We don’t need much in the way of coaxing, convincing or cajoling to get us back up to northern Michigan wine country. It seems like every time we visit Traverse City and the nearby Leelanau and Old Mission Peninsulas (we’ve been going since the late ‘80s), we find at least a couple more good reasons to want to go back. And so it was that when the Leelanau Peninsula Vintners Association invited us to attend their annual Media Weekend in late April, we started to plan our trip right away. We were especially interested in checking out two new operations that did not exist when last we were up that way, Verterra Winery and Tandem Ciders. We always stop in to see our friends at Left Foot Charley when we’re in Traverse City, and, of course, there was the Saturday night media event, so we had plenty to keep us occupied during our day and a half by the bays. We started at Verterra on Friday afternoon.
We first caught wind of what would eventually become Verterra Winery back in the spring of 2007. While we were enjoying a fine dinner at the Bluebird Restaurant and Bar in Leland, proprietor Skip Telgard told us excitedly that he was involved in a vineyard planting project. That project turned into Verterra Winery, owned and operated by Telgard and Paul Hamelin. The first planting comprised of 18 acres, which has been expanded to 33 acres currently being farmed. Harvested grapes are delivered into the capable hands of French Road Cellars‘ Doug Matthies and Shawn Walters. The wines have been winning medals and awards in various competitions from the get-go, so this operation was at the top of our short list that we wanted to investigate during our return to the Leelanau Peninsula. We tasted with Telgard, Hamelin and Walters on a fine, bright Friday afternoon at the Verterra tasting room in Leland. Find Michigan wines
2011 Verterra Pinot Blanc Leelanau Peninsula, 12 % alc., $18: Clean, pale color; effusive aromatics, with green apple and kiwi fruit flavors and aromas. Ripe, but balanced,with a creamy entry and crispy finish. Great presence, excellent acids. Shawn told me that he and Bryan Ulbrich of Left Foot Charlie have a friendly rivalry going with their respective Pinot Blanc bottlings, and I’m looking forward to comparing the two once the LFC is released, sometime around Memorial Day. Best in Class-2012 Pacific Rim Wine Competition
2011 Verterra Rosé of Pinot Noir Leelanau Peninsula, 12% alc., $15: Pale pink color, with strawberry, watermelon and mineral character; medium body plus, with good acids and length. I could drink this on a regular basis. Gold Medal, Finger Lakes Wine Competition
2011 Verterra Dry Riesling Leelanau Peninsula, 12% alc., $18: Clean, pale color, with an effusive floral bouquet; tastes like a blend of honeysuckle and lime, with nice mineral in support. Medium bodied, with excellent cut and good length. Fine Michigan Riesling that Walters says will age well. Gold Medal, 2012 Pacific Rim Wine Competition
“I don’t like to age whites. I like them young and vibrant.” – Shawn Walters
2011 Verterra Dry Gewurztraminer Leelanau Peninsula, 12% alc., $18: This wine was harvested a bit early to “avoid excess rose petal.” Clean, pale color; it does show some floral qualities, but they’re restrained. Medium bodied and balanced, with good acids and nice length, offering characteristics of honey and green melon. Shawn calls it “a clean, crisp little critter.” I would not disagree. Bronze Medal, Finger Lakes Wine Competition
Walters told me frankly that he hasn’t much cared for red wines from the region since 2005, but that he’s excited about the 2011 vintage. “You’re going to see some good red wines from this area next year,” he enthused.
2010 Verterra Pinot Noir Leelanau Peninsula, 12.5% alc., $22: Pale in color, almost Rosé-like; it shows a kiss of toasty oak over cherry and smoky black cherry fruit. Medium bodied, with green tannins and good acids. Certainly a good Pinot Noir, with true varietal character, but nothing more. Bronze Medal, Michigan Wine Competition
2010 Verterra Reserve Red Michigan, $25: Clean ruby garnet color, with black and red currant and berry character, underscored with some subtle earth; the oak is apparent, but not excessive. Medium body plus, with good acids and tannins, making for a pleasant glass of wine. A blend of predominantly Cabernet Franc and Merlot in roughly equal proportions, with a little Syrah; aged in new French and American oak barrels for up to 7 months. Gold Medal, Michigan Wine Competition
2011 Verterra Chaos Red Cuvee Leelanau Peninsula, 44% Cabernet Franc, 26% Merlot, 20% Pinot Noir, 10% Chambourcin, $15: A fruit forward wine intended for those not normally inclined towards dryer reds, and it performs well in that regard. Clean ruby color, with a cherry-berry personality with a kiss of oak.
All three of these are pleasant enough, but I doubt they’ll capture the fancy of those looking for more substantial reds. It’ll be interesting to see what the 2011 vintage turns out. Next, we turned our attention to off-dry whites.
2010 Verterra Pinot Gris Leelanau Peninsula, 12% alc., $15: Pale in color, and not giving much on the nose, this picks things up nicely on the palate, with nice, round green and red apple flavors. Medium bodied, with enough acidity to work with food, and not too sweet at all, weighing in at less than half a percent of residual sugar. Quite pleasant. Silver Medal, 2012 Pacific Rim Wine Competition
2011 Verterra Chaos White Cuvee Leelanau Peninsula, 50% Riesling, 33% Vignoles, 7% Muscat, 7% Cayuga, 3% Seyval, $15: Moderately sweet, with ripe red apple flavors and good acids. Easy going and harmonious, a nice summer picnic wine. Best in Class-2012 Pacific Rim Wine Competition
2011 Verterra Medium Sweet Gewurztraminer Leelanau Peninsula, 12% alc., $18: Lovely, effusive nose of rose petal, honeysuckle and ripe red apple follows through beautifully on the palate with subtle mineral in the background. Medium bodied, with good acids and nice length. One of the best Michigan Gewurztraminers I’ve had. Silver Medal, Finger Lakes Wine Competition
2010 Verterra Medium Sweet Riesling Leelanau Peninsula, 12% alc., $18: Clean, pale color; tight nose only hints at the pretty, ripe green and red apple flavors shaded with subtle mineral. Great balance and presence in the mouth. Silver Medal, Michigan Wine Competition
2010 Verterra Unwooded Chardonnay Leelanau Peninsula, 12% alc., $16: Clean, pale color; nice tart apple and pear character, rich and yummy. Medium body plus, with good acids and length. Gold Medal, Michigan Wine Competition
2010 Verterra Reserve Chardonnay Leelanau Peninsula, 12% alc., $24: Clean, pale color; the 500L French Oak barrels used to ferment and age this seem to have subdued the fruit somewhat. Medium body plus, with good acids. Not a bad wine, but not one of my favorites in this lineup. Bronze Medal, San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition
Shawn described the ’10 Reserve Chard as, “Not the fatty that it wants to be,” and offered the following barrel sample, which he refers to as “his baby” for comparison’s sake.
2011 Verterra Reserve Chardonnay Leelanau Peninsula Barrel Sample: This is receiving the full barrel treatment in both new and one year barrels. It shows deeper color than the ’10; rich and ripe, with nice apple and pear flavors and aromas, graced with a subtle kiss of oak. Kim calls it “a chewy wine,” adding that it’s “like swirling mineral oil,” and Shawn characterizes it as “fat and viscous and slippery down the throat.” No spitting this one! Can’t wait to try it after it’s been bottled, as Walters calls it “the best Chardonnay I’ve ever made.”
Wine is not all that these good folks make. One of our objectives in returning to the Leelanau was to sample as many ciders as we could, and Verterra makes a couple of good ones.
Chaos Hard Apple Cider, 6 1/2% alc., $16 Growler ($12 refill): Made with at least eight different apples; clean, crisp and totally dry.
Chaos Hard Cherry Cider, 6 1/2% alc., $16 Growler ($12 refill): A bit of cherry juice adds a nice touch here, and we liked it well enough to bring some home.
We found lots to like about Verterra, where no effort is spared to do things the right way. It will be most interesting to watch (and taste) their progress in coming years, so stay tuned for future reports.
Reporting from Day-twah,