Adam Satchwell: Cracking The Lychee Nut

This may come as a surprise to those of you who have seen me strip naked in a restaurant to attract the attention of a laggardly server or wear a ‘Kill White People’ hoodie to a Klan rally or hire the bouncer at The Boom Boom Room to eject Jared Leto so I can move in on his date, but I tend to be a shy person.

Clipboard vert maeAs such, in a strategy recognized by shrinks as ‘compensation theory’, I tend to fall in love with big blowsy broads—the kind with personalities that dominate whatever room they’re in, thus challenge my Biblically-ordained virility and dominance—man-eaters like Mae West or Katy Perry or Lizzie Borden.

Ditto goes for wine.  Those dames I mentioned are way out of my league anyway; for them, I don’t even represent sloppy twelfths.  So, when I need a wine escort and have to ‘pay for it’, I want one with some meat on her bones; one with an oily, perfumed, often overbearing attitude; a soul sweet enough to crumble your molars but muscular enough to pulverize your spine.  And that’s when I booty-call my old Fräulein, The She-Wolf of Strasbourg, The Ballbuster of Bergheim, the white-wine-made-from-red-grapes-because-red-wine-is-made-from-purple-grapes, her Grand Ducal Highness, Lady Gewürztraminer.

And no, she doesn’t put out on a first date.

Nobody In Michigan Knows This Better Than Adam Satchwell…

How about the fifth date, Adam?  Apparently, based on my snort of Adam Satchwell’s 2012 gewürztraminer, five’s the charm.

adamAdam, of course, is the dude who puts the shady in Shady Lanes, one of Leelanau’s old guard wine folks and top producers of cool-climate vininfera.  He came to chilly Grand Traverse wine country in 2000 and has played an integral role in developing the area’s reputation from a frosty peninsula to world-class wine country.

As the recent ‘City of Riesling’ weekend proved, Northern Michigan has earned a spotlight on the world’s stage as a producer of elegant, nuanced and age-worthy rieslings that can make waves among the oceans of wine produced at the grape’s ground zero, Germany.

It would stand to reason (at least in my mind) that we should be able to create equally compelling wine from the mutated Alsatian traminer love child.

Gewürztraminer biding it's time.

Gewürztraminer biding it’s time.

And yet, for the very reasons I overblew in the opening, gewürz is not everybody’s cup of porch pounder.  At its voluptuous prime, it makes a wine that is filled with aromas and flavors unlike any other; it shows big notes of sweet tangerine, oily, intense floral bouquets (which is why they are called ‘bouquets’)—roses, primarily—grapefruit, and above all, lychee nut, with which it shares a very distinct monoterpene called cis-rose oxide.

Which, to digress, is an interesting chemistry lesson for wine tasters.  Nearly all the scents you pull from a snifter and identify as pineapple or apple or peach—or lychee or rose—are, in fact, the very same chemicals that make those fruits smell and taste like they do.  Mother Nature doles out her cornucopia with a certain, delightful frugality.

jennifer-lopez-buttIn any case, gewürztraminer is to wine what Jennifer Lopez’s badonkadonk is to pulchritutidy; brobdingnagian, bountiful, beautiful—but not to every waif-cravin’ heroin-chic-lovin’ boy’s taste.  Plus, it is hard to pronounce.  As a result, there’s no ready market for it, and it has been an ongoing pet experiment among a few Northern Michigan winemakers, but one which had not, in my various samplings, yet climbed out of the test tube and come to life.

And then I tried Shady Lane Gewürztraminer, 2012, and on came the Super Arc klieg lights, center stage.  Superb; concentrated, with potent perfume showing sweet mandarin orange, pronounced rose petals, exotic tropical fruits and in the mouth, the pure and clean lycheeness of lychee—nothing else tastes like this.  I concluded that for whatever combination of reasons—clones, climate, cleverness and/or a cluster of clues finally clicking—this wine is living proof that the nut’s been cracked: Gewürztraminer has found a unique home among the peninsula and may ultimate muscle her way to a starring role.

“It was a long journey and several years,” Satchwell admits.  “There are a lot of inherent pitfalls with this grape.  Bitterness, high pH and especially, balance: With the multitude of unique aromatics and flavors inside gewürztraminer, there’s a danger of over expression of one component at the expense of another.”

Clone 1 and Clone 2

Clone 1 and Clone 2

Luck and wisdom served him from the outset, however, when he chose to plant the two (then) available clones of the cultivar—called, like those goofy little Cat In The Hat sidekicks, ‘One’ and ‘Two’.  “I planted in 2004, and the first harvest, in 2007, I vinified bone dry.  I liked it, and so did about two other people.  It was parental pride mostly—the wine was prey to all the dangers I was worried about; the phenolics were out of whack.  It showed promise, but needed work.”

2008 was not the year either; the fruit didn’t set, the crop was dismal and he wound up purchasing grapes from a neighboring vineyard.  In 2009 nature was a tad more cooperative and he finished the wine at about 1% residual sugar, allowing some of the subtle, sweet citrus and gingerbread flavors—showing vine maturity—to surface.

label2010 and 2011’s wine came across as excessively floral, however, with the rose-oil terpenes running a bit amuck (as you might expect of One and Two).  He spoke to growers in Alsace, re-thought his canopy management, and voilà—2012 produced a wine where every contrasting odorizers and flavonoids decided to settle down, take their seats and listen to the professor.  They only speak in turns, and then dutifully and only when called upon.

Is Adam Satchwell’s 2012 Shady Lane Gewürztraminer the equal of those from the Grand Crus of Domaine René Muré, Willm, Zind-Humbrecht or Pierre Frick?  Not hardly.  But these great estates have been breaking the sandstone and schist for hundreds of years through many generations.  Adam’s taking notes along with the class.

Clipboard joe“One thing I noticed in 2012—for the first time since planting—the berries from each of the two clones showed a remarkable difference: In Clone One, the classic rose notes dominated, while in Clone Two, it was the lychee flavors.  This can only be down to vine age.  In the early and mid-fermentation process, the must threw off new, odd scents of banana and the waxy wrappers from Bazooka Joe bubblegum, but these turned out to be ‘precursor’ scents and settled into a nice, rounded spice.”

The learning curve is remarkable, and although last winter was the most severe test of the appellation’s ability to recover from a really savage season, Satchwell’s vineyards—including the frost-susceptible gewürz—were down, but not for the count.  And neither were the winemakers.

Of course, I’d expect no less from Adam Satchwell—a persevering pioneer on this plucky, polar promontory.

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