Is wine “made in the vineyard?” Winemakers and viticulture experts often agree to disagree on this topic. Head Winemaker Lee Lutes generally believes that it is the symbiotic relationship of viticulture and oenology that make for a phenomenal wine.
“Walk with me”…says Lutes on a crisp fall afternoon while visiting the magical Leorie Vineyard on Old Mission Peninsula. This vineyard is home to the Merlot and Cabernet Franc that make the distinguished Leorie Vineyard Merlot Cabernet Franc. A brief bit of history ensues as we journey through the rolling hills overlooking West Grand Traverse Bay.
In its olden days this 15 acre plot was a gravel pit built into the hillside. When it was purchased 30 years ago its amphitheater shape was originally designed for development. However, with the assistance of local vintner Bernie Rink the owner was convinced of its prime suitability to grow grapes. What followed was the planting of Riesling, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. The 15 year old Riesling and Cabernet Franc are located at the bottom half of the hill preceded by the 20 year old Merlot at the very top. The entire plot faces South West, another added advantage for growing red grape varietals in a cool climate. “The directional element and hillside placement provide numerous benefits for these grapes,” notes Lutes as we continue to walk through the rows of meticulously cared for vines.
Facing South West this site typically retains heat and provides more insulation to the vines. The benefits of this are two-fold, one being that it warms the soil earlier in the season and reduces the risk of frost damage and the other being that it extends the growing season further into the fall. Both of these maximize the total growing degree days, a much needed strategy for growing Merlot and Cabernet Franc in a cool climate.
“Have you ever stood at the top of a hill and felt as if the air was warmer?” asks Lutes. Being on the hill is advantageous throughout the growing season because it results in more heat than being at the bottom. In this vineyard the average difference from top to bottom is typically 15o – 20o with the hottest part being at the top where the Merlot is located. This is another advantage for growing this varietal in our region.
Lutes picks up a handful of the gravel soil and proceeds to explain how this course and porous soil provides better drainage and helps keep the vines “feet” dry throughout the season. He also notes that this soil type is very similar to that of vineyards sites in the Bordeaux region of France.
While standing on the hillside overlooking West Bay, Lutes elaborates more about the exceptional care this vineyard receives and how this in addition to all of the above leads to the birth of his prized red wine. “When these grapes arrive at the winery they are never diseased, they are ripe (often averaging 23-24 brix) and they are picture perfect. It is then the skillful job of our winemaking team to take it to the next level.”
The grapes are individually batch fermented and blended the following spring. The wine is left to meld and age for 12-16 months in new and nearly new American, French and European oak barrels. This wine is very reminiscent of a Bordeaux style blend with a higher percentage of Merlot than Cabernet Franc. The end result being a full-bodied red wine rich with dark berry fruit flavors, earthy spice and complementary oak.
When asked again if he believes that a wine is made in the vineyard, Lutes nods his head and says, “A wine may be conceived and born in a vineyard but it is carefully raised and aged in the winery.”