It’s March Madness in April and Wine Spectator is once again getting into the spirit with a taste-off between wineries near each of this year’s NCAA Final Four participants in an attempt to predict the 2010 champion. (If you’re the betting type, be forewarned: In 2007, we were woefully off with our proclamation of a UCLA championship, in 2008 we again pegged UCLA the winner, and in 2009, Connecticut was our pick. They all lost.)
This year, we called on wineries near East Lansing’s Michigan State, Indianapolis’ Butler University, Morgantown’s University of West Virginia and Duke University in Durham, N.C. Stepping onto the parquet are Chateau Grand Traverse near Traverse City, Mich., the Creekbend Vineyard label from Oliver winery in Monroe County, Ind., Forks of Cheat winery near Morgantown, W.V., and Asheville, N.C.’s Biltmore Estate.
As we did last year, we requested multiple wines from each winery and tasted them all blind; the tasters were simply told the grape variety or blend of each wine in the bags. We then selected the best of the bunch to represent their neighboring institutions of higher education.
Oliver Cabernet Sauvignon Creekbend Vineyard 2007 (Butler) vs. Chateau Grand Traverse Riesling Old Mission Peninsula Lot 49 2008 (Michigan State)
Our two contenders here both come with long track records. Creekbend Vineyard came online in 1994, and Oliver winery was founded in the early 1970s by Indiana University law professor William Oliver. His son Bill now runs the show. Chateau Grand Traverse is another family winery that opened its doors in the 1970s. Edward O’Keefe founded Grand Traverse in 1974, and his son Sean is also an owner. Their vineyards are located on Michigan’s Old Mission Peninsula, which is nearly surround by Grand Traverse Bay.
Michigan is regarded as Riesling territory, although Chateau Grand Traverse also makes Pinot Noir, Merlot, Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and more. We were particularly impressed with CGT’s smooth and fruity Gamay, but Riesling is the state’s bread and butter, and the best Riesling of the nearly half-dozen submitted this year was Grand Traverse’s Old Mission Peninsula Lot 49 2008. It offered a subtle sweetness lined with acidity and offered a citrusy finish to the green apple and creamy pear flavors. All in all an impressive effort. Even more surprising, however, was the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon from Creekbend Vineyard. Its berry and almond skin aromas led to tart, dusky cherry flavors on the palate and a juicy finish, narrowly pulling off the victory in the first round of this year’s taste-off.
Biltmore Estate Chardonnay North Carolina 2008 (Duke) vs. Forks of Cheat Schwarzer Bär West Virginia Semi-Dry White Table Wine (University of West Virginia)
In the 1980s, Jerry Deal found himself being chastised by a neighbor for snacking on grapes from her vines (despite that they’d grown over to his side of the fence). He decided he’d just grow his own grape vines, and soon found he had far more than he could snack on alone, and in 1990 he founded Forks of Cheat winery. Jerry still oversees the operation, and he’s joined by his wife, Susan, and his son, Eric. Biltmore, on the other hand, is far from a mom-and-pop. Built by George Vanderbilt as an escape from everyday life, the 8,000-acre Biltmore Estate is one of North Carolina’s biggest tourist attractions. Winemaker Bernard DeLille makes dozens of wines under the various Biltmore labels, and the winery submitted two whites for us this year.
The Forks of Cheat white blend got into the game with a light floral aroma and brought a very juicy fruit cocktail palate to the table. Its grapey peach and apple flavors offered broad appeal, with a real quaffability factor. However, it couldn’t stand up to the Goliath of this year’s Final Four, Biltmore Estate. The 2008 North Carolina Chardonnay had a strong oak aroma that hinted at bacon and hickory smoke. On the palate it brought high-toned apple, peach and spice flavors, giving it the victory in the second semifinal.
Oliver Vidal Blanc Ice Wine Creekbend Vineyard 2007 vs. Biltmore Estate Viognier North Carolina 2008
In the final round of this year’s taste-off we first turn to Biltmore’s Viognier. The white leads off with nut, smoke and pineapple aromas. On the attack we find slightly bitter sour apple flavors that give it a pronounced juiciness with hints of citrus. It’s no match for Creekbend’s Vidal Blanc Ice Wine, however. As a dessert wine, it was in a class all its own, literally—perhaps an unfair advantage, but this year's Final Four is taking place in Butler's backyard. This was certainly the most complex of the wines in this year’s taste-off, with a powerful nose of dried peach, apricot and the hint of a petrol undertone. On the palate came intense peach syrup flavors with caramel apple, pineapple, orange and spice, along with a coconut note on the vanilla finish.
Unlike last year, our taste-off didn’t have a unanimous winner in 2010, but Oliver winery’s Creekbend Vineyard Vidal Blanc Ice Wine 2007 is cutting down the nets this year. Congratulations to Bill Oliver and the rest of the Oliver winery family, and our sincerest condolences to the Butler Bulldogs, who are no doubt now doomed by our pitiful prognostications.
John H Trombley — Piqua, OH USA — April 4, 2010 1:20pm ET
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