A Visit to WaterFire Vineyards

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A panoramic photo from the WaterFire parking lot. Tasting room/winery on left, vineyards and apple trees center and right.

I first met Chantal Lefebvre at the 2015 Michigan Wine Showcase. Since it’s the only Michigan wine industry event I get invited to, I try to make the most of it when I’m there. I seek out new wineries or at least ones I haven’t heard of to try. WaterFire was located near the center of the room with the food, so I strolled on over. The table wasn’t crowded so I was able to strike up a conversation with Chantal who was there pouring herself. Chantal is an introvert but not shy, if that makes any sense. As soon as I started asking her questions about the vineyards her passion for sustainable viticulture and winemaking poured out.

Like Mari Vineyards, WaterFire is a relatively new winery but, aside from both having great winemakers making great wine, the two operations couldn’t be more different. There’s no big money behind WaterFire, just Chantal’s (and husband Mike Newman’s) dream and skill. The property was purchased in 2008, planted in 2009 and the first vintage was 2012. The tasting room opened memorial day weekend of 2017, just a few weeks before we visited! They looked for property on Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas but land was too expensive. They eventually found a cherry orachard in Antrim county that was promising and purchased it. It’s located between Torch Lake (WaterFire? get it?) and the East Arm of Grand Traverse Bay, opposite Old Mission Peninsula, north of Elk Rapids. Chantal has heard rumors of other properties being purchased for in the county but has no idea who or where they are.

Before starting her own winery, Chantal worked at many wineries across Michigan, including Left Foot Charley and Bower’s Harbor. WaterFire only has one other employee, also a woman. This makes it the only winery in Michigan with a 100% female workforce! She informed me that the dogs are male, however.

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The winery/tasting room building with dogs greeting us.

In the tasting room they currently offer five selections for tasting, including one wine they don’t make themselves, a Williamette Valley Pinot Noir (for any “I don’t like white wine” types that may straggle in). The estate wines are Rieslings from 2013 and 2014 respectively, a 2012 Grüner Veltliner and a Sauvignon Blanc from 2013. As you may have noticed, WaterFire only produces white wines. Why? White wine grapes do best at this site and in Northern Michigan in general. Why waste time with a fussy grape when you’re just starting out?

Waterfire also produces a hard cider, made from feral apple trees of on the estate and accross the road. The cider is very well balanced with some chewy tannins. It’s only available out of the tap at the tasting room, so bring a growler if you want to take some home.

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Chantal in the tasting room. Photo courtesy of WaterFire Vineyards.

As I alluded to earlier, Chantal’s passion is growing grapes and doing so in a sustainable way. WaterFire has two Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP) certifications, for cropping and farmstead practices. Chantal uses no herbicides and only one pesticide, a natural, fermented product to control beetles. She has considered getting an organic certification for WaterFire, but the pesticide does not qualify as an organic. Chantal thinks the organic certification process is a pain and could stand to be simplified.

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Two rows of Sauvignon Blanc in the front with Riesling behind. Yes, they’re weedy, but Chantal doesn’t care. “Plants have many kinds of relationships, why focus only on competition?”
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Baby Sauv Blanc.
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Chantal and her grapes (Sauv Blanc?). Photo courtesy of WaterFire Vineyards.
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The back block planted with Sauvignon Blanc. Feral apple trees in the midground. 

Chantal’s immediate plans are to put in another vineyard block in front of the tasting room, probably with a (not fussy) red variety, possibly “something Austrian”. Lemberger is grown in Michigan and would be the obvious choice, but Zweigelt is grown widely in Ontario and might also be a possibility. If she asked me, I would suggest Gamay. It’s not Austrian, of course, but it is a grape that does very well in Northern Michigan but is not grown nearly enough.

Something I would also like to see is an East Grand Traverse Bay AVA (or something like that) in that area, if more vineyards do go in. If WaterFire’s vineyards are typical of the terroir there, it’s deserving of AVA status.

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Future home of the next block of vines, possibly red wine grapes.

We didn’t take a look around the winery itself because we were short on time, but we had a lovely visit and conversation with Chantal. I love her wine and I love her committment to growing grapes in a sustainable way. We’re grateful that she was able to spend time talking to us for my little dog and pony show. The next time you’re in the area, stop into WaterFire and try some of the best white wines in Michigan. Then take home a few. Look for reviews of the wines we brought home over the next few weeks.

For more on the beginnings of WaterFire, check out this interview with Chantal and Mike from 2013 by Michigan By The Bottle.

St. Julian Riesling, 2013

Maker: St. Julien, Paw Paw, Michigan, USA20170703_202437

Place of origin: Magnificent Mile Vineyard, Baroda, Lake Michigan Shore AVA, Michigan, USA

Style: Medium dry.

ABV: 12%

Purchased for $12 (Meijer)

Appearance: Pale gold.

Nose: Ripe peach, flint, orange thyme, canned pineapple.

Palate: Fresh squeezed orange juice, fresh red pear, meyer lemon.

Finish: Mineral with a squirt of citrus.

Parting words: The old saying is that familiarity breeds contempt. I don’t think that’s true in most cases, but I think it does happen to St. Julian sometimes. St. Julian’s Heron series of sweet, plonky wines are best sellers in Michigan and elsewhere. Their tasting rooms are located in touristy areas and interstate exits. This could lead a person to dismiss St. Julian as an unserious winemaker only interested in trapping tourists or resting on its laurels as Michigian’s oldest and biggest winery.

Who thinks like this? Well, sometimes I do and that’s led to me unfairly ignore St. Julian’s wines. I’m hoping to rectify that with this review and some that will be coming later this year.

2013 St. Julian Riesling is a very enjoyable semi dry wine at a wonderful price. It does a nice job of representing both the grape and LMS terroir. It’s crisp, as a Riesling of this style should be, but as it warms a tropical fruit and a hint of petroleum appear. Nothing unpleasant, though. It pairs well with just about anything. $12 is a steal for a tasty, single vineyard Riesling from a good producer. St. Julian Riesling 2013 is recommended.

WaterFire Riesling, 2013

Maker: WaterFire Vineyards, Kewadin, Michigan, USA20170516_082046

Place of origin: WaterFire estate, Antrim County, Michigan, USA

Style: Medium dry.

ABV: 11%

Purchased for $18 (Holiday Market)

Appearance: Light gold.

Nose: Mandarin orange, meyer lemon, lychee, woodruff.

Palate: Lemonade, mineral water, navel orange.

Finish: Pineapple, lemon thyme.

 

Parting words: The WaterFire winery is located in Northwest Michigan, on the isthmus between Torch Lake and Grand Traverse Bay, opposite Old Mission Peninsula. It’s not within the bounds of any of the Northern Michigan AVAs but it is close to all of them. Antrim County is one of the county appellations that were grandfathered in when the new AVA system was rolled out in the 1980s.

Chantal Lefebvre, owner and winemaker of Water Fire does not have natural, organic or biodynamic certification for her wines, but she is firmly committed to growing grapes and making wine in a way that is in harmony with the natural world. I had a fairly long conversation with her about that topic at the 2016 Michigan Wine Showcase in Detroit. Water Fire wines are estate grown and limited production but are some of the best wines Michigan has to offer. They currently produce Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Grüner Veltliner.

2013 was a banner year for white wines in Michigan as you, the attentive Sipology reader, know. 2013 Water Fire Riesling ranks near the very top of great Michigan Rieslings in a year full of them. This wine’s minerality and herbal aromas provide the perfect foundation for the gothic cathedral of acidity that rises up through the palate. I love this wine and this winery. WaterFire deserves to be a household name, and their wines deserve a place at your table. 2013 WaterFire Riesling is highly recommended.

 

 

Shady Lane Sparkling Riesling, 2014

Maker: Shady Lane Cellars, Suttons Bay, Michigan, USA20170320_112711.jpg

Grape: Riesling (100%)

Style: Medium dry sparkling white wine (secondary fermentation was using the cuve close, aka “tank” method)

Place of origin: Shady Lane estate (Blocks M, I & N), Leelanau Peninsula AVA, Michigan, USA

ABV: 10.6%

Price: $25 (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room, Auburn Hills)

For more information, scroll down to this wine’s entry here on Shady Lane’s website.

Appearance: Very pale straw with steady, delicate bubbles.

Nose: Whiff of yeast then classic Riesling profile. Big peach, plum, jackfruit, fresh squeezed blood orange juice.

Palate: Light bodied and medium sweet with moderate acidity. Mineral water, grapefruit, lemon peel, vanilla bean.

Finish: Clean & crisp. Minerals, acid.

Parting words: Shady Lane, one of Leelanau’s best wineries, is named after the founder’s favorite Pavement song (ok, probably not but I like to pretend that it is). Almost all their wines are made from estate grown grapes. That sets them apart from most of their peers. It also makes their wines harder to find and a little more expensive, but it’s worth it.

Sparkling Riesling is relatively rare in the US or anywhere else for that matter. The last one I had was this one but it doesn’t really count since it was the result of an accident. I enjoyed Shady Lane’s intentional version quite a bit, as did a friend I served some to. My wife didn’t like it as much. She found it to be lacking in flavor and aroma. I will say that it is a little bland right out of the refrigerator. Letting the glass or bottle warm for a couple minutes before drinking brings out all the deliciousness described above. It is balanced enough that it pairs very well with spicy Thai or Middle Eastern food.

Sparkling Riesling is rare and a wine this well made at $25 is even more rare. It’s like that easy going but never boring friend with a bubbly but never unbalanced personality you always want to have around at a party (once she comes out of the cold, anyway). Shady Lane Sparkling Riesling is recommended.

 

 

Cave Spring Riesling, 2013

20161004_191113.jpgMaker: Cave Spring Cellars, Jordan, Ontario, Canada.

Place of origin: Niagara Peninsula VQA, Ontario, Canada (approx. 75% from estate & family vineyards)

Vintage: 2013

ABV: 11%

Price: C$16/$12 USD (LCBO)

Appearance: Pale gold.

Nose: Mild. Lemon, orange zest.

Palate: Medium bodied, semi-dry. Lemon/lime soda, limestone, thyme.

Finish: Light. Underripe pear.

Parting words: I got this bottle a few months ago when I made a run to the border to pick up some Canadian whisky and wine. The whisky selection was as expected, but the selection of Canadian wine was very disappointing. Luckily they had a few bottles from some better known producers like Jackson Triggs and Cave Spring so I grabbed some of those.

I was first turned on to Cave Spring after tasting their Dry Riesling at the City of Riesling event in Traverse City in the summer of 2015. The geology of the Niagara region is special and it shows in this bright and refreshing, but not dull, Riesling. It’s well worth the price. I look forward to exploring more from them in the near future! I hope they ship to Michigan or maybe I can convince my wife to take a Niagara getaway next summer.

 

Semi-dry Riesling Head to Head: Chateau Grand Traverse vs Gill’s Pier

Chateau Grand Traverse (Traverse City, Michigan, USA)= CGT20160531_195230-2.jpg

Gill’s Pier (Traverse City, Michigan, USA)= GP Now defunct.

Place of origin

CGT: Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Traverse City, Michigan, USA

GP: Leelanau Peninsula AVA, Leelanau County, Michigan, USA (estate)

Vintage: 2013

ABV

CGT: 11%

GP: 10%

Appearance:

CGT: Medium gold.

GP: Pale gold

Nose

CGT: Rich. Slightly musty, old Riesling aroma when first opened, then peachy all the way through.

GP: Crisp yellow apple, Meyer lemon, lemon thyme.

Palate

CGT: Full-bodied, old Riesling feel. Mandarin orange, sage.

GT: Bracing, but still sweet. Tangerine, bottled lemon juice.

Finish

CGT: Dry, with a little bitterness.

GP: Cheek-filling tartness. Fades slowly.

Parting words: I got the idea for this head to head when I pulled a wine out of our liquor cabinet to put in our china cabinet for near term-consumption (we have an overly complex three-part staging system for wine in our house). I pulled out the CGT Semi-dry Riesling and then went to move up the bottle below it and noticed it was the Gill’s Pier Semi-dry of the same vintage. I’ve done a lot spirits head to heads, but not many wine ones so I thought this was the perfect opportunity.

I didn’t expect there to be much of a difference between these two, honestly. I was quite surprised at the contrast between two wines made from grapes grown a few miles apart in the same style and year. It’s a testimony to the varied terroir of northwest Michigan and the flexibility of Riesling. CGT is lush and decadent where Gill’s Pier is focused and elegant. If I had to choose one over the other, I would probably opt for Gill’s Pier, but just by a hair. Both are recommended. Unfortunately, Gill’s Pier estate is now an alpaca farm, but Chateau Grand Traverse is still going strong and readily available all over Michigan.

Forty-Five North Dry Riesling, 2011

Maker: Forty-Five North, Lake Leelanau, Michigan, USA20160405_115701-1.jpg

Place of origin: Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Michigan, USA

ABV: 11.25%

Purchased for $19 (Hills, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan)

Appearance: Medium gold.

Nose: Dry and flinty. Lychee, water chestnut, Bartlett pear, dried savory, epazote.

Palate: Peach, tangerine, ruby red grapefruit, mineral water, dried chicory.

Finish: Medium length. Dry, herbal with a slight bitterness.

20160402_182008-1.jpgParting words: Having had an odd experience when I visited Forty-Five North last summer, I had been put off from reviewing any more of their stuff. I’m very glad I reviewed this one, though. I found it languishing on a shelf at store at which I usually buy Scotch and decided to pick it up earlier this year, even though I was unsure if it would still hold up.

Held up it did. This wine was wonderful. It’s one of the driest Michigan Rieslings I’ve had. I ate it with a couple different meals, including a cheese tart, made with Raclette from Leelanau Chesse (it’s all they make). It did well with everything. It’s drinking very well now, obviously, but it will probably still be good a year or more from now. $18 was the original MRSP but it’s easily worth $19-$20 or more. 2011 is still showing very well for Michigan whites. Forty-Five North’s 2011 Dry Riesling is highly recommended.

Arcturos Dry Riesling, 2012

Maker: Black Star Farms, Traverse City, Michigan, USA2016-03-02-11.08.03.jpg.jpeg

Place of origin: Leorie, Montague Estate, Capella vineyards, Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Traverse City, Michigan, USA

ABV: 12%

Price: $19 (website, 2013 vintage)

Appearance: medium gold

Nose: Canned peach syrup, freshly opened can of mandarin oranges, almonds, dried herbs de Provence.

Palate: Very mild. Faint tang then abruptly shifts to a bitter herbal taste, like ripped sage leaves.

Finish: Similar to the palate, but even fainter. Fades quickly.

Parting words: This is a cautionary tale, my friends. According to Cellartracker, I bought this wine last June at the winery. I don’t remember going to Black Star Farms last June, but I was in northern Michigan last summer so it’s entirely possible that I did. I wish I had opened it that summer instead of waiting until today. The 2012 vintage was not a consistently good one for Michigan Riesling and dry Rieslings often don’t age as well as late harvest ones. Those two combined with possible poor storage on my part may have doomed this poor wine. It’s not undrinkable, mind you, just fallen apart. I’m sure it was better a year ago, but as it is right now, Arcturos Dry Riesling, 2012 is not recommended.

Peninsula Cellars Late Harvest Riesling, 2014

Maker: Peninsula Cellars, Traverse City, Michigan, USA2015-12-09-16.13.49.jpg.jpeg

Place of origin: Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Traverse City, Michigan, USA

Style: Unintentionally sparkling late harvest Riesling

ABV: 8.5%

Price: $14 (website)

Appearance: Light gold with a huge fizzy head and big ongoing effervescence.

Nose: Cut ripe pear, mineral water, apple juice.

Palate: Very fizzy with stone fruit notes and some oregano on the back end.

Finish: Sweet and apple-y with a pebble of minerality.

Parting words: Everybody makes mistakes, even winemakers as skilled as those at Peninsula Cellars. A few months ago Peninsula Cellars released only a few cases of their 2014 late harvest Riesling to the public. A couple pallets of that wine were released to Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Rooms and offered to wine club members like yours truly. I love Peninsula Cellars and I love Riesling, so I jumped at the chance and bought two bottles. Shortly after picking them up, I received an email that the wine had effectively been recalled. The wine in one of the pallets had undergone an expected and undesired secondary fermentation in the bottle, turning it into a sparkling wine. This created a lot of pressure in the standard Riesling bottles the wine was in and some of the corks had started popping out, rather forcefully in some cases. Anyone who bought it was asked to return the wine to the store for a store credit or drink immediately. I returned one of my bottles but took my life into my hands by keeping the other one in my cellar. It leaked a bit, but never exploded. The leaking began to get worse last week so I brought it up into the fridge at that time.

This wine is delicious but disappointing to me in a couple ways. First, I’m disappointed that I didn’t get to taste the 2014 Peninsula Cellars LHR as the winemakers intended. Second, I’m disappointed that Peninsula isn’t regularly making a sparkling Late Harvest Riesling because this is so good. Sadly, these sparkling bottles are probably all gone by now but if you happen to find one, I highly recommend you purchase it.

Pelee Island Winery Late Harvest Riesling, 2011

Maker: Pelee Island, Kingston, Ontario, Canada2015-12-02-13.45.48.jpg.jpeg

Place of origin: Ontario VQA.

ABV: 12.5%

Purchased for $13 (Hollywood Market, Madison Heights)

Other information: Residual sugar: 36.1 g/ltr. Harvested at 23.1 Brix.

Appearance: Golden straw with thick, even legs and a few crystals.

Nose: Thyme, cut white peach, Bartlett pear, lychee, whiff of gasoline.

Palate: Full bodied. Lychee, oregano, Meyer lemon, mango, orange marmalade.

Finish: Peachy and sweet. Lasts a long time before fading into herbal flavors.

Parting words: I was pleasantly surprised by this wine. The last Pelee Island wine I had was the crummy Pinot Noir I reviewed a few months ago. This wine was on sale and from a good white vintage in Michigan, so I figured it was probably a good one in Ontario too so it was worth a try.

It’s an Ontario VQA (as opposed to Pelee Island) so one probably wouldn’t expect much in the way of terroir influence, but there is some broad terroir character. The time in the bottle has benefited it greatly as well. It is rich and sweet but still carries a lot of typically dry flavors and aromas. This is a very good wine for a reasonable price. Pelee Island Winery Late Harvest Riesling, 2011 is recommended.