231.995.0500.

Continued from the article Tasting Leelanau

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