Michigan wine

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Black and White and Red All Over

Michigan's seasons are changing.  As anyone who has spent a lot of time here knows, it's a relatively quick process, akin to a well-placed kick between the legs.  From daytime high's near 90F in September, we're expecting lows of 40F lately in southeast Michigan. And thus, a young* man's desires turn from pale golden to ruby and garnet.  In other words, it's red wine time.  What follows are brief tasting notes on a few Michigan reds, from the predictably sweet/dull to a few drier standouts. What my exploration into Michigan wines has taught me thus far is that Michigan growers and vintners are a beautifully mixed bag of brilliant, tired, old-school, creative hot-shot and huckster--but the work ethic shows through.  I say that because it can be difficult climate for grapes, especially red varietals.  But it IS workable.  The Loire region of France and the Willamette Valley in Oregon have proven it.  What's been missing is hotter summers, and plain old fashioned experience.  And Michigan is slowly gaining more of both. I still haven't found a wine able to go the Spinal Tap "1 more, up to 11", but we're getting closer. The Sacrificial Lamb

Unfortunately, truly old school.

Peninsula Cellars Old School Red NV Old Mission Peninsula.  At 10% Alcohol this should NOT be labeled a "DRY Red Table Wine" (about $15) This is an entry level wine from a another old Michigan farm that specialized in apples and cherries until diversifying into grapes in 1991.  Like other local wineries, their tasting room is a renovated 19th century schoolhouse, and that features in their marketing as well.  While I'm certain that they have better offerings, this bottle did not impress. Properly a semi-dry or sweeter, this is a tart cherry-flavored sweet red, which I have grown less and less fond of.  Very fruit-forward with little to no oak.   I just don't understand the sweet red wine that is so common in Michigan.  Disturbingly, I've seen more and more sweet reds marketed locally from other states, even California.  I think it's a fad for the lazy winemaker, tapping into a niche that many haven't served in decades, although I can't vouch for Peninsula Cellars' sales.  I'll be happy when tastes change--good riddance. 4/11, and that's being generous. Franc From Around the Way As I wrote earlier this year, I'm a fan of the acidic Cab Franc's from Chinon, in the Loire region of France.  Generally great with game birds, these cool climate grapes are doing very well in Michigan.  I managed to score a few examples to do a local version of the Franc VS Franc battle.  While they're not ready to challenge the better Cali and French versions, all of these are recommended, especially with locally harvested birds. The Baseline

Will the real Shady Lane please stand up?

Shady Lane Cellars 2007 Cabernet Franc Leelanau Peninsula 12.5% Alcohol (about $20) Like others purchased in the Summer heat, this one had a slightly wet cork and the quality was possibly (although not obviously) compromised due to oxidation. The color is a brilliant medium ruby fading to a light violet rim, with noticeably slow legs clinging to the glass. Initial aromas of bacon, heavy alcohol, rounded out with plums and a faint orange-rind citrus note. On the tongue the heat remained underneath tastes of cranberry, mild cocoa, and red apple skins.  A dark  medium-bodied wine with some vegetal notes.  Characteristically for Cab Franc this was big on the acid and tannin. Rating 6/11 but likely a 7 or 8 when allowed to open and paired with duck. The Challenger I was excited to find a Franc from the southwest side of the state, seeing as how the northern AVA's are getting more attention.  Fenn Valley got it's start in the early 70s and takes an admirably scientific approach to their vines, and also focuses on wines to compliment food.
Fenn Valley Sign.

37 years young.

Fenn Valley 2007 Cabernet Franc Fennville AVA, on Lake Michigan's shore; 12.5% Alcohol (about $19) Thankfully a good cork on this one.  Interesting difference in color, Fenn Valley's Franc is a light brick ruby through to the rim. Somewhat thinner in the glass than the Shady Lane, but with good slow legs. Aromas of leather, bright berries, red apple, and even sweet corn, making it a nice BBQ option. Tastes of tart cherries, cranberry, and bittersweet chocolate. This is a bright wine, medium bodied, with purer fruit than Shady Lane, still heavy acid and tannin. Rated 7/11 but definitely better with-slow smoked or braised turkey thighs. Vogue Ciccone Vinyard and Winery brings the Italian passion to Leelanau.  They plant a wide variety of grapes, and work hard to bring an old world style to the area.  I would love to see their production increase slowly and distribution improve quickly.  Oh, and they have a mega-celebrity daughter who graces some of the labels.

A material wine.

Ciccone Vinyard and Winery 2007 Cabernet Franc Leelanau Peninsula 12.1% Alcohol (about $15) Good to see a tight artificial cork.  This Franc was a light garnet/ruby in the glass with good viscosity.  A very characteristic chocolate-covered cherry aroma, coupled with oaken tobacco leaves--a wonderful expression of Autumn.  A faint touch of meat or leather and ripe olives followed. On the tongue there was mouth-watering acidity and solid tannins.  The base of the flavor was currants and cocoa with smoke.  This wine exhibits a great dry style, equal in every way to French Chinon's.  8/11.  A solid, competitive wine and my best find so far. The Oddball Outsider Another Fenn Valley offering, this was initially unfamiliar, but an interesting bold red worth tasting and trying again.  The Capriccio has won Best of Show at the Michigan State Fair, and is a customer favorite. Fenn Valley  Capriccio Dry Red Wine Lake MI Shore 12.5% Alcohol (about $14) Through the glass this presents a bright ruby red with slight pink rim, and looks young.  The nose is of lively cherries, rock salt, and some oak.  Rather hot as well. At first it is reminiscent of a Beaujolais, but slightly more substantial. There is cranberry tartness backed with black fruits (plums, and darker berries).  On the finish I tasted local blueberries and herbs. Rated  7/11 and again, just begging for roasted pheasant or duck. So, as the weather turns, and the Rogue Estate crew kicks up the food focus, I may move away from Pure Michigan wines, and explore the wider world.  But I'm far from done digging in my own backyard, and still plan a trip north before the leaves drop. *Any comments related to my age will be moderated into the void.

Fair to Midland.

So, the actual saying is "fair to middlin." This may have been a Scottish wool-rating term, but folks in Texas and Michigan have been misquoting it for years. Anyway, this roundup of Michigan wines covers some Michigan whites that are definitely worth seeking out, but do not go to 11 (on my Spinal Tap rating scale). Let's get to it!

Bel Lago Auxerrois

Bel Lago 2007 Auxerrois 13% Alcohol (About $13) Auxerrois is a crazy grape with a confusing heritage.  Related to Chardonnay, but similar to Pinot Blanc, and named similar to a Malbec in some countries, it presents a challenge to sell.  I'm happy Bel Lago decided not to slap a cutesy name on it like many other Michigan wineries do. Similar in character and style to an Alsatian Pinot Blanc. The color is an attractive pale green straw.  A thin body, with no immediately noticable legs. On the nose, crisp apple and lemon with light oak. There is an herbal aftertaste, with some minerality, similar to Alsatian styles.  Some toffee on the finish as it warms. Pleasant (I like Alsatian styles), but as a fellow taster mused: "This is like the guy in the next cubicle that you make simple talk with, but he's not really that interesting." Rating 6/11, but better as it opens up.

Left Foot Charley Pinot Blanc

Left Foot Charley Old Mission 2009 Pinot Blanc, 12% Alcohol 2009 was a tough, cold summer for Michigan growers, and on top of this challenge Left Foot Charley's Pinot Blanc is made from a single acre of grapes.  Very risky, and only a competent vintner paying attention could make it work. First, this has been one of the few Michigan wines I've sampled with a screw cap. I applaud the use because it means less spoilage, more convenience, and has nothing AT ALL to do with the taste of the wine. The color is a clear golden white in the glass and is fairly viscous, similar to Oregon styles.  Aromas of spiced bread, apples, honeydew and lemon are all evident. There is  tart acidity, similar to unripe nectarines, coupled with an oaky dryness. A medium body and a lingering Granny Smith apple on the finish.  Very much Michigan on the flavor profile. Overall pleasant, but I would love to taste this as a sparkling wine. Rating 6/11. I need to find the right pastry and cheese dish to match, possibly a spinach pie?

Chateau Grand Traverse Late Harvest Riesling

Chateau Grand Traverse 2008 Late Harvest Riesling. 10.5% Alcohol (about $15) One of the more popular Michigan varietals, and one that the winery is proud of. Color is a very light gold in glass, with characteristic viscosity, clinging to the edge heavily. I noticed an off aroma initially, heavy with yeasts and a faint bilious odor, but this quickly resolves to honey, lemon and apple aromas, even graham cracker crust for a nice apple pie! As you would expect, very full-bodied, with mouth watering acidity.  Neither bright nor light, but definitely a comfort wine, bordering on dessert. Rating 6/11.  Please take into account that sweet wines and Rieslings in particular are not my bag. The Michigan wine tour continues with a few more whites, some Cab Francs and other red blends (expect me to dis the sweeter reds, which I'm trying to steer clear of).  There may even be a Fall color tour in the works with a few special purchases to share. Incidentally, tonight I found a new source for Michigan wines locally.  Westborn Market has stepped up to provide a greater variety of Michigan products, including a few bottles I haven't seen in my neighborhood before.  Thanks, Westborn!

Michigan Wine: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

As promised, here are some tasting notes taken over the past couple weeks on some Michigan wines.  Looking back on my posts and comments, I realize that my own preferences for dry wines are likely to influence my ratings.  No apologies, but if you like residual sugar, increase the numbers slightly. A brief word on tasting notes:  there's no perfect rating system or format for notes, but I like to include
  • basic info about maker, varietal (or blend), vintage and price
  • appearance, including color and viscosity
  • initial aroma
  • weight and flavor perceptions
  • aftertaste, overall impressions, and food pairing thoughts
If you have never written down tasting notes on the wines you drink, please start!  This is probably the best way to gain a better understanding of your own preferences, and also get a solid understanding of value for price. I use an arbitrary 11 point system to honor Spinal Tap.  Let's go! The Good Peninsula Cellars is a 150-year-old farm that focused on apples and cherries until 20 years ago, when the growing wine trade drew them in.  They recently re-booted the wine operation in 2007.

Peninsula Cellars, Old Mission Peninsula AVA

Peninsula Cellars 2007 Pinot Grigio, 13% Alcohol (about $15) Sunlight white/gold in the glass, with heavy legs. Lemon, lime, honeysuckle on the nose, with notes of orange blossom.  A good example of the varietal, with a nice balance.  Unlike most Michigan Pinot Gris, this is a touch more Grigio than Gris.  Good news for fans of Italian styles. Medium Body, with flavors of nectarines, apricots, and a slight smoke on the finish. Rating 7 of 11 A solid Summer white at a competitive price. The Bad Established in 1968 along the Lake Michigan Shore AVA, Tabor Hill has a storied tradition, including Gerald Ford's stocking of the White House with their white wines.  To be fair, the only Tabor Hill wines available to me locally are their inexpensive table wines.  They do have better offerings, and I plan to try them. Tabor Hill Red Arrow Red NV, Cabernet Franc/Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot, 12% Alcohol (About $10)

Tabor Hill Red Arrow Red

A light ruby pink in the glass with nice legs. A light floral nose, just a bit tight, with lilies and violets characteristic of Cab Sauvignon Tart red cherries and cranberries on the tongue, and it seems to be lightly oaked, which may contribute to the tight aroma.  Rather unremarkable. There is a spicy but almost medicinal finish, not very pleasant.  Overall the wine seems young and unrefined. Rating 4 of 11. The Ugly I hate to do this, but there are very few occasions I have purchased a wine and disposed of it.  This was one of those occasions.

Lake Effect "Wines"

Lake Effect is a newer winery based out of Muskegon, MI.  The owner is a hobbyist fond of expanding the market for wines made of other fruits and berries.  I dove in with an open mind... Lake Effect Winery Aronia Blue Wine NV, Blueberry with Chokeberry, 10% Alcohol (about $15) A cloudy medium violet red in the glass, syrupy. Crude/homemade odors of beeswax and bile, with bad yeasts and rotted cherries. On the tongue some grape jelly, as well as rye bread. Heavy tannins, and a milky texture.  This wine was awful. I even tried to save it with toasted cheese, the miracle food for improving wine.  It still sucked. Rating 0 of 11. Lake Effect makes a "Black and Blue" composed of Blueberries and Black Currants, which was only marginally better, rating 1 of 11.  Both of them ended back in the lake via the drain. Next up?  Better wines from Fenn Valley, Bel Lago, and Left Foot Charley.  And maybe another Cabernet Franc taste-off.

The Mission Begins…

When I set out a couple weeks ago to start seriously exploring Michigan wines, I did so with a little experience, having sampled wines at eight or so Michigan tasting rooms, and purchased the occasional bottle. I have also had my hang-ups and preconceived notions.  Chief among them is that this state still crafts too many sweet wines for today's more experienced wine drinkers.  But there seems to be something in the air that's making my mission more relevant.

Clusters at Chateau Chantal.

Michigan is having a potentially great year for grapes. Knock on wood (or old vine rootstock), if the rains hold off for another month or so, it could be one of the best in recent memory.  While the Spring may have started slow, we've had a nice hot Summer, good for European vines, or so I understand.  Larger, riper quantities of fruit allow for higher-alcohol, drier wines, which are more to my taste.  I'm looking forward to seeing what Michigan vintners do with 2010. Despite a few rocky years economically in this state, fruit production is up, the number of wineries is up, sales are up, and the ratio of familiar European varietals is up (Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Malbec, Pinot Noir, etc.) One additional item that only serves to encourage me is an article picked up by the L.A. Times (AKA the wine drinker's favorite newspaper) last Wednesday: "Midwest tries to overcome reputation for low-quality wines. The region was labeled as a sweet wine producer long ago. Winemakers in Illinois and Michigan have ventured into dry and semidry varieties but struggle to win over outsiders." Link:  http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-midwest-wineries-20100817,0,537160,full.story The story focuses on Michigan primarily, and uses the fact that a Chicago restaurant now carries a Michigan wine on its menu as an inspiration (Domaine Berrien Cellars' 2008 Crown of Cabernet.) It's crucial to note that, while the reporter writes for the Chicago Tribune, the L.A. Times found this interesting enough to re-publish.  That speaks VOLUMES. I've had great fun with the few tastings I've done so far, and I plan to periodically share my notes and thoughts here.  I'll try to include the swell and the swill, the semi-dry and the semi-lousy, the good the bad and the ugly. But before we start, a brief education... Michigan, surrounded by the largest freshwater lake system in the world, rests on roughly the same range of latitudes as other prolific wine-growing regions. Think southern France, including Alsace. Think Piemonte in Italy's north.  Think Oregon, the U.S.'s fast-growing upstart. The latitude is great for many cold-season varietals, and the lake effect lengthens the season, allowing for the critical ripening period in September. It should be obvious from the parallels that white grapes probably rule.

Michigan's AVA's, click to enlarge.

There are almost 200 American Viticultural Areas in this country, regions with local climates suited to grape growing. Over half are in California, but there are four distinct areas in Michigan that are federally recognized AVA's. They are Fennville, Lake Michigan Shore, Leelanau Peninsula, and Old Mission Peninsula. Operations are generally centered around Battle Creek (Fenville and Lake Michigan) and Traverse City (Leelanau and Old Mission). Other wineries operate throughout the state, with relatively short shipping times for grapes from the AVAs. While they may not be the top selling wineries in Michigan, there are two that tend to be represented more in the local wine shops that I frequent in southeastern Michigan: Chateau Grand Traverse, and Black Star Farms. Both are accomplished winemakers operating out of the Old Mission and Leelanau AVA's. Black Star Farms has an expanding operation that includes local artisinal cheeses and a successful inn. I know little about CGT, but plan a trip in the near future. So finally, on to a couple of bottles of interest…

Chateau Grand Traverse Gamay Noir (click for data sheet)

Chateau Grand Traverse 2008 Gamay Noir (about $13 locally) 12.5% alcohol, fairly typical for reds in Michigan. Color: Midway between a light and medium red, slightly pink at the rim with nice legs down the glass. Nose: Chiles and peppercorns, opening to tart red apple and small berries Taste: Bright acid, a touch of bubble-gum familiar to Beaujolais drinkers, light caramel on finish, FUN. There are some serious tannins evident, making this a great barbecue match for burgers. Surprisingly, this was a great "second day wine" the unfinished bottle continued to open, with remnants of pepper, and great mouth watering acidity. Rated 8 of 11, already repurchased

Black Star Farms "Arcturos" 2007 Pinot Noir (click for 2008 notes)

Black Star Farms "Arcturos" 2007 Pinot Noir (about $24 locally) 13% alcohol. 50% Leelanau Co., 50% Grand Traverse Co. I have to disclaim my tasting with the fact that my bottle may have been oxidized slightly due to the hot weather, and poor storage on my part. Color: A very pale ruby, light with low legs. Nose: Bright cherry, but with candied figs, and very faint florals. Dry, almost dusty. This wine opens VERY slowly, and will likely benefit from cellaring in proper conditions. Taste: It comes on hot and tart, with medium body and an slight mocha flavor on the finish. Something's amiss, but I suspect that I drank it young and slightly oxidized. I believe it's worth putting another bottle away for a few years. Rated 7 of 11, will buy again More whites and smaller producers are already in the tasting notebook, including some dreck, and some award winners.  I plan to share those notes shortly. I'm learning a lot, so please feel free to ask me questions in the comments and I'll do my best to research and learn even more.  In the meantime seek out the closest vineyard to where you live, and buy a couple bottles. Drink local!