Wine lovers with websites sometimes receive an unexpected perk: new or unreleased sample bottles that winemakers point in your direction. While I like to fantasize they're after erudite feedback from a highly-developed palate, it's more about the unstated quid pro quo: if I like the wine, they wouldn't mind reading something favorable about it in print.
MichWine doesn't run winery ads and my personal bribery threshhold lies well above the odd gratis bottle, so with a clear conscience, I can make nice about top wines that cross my palate in this manner, ignore the mediocre, and pen the occasional nasty pan when something vile this way comes.
Last weekend I short-listed three wines we can't yet buy -- sorta like adding films to your Netflix queue following the reviews but before the DVD. Two of the three are merely excellent. The third may be the best of its kind -- or, more precisely, the only one of its kind -- ever made in Michigan.
Jim Lester, owner / winemaker at tiny, high end Wyncroft Winery, seldom walks the well-trod path. Full disclosure: he's also a good friend. For a decade, his idiosyncratic, expensive and frequently outstanding wines have been available only to his customer list, sold by the solid, 12-bottle case. He's recently loosened things up a little on his website, just in time for more customers to take advantage of some soon-to-be-released gems.
Jim embodies the adage that grapevines must struggle -- and winemakers along with them. He normally uses only grapes grown in his own Avonlea vineyard, cutting back yields from the unfertilized, unirrigated, gasping-for-life vines to near-microscopic levels.
But last fall, grape grower Doug Nitz offered him some unsold Riesling from a vineyard next to Domaine Berrien that Jim had consulted on when Doug planted it four years ago. Was Jim interested in buying them?
Jim waffled; the crop density was twice Wyncroft's usual yield, meaning they'd make much more wine, but with far less concentration. So the grapes sat on the vines, continuing to ripen.
Then nature intervened, in the form of a partial freeze on December 3. As water in the grapes turned to ice, their yield dropped to a mere 90 gallons per ton, in the form of juice with a sufficiently high concentration of desolved solids that it wouldn't freeze. That's pretty much the same process that gives us Ice Wine later in the winter -- except that these less-concentrated grapes remained party frozen and less sweet. But perfect for the kind of concentration Jim seeks in his grapes, so picking he went.
The result? 2008 Wyncroft Wren Song Vineyard "December Harvest" Riesling, Lake Michigan Shore, Wyncroft's first-ever desset Riesling. At 12% alcohol and 5% residual sugar, it's seriously sweet and intense, but nowhere near the dense syrup that typically carries the "Ice Wine" name. But calling it simply Late Harvest Riesling doesn't do justice to the amazing grapefruit nose and extraordinary intensity of grapefruit and mandarin orange on the palate. Jim Lester fancies its style akin to an Alsace "SGN", and I can't disagree. This is fairly priced at $35 a bottle, considering that similar wine from Alsace might sell for twice the price.
The second short-list wine originates with sophomore winery Two Lads on Old Mission Peninsula, whose maiden year claim to fame was to sell every bottle in their inventory by October 1 and have to shut down the tasting room. They reopen tomorrow, April 1, ready to offer the 2007 Two Lads Cabernet Franc, Old Mission Peninsula. It's the first red for the lads -- Cornel Olivier and Chris Baldiga -- and they just found out it took a Double Gold Medal last weekend at the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition, the only Michigan red so recognized.
Cab Franc is to be the Lads' signature red grape, and they're making a lot of it: 640 cases of this 2007, all from estate-grown fruit. Another three barrels from a top vineyard
block remain in the cellar, destined for bottling this summer and
release as a Reserve come the fall.
About half went into first-fill French barrels for 12 months and half into neutral wood. What rocked my world was how perfectly the wine captures the qualities of cool climate, ripe vintage Cab Franc -- just the character you'd look for in a high-quality Chinon from France's Loire Valley. Its bright raspberry fruit is perfectly set off by a lively acidity -- "vivacity" was the word another taster used -- with a dark ruby color and just-right medium body. It's Michigan wine all the way, not a California wannabe, with nary a hint of the green or peppery qualities that Cab Franc can throw your way in less-than-stellar vintages.
One word of caution: with creamy vanilla oak flying out the front end and fine-grained tannins biting up the rear, this is still totally disjointed and nowhere near ready to drink. Buy it to cellar. And buy a bunch -- at $25 the bottle (winery price), this is a screaming value by Michigan standards.
Finally, a one-of-a-kind for the must-buy list: 2008 Wyncroft Wren Song Vineyard "VT" Riesling, Lake Michigan Shore.
Alsace lovers know that "VT" stands for "Vendange Tardive". Literally, that means "Late Harvest", but in Alsace, unlike Germany, late harvest grapes have a tradition of being fermented mostly or completely dry. That's why Jim Lester is calling it "VT" -- in order to differentiate it from the more typical, German-style Rieslings made elsewhere in Michigan. All of the flavor, none of the sugar. Or at least not enough that I could detect any, sometimes an issue with near-dry Riesling.
Starting with the same December 3 grapes used in "December Harvest", the VT was fermented with the same yeast, but the fermentation was left running to yield a dry, 14.5% alcohol Riesling that's -- amazingly -- neither hot or alcoholic. Aromas of ripe stone fruits, pineapple, grapefruit and a little pine resin blow out of the glass; you'd swear you're about to ingest a mouthful of sweetness. Then the palate wallops you with all that fruit, near-icewine viscosity and just enough acidity to cut through the clutter.
Jim produced just 80 cases of the VT, and plans to sell it by the half-case when it's bottled and released in late spring. At $40 the bottle, it's not cheap. But I'm wagering you've never tasted a Michigan wine like this before.
Correction: An earlier version said that Wyncroft's "VT" Riesling used a different yeast than the "December Harvest". In fact, both used the same Steinberger yeast. It's been corrected in the article, and is noted here.