Peninsula Cellars Chardonnay, 2013

20161018_183510.jpgMaker: Peninsula Cellars, Traverse City, Michigan, USA

Place of origin: Manigold, Old Growth vineyards, Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Traverse City, Michigan, USA

Vintage: 2013

ABV: 11%

Purchased for $17 (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room)

Appearance: Very pale gold with tiny stationary bubbles.

Nose: Peach, limestone dust, touch of oak.

Palate: No apparent effervescence. Medium bodied. Juicy on entry, then dries out. Bartlett pear, mineral water.

Finish: Drying continues. Oak then limestone dust.

Parting words: You’ll notice that the word “oak” appears a lot in this review. This struck me as odd, because when I when back to the MBTBTRRO tasting menu I have describing this wine, it said it was stainless steel fermented. This would tend to rule out oak, unless something unusual went on like adding oak chunks to the stainless steel fermentation vessel. Normally in such circumstances I would tgo back and retaste to figure out what’s going on, but this bottle is long gone. Due to illness and baby care, I have a backlog of tasting notes, and this is one of them.

All that to say that I don’t know what exactly I was tasting, but it was a little chewy and bitter. Whatever it was added a nice counterpoint to the fruit and minerality of this wine. Peninsula Cellars is one of OMP’s best wineries, a perfect match for the grapes of Manigold, one of OMP’s best vineyards. Delivers for the price, too. Not a lot of this vintage still around but other vintages are bound to be just as good. 2013 Peninsula Cellars Chardonnay is recommended.

 

Domaine Berrien Syrah, 2011

Maker: Domaine Berrien, Berrien Springs, Michigan, USA20161112_192737.jpg

Place of origin: Domaine Berrien estate, Lake Michigan Shore AVA, Michigan, USA

ABV:

Price: Forgotten (around $20)

Appearance: Dark ruby.

Nose: Black currant jelly, oak, clove.

Palate: Medium bodied, juicy, tart cherry, then moving to bitter oak.

Finish: Chewy and drying but with a squirt of blackberry juice.

Parting words: Syrah/Shiraz is a grape most closely associated with the Northern Rhone Valley and Australia. Southwest Michigan’s climate is closer to the Northern Rhone’s but the temperature is more extreme on the top and bottom ends, like that of the rest of the northeastern of the US. Domaine Berrien’s Syrah is in the cool climate category, but the high end temps push it toward the fruitier warm climate style.

This is one of the wines that I brought over from old Sipology HQ’s “cellar” in the corner of the laundry room to my current cellar. I’m glad I let it sit as long as I did, because it’s blossomed into a wonderful wine (although it had a good head start). It’s fruity but spicy and structured and goes well with food (like turkey) but just as good without. Syrah isn’t one of Michigan’s marquee grapes, but DB does a wonderful job with it. This is a wine worth seeking out. 2011 Domaine Berrien Syrah is recommended.

 

Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye

Updated 11/19 to include tasting notes! Sorry!

Maker: Crown Royal, Gimli, Manitoba, Canada (Diageo)20161118_190337.jpg

Style: Blended Canadian Rye

Age: NAS

ABV: 45%

Michigan state minimum: $32

Appearance: Medium copper

Nose: Bubblegum, spearmint, alcohol, dried wildflowers

Palate: Full bodied. Grape jelly, maple sugar, cut hay.

Finish: Grape soda, oak, butterscotch.

Parting words: Whisky writer Jim Murray proclaimed Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye his 2015 Whisky of the Year, to much internet snickering and mockery. His announcements are usually met with snark, but in 2015 it seemed to be stronger than usual. Many online whisky heads found it laughable that Murray chose a $30 or so Canadian Whisky from Crown Royal for his big award. The whisky itself got lost in the shuffle.

That whisky is good. It’s not a world beater, but at $32 it doesn’t need to be. It’s unlike Alberta Premium (or its kin). It tastes like something between that and an Kentucky style rye. Sweet, with a little spice and a little herbal aroma on the back.As I said in my last review the days of good rye for cheap is over, largely. Stuff like this is as good as it’s going to get in the near future. Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye is recommended.

Woodford Reserve Rye

Maker: Woodford Reserve, Versailles, Kentucky, USA (Brown-Forman)20161112_174733.jpg

Style: Straight Kentucky style Rye Whiskey (low rye)

Age: NAS

ABV: 90.4 (45.2% ABV)

Michigan state minimum: $38

Appearance: Dark orange with evenly spaced legs.

Nose: Burnt caramel, cedar, burnt orange.

Palate: Full bodied and sweet. Maple sugar candy, chocolate orange, burn.

Finish: Hot and chocolaty. Goes strong for a long time.

Mixed: Does very well

Parting words: This is the third rye Woodford Reserve has released, but the first wide release. The first two were the Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Rye whiskeys, both entirely distilled and aged at the beautiful Woodford campus (aka Labrot & Graham) in Versailles, south of Frankfort. They were released in a set of two 375 ml bottles in a decorative box. One was aged in used barrels, another in a new charred barrel. I liked them both, but I’m in the minority. I reviewed it here on the shores of Walloon Lake in Northern Michigan, with the help of friends-of-the-blog (and sisters) Amy and Jennifer. This whiskey’s other kin is Rittenhouse Rye, owned by Heaven Hill but contract distilled for them by Brown-Forman at their big Louisville distillery after the devastating 1996 Heaven Hill fire. Rittenhouse is now distilled by Heaven Hill.

Like the standard Woodford, this is a combination of Louisville and Versailles distillate. It has some characteristics of both, but I don’t want to read too much into that, since it may be a different recipe(s) from Rittenhouse and the WRMC. It has the caramel and orange of Rittenhouse but also the light spice of the WRMC ryes. Before rye became popular, probably would have dragged this whiskey for being too expensive and boring. In those days one could get beautiful, aged ryes like Rittenhouse or Sazerac for well under $30, but not anymore. Cheap ryes now taste like cheap ryes. Woodford Rye is not exactly thrilling, but it is a good example of the style and it lacks any obvious flaws. In its price range, I would rate Knob Creek Rye (at 100 proof) higher, but this bottle is still a recommendation.

 

Cave Spring Riesling, 2013

20161004_191113.jpgMaker: Cave Spring Cellars, Jordan, Ontario, Canada.

Place of origin: Niagara Peninsula VQA, Ontario, Canada (approx. 75% from estate & family vineyards)

Vintage: 2013

ABV: 11%

Price: C$16/$12 USD (LCBO)

Appearance: Pale gold.

Nose: Mild. Lemon, orange zest.

Palate: Medium bodied, semi-dry. Lemon/lime soda, limestone, thyme.

Finish: Light. Underripe pear.

Parting words: I got this bottle a few months ago when I made a run to the border to pick up some Canadian whisky and wine. The whisky selection was as expected, but the selection of Canadian wine was very disappointing. Luckily they had a few bottles from some better known producers like Jackson Triggs and Cave Spring so I grabbed some of those.

I was first turned on to Cave Spring after tasting their Dry Riesling at the City of Riesling event in Traverse City in the summer of 2015. The geology of the Niagara region is special and it shows in this bright and refreshing, but not dull, Riesling. It’s well worth the price. I look forward to exploring more from them in the near future! I hope they ship to Michigan or maybe I can convince my wife to take a Niagara getaway next summer.

 

Just the Tip

screenshot_20161103-104818.jpg
Walloon Lake Winery

Lots of interesting things are going on in the Michigan wine scene right now. The latest big news is that as of 2017 Michigan will have a new AVA.

What’s an AVA, you ask? AVA stands for American Viticultural Area. The program was begun in the early 1980s as an answer to the French AOC appellation system and other European systems. The first AVAs were awarded in 1982, and they continued to roll in at a good clip through 1991. There are 238 total, with 138 (58%) of them in California. In addition to AVAs, a number of counties and all fifty states are allowed to put their names on a bottle as a legally defined place of origin. At least 85% of the grapes going into the wine have to be from the place in question. If the wine is bottled as a varietal (Old Mission Peninsula Riesling, for example), at least 75% of the grapes of that variety must come from the place on the bottle. Currently Michigan has four AVAs. By way of comparison, New York has nine and Virginia has seven. Indiana has one entirely to itself and shares another with Ohio and Kentucky. In Michigan, Leelanau Peninsula and Fennville were established in 1982, Lake Michigan Shore in 1983 and Old Mission Peninsula in 1987. The fifth, dubbed “Tip of the Mitt” will become official in 2017.

So this is a good thing, right? It’s certainly getting a lot of publicity, relatively speaking. Unfortunately, not all publicity is good publicity. I believe that the Tip of the Mitt AVA is unnecessary and may even end up hurting the reputation of Michigan wine overall. It’s too large to be meaningful and its inability to produce vinifera does not warrant the spotlight of AVA recognition. Recognition for a marginal (at best) area occupied by marginal winemakers drags down the reputation of Michigan wine as a whole.

AVAs don’t just fall from the sky, they’re the result of a long process that starts with a 20161103_112649.jpgpetition from winemakers in that particular area. In this case the Straits Area Grape Growers Association (SAGGA) petitioned the federal government for this designation. SAGGA is made up of wineries in the area included in Tip of the Mitt. All those wineries are also members of Michigan’s newest wine Trail, Bay View, named for the Chautauqua resort community near Petoskey, Michigan. Ironically, the Bay View community does not allow the consumption of alcohol in public spaces within its borders.

Granting an AVA to an area is a federal recognition of a geologically distinct region where wine grapes are grown. It gives the marketing advantage of having a name on the bottle that consumers can recognize and seek out. It comes with the added bonus of being able to use the “estate bottled” (the American equivalent of the French mise en bouteille au chateau) designation on the label if all the grapes that went into the wine were grown in vineyards owned by the winery.

All this is supposed to give a marketing advantage to wines produced within an AVA, but the marketing for TotM has been confused from the outset. The wine trail is Bay View, the AVA is Tip of the Mitt and the trade association is Straights Area. Three completely different names are being used for the same region. The name of the wine trail itself is confusing since its wineries are not only in Bay View but stretch across the region. Tip of the Mitt sounds silly and is only readily understood by Michiganders who are used to referring to the lower peninsula as “the mitten” because of its mitten-like shape. Michigan Straights or Mackinac Straits might have been a better name. In the short term, changing the name of the trail and the growers association might be a good fix, but that’s not the only problem TotM has.

Tip of the Mitt is huge, the largest AVA in the state by far. It stretches from Charlevoix to Alpena and north to Cheboygan, encompassing six counties and over 2,700 square miles. It is a little larger than the state of Delaware. Lake Michigan Shore is about 2,000 square miles, Leelanau is around 117, and Old Mission about 30. Fennville (which is entirely inside LMS) is tiny, but I can’t get a good number for its actual area. Online sources say 117 square miles, same as Leelanau, but that can’t be right. At any rate, there are many larger AVAs around the country, but they are either umbrella AVAs with many smaller ones within them (e.g. Central Coast in California or Finger Lakes in New York) or they are like the 6,000 square mile Mississippi Delta AVA which barely produces wine except a little from the Muscadine grapes, a pungent native species.

Like other far north areas (the 30,000 square mile Upper Mississippi Valley AVA for example) Tip of the Mitt is too cold to grow anything other than hybrid grape vines. Not even relatively cold hardy varieties like Riesling or Chardonnay will grow. As Cortney Casey writes in her excellent article on TotM in Hour Detroit Magazine:

In fact, the AVA is too cold to grow traditional vinifera grape varieties like cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and riesling, [Harvest Thyme Farm & Vineyards’ Brendan] Prewitt says. Instead, the area’s growers depend heavily on newer hybrid varieties like Marquette, La Crescent and frontenac gris “that can provide a full crop … in spite of low winter temperatures and short, cool growing seasons,” he says. “We want the Tip of the Mitt to convey the mastery of growing grapes in a challenging climate and the production of top-quality wines from these relatively new grape varieties.

Note how Prewitt avoids the H-word: “hybrid” and instead calls them “new grape varieties”. This is probably because hybrids have a bad reputation among wine enthusiasts.

20161103_112026.jpgHybrids are crosses between two different species of grape, usually the European one (vitis vinifera or vinifera for short) and a North American species. The best known varieties of wine like Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot et al are all different varieties of the vinifera species. Think of the differences between breeds of dogs. They’re all the same species, but they can vary a lot from each other.

Hybrid grapevines are grown because they are generally more disease resistant and are more reliable producers in marginal climates than vinifera. The tradeoff is that they usually don’t taste as good. I’m not anti-hybrid. I’ve had good wines made from hybrid grapes. Some, like Chardonel and Traminette, work well bottled as a varietal but I think most are best used in blends or special applications like sparkling or ice wines. The hybrid grapevines used in northern climates are mostly ones developed by the University of Minnesota like La Crescent, Marquette and Frontenac.

I’m all for bringing hybrids to respectability and using them for “the production of top quality wines” but that’s a long journey, one that none of the TotM producers seem to be taking at the moment. None of the wines from SAGGA members that I’ve tasted have conveyed a “mastery of growing grape in a challenging climate”. Many of them were made with grapes grown elsewhere, even the ones made with hybrid grapes. At best they’ve been boring wines. In fact, two of the worst wines I’ve ever had were from producers in TotM. One was an unintentionally sparkling Merlot that also tasted bad and another was a red hybrid blend of some sort that smelled like store brand bacon. Highlighting these wineries by giving them an AVA, at least as they are now, isn’t exactly putting Michigan’s best foot forward. A Michigan wine newcomer could get a poor impression of Michigan wines after drinking something from Tip of the Mitt.

There’s room in the Michigan wine world for table wines. I don’t object to unambitious, or unbalanced wines for weeknight dinner or porch sipping. If the AVA designation is to be meaningful it should denote a certain level of quality, though. Contrast TotM with the situation of winemakers in Southeast Michigan. Many of them are making very good wine, especially reds, but all they can do is put “Michigan” on their labels, with no AVA or estate grown designation. The value of an AVA is undermined when a marginal area receives one but an area producing high quality wine grapes has to soldier on without. AVAs should be granted to areas that are already producing quality wine as a recognition of the quality and distinctiveness of their area, not handed out to areas that might, under some circumstances, produce decent wine at some point in the future.

All this makes me wonder if the creation of the new AVA was for wine reasons or for tourism reasons. When the Bay View wine trail was created, I questioned the wisdom of creating a wine trail to promote wineries in a marginal area that were producing marginal wine. By “questioned” I mean that I made snarky remarks about it on Twitter. I called it the “tourist trap wine trail” because I think what motivated the creation of the Bay View wine trail and Tip of the Mitt was vitis envy. The Lake Michigan Shore and Northern Michigan are popular tourist areas. Leelanau Peninsula and Traverse City (home to the Old Mission Peninsula) have their own AVAs, as does the Lake Michigan Shore to the southwest. Charlevoix, Petoskey, Cheboygan and Boyne City to the north didn’t, even though tourism has been just as important there as it has been elsewhere in Northern Michigan. SAGGA may have wanted the AVA and wine trail to keep their tourists from driving south to spend their wine tourism dollars. The first paragraph of this article implies as much.  A trail and AVA help in that regard but the quality of wine in the area needs to improve quickly or momentum and tourist dollars will be lost. As much as I snarked about the Bay View wine trail, a wine trail is an instrument for tourism. Its creation is appropriate for the goal of promoting wine tourism in the area. An AVA should be about the wine itself, not tourism.

What the Tip of the Mitt AVA has brought into focus for me is the need for Michigan winemakers and the state department of agriculture to work together to develop a unified strategy for increasing the number of AVAs in the state (among other things). Letting regional wine organizations like SAGGA go it alone will result in a crazy quilt of AVAs some of which will be TotMs types. Luckily a new organization has brought together winemakers, famers, retailers, tourism boards and others for support and cooperation. It is the called the Michigan Wine Collaborative. It has the potential to prevent such a and advance a unified strategy for Michigan’s expanding wine industry. Yours truly inquired about being on the board, but all the positions were already filled at the time. Also, taking care of a six-month old baby sucks up a lot of my time.

I already mentioned the need for an AVA or AVAs in Southeast Michigan but another possibility for expansion could the subdivision of existing AVAs. Lake Michigan Shore is big itself and is ripe for further division. Maybe an arrangement similar to the villages in Beaujolais or Cote de Rhone could be adopted. It would be great to see Baroda, Paw Paw and Coloma join Fennville as AVAs within LMS. Perhaps there could even be an LMS Villages designation for wines made from a combination of grapes from near those towns. Leelanau could benefit from a similar arrangement or it could be divided into three parts based on the Sleeping Bear, Northern and Grand Traverse Bay loops of the Leelanau Wine Trail. These subdivisions could also add another layer of interest to wines made by Michigan’s growing stable of garagiste style winemakers.

If Michigan wine is to continue to grow its regional and national reputation, its wine producers and the state need to be strategic and deliberate about adding AVAs and wine trails. It might even be a good idea for to meet with winemakers from Ontario and New York to come up with regional strategies as well. Then, hopefully, we avoid any more Tip of the Mitts. Or is it Tips of the Mitt?

All photos by me.

Rock Oyster

Maker: Douglas Laing & Co, Glasgow, Scotland, UK20161007_111358.jpg

Distilleries: Isles of Arran, Jura, plus unidentified distillers from Orkney (Highland Park?) and Islay.

Style: Blended island (including Islay) malt.

Age: NAS

ABV: 46.8%

Michigan state minimum: $60

Note: Not chill filtered, likely not colored either.

Appearance: Pale straw with thick sea legs.

Nose:Peat, alcohol, smoke, sherry, seaspray.

Palate: Medium bodied. Sweet butterscotch, then brine, peat smoke and burn.

Finish: Peat, buttercream, then burn. Lang lasting.

Parting words: 68 year old independent bottler and blender Douglas Laing & Co had a big hit a few years ago with their Big Peat blended Islay malt. They’ve now followed up with other regional blended malts. Rock Oyster is the Island edition, as one might guess from the name. Islay is usually considered its own region and not a part of the islands or Highlands but Islay whisky (-ies?) are included in the blend here. This isn’t Big Peat Jr, though. The smoky, peaty, Islay malt is balanced with sherry, bourbon and maritime aromas to great effect.

It’s hard to get a single malt this complex for $60 in these parts. There’s nothing I don’t love about Rock Oyster. Highly Recommended.

Atomic Apple Hard Cider

Maker: Uncle John’s Fruit House, St. John’s, Michigan, USA20161003_171139.jpg

Style: Hard cider flavored with cinnamon candies.

ABV: 6.5%

Price: $11 (Binny’s)

Note: At the time of purchase, I received a complimentary bottle of premium cider and of Uncle John’s Apple Brandy. I got a 30% discount on the rest of my purchase.

Appearance: Nearly fluorescent pink. Lots of fizz.

Nose: Apple juice, hint of cinnamon.

Palate: Apple sauce with red hots, flint.

Finish: Cinnamon candy, then dry. Goes quickly.

Parting words: The last cider I reviewed was Cinnamon Girl from Left Foot Charley. That was flavored with single origin cinnamon from two different places and no sugar was added. Uncle John’s took a completely different approach to creating a cinnamon hard cider. They threw a bunch of Atomic Fireball candies into the fermentation tank. The result is something like when my grandmother made applesauce and put red hots in while it was cooking. I enjoyed the flavor then and I enjoy it now, but it’s not as nuanced as Cinnamon Girl. Atomic Apple is cheaper and still pretty good, though. All that said, my wife hated it. Atomic Apple is recommended.

Jack Daniels Single Barrel Select

Maker: Jack Daniels, Lynchburg, Tennessee, USA20160930_180620.jpg

Style: Tennesee Whiskey

Age: NAS

Proof: 94 (47% ABV)

Michigan state minimum: $52

Parting words: Single Barrel select was the first premium line extension to Jack Daniels. It was introduced in 1997 and had a fairly good reputation whiskey enthusiasts as the most (or only) drinkable JD iteration, at least after the standard JD was lowered to 80 proof. JD Single Barrel has now turned into its own line. There is now also a 100 proof bottled in bond (originally a travel retail selection), barrel strength and a single barrel rye (the last two released this year).

I haven’t had any of the new ones, but I’ve never been impressed with the SB Select but this bottle was even worse than I remember. It strikes a balance between boring and unpleasant as only JD can. Other than the proof and the price, this is indistinguishable from the last glass of standard JD I had. The price is not as outlandish as the Frank Sinatra Editions ($170 and $450 respectively) but still dumb money. Individual barrels may vary, of course, but overall Jack Daniels Single Barrel Select is not recommended.

Cognac D’Usse VSOP

Maker: Chateau de Cognac, Cognac, Charente, France. (Bacardi)20160929_162624.jpg

Region: Blend.

Age category: VSOP (at least 4 y/o).

ABV: 40%

Michigan state minimum: $51

Appearance: Brownish copper with long, elegant legs.

Nose: Alcohol, felt, old oak, prune juice.

Palate: Full bodied. Juicy and a little chewy with a bold burn throughout.

Finish: Raisins, oak, heat. Long.

Parting words: Cognac d’Ussé is best known for being developed (endorsed?) by Jay-Z. Don’t confuse it with other celebrity spirits like Conjure Cognac or Ciroc vodka. Those are garbage, this is not. D’Usse is a product of Chateau de Cognac, appropriately located   in a castle in central Cognac. Baron Otard is Chateau de Cognac’s primary product line with all the usual suspects. Unlike those, D’Usse (this and the $200+ XO) is made by blending brandies from all over CdC’s estates. It was intended to rope in a young, hip audience. How young and/or hip I am is up for debate, but I have been roped in.

There are no flavors or aromas here that are too far outside the norm for Cognacs, but they’re all amped up while remaining balanced. As a newcomer to good Cognac, I really enjoyed it. The price is in the same ballpark as other VSOPs from Cognac houses of comparable size. Not that it matters but the bottle is really cool looking too. D’Usse VSOP is recommended.