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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!

Home 0, Away 1

There's nothing like a long time spent traveling to highlight the differences in the food, drink and landscape between "away" and "home". I'm back now from a three-week holiday including Germany, Switzerland and Ireland (that explains the recent rarity of wine postings). Many great meals were had, and beverages tasted. I have an observation about pairings, price, and a new mission. Observation:  Germany runs on Pork.

Swiss triads of pork tenderloin, brined, rolled in herbs and wrapped in bacon.

I can honestly say that the protein most readily available in stores and restaurants was pig. It was more locally sourced, more fairly priced, and available in a more diverse selection of preparations. To a slightly lesser extent, the same was true in Switzerland. The most prolific grapes in those countries, and the most abundant local wines are white varietals. There were some great pairings. While I can't say I've written off good reds with pork, I'm more likely to explore whites with sausages, pork loin, cutlets and hams. At a recent Rogue Estate Chefs' night, the French Vouvray I chose to match Jack's curry-rubbed pork loin was vindication of this approach.

Swiss juice: 2009 Petite Arvine Du Valais AOC Valisiana, a steal at about $10 US.

Price: Unfortunately, French wines are a bit expensive even in Germany and Switzerland, just as they are in the U.S. Remarkably, German and Swiss wines are VERY fairly priced in their country of origin. Many of these wines are not exported, or are overpriced by the time they reach the U.S. And I found that Australian, Chilean, Argentinian, and South African wines are aggressively priced and pursuing the global market with increasing quality. The best wines for the value on the restaurant menus I saw in Europe were all Southern hemisphere wines. I will call them "The Unders" for now. We will see a lot from them for a long while. I love most of "The Unders", including this year's hot favorite, Reserve Malbec. However, all of this made me think more about the wines of "Home". Yes, America's native wines are predominantly from California, with the rest of the West coast ramping up. But what about MY home? MY Michigan? - Where shipping costs must be a lesser factor in the final price... - Where the native grape varieties should pair better with local food traditions and ingredients... - Where every city and town should be celebrating the harvest and release of new wines with communal feasts and festivals... This leads me to my new personal mission, and hopefully to some knowledge I can share with the Rogue Estate and all of you. I am going to taste my way through Michigan, and periodically share my notes with you. My experience as I begin is that Michigan wines are overpriced by about 4-6 dollars per bottle in comparison to similar wines from California or "The Unders"--I suspect that this is largely a factor of scale. I intend to find where there are values, nice varietals and wine-craft worth pursuing further. My tastings and reviews will always be done without free samples. And I will call it like I see it (or, in this case, taste it).