Happily, the days of grin-and-bear-it quaffing, of believing — hoping — that our local wines would improve, are rapidly fading. As growers get more familiar with the cold-hardy varietals they grow, press and ferment — grapes with unfamiliar names such as La Crescent, Louise Swenson, St. Croix and Marquette — their wines have gotten better and better. This year, though, those baby steps became a giant leap, and Marquette is a huge reason why.
It was 2003 when Ken Albert, the founder, wine grower, chief winemaker and co-owner of Shelburne Vineyard, first tasted samples of Marquette. The red-wine grape is a cousin of Pinot Noir, highly cold- and disease-resistant, and one of the so-called Northern varietals pioneered and released by the University of Minnesota. Albert thought it showed tremendous promise. "It was the first grape that's a hybrid that also tastes like a traditional, complex grape." He put some in the ground as soon as it was released by UM in 2006, and bottled his first vintage in 2008.
Last summer, the stellar weather convinced Albert & co. that his third crop might be "the vintage of the decade." For this promising batch of juice, he and his colleagues harnessed a method that European wine makers occasionally use on their drier whites: letting the dead yeast cells that accumulate during fermentation mingle with the wine. "The whole challenge [for northern growers] is to develop a large mouthfeel. The way to increase mouthfeel is to leave the dead yeast cells in the bottom of the barrel," says Albert, describing the sur lie method that he learned first-hand from a visiting Portugese wine maker. "Two times a week you come along and rock the barrel. I did it a little in 2009 and more in 2010." Most of that rocking was done by Ethan Joseph, the vineyard's manager and assistant wine maker.
It was a brilliant stroke. The Alperts debuted their 2010 Marquette during a tasting at the the Vermont Cheesemakers Festival a few weeks ago. The session, led by chef Sean Buchanan and Sam Gugino, a columnist at Wine Spectator, guided us through a raft of Vermont wines paired against morsels such as foie gras and seared scallops.
Though many of the wines were delicious, the Marquette was a standout: round, deep and sensuous, full of black cherries and spice. I sipped it almost in awe — it was different from the lighter-bodied and zippier Vermont reds I'd had so far. It seemed to unlock an important door.
Others share the sentiment. On August 18, the wine took home two gold medals and the "best red wine in show" award at the International Cold-Climate Wine Competition in Minnesota. Bill Ward of Minneapolis' Star Tribune called the wine "the most delicious cold-climate red wine I’ve ever tasted."
The Alberts — Ken and his wife, Gail — and their staff were thrilled to be recognized for a wine that, they say humbly, they knew was pretty good. They released it to the public about three weeks ago. While Ward tastes blueberries and earth, I get more spice and black fruit flavors, and find that letting it breathe helps its subleties emerge. Any which way, the wine ($20 for a bottle) will give you a sense of where some of Vermont's reds are headed. It also might "turn" drinkers whose palates are more attuned to the familiar flavors of Cabernet and Syrah.
Raise a glass hoping that the remnants of Hurricane Irene spare our tender Vermont grapes this weekend, so we can look forward to even more greatness from this terroir next year.
Photo courtesy of Shelburne Vineyard.