Verterra: New wines from old traditions

Northwestern Michigan is already home to a bounty of wonderful wineries. Do we really need another one? The short answer is yes, when the winery is Verterra. This brand-spanking new winery just opened a tasting room this fall in downtown Leland.

What's with that unusual name, Verterra? It's a combination of two ancient Latin words. Veritas was the Roman goddess of truth. You may have heard of the phrase "in vino veritas," or "In wine there is truth." Terra is Latin for land. So we have Verterra meaning the truth of the land; unusual, but it sings.

Paul Hamelin and his son, Geoff Hamelin, strive to have their wines express the land it comes from. Happily, they succeed. Paul, a recently retired pharmaceuticals executive, is living his dream of producing wines on the Leelanau Peninsula.

The Hamelins and their partner, Skip Telgard, owner of the Bluebird restaurant, a Leland institution, have created a family-focused business. The partners are confirmed foodies and wine lovers. As they traveled the world, their desire to produce world-class wine began and grew into a passion. That passion is reflected in Verterra wines.

All of the grapes used are from vineyards on the Peninsula. In the spring of 2007 the family planted 19 acres of former cherry orchards as part of their Matheson vineyard. This 41-acre parcel is the basis for most of the Verterra wines. Mostly white grapes are planted here, with a smattering of some red grapes; Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

The Swede vineyard is located on 30 acres with stunning views of Grand Traverse Bay, Northport Bay, Gull Island, and the North and South Fox Islands. Pinot Blanc, Vignoles, Gewurztraminer and Riesling grapes all are getting their start here. The Riesling and Gewurztraminer come straight from Alsace, France; yet another indication that the family is dedicated to growing only the best grapes suited for the "terra" they own.

Plans are on the drawing board for a state of the art winery and tasting room above the vineyards, offering a spectacular vista of the property below.

Paul Hamelin is a self-described foodie and wine aficionado. As he tells it, "The four primary reasons we started this business are as follows: We were looking for something new, different and fun to do; Northwest Michigan is a world-class location for grape-growing; our savings were just sitting in the bank, let's spend them in Leelanau County; and wine lovers have a growing thirst for quality wines from Michigan."

If you enjoy Michigan wine, you've probably quaffed a glass made by Shawn Walters. Walters works with Doug Matthies at French Road Cellars, a "winery" you've probably never heard of. The reason is because French Road Cellars is a custom crush winery. This type of winery makes wine for smaller start-up wineries until they're well established.

Paul, Geoff and Skip have wisely hired Shawn Walters to make their first wines, a smart move on their part. Walters consults for a number of artisanal Northwest Michigan wineries and has won many awards for his wines.

As suits a new venture, all the wines made at Verterra are available in limited quantities. Six whites and two reds, together with a couple of cherry wines and a hard cider are currently for sale. Let's take a quick look:

Chardonnay comes in two styles, unwooded and reserve. The unwooded is just that, fermented in stainless steel with nary a touch of oak. A textbook chardonnay, full of apple, pear and citrus aromas. The reserve is aged in French oak for several months, creating a rounder, fuller finish on the palate.

• Their Riesling is a classic, true to its roots in Alsace. Balanced, with firm acidity and a touch of sweetness, this under-appreciated grape pairs perfectly with spicy Asian cuisine.

• Love flowers? The Gewurztraminer is full of floral aromas. You can just ask for a Gewurtz (Ga vertz).

• The white Pinot "sisters," Blanc and Gris, are stellar versions of the grape varieties. Pinot Gris is also known by its Italian moniker, Pinot Grigio.

• Hand-harvested Pinot Noir grapes were aged in 100 percent new French oak barrels for seven months. Cherries, cherries and more cherries express the "terra" for this Michigan Pinot Noir.

• Three types of grapes are blended into the Reserve Red. Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Syrah meld to create a full-bodied wine made for ageing.

• Verterra also offers two cherry wines, a classic cherry wine and a dessert version fortified with brandy. The outstanding lineup ends with a hard cider. "Chaos" is produced from local apples for a refreshing kick of spritz.

An old saying asks: How do you make a small fortune in the wine business? The answer is, start with a large fortune!

If the current wines available are any indication, that cliche' certainly doesn't fit Verterra. They're well on their way to establishing themselves as one of the premier wineries in all of Michigan. Cheers!

Michael Schafer, Esq. Sommelier aka The Wine Counselor is a writer, educator and consultant whose trademark phrase, "I taste bad wine so you don't have to" embodies his humorous approach to wine.

Photos by Brian Confer.
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