Northern Michigan Wine: Tasting Old Mission and Leelanau Chardonnays

Northern Michigan Wine: Traverse Magazine food and wine editor Tim Tebeau puts Northern Michigan chardonnay in the spotlight with a little behind-the-scenes intell (and tastings!) from Northern Michigan wineries along Old Mission Peninsula and Leelanau County.

Chameleonic and omnipresent in contemporary wine culture, chardonnay can be a simple pleasure or a cerebral revelation. With an aromatic range anchored by tropical fruit on one extreme and austere minerality on the other, chardonnay’s high natural acidity, clonal variety and sensitivity to terroir and vinification can render it age-worthy or ephemeral, fat and unctuous or steely and sharp-edged. With many chardonnay vineyards on the Old Mission and Leelanau reaching productive maturity, our local vignerons are kicking out racy, apple-driven un-oaked chards and richly nuanced barrel-fermented bottlings that are truly world class. Both 2010 and 2011 were outstanding vintages for chardonnay Up North, marked by superb phenolic ripeness and perfect acidity. Now with a little bottle age, the 2010 chardonnays are texturally integrated and drinking beautifully; look for 2011 releases later this spring. Join us this month as we swim in the aureate essence of chardonnay and some of its best local examples.

2010 Bel Lago Chardonnay

Barrel fermented and sur lie aged in French oak barrels. Charlie Edson’s 2010 bottling showcases ripe orchard fruit and vanilla aromas with a lush, supple mouth feel.

2010 Bowers Harbor Chardonnay RLS Reserve

Assembled from a single vineyard of Sonoma clones and barrel-fermented in new French oak, RLS delivers ripe golden apple, oak accents and a bright, balanced mouth feel.

2010 Black Star Farms Arcturos Sur Lie Chardonnay

Stainless steel vinified. Black Star’s winemaker, Lee Lutes, gives this wine extended contact to the lees (yeast and grape solids) to impart texture and maintain purity. Classic apple, pear and citrus notes with crisp acidity.

Northern Michigan Vino File

Meet Spencer Stegenga, Owner and  Winemaker of Bower’s Harbor Vineyard

Old Mission native Spencer Stegenga worked alongside his father to plant the family’s first four-acre vineyard in 1987 and then returned 10 years later to convert the family horse barn into a tasting room and preside over the growth of what is now Michigan’s second largest winery. We catch up with Spencer to talk about the nuances of the local chardonnay scene.

What distinguishes our local chardonnay scene from the sea of bottlings from California and elsewhere in the world?

I think we can claim a positive flavor profile built around the grape’s natural green apple and citrus character and a much higher level of acidity than places like, say, California’s Central Coast. The collective movement to make un-wooded chardonnays really shows off the quality of our fruit and allows us to deliver world-class wine to the market at a competitive price. Our wines also tend to be more versatile on the table.

Your 2010 RLS Reserve Chardonnay is awesome but definitely bucks the un-oaked trend; why go the rich and creamy route?

We have an eight-year-old vineyard planted with Sonoma clones that achieved incredible ripeness and quality these past two vintages, and we felt they could be best expressed through vinification in French oak barrels. The result, I think, is our best chardonnay so far.

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