Shady Lane Cabernet Franc, 2016

Maker: Shady Lane Cellars, Suttons Bay, Michigan, USA

Grape: Cabernet Franc (at least 85%)

Place of origin: Shady Lane estate, Leelanau Peninsula AVA, Michigan, USA

Vintage: 2016

ABV: 12.5%

Purchased for $27 (Michigan by the Bottle, Auburn Hills)

Appearance: Brick red.

Nose: Fruit of the forest pie, a little leather and lavender.

Palate: Black raspberry, a little oak, blueberry, pink and white pepper.

Finish: Lightly chewy, with tang.

Parting words: Cabernet Franc can get overlooked in Michigan because of its workhorse status here, and because it often forms the backbone of Bordeaux-style blends that are usually sold by name, not variety. The grape has a bad reputation in some places, for sometimes developing bell pepper aromas in the nose. I don’t necessarily find that aroma objectionable in red wine. That said, it is almost never found in varietal bottlings of Cab Franc from Michigan’s best winemakers.

As far as this Cab Franc goes, if I really set out to find green pepper in this wine, I could maybe taste a little, but that vegetable* never once popped into my overactive brain while writing these notes. I did have a lot of tart berries pop in there though, along with leather representing light tannins. That combination of acid and tannin makes this a great wine for the table. We had some with homemade tagliatelle and meatballs. In a hot, ripe vintage like 2016, it’s a credit to the skill of the viticulturalists and winemakers that they were still able to achieve that balance in the finished product.

This wine could easily hold up for a few more years but with all those delicious 2017s already in my cellar and the 2020 reds coming soon, there’s no reason to hold on to wines like this, especially at a price like $27. Shady Lane Cabernet Franc is recommended.

*A note to pedants. Yes, I’m aware that botanically speaking it’s a fruit. Culinarily, it’s a vegetable, though. Wine is something that goes on the table with food, so green pepper is a vegetable as far as wine is concerned.

Port Charlotte Islay Barley 2012

Maker: Bruichladdich, Islay, Argyll, Scotland, UK (Rémy Cointreau)

Region: Islay

Style: Peated Single Malt

Age: 6 y/o

ABV: 50%

Note: Made with barley grown on Islay.

Michigan state minimum: $65

Appearance: Pale straw.

Nose: Hardwood ash, peat, dark chocolate, toasted oak, vanilla.

Palate: Full bodied. Smoky dark chocolate, burn.

Finish: Cigarettes, chocolate pudding.

Parting words: Port Charlotte is Bruichladdich’s heavily peated range of single malts, not to be confused with their Octomore range of super-heavily peated malt. This is the first Port Charlotte I’ve purchased and I enjoyed it more than I expected.

I like young, fiery, Islay malts, but I was skeptical that 6 y/o was going to be too young. It’s not. Port Charlotte 2012 is wise beyond its years. It somehow tasted more mature than some bottles of Laphroaig 10 I’ve purchased. There’s a lot of chocolate and smoke and it pairs very well with the former.

I’d have to do some kind of side-by-side tasting to determine if using local barley makes a difference in the finished product, and I’m generally skeptical of the impact of terroir, especially in spirits. Whether it makes a difference in the glass or not, it’s a very cool thing to use local grain for a product like this. More distilleries should do this.

$65 is a good price for a quality, vintage dated, high ABV single malt like this. Port Charlotte Islay Barley 2012 is recommended.

Laird’s Single Cask, Comrade Brandy selection #2, Shelter in Place

Maker: Laird’s, Scobeyville, New Jersey/North Garden, Virginia, USA.

Age: 7 y/o (84 mos)

Barrel: 13J24-30

Notes: Bottled Oct 29, 2020, bottle 81(80?)/144.

ABV: 65%

Purchased for $65 (Comrade Brandy selection).

Appearance: Medium copper.

Nose: Big dessert apple aroma. Apple sauce, cut crimson crisp. Water brings out vanilla.

Palate: Medium bodied and sweet. Cider, then burn. With water: White chocolate candy apple.

Finish: Long. Hot apple pie. With water: cleaner with a little heat.

Parting words: Comrade Brandy is one of two private barrel selection groups I’m a part of. I joined for the inaugural selection (reviewed here) back in 2019. Coming right at the beginning of the COVID19 pandemic, this second selection took a while to come out, but it finally arrived in members’ hands early this spring. It’s not quite as good as the first edition, but it’s close and still a very strong selection that I have no complaints about. It’s made in a classic American apple brandy style, but it does start to take on some Calvados characteristics when watered down.

$65 is a fair price for a cask strength private selection, so no complaints there either! Want to get in on the next selection? Hop onto Facebook and join the club! Laird’s Single Cask, Comrade Brandy selection #2, Shelter in Place is recommended.

Verterra Rosé of Merlot, 2019

Maker: Verterra Winery, Leland, Michigan, USA

Grape: Merlot (at least 85%)

Style: Dry rosé.

Place of origin: Leelanau Peninsula AVA, Michigan, USA (at least 85%)

Vintage: 2019

ABV: 12%

Purchased for $24 (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room)

Appearance: Orangey pink.

Nose: Cedar, white cherry, crushed mulberry.

Palate: Medium bodied. Strawberry, watermelon, pink raspberry.

Finish: Dry and Tangy.

Parting words: Verterra’s walk-in tasting room in downtown (such as it is) Leland, Michigan might give the impression of a tourist trap at first impression, but this is a serious winery whose founder, Paul Hamelin, has a passion for pushing the limits of what Northwestern Michigan wine can be. In recently years, he has embarked on a project to make high quality dry varietal rosé (the Polar Vortex years of 2014 and 2015 gave him a bit of a push in this direction too).

He started with rosés of Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc, and then added a rosé of Merlot for the first time in 2019. They’re all delicious. This Merlot is as good as the Cab Franc, and probably even better. Riesling will always be king to me, but I think rosés like this are going to be a big part of the future of Michigan wine.

This ’20s are out already but there may still be some ’19s still hiding on the backs of shelves around the state. They’re worth seeking out. Verterra Rosé of Merlot, 2019 is recommended.

New Riff Single Barrel, Red Wagon selection

Maker: New Riff, Newport, Kentucky, USA

Style: High rye bourbon.

Age: 4 y/o

Proof: 102.2 (51.1% ABV)

Michigan state minimum: $55

Appearance: Medium dark copper.

Nose: Smoke, cut lumber, basil, bay leaf.

Palate: Full-bodied. Caramel, leather, jalapeno.

Finish: Expensive cigarettes, tarragon.

Parting words: New Riff is the newish micro-distillery associated with The Party Source liquor store in Newport/Bellevue, Kentucky. It was founded in 2014, and I had tasted a few samples here and there over the years, but none of them impressed me, and I even actively disliked one of them (the gin).

By the time retailer selections started showing up on Michigan shelves, word on the street was that the new stuff was very good and I should give it a chance. So I did. My first impression was that it was weird. My third and fourth impression was it was still kinda weird, but I liked it.

We are now in the put up or shut up phase of the micro- (“craft”) distilling phenomenon. New Riff is putting up and you love to see it. I’m excited to explore the rest of their line now and post reviews for you, my beloved readers. Regarding the price, yes, it’s only 4 y/o but it’s barrel proof and tasty. Hopefully it will go up in age or go down in price (ha!) at some future point and become a better value, but as it is $55 is a fair price for a truly micro-distilled bourbon like this. New Riff Single Barrel, Red Wagon selection is recommended.

The State of Michigan Vineyards in 2020, part 2.

First off, I want to apologize for two things, 1. that this post is in two parts and 2. that I didn’t get it done during Michigan Wine Month, which is May. The excuse for both items is: No time. The school year is winding down and all the summer things are winding up and you know how it goes. I will later merge both posts together, just so it’s all in one spot for ease of later reading.

Last time, I took a broad, statewide look at Michigan’s vineyards. For this part 2, I will look at grape growing by region and by variety, the things this blog (and many others) talk about the most. I will again be using the 2020 Small Fruit and Hops Inventory published by the Michigan Craft Beverage Council.

Michigan’s grape producing regions are divided up into four regions: The Northwest (essentially Leelanau & Old Mission), North (Tip of the Mitt), Southwest (Lake Michigan Shore & Fennville), and everywhere else. For each region (further broken down by county), the number of farms and total vineyard acreage are both give for the years 2011, 2014, 2016, and 2020, with the exception of the North, which only has data for 2016 and 2020.

For the Northwest and North, there is a steady increase in the number of farms and total acreage during the period in question. The Southwest is a different story, though. In 2011, the region contained 288 farms and over 13,000 acres of vineyards. In 2020, those numbers were down to 166 and 8,600 respectively. In the other counties, the number of vineyards shows a strange bell curve, but shows a modest net growth from 2011 to 2020. The number of farms, however, steadily declines during the same period.

What do we make of these differing trends? First, since the vineyards of the Northwest and North regions are almost all dedicated to wine grapes, I think that growth represents the steady growth in the Michigan wine industry over the past ten years. The substantial losses in the Southwest, can be attributed to the decline of the grape juice industry in Michigan. While wine’s growth is good news for Michigan’s economy, the bottom dropping out of the grape juice market is not.

The picture doesn’t change much when broken down county by county, but the growth in the number of farms in Grand Traverse county (Old Mission Peninsula AVA and neighboring areas) is striking, going from 54 farms in 2011, to 60 in 2014 and 2016 (likely due to the Polar Vortex) and then to 66 in 2020. Both Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties added around the same number of farms during the period (220 vs 210) with Leelanau adding the higher percentage (I think).

As of 2020, the top county in terms of farms and acreage was Berrien (SW), followed by Van Buren (SW), then Grand Traverse (NW), Leelanau (NW), and Emmett (N) counties. If the other counties of the Southwest region were their own county, they would replace Emmett in fourth place.

Next up, we have the juiciest category (apologies for the pun), grape varieties. To no one’s surprise, friend of the blog Riesling came in at #1 for the most commonly grown wine grape variety by a wide margin. Here’s the top ten vinifera, and top ten hybrid wine grape varieties grown in Michigan, as of 2020, in acreage.

Vinifera

  1. Riesling 670
  2. Chardonnay 320
  3. Pinot Gris/Grigio 270
  4. Pinot Noir 250
  5. Cabernet Franc 180
  6. Merlot 130
  7. Gewurtztraminer 77
  8. Sauvignon Blanc 64
  9. Pinot Blanc 62
  10. Cabernet Sauvignon 56

Hybrids

  1. Vidal Blanc* 105
  2. Chambourcin* 100
  3. Marquette** 97
  4. Traminette* 81
  5. Vignoles 76
  6. Seyval 64
  7. [Marechal] Foch 63
  8. Frontenac ** 34
  9. Petite Pearl** 33
  10. Cayuga White 31

Combined Top Ten

  1. Riesling 670
  2. Chardonnay 320
  3. Pinot Gris/Grigio 270
  4. Pinot Noir 250
  5. Cabernet Franc 180
  6. Merlot 130
  7. Vidal Blanc* 105
  8. Chambourcin* 100
  9. Marquette** 97
  10. Traminette* 81

*”Noble hybrid” variety, something I made up

**University of Minnesota cold-hardy variety

Apologies for the formatting, WordPress’s block editing system is very bad. Aside from the asterisks, there are a couple things that should be noted. First, some wine is made out of Concord and other juice varieties like Niagara and Catawba. Second are the “others”: There are 95 acres of other (outside the top 20) vinifera varieties, 110 (!) acres of other hybrid varieties, and over 2,000 acres of non-Concord native grape varieties.

There are not a lot of surprises in the top five vinifera varieties, There is a big drop off, though, between 1 & 2 in the vinifera and combined lists, though. I was surprised that there is as much Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Blanc grown in the state as there is, though neither made the combined list. The biggest surprise to me is the other meteoric rise of a grape that came in at 11 on the vinifera list: Lemberger, aka Blaufränkisch. Despite the lack of a catchy, elegant-sounding name, the grape is very popular with Michigan growers, and is finding its way into more and more blends and varietal bottlings across the state, but especially in the Northwest. I’ve reviewed a few. I think this one is my favorite so far.

Marquette’s meteoric rise to become one of the most commonly planted varieties in the state at a mere fifteen years of age, was the biggest surprise to me in the hybrid category. I was a little surprised that Vidal Blanc was the number one hybrid, but pleasantly so. I’ve been telling anyone who would listen for years that Michigan should be producing more brandy. Now I can add the knowledge that Vidal Blanc, descendent of the great Cognac grape Ugli Blanc, is the most widely planted hybrid grape in the state! One weird thing I learned is that there is a grape variety called Himrod and that there are 14 acres of it in the state. It’s apparently a table grape, but the name sounds like some sort of male dance review.

Anyway, the next table looks at bearing and non-bearing grape vines by category and color. There are over twice as many acres of vinifera grapes as there are of hybrids in Michigan and a little less than twice as many acres of white wine grapes as there are red (and pink) wine grapes. That’s to be expected when Riesling and Chardonnay are at one and two in the standings. Our climate is kinder to white wine grapes as well.

The next table examines acres of grapes by district and use. As other tables implied, table and juice grapes are king in Southwest Michigan. A whopping 7,425/8600 acres of Southwestern vineyards are deicated to them. So while the Southwest and four times as many acres of vineyards as the Northwest and North combined, the North and Northwest have nearly twice as many acres of wine grapes.

Finally, we get a brief glimpse into the future of Michigan vineyards in the Acres planted by variety 2017-2020 table. At least think we do. Since the numbers don’t correlate to any of the other data in the report, I assume that planted is the operative word in this description. These are, I believe, referring to varieties that were planted during that period. Riesling and Chard were the top two, but Lemberger was third, Marquette was fourth, and Pinot Gris/Grigio was fifth. Lemberger and Marquette seem like they are more than a passing fad at this point and they’re here to stay. One surprise is the University of Minnesota hybrid Itasca, which appears at number eight on the list. Could we be seeing that grape a lot more in the next few years? Stay tuned my friends!

Thistle Finch Small Batch, Batch 09

Maker: Thistle Finch, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, USA

Style: Wheated (!) Straight Rye Whiskey

Age: 2 y/o

Bottle date: November 13, 2019.

Proof: 90 (45% ABV)

Purchased for $47 (PLCB Monroeville-Northern Pike)

Appearance: Light copper.

Nose: Sawdust, cut grass.

Palate: Medium bodied and sweet. Allspice, hay.

Finish: Grass, dark chocolate, burn.

Parting words: I knew nothing about Thistle Finch before I saw this bottle on the shelf at the PLCB store I stopped at while coming home from a family vacation in Somerset Pennsylvania last summer. I’ve heard Pennsylvanians complain about the PLCB stores for years but I had never experienced one until then. Folks, it’s all true. They’re terrible. I went to that store to pick up some Dad’s Hat Rye and I had a list of Pennsylvanian wines I wanted to look for. They had none of those wines, and I was only able to find Dad’s Hat after wandering around the store for twenty minutes. It was in a special “made in Pennsylvania” section next to Pumpkin vodka, and several bottles of sickly sweet plonk. Bad selection, bad prices, poorly organized, it was awful. Like a LCBO store but much worse.

I picked up this bottle of Thistle Finch Rye from the bourbon section where it was lurking for some reason. I mostly picked it up because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to find Dad’s Hat, but since they didn’t have any of the wine I was looking for I went ahead and bought Thistle Finch too. I’m glad I did. It has a lot of typical young rye flavors but has a roundedness that was nice, maybe due to the wheat in the recipe, highly unusual for American ryes.

It’s ok neat, but it really shines in cocktails, where it works well in drinks that might usually call for higher proof rye, on account of its aromatic nature. It did very well in a Manhattan, with ginger ale and orange bitters, and in a couple of cocktails I have named the Sterling Hayden (2 oz rye & 1/2 oz Aquavit), and a Skink (2 oz rye & 1/2 oz green Chartreuse). Both of the latter play up the rye’s herbaceousness.

I know next to nothing about the Thistle Finch folks, but this is a solid rye, that should only be getting better in later batches, if they let some rest, like they say they will. The distillery is located next to a brewery in an old tobacco warehouse in Lancaster. It’s one of these bar/distillery operations, and a pretty successful one by all appearances.

$47 isn’t cheap, but think of it as an investment in the future. Thistle Finch Small Batch Straight Rye Whiskey is recommended.

The State of Michigan Vineyards in 2020, part 1

Back on March 30 of this year, the Michigan Craft Beverage Council produced its annual small fruit and hops inventory. What we’re going to focus on, unsurprisingly, will be the section of the report dealing with grapes. If you want to look it over yourself, you can find it by clicking the links above.

What I want to do is crunch some of these already crunched numbers and see what they can tell us about the state of grape-growing and wine production in Michigan in 2020. The authors of the report have very helpfully included historical data going back to 2011 for most of the tables, so readers can get a picture of the medium term trends as well. Now, my brain and numbers don’t always mix well, so I ask forgiveness in advance for any and all screw-ups in this post.

Politically and culturally, Michigan is a part of the upper Midwest, but agriculturally, it’s the westernmost third of the Great Lakes Fruit Belt that stretches from upstate New York, through Southern Ontario to the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. The Great Lakes, and the many other smaller lakes between them, have a moderating effect on the climate of the area, cooling the air in the summers and warming it in the winter. Michigan is among the leading producers of sugar beets, potatoes (for chips), asparagus, blueberries, cherries, apples and grapes in the US. It also does pretty well with peaches, plums, apricots, pears, raspberries, and blackberries.

The grape industry has been big in Michigan for a long time, but for most of its history, most of the vineyard space in the state has been dedicated to table and juice grapes. That has been changing, however. As the report shows, in 2011, 60% of the vineyard acreage of the state was growing Concord, with 23.4% growing other native varieties used for juice and table grapes like Catawba, Delaware, Fredonia, Niagara, and Norton. That’s a total of 83.4%, with 12.1% being used for vinifera, and 4.5% used for hybrids wine grapes. In 2020, Natives were down to 69.1% (Concord down to 50%), with vinifera at 21.3% and hybrids more than doubling to 9.6%. When we look at the raw acreage numbers we can see that the growth wasn’t only from new acres of vinifera and hybrid vineyards being planted, but fewer acres of the native juice and tables grapes being grown. In fact there were over 4,000 fewer acres of grapes being grown from 2011 to 2020. Very little of this can be attributed to the 2014/2015 polar vortex, since most of the losses occurred between 2016 and 2020.

There was talk a few years ago about Michigan possibly running out of vineyard space due to the rapid growth of demand for Michigan wine and the growth in the number of wineries. Now, not every site suitable for Concord will be suitable for wine grapes, but the overall decline in acreage dedicated to grapes along with the growth in the number of acres dedicated to wine grapes makes me think that we won’t be running out of vineyard space any time soon.

One particularly interesting aspect of the report is the section that has to do with the size of Michigan grape farms. They are broken up into four categories. 1-9 acre farms (I’ll be calling these small farms), 10-29 acre farms (medium), 30-99 acres (large), and 100 or more acres (very large). It’s hard to know what to make of the data, but between 2011 and 2020, the number of small farms went from 215 to 233, a moderate increase. The medium sized farms declined rather sharply during that period, going from 132 to only 73. The large farms stayed the same, more or less, going from 75 in 2011, to 70 in 2014, to 74 in 2020. So maybe over time more people have started new small farms while consolidation took place in the other categories. The same thing seems to have happened on a smaller scale to the farms dedicated to wine grape production, as seen in the table following that one.

Next time, I’ll take a look at the even jucier (no pun intended) parts of the report: The regional and varietal stats, and then I’ll have a few parting words. Stay tuned!

Fontan XO

Maker: Vignobles Fontan, Noulens, Gers, Gascony, France.

I had a better picture at one time, I promise.

Region: Bas Armagnac

Grape: Ugni Blanc (100%)

Age category: XO (6-10 y/o). Website lists age as 10 y/o.

ABV: 42%

Purchased for $43 at The Party Source

Appearance: Dark caramel.

Nose: Leather, anise, lavender, old oak, velvet, violets.

Palate: Full-bodied. Grape hard candy, leather, clove, burn.

Finish: Horehound, anise, eucalyptus, alcohol.

Parting words: I’m still very much a French brandy newbie, but I really enjoyed this Armagnac. It’s pretty complex with some very nice spice balanced with the perfect amount of oak and sweetness. Maybe a little too perfect. It seems too dark to be natural, even if it is an XO. If caramel was added, then I suspect sugar and other additives were used as well. In the end, though, this isn’t very expensive for an XO Armagnac and it tastes good. Although I prefer additive-free spirits, that’s what really matters. Fontan XO is recommended.

Woodford Reserve Wheat Whiskey

Maker: Woodford Reserve, Versailles, Kentucky, USA with possible help from Brown-Forman distillery in Shively. (Brown-Forman)

Style: Kentucky straight wheat whiskey

Label: Batch 2

Age: NAS (at least 4 y/o)

Proof: 90.4 (45.2% ABV)

Michigan state minimum: $39

Appearance: Medium Copper.

Nose: Biscuits with cherry jam.

Palate: Medium bodied. Cherry wine, a little oak, then burn.

Finish: Drying with a little fruit, but mostly oak and alcohol.

Parting words: Since I reviewed Bernheim Wheat Whiskey back in 2012, wheat has become much more common than it was. It’s a staple of many micro-distillers and Heaven Hill even added an age statement to theirs! This Woodford edition is relatively new, a part of their series of non-bourbon line extensions, also including a rye and malt whiskey.

I was expecting a simple whiskey, like Bernheim, when I bought this bottle, but it’s actually pretty complex. Not Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch complex, but on par with bourbons in its price range. The cherry notes are really nice and make for a wonderful sipping experience. I’ve never been too hot on Woodford as a whole, but I could see myself making this one a regular in my cabinet. Woordford Reserve Kentucky Straight Wheat Whiskey is recommended.