Tasting Local Wine Off The Shelf In Chicago
The mission: To find good wine produced from Midwestern grapes in Chicagoland liquor stores.
The strategy: I randomly sourced bottles of local wine (at multiple price levels) from the shelves of Chicagoland stores. Then, I tasted this wine in a group that included local wine expert, Drew Goss of West Town Tavern, a restaurant in Chicago known for its contemporary comfort food and global wine list. He helped me narrow down which of these bottles are worthy of drinking alongside wine from other wine-producing regions. Here’s our report.
Sourcing the wines
I was in charge of sourcing the wine, the process of which was both encouraging and disheartening. On the upside, the Sam’s-turned-Binny’s on Marcey Street in Chicago maintains the former Sam’s “Midwest” wine section. On the down side, many promising bottles were sold out when I visited, and the selection was heavy on red wines (some made from grapes that are not ideal for growing in the Midwest’s mild climate). Trying to keep an open mind about these red wines, I selected three bottles from the Marcey Street Binny’s for the tasting (two reds and one sparkling rosé).
The search for local wine was temporarily derailed at the South Loop Binny’s. The person in the wine department believed that only wines made from fruit such as pears and plums, and sweeter, semi-dry reds, were produced in the Midwest (which is not true). Of course, perusing Binny’s South Loop store’s meager selection, that would be the impression you’d get. I walked out with nothing.
More on the upside, Lush, in West Town, Fine Wine Brokers, in Lincoln Square, and Pastoral, in the French Market, all carried a limited selection of local wines, and the people I talked to at those stores were knowledgeable about these wines. As smaller wine shops, I found that their selection was better vetted, and included lesser-known producers from the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas in Michigan, a burgeoning wine region. I selected a white and red from Lush, and a sparkling wine and dessert wine from Fine Wine Brokers for the tasting. (The selections at Pastoral were duplicative of bottles I selected from other wine shops.)
Not surprisingly, intrepid locavore Cassie Green of Green Grocer had four bottles of local wine in her store’s small, but well-curated, selection of wines—three of which were part of our tasting (a sparkling wine, a white and a red).
In the end, I purchased more bottles of red wine than white—the result of there being many more reds available off the shelf than white. Some of the selected wines included hybrid grapes, such as seyval blanc and vignoles, which are generally appropriate for a milder Midwest climate because they are cold-hardy and ripen earlier in the season.
Overall, we were pleased with how well many of these bottles drank. There were two wines from Southwest Michigan that we thought going in might not drink well (the sparkling rosé and a table red), and unfortunately, they met our low expectations. The Illinois red wines we tried were fine and drinkable, though not particularly noteworthy, and rated in the middle of the pack. The winners are described below (in no particular order).
1. L. Mawby Blanc de Blanc NV, sparkling wine, Leelanau Peninsula, Michigan (Chiefly chardonnay, some pinot noir and a “little bit” of vignoles. According to L. Mawby, the blend varies from year-to-year so that the wine tastes the same.) This was the only wine of the group I had tried before, but Drew had never tasted it.
Drew: Fine bubbles. Fat, glycerin sliding down the side of the glass. Minty and herbal tasting. Tastes mostly of chardonnay. Watching the fine bubbles flicker in the glass as you pour the wine, it is apparent that the L. Mawby sparkling wines are well-made. L. Mawby uses the more complex (and more expensive) méthode champenoise in making their sparkling wine, the same method used by the French to make champagne. The group concluded that the clean juiciness of the wine would make it a good choice to serve in place of cava. It would be a great sparkler to serve at the beginning of a dinner party while you’re eating hors d’oeuvres, such as cheese or flatbread. (Green Grocer, $18.99/750 ml; Whole Foods, $17.99/750 ml. Also available at Pastoral and Fine Wine Brokers.)
2. L. Mawby Blanc de Noir NV, sparkling wine, Leelanau Peninsula, Michigan (100% pinot noir; hand picked and whole cluster pressed, fermented in stainless steel tanks and blended with reserve wines before being fermented again and bottled.)
Drew: Biscuit-colored. Same bead as the Blanc de Blanc, but more toast. It’s fatter and richer. Some notes of cherry pit and amaretto. Wouldn’t have guessed it was from Michigan, more like a California sparkling wine, although not quite; tastes different. The group thought that this was the clear winner that night. The Blanc de Noir is like L. Mawby’s Blanc de Blanc, but dressed to the nines for the red carpet at the Oscars. Lush, heavy and bubbly, this is a sparkling wine that you would serve with food. Notes of terroir peeked through as we couldn’t quite align the characteristics of this wine with any other wine-producing region. (Fine Wine Brokers $11.95/half-bottle. Also available at Pastoral.)
3. Black Star Farms 2006 Arcturos Pinot Noir [red], Suttons Bay, Michigan (64% Grand Traverse county grapes and 36% Leelanau county grapes. Aged in a mix of American and French Oak.) The only red we tasted that made the cut.
Drew: This is a cool wine. Ruby-colored. Floral smell with dill notes that dissipated over time. Light, but good flavor. Fruity, not overly fruity, though; well-balanced with the oak. Enticing, makes you want to have another sip. The group thought that the nose was really expressive, and may be off-putting at first, but as the wine opened up, it mellowed and sweetened. (We probably should have opened the wine a little longer before drinking it.) Even though it was lighter in color than most pinot noirs, the wine certainly expressed the pinot noir grape in taste and smell. It was more similar to a Washington or Oregon pinot noir than a California one, although not quite – again, like the Mawby Blanc de Noir, this wine was showing its Midwest origins. I recently tasted this wine separately with a group of wine bloggers, sommeliers and the winemaker from Black Star Farms, and it was discussed that the lighter color extraction of the wine could be the result of the shorter ripening season in upper Michigan. The most expensive wine of the night, but that is to be expected with pinot noir. It was a proud representation of Midwestern pinot noir. (Green Grocer, $22.99/750 ml; Whole Foods, $25.99/750 ml. Also available at Binny’s.)
4. Good Harbor Fishtown White NV, Lake Leelanau, Michigan (75% chardonnay, 13% vignoles, 12% seyval blanc. Aged in 35% French oak and 65% stainless steel.)
Drew: Round, cream, cherry notes. Tastes a little like cherry cream soda, lots of vanilla. It’s got the viscous body of oak, but no oak taste. It’s like a rosé in taste and color. Here, the hybrids really make their appearance. The group thought this would be a fun summer wine to drink on a deck and wondered, if you poured it in black wine glasses (that would mask the wine), would people think they were drinking a rosé? It probably would go well with cheese and charcuterie. The cherry notes evoke the Midwest –the Leelanau peninsula, where the winery is located, is home to numerous cherry orchards. (Lush, $10.00/750 ml. Other Good Harbor wine available at Pastoral.)
5. August Hill Winery 2008 Seyval Blanc [white], Illinois River Valley (100% seyval blanc)
Drew: Smells like citrus. Fruity. Nose isn’t particularly pleasant, but improves greatly when enjoyed with food, which brings out its citrus-y notes. Made with 100% hybrid grape. This was the wine we ate with a light dinner. Would pair well with lighter fare such as chicken, fish and Mediterranean flavors that would bring out some of the citrus notes. An example of how wine should be consumed with food. (Green Grocer, $13.99/750 ml.)
One thing this tasting proved is that trying good local wine can be as easy as going to your nearby wine shop. If you’d like to try local wine without having to order it directly from a winery, I urge you to try one of these bottles. Keep your eyes peeled: Local wine can be sneaky — often, it’s camouflaged on the shelf alongside wine from other parts of the world. Have you found good locally-produced wine in Chicagoland stores that you’d like to tell us about?
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Author’s Note: Black Star Farms recently participated in a tasting reported earlier on The Local Beet, and their 2007 Arcturos Pinot Noir, as well as the 2008 Arcturos Dry Riesling, performed well in that tasting. These wines can be found at Green Grocer, Whole Foods, and Binny’s. Another August Hill wine that Drew and I tasted, a Muscat dessert wine, earned “honorable mention” marks from us. Later, I noticed that this same wine was available on the wine list at LM Le Restaurant in Lincoln Square. It can normally be purchased at Fine Wine Brokers (for about $10.95 a bottle), but the distributor is currently out of this wine. Fine Wine Brokers plans to re-stock this wonderful dessert wine as soon as the distributor has a new supply.
Places mentioned in the article:
West Town Tavern
1329 W. Chicago Ave.
Chicago, IL 60622
Fine Wine Brokers
4621 North Lincoln Avenue
Chicago, IL 60625-2007
1402 West Grand Avenue
Chicago, IL 60642-6303
1412 West Chicago Avenue
Chicago, IL 60642
Pastoral @ Chicago French Market
131 N. Clinton
Chicago, IL 60661
(Other locations throughout Chicago)
LM Le Restaurant
4539 N. Lincoln
Chicago, IL 60640
Binny’s Beverage Depot
1720 N. Marcey Street
Chicago, IL 60614
(Other locations throughout Chicagoland)
Whole Foods Market
1550 N. Kingsbury
Chicago, IL 60642
(Other locations throughout Chicagoland)