Chicago's Own Flying Winemakers

Mike and Austin in Douro

Mike and Austin in Douro

Mike and Jenn Kush (and now 1-year old Austin) are Chicago’s own flying winemakers with one of the coolest jobs I can imagine.  A flying winemaker is a winemaker who travels between the northern and southern hemispheres to take advantage of doing two harvests a year.  The beauty and curse of wine is that grapes are harvested only once a year thus making it a risky and “all-in” endeavor as well as providing limited learning opportunities for the winemaker.  However, by visiting both hemispheres in that region’s autumn (March-May for southern hemisphere and August-October for northern hemisphere), it’s possible to get two or more harvests in during one year.

Mike and Jenn have been traveling between Central Otago, New Zealand and Douro, Portugal for the past 8 years making wine in both regions while residing in Chicago between harvests.  They have traveled to 5 continents, 8 countries, and completed 27 harvests.  Their 2012 Pinot Noir is served at some of the best restaurants and wine merchants in New Zealand as well as several Michelin-starred restaurants in the United States.

Their company, aptly named Chasing Harvest, produces 500 cases of wine per year including Riesling and Pinot Noir from New Zealand and a white and red field blend from Douro, Portugal.  Their New Zealand wines come from the Cromwell Basin in the Mt. Pisa sub-region of Central Otago, New Zealand.  This is a cool climate area well protected by the Southern Alps to the west.  Their Portuguese wines come from Quinta da Costa which is in the upper Pinhão Valley of Portugal’s famous Douro region.

Pinot Noir grapees

Pinot Noir grapes

I tried the 2011 Chasing Harvest Central Otago Pinot Noir last year which tasted of red raspberry, earthy minerality, and dried herbs.  This was a complex, elegant, and rich mouth-filling wine with a sultry lingering finish made in a lighter style than some from this area.  Mike prefers to use traditional methods on Pinot Noir which include a lengthy maceration (leaving the grapes in contact with their skins) as well as punch-downs during fermentation (which is also the tradition in Burgundy). Punch-downs are a way of breaking up the steaming cap of skins, juice, and pulp which come roiling to the top during the heat of fermentation. Breaking up the cap allows a winemaker to extract more color, tannin, and depth from the grapes in order to make a more complex wine.

I also got to try the 2013 Douro DOC Vinho Branco (white field blend) as well as the 2010 and 2011 Douro DOC Vinho Tinto (red field blends) last fall and have been drinking them ever since.   The 2010 Douro DOC Vinho Tinto tasted of dried cranberry, dusty rose, and earthy minerality laced with sweet spice/black pepper. This wine was graceful and delicate yet robust at the same time with firm tannins. The 2011 Douro DOC Vinho Tinto tasted of dark black fruit with black pepper spice, red currant, and leather notes. This wine was highly complex with massive power and many years of aging ahead of it. chasinglabel3

Old vine Vinhas Velhas

Old vine Vinhas Velhas

Incidentally “field blends” (Vinhas Velhas) are historically common in the Douro and literally mean different grape varieties growing next to each other either plant by plant or row by row.  Consequently, vineyards can be full of surprises with unidentified vines and interesting planting patterns as well as (often) older vines which can produce wines of great complexity and depth as evident in Chasing Harvest’s Douro wines.

Mike and Jenn (and Austin!) returned recently from the 2016 harvest in Douro, Portugal having completed the New Zealand harvest in April (with their first-ever noble rot Riesling). They just released their New Zealand 2012 Pinot Noir and their 2014 Riesling (see the following descriptions from Chasing Harvest).  Their latest Douro wines will be released in the next several months.

Jenn and Austin

Jenn and Austin

2012 Chasing Harvest Pinot Noir                     $35
The 2012 Pinot Noir, our fourth from the region, continues our exploration to find a unique and balanced expression of Central Otago Pinot Noir. Only seven barrels this wine is a careful blend of two vineyards, one along the famed Felton Road in Bannockburn and the second from the most southerly sub-region of Alexandra. The resulting wine presents aromas of red currants, sweet dark cherry, crushed raspberries, along with subtle spice, rose petal, earthy, and mineral notes with an elegant texture and long finish. (175 cases produced)

2014 Chasing Harvest Riesling                         $24                             
This wine is sourced from a single vineyard in the Bannockburn sub-region.  It is fermented long and cool in neutral French oak barrels and features aromas of white peach, honeycomb, dried apricots, white flowers and mineral notes.  It has crisp acidity and a long finish. (43 cases produced, 20 cases imported)

Come and meet Chicago’s own flying winemakers for yourself as well as try their wines at the following tastings below – the first one is this Friday, November 18 at Independent Spirits from 5-7 pm. Both are perfect holiday wines that will pair seamlessly with a variety of foods.

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