For those following this month's NCAA men's basketball tournament, it's been a wild ride so far, with plenty of upsets and some outstanding play. It's been an equally wild ride for Wine Spectator's annual Final Four Taste-Off, in which we've been tasting surprising wines from across the U.S. for the past six years. We're happy to report that this year's crop of contenders was far and away the best all-around lineup of wines since we started calling on wineries near each of the collegiate participants in the Final Four back in 2007. It's a good indicator that, just as wine quality continues to improve in the world's most popular wine regions, it's getting better and better in states like Kansas and Kentucky, too.
We once again tasted all of the wines blind in our New York office, with a group of Wine Spectator editors and tasting coordinators, in an attempt to predict this year's winner at the Final Four in Atlanta's Georgia Dome. As you might have guessed, good wine does not a good basketball program make, and we've gotten this wrong every single year thus far.
Our wine selection committee's Taste-Off invitations for 2013:
All wines were tasted blind (preventing our staff members from Kentucky and upstate New York from swaying the vote).
Brooks Hill Estate Lemberger Ohio River Valley 2010 (University of Louisville) vs. Prairie Fire Winery Vignoles Semi-Dry 2011 (Wichita State)
Brooks Hill Winery 2746 Brooks Hill Road, Brooks, Ky. Telephone: (502) 957-7810 Website: brookshillwinery.com
Brooks Hill Winery is located about five miles south of Louisville, Ky., at the top of—what else?—Brooks Hill. It's the dream project of owner Mike Hatzell, along with his wife, Karen. Mike, now 71, was stationed in France during his Army enlistment. "I really took a liking to the European lifestyle," Hatzell said, "particularly the way they treated wine and drank it with their meals. I kept that interest up throughout my career as a lawyer, making it at home and for friends. About seven years ago I was going to retire and thought, I always wanted to own a winery, so my wife and I bought this small 30-acre farm [in 2006]." Hatzell renovated an old building on the property for a tasting room, and insisted on growing vinifera grapes despite what other local farmers might have suggested. He put in Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Lemberger, also known as Blaufrankisch. "The Chardonnay did not do well," Hatzell said matter-of-factly, "so last year I pulled all that out and put in more Lemberger, which does exceptionally well." Brooks Hill winemaker Raymond "Butch" Meyer makes a total of 19 wines with estate and purchased fruit, most of which are sweet wines. "In this small farm, family winery business, sweet wine pays the bills," Hatzell said. His latest project is a Concord grape wine made in used Bourbon barrels, called Kentucky Tradition, which is bottled in a "moonshine jug" with a wax seal.
Prairie Fire Winery 103 Main St., Paxico, Kan. Telephone: (785) 636-5533 Website: prairiefirewinery.com
Prairie Fire Winery is located outside the small town of Paxico, in Kansas' Flint Hills tall grasslands. Prairie Fire owner and winemaker Bob DesRuisseaux's family farming roots are in France and Quebec, and wine was always a part of the family meal tradition. He started focusing on wine as a professional path about 10 years ago. "We purchased 60 acres in 2008, with our first vintage being 2011," DesRuisseaux said. "We're in an area called the Flint Hills, one of the last remaining tall grass prairies in the world. The hills and the slopes are absolutely beautiful, and it reminds you of so many other wine regions around the world." DesRuisseaux planted his 3-acre vineyard to Chambourcin and Vignoles and will soon add Cabernet Franc, Riesling and Grüner Veltliner. He's optimistic about this region's future for winegrowing. "The Flint Hills are a very rocky area," he said. "With the tall grass, it's maintained a lot of its topsoil, but we also have excellent drainage with both the slopes and the limestone base." Prairie Fire also makes the state's first méthode Champenoise sparkling wines, a Vidal Blanc Brut and Doux.
This match-up divided the tasting room. The Brooks Hill Lemberger 2010 was aged in Kentucky white oak barrels for 14 months. Fresh aromas of plum, cranberry and cherry echo on the palate, along with savory cherry and berry pie, sanguine and tobacco leaf flavors that resonate with a modicum of tannic grip. Prairie Fire's semi-sweet Vignoles is bursting with sweet tropical fruit flavors, from blood orange to lemon candy and zest to poached pear, peach and banana cream pie. This was a toss-up between two quality wines from the heartland, and we ultimately passed Prairie Fire on to the final based on its second submission, a Chambourcin …
Anthony Road Riesling Finger Lakes Dry 2011 (Syracuse University) vs. M. Lawrence "Green" Sparkling Wine Extra-Sec NV (University of Michigan)
Anthony Road Wine Company 1020 Anthony Road, Penn Yan, N.Y. Telephone: (800) 559-2182 Website: anthonyroadwine.com
"It's an exciting time to be in the business, because there was a history, and we're starting to overcome that history, but I'm not sure we know what the future is," said John Martini, founder and owner of Anthony Road Wine Company in the Finger Lakes of New York, where reliance on non-vinifera grapes for jug wines made and unmade the reputation of that region some decades ago. "The future looks like Riesling, but you never know." With the demise of the Taylor Wine Company, for whom Martini had grown grapes since 1973, came the birth of Anthony Road in 1990, and Martini decided to bet on vinifera—and eventually Riesling—to resurrect the Finger Lakes' reputation. He has been coming to the Big Apple and setting up shop at the Union Square Greenmarket since 1995 and says a "sea change" is underway: "People would walk by the stand saying, 'Oh, New York wines' with falling tones. And now it's, 'Wow, I love Riesling!" With winemaker Johannes Reinhardt, whose family in Germany "were in the business since 1438," Martini has elevated Anthony Road to a position of leadership in the Finger Lakes. The recent infusion of money and technology into the Cornell Viticulture and Enology Program promises to bring all the wineries in the area to even greater heights. One new project at Anthony Road is a spontaneously fermented Riesling using native yeasts, which intrigued some of the tasting team, but the classic dry Riesling from the 75-acre estate won over more fans. The winery is a particularly apt standard bearer for the Syracuse Orange: Martini's daughter Sarah is a recent graduate herself, and joined the family business just last month.
L. Mawby Vineyards 4519 S. Elm Valley Road, Suttons Bay, Mich. Telephone: (231) 271-3522 Website: lmawby.com
"For some strange reason, Sex is our biggest selling wine," observed Larry Mawby, founder and owner of L. Mawby Vineyards, of his bubbly rosé. "That was named in response to complaints by my tasting room staff that wine names are long and complicated, hard to pronounce." Maybe they'd like something short and sweet, he asked them. "What happens if we had a wine called Sex and you had to spend all afternoon in the tasting room standing across the bar and saying, 'Have you tried Sex yet?' or 'Would you like to try some Sex?'" That shut the staffers up, but unfortunately for them, the TTB approved the new name anyway. Mawby put down roots in Michigan's Leelanau Peninsula in 1972, before any other wineries existed there, because he had seen how other delicate fruits like cherries flourished in the area. Since 2000, he has produced only sparkling wine, primarily from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay—both fun, tank-fermented labels like Sex and méthode traditionelle offerings aged on the lees for three years or longer, most of them in the brut style. The slopes and the warming influence of Lake Michigan protect the peninsula's vineyards from frost, and Mawby found the short, cool growing season conducive to retaining the acidity and sleekness of Old World-style bubbly in his wines. What better-known sparklers might Leelanau fizz resemble? In the U.S., Mawby thinks of those from the Anderson Valley, but "mostly," he said, his wines "are mistaken for Champagne, frankly."
Result: Anthony Road's dry Riesling regularly rates very good-to-outstanding on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale, and it's a bargain, too, at just $16. Martini's vineyards have very high lime content and, thus, acidity. Because of the cooler afternoons, his Rieslings are more minerally than the fruitier ones on the east side of Seneca Lake, and numerous tasters singled out this wine for its nice acidity and minerality, complemented by nuances of star fruit, apricot, melon and pear.
M. Lawrence, Mawby's line of tank-fermented wines, is "limited to fruit from this planet," as Mawby put it, but the Green, a slightly sweet style, is sourced entirely from southwest Michigan, a blend of two hybrid grapes, Cayuga and Vidal Blanc. Our tasters liked its heady aromas of buttered bread and candied citrus, with lemon brioche, almond and apple flavors. Two solid sippers from up north here, but the tip goes to the M. Lawrence in an upset over our No. 1 seed wine from the Finger Lakes, though as in our other semifinal matchup, the assist goes to Mawby’s other submission, the Blanc de Noirs.
Prairie Fire Winery Chambourcin Kansas Dry 2011 (Wichita State) vs. L. Mawby Blanc de Noirs Leelanau Peninsula NV (University of Michigan)
Result: There were hardly two more different wines in this bracket, but like many a strong matchup, the strengths of the red and the bubbly played well against each other. The Kansas Chambourcin impressed with its lightness and dexterity, sporting cranberry, potpourri, candied cherry, plum and dried strawberries.
But a powerhouse performance by the Mawby Blanc de Noirs put this one away. A 100-percent Leelanau Pinot Noir, this was bottled in February 2009 and disgorged this past August, given a minimum dosage with 0.8 percent residual sugar, which places it in the brut style. Fresh, taut and crisp were the go-to descriptions here, with golden apple, white peach and almond skin elements, topped by a frothy mousse, all playing together in harmony as a good team does.
Congratulations to Larry Mawby and his team at L. Mawby. Based on our past Final Four champion-predicting performances, L. Mawby tasting room staffers can expect to be selling a lot of Sex this weekend after the Wolverines inevitably lose.