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At the Sip-Off: The 2015 Final Four Wine Tasting Showdown

Michigan, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Kentucky wineries face off in Wine Spectator’s annual March Madness wine tasting
Kentucky is the basketball favorite at the Final Four, but the Wine Spectator Final Four Taste-Off predicts an unexpected champion.
Photo by: Icon Sportswire/AP Images
Kentucky is the basketball favorite at the Final Four, but the Wine Spectator Final Four Taste-Off predicts an unexpected champion.


March Madness is running rampant through the Wine Spectator office this week, spilling over into our annual Final Four Taste-Off. Sure, there's plenty of chatter about which state has the best college basketball team—but what about the best wine? In our ninth-annual tasting, our selection committee called on wineries near each of the schools represented in this year’s NCAA men’s Final Four, providing a sample of homestate wine for our attempt to predict the tournament winner—or at least name the wine all-star—one pour at a time.

This year we received more than a dozen samples, all of which were tasted blind in our New York office by a plucky team of Wine Spectator staffers who played with heart and left it all on the, uh, table. (Here's a bonus behind-the-scenes video of our intrepid team gearing up for the Final Four, Wine Spectator-style.)

The 2015 Taste-Off invitations went to:

  • Chateau Chantal of Traverse City, Mich., carrying the banner for Michigan State
  • Round Peak Vineyards of Mt. Airy, N.C., holding the torch for Duke
  • Springhill Winery of Bloomfield, Ky., taking the court for the University of Kentucky
  • Staller Estate of Delavan, Wisc., representing the University of Wisconsin

The Semifinals: Michigan St. vs. Duke

Chateau Chantal Pinot Noir Old Mission Peninsula Proprietor's Reserve 2012 (Michigan St.) vs. Round Peak Vineyards Nebbiolo 2009 (Duke)

Chateau Chantal
15900 Rue de Vin, Traverse City, Mich.
Telephone: (800) 969-4009
Website: www.ChateauChantal.com

Photograph courtesy of Chateau Chantal

The pursuit of a second career in wine is by no means a new narrative, but Robert and Nadine Begin’s path to ownership of Chateau Chantal is beyond unique. Nadine served as a Catholic nun for 22 years and Robert served as a Catholic priest for 12 before leaving the ministry to start a family, move from Detroit to Traverse City, Mich., and “follow [Robert’s] dream of opening a European-style winery chateau where you can stay the night, your breakfast is served to you by the owners, and you’re going to drink wine from the grapes that are being grown right outside your window.”

According to their daughter, Chantal president and CEO Marie-Chantal Dalese, the couple purchased a 65-acre cherry farm in 1983 and three years later planted 35 acres of Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Grigio. (Fun fact: Traverse City is the so-called "cherry capital" of the United States, however, much of the land is now being converted to vineyards.) Since then, they’ve added a spacious tasting room and an 11-room B&B and have acquired 90 more acres of vineyards within the Old Michigan Peninsula AVA. Along with the aforementioned varieties, they’re also planting Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Blanc and producing up to 20,000 cases in a good year.

Dalese explains that her local consumers “tend to drink a little sweeter,” making their late-harvest Riesling the most popular selection, but her favorite varietal is the reserve Pinot Gris, which is made in the Alsatian style. For a classic food pairing, Dalese recommends the smoked whitefish-and-cheese pâté, a local specialty, with their semi-dry Riesling, which has a “wonderful acidity from our cool climate that just works so naturally with the creaminess of the cheese.”

Round Peak Vineyards
765 Round Peak Church Road, Mount Airy, N.C.
Telephone: (336) 352-5595
Website: www.RoundPeak.com

Photograph courtesy of Round Peak Vineyards

It's not often you hear the story of a couple leaving California to follow their winemaking dreams … to North Carolina. That's not intentionally how Ken Gulaian and Kari Heerdt wound up as the owners of Round Peak Vineyards in the North Carolina Piedmont, but it's how life shook out. "We did a lot of wine touring in Sonoma while we were out [in California], particularly the Dry Creek area," but career moves took them back to their former home state. Looking to be his own boss, Gulaian found Round Peak for sale in 2008; with the vines and talent already in place and "spectacular views of the Blue Ridge Mountains," the couple took the plunge. Then they got serious.

Gulaian completed the viticulture and enology program at Surry Community College and now works full-time at the winery, specifically as the vineyard manager. During the week, "I spend probably 75 percent of my time outside," he says. It's a critical job in an area where Mother Nature throws plenty of curves at vinifera, which is what Round Peak's 13 acres are entirely planted to. "I'm an engineer and I like to control things. And the biggest challenge for me is you cannot control the weather," says Gulaian. "We see a lot more seasonal variations than you do in California. There's not enough rain; there's too much rain; it's too warm; it's too cold. There's no normal in North Carolina. Every year is different. For me that's both the fun and the challenge."

Yet Gulaian's trials are showing the way forward for wine potential. Cabernet Franc is a known quantity in North Carolina, and Round Peak is finding success with Sangiovese and Viognier, with Montepulciano coming up next. Round Peak's "signature" wine is rather more nettlesome to grow in the North Carolina Piedmont than the Italian one: Nebbiolo, which comes out pretty but doesn't yield much.

"We like to say that the only reason we got into the wine business is because we like to drink a lot of wine," says Gulaian. But with a brewery (Gulaian also brews), a line of semi-sweet wines and, most important, plans to continue experimenting in the vineyard, with Petit Verdot, Tannat and maybe Petit Manseng, Round Peak is now making a full-court press on the Blue Devil wine scene.

Result:

This round started with an air ball—by FedEx. Round Peak was an early DQ after its wines failed to reach our New York office in time for tip-off, but after reviewing the tape (and wine) this morning, our refs deemed the Nebbiolo a strong would-be contender, with varietal characteristics of rose petal, cherry and a hint of licorice, smooth tannins and an appealing gamy note. In the tasting, panelists applauded the Michigan Pinot Noir for its earthy, brambly qualities, with herb, cherry and spice weaving in and out on a light body. It posted up a good wine game, sending Chateau Chantal on to the finals.

The Semifinals: Kentucky vs. Wisconsin

Springhill Springport 2006 (University of Kentucky) vs. Staller Estate La Crescent Reserve 2013 (University of Wisconsin)

Springhill Winery
3205 Springfield Road, Bloomfield, Ky.
Telephone: (502) 252-9463
Website: www.SpringhillWinery.com

Photograph courtesy of Springhill Winery

"We're listed as the oldest small farm winery in Kentucky," says Eddie O'Daniel, self-proclaimed owner, winemaker and bottle washer at Springhill Winery. O'Daniel was literally the first in line for a license when, in 1990, Kentucky passed the Farm Winery Law, which created favorable conditions for viticultural enterprises. He had already planted vineyards on his family's farm in Bloomfield, Ky.—50 miles from the capital of Big Blue Nation, in Lexington—and had been making small quantities of wine for several years. Springhill's success (and subsequent winery-friendly laws) set in motion a powerful trend: Whereas in 2000, Kentucky had only six small farm wineries, O'Daniel says the Bluegrass State now boasts 88.

"What makes our Bourbon good makes our wine good," O'Daniel explains, citing Kentucky's grape-friendly limestone water and deep, loamy soils. South of the Ohio River, "we're really on the outside perimeter of the cool-climate viticultural area," which means Springhill's vineyards benefit from the cool winters of its northern neighbors and the hot summers of the South. The winery is located smack-dab in the middle of the Bourbon Trail, which accounts for about 80 percent of Springhill's business. "All the guys come here for the Bourbon, but the ladies like the wine," O'Daniel says. Springhill also operates a B&B in its 19th-century plantation manor.

The Springhill lineup includes a Port-style fortified Cabernet Franc, a Bordeaux-style blend aged for six months in Bourbon barrels and a Chardonnay-Riesling "twin" blend, in honor of Kentucky's most beloved gemini: Wildcats Andrew and Aaron Harrison. As for O'Daniel, who sent some of his children to the University of Kentucky and others to its athletic rival, the University of Louisville, he admits that his true allegiances lie with the Louisville Cardinals. "All of Kentucky has moved to Indiana now," says O'Daniel of the lead-up to Saturday's big game. "I have to stay home and sell wine to those poor people who can't afford to buy tickets."

Staller Estate
W8896 County Road A
Telephone: (608) 883-2100
Website: www.StallerEstate.com

Photograph courtesy of Staller Estate

Wisconsin is a beer-drinking state, and brewing was the first fermenting love of Staller Estate founder Joe Staller. "[My wife, Wendy, and I] were both getting our degrees in biology and chemistry at U.W. Whitewater, and I was a homebrewer, brewing beer in my dorm room. I really had a passion for it, and through my microbiology professor, I had an opportunity to work at a brewery, as the primary brewer at a brewpub in Whitewater while I was in school," Staller says. Alas, Joe and Wendy fell prey to the wine bug, around the same time that a lot of new cold-hardy winegrape varieties were becoming available from the University of Minnesota and Midwestern winegrape pioneer Elmer Swenson.

"We started a pilot vineyard in 2000 … and [Wendy, our winemaker,] started getting some positive feedback, so in 2003, when she graduated, she went on to U.C. Davis and studied winemaking out there," Staller says. "One thing led to another, and we purchased our property in 2006." The estate was a dairy farm before the Stallers planted it to Marechal Foch, Frontenac and La Crescent, along with some Marquette, and the winery now produces between 2,500 and 3,000 cases of wine a year, most of which is sold at the winery.

"The winemaking community [in Wisconsin] is really exciting. There's a tremendous amount of camaraderie—everyone's willing to help everyone out, and it's for the benefit of the industry," Staller says, invoking the key to March Madness success: teamwork.

Result:

The Kentucky contingent came out strong with a Port-style fortified Cabernet Franc that checked in at 18 percent ABV. Jammy, with stewed fruit, leather, tobacco and licorice notes on the gripping finish, Kentucky came to play. But Wisconsin was not to be stopped. Staller Estate's La Crescent Reserve, culled from the ripest fruit in the estate's northernmost vineyard parcels. It gets an extended malolactic fermentation, with neutral oak aging, letting the floral, honeysuckle and stone fruit aromas and flavors shine through.

The Finals: Michigan St. vs. Wisconsin

Chateau Chantal Pinot Gris Old Mission Peninsula Proprietor's Reserve 2012 (Michigan St.) vs. Staller Estate Ice Wine 2013 (Wisconsin)

Result:

In the end, the two northern neighbors lined up for the jump ball over Lake Michigan. The other Chateau Chantal Pinot—their Pinot Gris—played even harder in the paint than the Pinot Noir, with tasters praising it for floral and honeysuckle aromas leading to orange zest, grapefruit and tangerine flavors over a mouthfeel as smooth and polished as an unscuffed hardcourt. Ultimately, however, it wasn't enough to fend off the Staller ice wine, a powerhouse contender that seven of our eight tasters picked as their champion. A blend of 60 percent La Crescent (a cold-hardy hybrid grape) and 40 percent Vidal Blanc, this impressed with honey, cantaloupe, gold apple and apricot on a lush, unctuous frame held up by acidity that zipped around the court.

Congratulations to Staller and the Badgers, who have been making the most of bitterly cold winters with Final Four appearances and delicious ice wines.

Image by Kevin Mulligan

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