Monday, October 8, 2012

Wine Thieving at Wyncroft

A wine thief is not someone who steals wine (ok, it could be). It is a plastic pipette or tube used to remove a sample of wine right out of the barrel that it is fermenting in.  I spent an afternoon tasting at Wyncroft Winery in Buchanan, MI – many samples were right from the barrels.

They are a ‘garagiste’ winery. Garagiste is a French word that means that the wine is made in a garage – typically in small batches. It was more like a small warehouse space, but it did have a garage (with a kitchenette) feel to it. The winery was started in 1998. And although it has simple roots, the wines are designed for greatness. Vintner Jim Lester says that he aims for “world-class wines that happen to be from Michigan.” His small business is right on target.

Tasting wine with Jim Lester is an educational experience - more like a wine school than an interview. The vinefera (wine bearing) grapes are the French classics: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Riesling. The bottles are imported glass from France; much of the wine is aged in French Sessilis Quercus oak barrels. The best corks they can find are used, because the wine is meant to age – and corks breathe.

The grapes are grown in Southwest Michigan. Jim and his son, Eric, run the business – from vineyard to label design. Initially the vines came from France; now clones are available from the west coast of the United States. The S/W Michigan area is the same latitude as Rome, Italy. The fine wine regions are just north of this line. Of course, Lake Michigan has an effect on the vineyard climate.

The wine is only available through their mailing list, their online shopping page, a few select restaurants and stores, and the occasional private tasting. I have seen the wine listed on the menus at Grove, Reserve, and Salt of the Earth.

I touched base with Wyncroft vine-tender, David Pearson, who tells me that the 2012 vintage is quite promising. The harvest started a bit early due to the hot summer weather, and the berries are full of flavor. The Pinot Noir grapes are juicy and sweet with just the right amount of bite to make a full-flavored wine. The Chardonnay grapes that he tended were picked early and will be used in the 2012 vintage of Chardonnay Cuvee Rae Lee, a wine named for Jim Lester’s late wife.  

The 2011 vintage of Chardonnay Cuvee Rae Lee was the first vintage. Rae Lee, the co-founder of Wyncroft, LLC, had differing tastes in Chardonnay from Jim.  She preferred a crisp appley style like Chablis or Pouilly-Fuisse with little oak influence, while he prefers the rich barrel-fermented style they typically make. The 2011 Chardonnay "Cuvee Rae Lee" is in the style she preferred and named in her honor.  "Cuvee" means "vat" in French, but it usually means a particular blend or style of wine specially selected by the winemaker.

Late last spring, I tasted the soon to be released 2011 Cuvee Rae Lee. It is crisp and dry; I placed my order. Here are Jim’s tasting notes:    
The composition of this first batch is 80% Dijon clone 96 from Stockman Vineyard, and 20% Avonlea. The grapes were pressed whole and the juice settled overnight, then racked off the settlings and inoculated with Epernay 2 yeast in a neutral Francois Freres Allier forest barrel. Fermentation proceeded very slowly under very cool temperatures which preserved the lovely Chardonnay fruit flavors. The malo-lactic fermentation began, but soon stopped as the wine was too cold. There is not much perceptible characteristic “butter” as a result. The color is luminous pale greenish straw. The wine has a delicate nose of ripe green apple, with hint of smoky mineral. The palate is firm and rich with fresh apple, lemon, and mineral, followed by a lingering crisp dry finish. The wine drinks well now, but will develop more complexity with proper cellaring over the next two years.

Meet Jim Lester and listen to him talk about his wines in the video.




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