2012 Late Harvest Riesling Head to Head: St. Julian vs Black Star Farms

St. Julian Lake Michigan Shore Reserve Late Harvest Riesling= SJ20170915_083849

Arcturos Old Mission Peninsula Late Harvest Riesling= Arc

Makers

SJ: St. Julian Winery, Paw Paw, Michigan, USA

Arc: Black Star Farms Old Mission, Traverse City, Michigan, USA

Places of origin

SJ: Burgoyne Ridge vineyard, Berrien County, Lake Michigan Shore AVA, Michigan, USA

Arc: Old Mission Peninsula, Traverse City, Michigan, USA.

VinSugar at Harvest (in brix)

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More information on the back of the SJ label

SJ: 21.1°

Arc: 22°

ABV

SJ: 12%

Arc: 9.5%

Price (current vintages)

SJ: $13 (website, though I have seen it for under $10)

Arc: $17.50 (website)

 

Appearance

SJ: Medium gold

Arc: Light gold, almost green.

Nose

SJ: Pear, orange juice

Arc: Kerosene (I was the only one who got this note), lemon thyme, peach.

Palate

SJ: Medium bodied but rich. Big pear. Like getting one stuffed up my nose, in a good way.

Arc: Fuller bodied but drier. Crisp apple, lime, candied lemon.

Finish

SJ: Sweet, almost sherry-like.

Arc: Cleaner. Bitter sage.

Tasting panel

Liz: Preferred SJ. Found it more complex and fruitier.

Amy: Preferred SJ. Arc is for summer sipping by the lake. SJ is also for sipping by the lake, but fall is coming soon!

Pete: Preferred Arc. Found SJ too harsh.

Parting words: Michigan is known for Riesling. It’s the most planted wine grape in the state. It’s grown both in the “Up North” wine regions and in West Michigan. Riesling wine is made in a broad array of styles from bone-dry Austrian Smaragd to syrupy Mosel Trockenbeerenauslese. Michigan Rieslings don’t (yet) span that entire spectrum, but they have the middle of it well-covered. On the sweet end are Late Harvest Rieslings like these. The ripeness of the grapes used to make these wines is in the neighborhood of the grapes that would go into a German Spätlese.

I have been wanting to do something like this for a while. LMS vs OMP, West Coast vs Up North. It seemed like the best way to do that was to do it with two wines from two big producers in each area. Black Star Farms is the Up North titan with a winery in both Leelanau and Old Mission and there’s nobody in LMS (or the state) bigger and older than St. Julian. Also both of these wines are commonly found at bigger grocery stores in my area, often at discounted prices.

We all thought both wines were very good, but I was a little surprised at how much almost everyone (including myself) preferred St. Julian. While I didn’t find it as complex as Arcturos, it was richer and more enjoyable. Although St. Julian had less sugar (at harvest and residual) than Arcturos it tasted much sweeter and fruitier. Although the folks at the winery described it as “a bright, clean wine designed to be consumed shortly after release” here, it has held up very well, and probably even become richer. Arcturos held up well too. Both are good values, but St. Julian has the edge there too especially considering it’s a single vineyard wine (albeit a very large vineyard). 2012 St. Julian Lake Michigan Shore Reserve Late Harvest Riesling and 2012 Arcturos Old Mission Peninsula Late Harvest Riesling are recommended.

 

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Entropy

Maker: Gitche Gumee Ciderworks, Hancock,  Houghton County, Michigan, USA20170909_154436

Style: Wild fermented feral apple cider. Finished in French oak barrels

Harvest: 2015

ABV: 6.9%

Price: $15 (only available in the western portion of the Upper Peninsula)

Note: Bottle provided for review by maker.

Appearance: Amber with persistant bubbles. Slightly cloudy.

Nose: Cut lumber, Raclette cheese, cut apple.

Palate: Dry, medium bodied. Tart apple, apple peel, French oak.

Finish: Chewy oak and apple tannins, touch of tartness.

Parting words: I had never heard of Gitche Gumee before founder Phillip Kelm contacted me in August. There’s a reason for that outside my own obliviousness, though. Entropy is their first release. Phillip is currently planning two more releases, Dancing Fatman which he describes as “a more approachable table cider” and Carmelita which will be a thimbleberry-infused cider. Thimbleberry is a wild raspberry native to Western North America and the upper Great Lakes region. It’s beloved in Upper Michigan, especially in the Keweenaw Peninsula where Hancock Michigan is located.

Phillip’s day job is as a brewery builder. In an email to me he wrote, “History of the venture is somewhat involved.  I have worked in breweries for many years.  But my first love was always apples and cider.  Happy to be working with apples and cider now.  I’ve also opened South Korea’s first cidery, made Palau’s first cider, and am working now to finish India’s only cidery.  There’s lots to those stories, but I’ve only so much time to write!”  For more on Phillips’s career, look here.

Phillip was aiming for a French-style cider with Entropy and I think he hit the bullseye. It’s actually better than many Norman or Breton ciders I’ve had. The funk and tannin (augmented by French oak in this case) take the lead, but the are assisted by a supporting cast of acid, fruit and sweetness (in that order). The result is a great cider. Sorry to do this to you, dear readers, but this hard to find American cider is highly recommended.

 

 

Cooper’s Craft

Maker: Brown-Forman, Louisville, Kentucky, USA20170825_202011

Style: Standard recipe bourbon filtered through beech and birch charcoal and aged in pre-toasted, charred barrels .

Age: NAS (4-6 y/o?)

Proof: 86 (43% ABV)

Price: $24 (The Party Source)

Appearance: Medium copper.

Nose: Lumber yard, caramel corn, fennel, nutmeg.

Palate: Full bodied and mellow. Grape soda, tootsie roll, bubble gum.

Finish: Creme brulee, dark chocolate. Similar to a Speyside Single Malt.

Mixed: I tried it in all my usual whiskey cocktails: Manhattan, perfect Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Holdfast boulevardier, with Coke, with ginger ale, and with Benedictine. It excelled in every one of them, hampered only by low proof in the boulevardier.

Parting words: This bourbon from Brown-Forman, with its recipe somewhere between high(ish) rye Old Forester and high corn Early Times, is intended as a tribute to the Brown-Forman cooperage in Louisville, Kentucky. B-F is the only Kentucky bourbon distiller with its own cooperage, a rightful point of pride for them. Cooper’s Craft puts that wood to work (I’m pretty sure that’s a Lil Kim lyric).

The pretoasted barrels and unique filtration process bring out sweet, chocolate flavors rarely found in bourbons, macrodistilled ones anyway. At 86 proof, it’s not a world beater, but honestly “some different flavors” is more than one expects for $24 these days. Cooper’s Craft is recommended.

 

 

 

 

Burgdorf’s Pinot Noir 2011

Maker: Burgdorf’s Winery, Haslett, Michigan, USA20170913_160442

Grape: Pinot Noir (100%?)

Place of origin: Lake Michigan Shore AVA, Michigan, USA

Vintage: 2011

ABV 11.5%

Price: $26 (Michigan by the Bottle Auburn Hills Sipper Club)

Appearance: Dark red, like cherry juice.

Nose: Cherry jam, touch of French oak, cedar.

Palate: Medium bodied, acidic with a little fruit and spice. Cherry juice, blueberry, black pepper.

Finish: Overdone blueberry pie.

Parting words: Burgdorf’s Winery is located in Haslett, Michigan, near Lansing. They’re known for their quality fruit wines and blends but they produce good varietals as well, most of which are not estate grown. This is one of their best. 2011 was an excellent vintage in Michigan overall, though some winemakers struggled with reds. No struggle here. I usually prefer softer Pinot Noir but the spice and oak here make it very food friendly. We had it with pizza margarita and BBQ chicken and it held its own with both. It tastes like its coming to the end of its life, though, so if you find this vintage, open and drink promptly!

2011 Burgdorf’s Pinot Noir is recommended.

Vander Mill Hard Apple

Maker: Vander Mill, Spring Lake, Michigan, USA20170818_200057

Style: Semi-dry apple cider with sugar added.

ABV: 6.9%

Purchased for $11/4 pint cans (Holiday Market)

Appearance: Pale gold. Medium but steady bubbles.

Nose: Light. Cut apple, bubbles.

Palate: Mineral water, non-fermented apple cider, lemon juice. No tannin to speak of.

Finish: Tart apples, drying to mineals.

Parting words: Vander Mill is one of Michigan’s best known cider-producers. They’ve benefited greatly from the uptake in the popularity of cider in the past few years. Their production has been increasing and they have recently opened a tap room in Grand Rapids in addition to their original one in Spring Lake near Grand Haven in West Michigan.

Vander Mill’s strength is in their flavored ciders, many of which I’ve already reviewed. Hard apple is the base for all of those. It’s a refreshing, easy-drinking cider but there’s nothing remarkable about it. It’s also useful from a tasting perspective as a way to better understand Vander Mill’s fruited and spiced ciders. This cider should have more going for it than that at $11 for 64 ounces. Vander Mill’s Hard Apple is mildly recommended.

Powers John’s Lane Release

Maker: Irish Distillers, Dublin, Ireland (Pernod Ricard)20170818_195107

Distillery: New Midleton, Midleton, County Cork, Ireland (Pernod Ricard)

Style: Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey

Cooperage: Bourbon with a little Oloroso sherry

Age: 12 y/o

ABV 46%

Michigan State Minimum: $70

Appearance: Burnt orange.

Nose: Oak, leather.

Palate: Full bodied and sweet. Toffee, overaged bourbon, maybe a tiny bit of plum.

Finish: New oak, burn.

Parting words: Powers John’s Lane release was created as a tribute to the old John’s Lane Distillery in Dublin where Powers was originally distilled. It has received many accolades over the years, including a whiskey of the year designation from pennenial internet punching bag Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible.

After writing up my notes, I consulted a couple other blogs (My Annoying Opinions and Diving for Pearls) to make sure I wasn’t completely off base. I wasn’t. I love Powers (though maybe not as much as Mr. Kravitz) but I don’t love this whiskey. It’s unbalanced with an overbearing raw oak note similar to the small barrel flavors in Tuthilltown’s dreck. Aside from a hit of toffee in the front of the palate that’s all I can really taste and it’s bad. I don’t know what the hell happened here but $70 is $65 too much. Powers John’s Lane is not reccomended.

 

 

 

Moletto Gin

Maker: Moletto Società Agricola, Motta di Livenza, Triviso, Veneto, Italy20170808_174534

Style: Dry gin with tomato.

ABV: 43%

Michigan State Minimum: $40

Appearance: Clear.

Nose: Alcohol, ripe cut tomatoes, lime zest, juniper.

Palate: Full bodied and sweet. Lemon, tomato.

Finish: Limeade, tomato juice, juniper.

Parting words: Moletto is a producer of wine and grappa (among other things) in Veneto, in Northeast Italy. I’m not sure when or why they decided to produce this gin, but it is one of the weirdest ones I’ve ever tasted.

I bought it on a whim, looking for something different from the American micro-gins I had been drinking. It’s different all right. Once I realized it was made with tomato I was eager to try it in just about every cocktail I could think of. How would it possibly work in traditional gin cocktails? The tomato would surely clash. Arguably the weirdest thing about this gin is how little it clashed at all. It didn’t do well with tonic or orange juice but it did well with everything else I could think of. Tomato is a natural fit with lemon and the sort of things that go into vermouth, so those cocktails were a good fit. The tomato added a counterpoint of sweetness and acidity to bitter cocktails too. I didn’t try it in a bloody mary. Too obvious.

While it’s never going to be a go-to, I really enjoyed this gin with one caveat: my wife didn’t like it. She’s mostly a G & T drinker, though, so that may have been the reason. The price is high, but it’s unique as far as I know, so that makes it worth a little more to me. Moletto Gin is recommended.

 

Minor Case Rye

Maker: Limestone Branch, Lebanon, Kentucky, USA

Distiller: MGP, Lawrenceburg, Indiana, USA20170811_180024

Style: Low rye rye whiskey finished in sherry casks.

Age: 2 y/o

Proof: 90 (45% ABV)

Michigan state minimum: $50

Thanks to Eric for the sample!

Appearance: Medium copper.

Nose: Alcohol, black tea, cayenne, cut grass.

Palate: Ghost pepper, caramel, sugared dates.

Finish: Peppermint, serrano chili.

Parting words: There are a lot of micro-distilled products around with weird names. Minor Case Rye get its weird name honestly, though. Minor Case Beam was a Kentucky distiller active in the early twentieth century and first cousin to Jim Beam of Jim Beam fame. M.C. Beam as he was better known was partner and later sole owner of the T. J. Pottinger distillery in Gethsemane Station, Kentucky, near the famous Trappist monastery that was once home to writer and theologian Thomas Merton. M.C.’s son Guy was grandfather to Stephen and Paul Beam, the owners of Limestone Branch.

I try not to read a lot of reviews of products I’m planning on reviewing in the near future so I did my best to stay away from the gobs of reviews of Minor Case Rye that have come out recently. I tasted it semi-blind, not knowing the age, proof, or that it was finished although I suspect I knew that at one point. When I (re)learned that it was sherry-finished, I was surprised. I thought it had an interesting array of aromas, some of which are outside the usual stable of rye whiskey descriptors. The sherry influence didn’t come through at first. Nothing in the way of raisins or rancio flavors , only a rounded fruitiness providing structure for chilies and herbs. Once I knew to look for it, I found it, but I would not have guessed it.

I was also surprised by its age, two years old. This explains the capsacin flavors, but again, I would not have guessed that it was that young. The sherry finish is used deftly to mask the harsh flavors of young whiskey while still more or less incognito. That’s an impressive feat. I can say without reservation that Minor Case Rye is the best two year old rye whiskey I’ve had, finished or not.

The $50 price tag is what really gives me pause. My inner cheapskate strongly resists paying that much for a whiskey so young, but I gotta say it tastes like a $50 whiskey. That said, I do hope it gets older. Minor Case Rye is recommended.

 

Bel Lago Moreno Reserve Pinot Noir, 2012

Maker: Bel Lago, Cedar, Michigan, USA20170710_192817

Grape: Pinot Noir (Dijon clones)

Place of origin: Moreno Vineyard, Bel Lago Eastate, Leelanau Peninsula AVA, Michigan, USA.

Notes: 30 months in oak.

ABV: 14.6%

Purchased for $45 (Michigan by the Bottle wine club)

Appearance: Translucent ruby.

Nose: Cherry wine, clove, pepper melange, oak, pinch of wet earth.

Palate: Juicy on entry. Medium bodied. Cherry, red currant, blueberry, pink peppercorn, strawberry.

Finish: Juicy with growing oak.

Parting words: Bel Lago winery lives up to its name, Italian for “beautiful lake”, with one of the most beautiful views on the Leelanau Peninsula. It overlooks Lake Leelanau, which is named after the peninsula & county which was itself named by Indian agent and ethnographer Henry Schoolcraft in honor of his wife Jane Johnston Schoolcraft who wrote under the name Leelinau, a neologism created by her or Henry. Henry used the name for Native American women in some of the stories he wrote. Henry created several other pseudo-indigenous place names in Michigan, including Lenawee, Alpena, Kalkaska and Oscoda, combining native words with Latin or Arabic elements.

Pinot Noir was one of the varieties hardest hit during the disasterous 2014 and 2015 Polar Vortex vintages. I recently spoke to a Northern Michigan winemaker who told me that he was burnt out on the grape. This winemaker said that Pinot Noir is not worth growing in Michigan because it’s a pain in the ass to grow and it’s rarely any good (my paraphrase).

Bel Lago’s Moreno Vineyard Pinot Noir is a brilliant counterpoint to that view. Oak and spice provide the right amount of contrast to highlight the fruit that drives this wine. This wine is an excellent example of how good Pinot can be in Northern Michigan, at least in a long, hot year like 2012. $45 puts it at the top end of Michigan reds, but I think it’s worth the money. It’s as good as Pinto gets in Michigan. Bel Lago Moreno Reserve Pinot Noir 2012 is highly recommended.

 

A Visit to WaterFire Vineyards

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A panoramic photo from the WaterFire parking lot. Tasting room/winery on left, vineyards and apple trees center and right.

I first met Chantal Lefebvre at the 2015 Michigan Wine Showcase. Since it’s the only Michigan wine industry event I get invited to, I try to make the most of it when I’m there. I seek out new wineries or at least ones I haven’t heard of to try. WaterFire was located near the center of the room with the food, so I strolled on over. The table wasn’t crowded so I was able to strike up a conversation with Chantal who was there pouring herself. Chantal is an introvert but not shy, if that makes any sense. As soon as I started asking her questions about the vineyards her passion for sustainable viticulture and winemaking poured out.

Like Mari Vineyards, WaterFire is a relatively new winery but, aside from both having great winemakers making great wine, the two operations couldn’t be more different. There’s no big money behind WaterFire, just Chantal’s (and husband Mike Newman’s) dream and skill. The property was purchased in 2008, planted in 2009 and the first vintage was 2012. The tasting room opened memorial day weekend of 2017, just a few weeks before we visited! They looked for property on Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas but land was too expensive. They eventually found a cherry orachard in Antrim county that was promising and purchased it. It’s located between Torch Lake (WaterFire? get it?) and the East Arm of Grand Traverse Bay, opposite Old Mission Peninsula, north of Elk Rapids. Chantal has heard rumors of other properties being purchased for in the county but has no idea who or where they are.

Before starting her own winery, Chantal worked at many wineries across Michigan, including Left Foot Charley and Bower’s Harbor. WaterFire only has one other employee, also a woman. This makes it the only winery in Michigan with a 100% female workforce! She informed me that the dogs are male, however.

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The winery/tasting room building with dogs greeting us.

In the tasting room they currently offer five selections for tasting, including one wine they don’t make themselves, a Williamette Valley Pinot Noir (for any “I don’t like white wine” types that may straggle in). The estate wines are Rieslings from 2013 and 2014 respectively, a 2012 Grüner Veltliner and a Sauvignon Blanc from 2013. As you may have noticed, WaterFire only produces white wines. Why? White wine grapes do best at this site and in Northern Michigan in general. Why waste time with a fussy grape when you’re just starting out?

Waterfire also produces a hard cider, made from feral apple trees of on the estate and accross the road. The cider is very well balanced with some chewy tannins. It’s only available out of the tap at the tasting room, so bring a growler if you want to take some home.

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Chantal in the tasting room. Photo courtesy of WaterFire Vineyards.

As I alluded to earlier, Chantal’s passion is growing grapes and doing so in a sustainable way. WaterFire has two Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP) certifications, for cropping and farmstead practices. Chantal uses no herbicides and only one pesticide, a natural, fermented product to control beetles. She has considered getting an organic certification for WaterFire, but the pesticide does not qualify as an organic. Chantal thinks the organic certification process is a pain and could stand to be simplified.

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Two rows of Sauvignon Blanc in the front with Riesling behind. Yes, they’re weedy, but Chantal doesn’t care. “Plants have many kinds of relationships, why focus only on competition?”
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Baby Sauv Blanc.
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Chantal and her grapes (Sauv Blanc?). Photo courtesy of WaterFire Vineyards.
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The back block planted with Sauvignon Blanc. Feral apple trees in the midground. 

Chantal’s immediate plans are to put in another vineyard block in front of the tasting room, probably with a (not fussy) red variety, possibly “something Austrian”. Lemberger is grown in Michigan and would be the obvious choice, but Zweigelt is grown widely in Ontario and might also be a possibility. If she asked me, I would suggest Gamay. It’s not Austrian, of course, but it is a grape that does very well in Northern Michigan but is not grown nearly enough.

Something I would also like to see is an East Grand Traverse Bay AVA (or something like that) in that area, if more vineyards do go in. If WaterFire’s vineyards are typical of the terroir there, it’s deserving of AVA status.

20170707_153135
Future home of the next block of vines, possibly red wine grapes.

We didn’t take a look around the winery itself because we were short on time, but we had a lovely visit and conversation with Chantal. I love her wine and I love her committment to growing grapes in a sustainable way. We’re grateful that she was able to spend time talking to us for my little dog and pony show. The next time you’re in the area, stop into WaterFire and try some of the best white wines in Michigan. Then take home a few. Look for reviews of the wines we brought home over the next few weeks.

For more on the beginnings of WaterFire, check out this interview with Chantal and Mike from 2013 by Michigan By The Bottle.