Maker: Chateau de Laubade, Sorbets, Landes, France.
Grapes: Baco, Ugni Blanc.
Place of origin: Bas Armagnac
Vintage: 2000 (bottled at 20 y/o).
Thanks to Sku of Serious Brandy and Chateau de Laubade for the sample.
Appearance: Medium dark copper.
Nose: Aromatic. Alcohol, oak, maple syrup, oatmeal raisin cookies.
Palate: Full-bodied. Sweet and fruity, then big burn. Largely the same with water, but longer mid-palate.
Finish: Dried figs, horehound. burn, star anise. Less burn with water, naturally
Parting words: This brandy was one of the highlights of the Serious Brandy Facebook Group tasting earlier this year. You can view that event here.
This one didn’t stand out as particularly unique, but it tasted like a good, solid example of a well-made (pretty) old Armagnac. It’s rich and mature without being unbalanced or weird like some very old French brandies I’ve tried. Weird isn’t always bad, of course, but as with Scotch, too much oak and oxidation can ruin my drinking experience. There’s nothing not to like here.
I was able to find a price of about $130 for a 700 ml bottle of this online. That makes it outside of my usual price range, for sure, but you’d be hard pressed to find a 20 y/o cask strength single malt for that much these days. With that in mind, Chateau Laubade 2000 cask strength is recommended.
Maker: Chateau Grand Traverse, Traverse City, Michigan, USA
Grape: Gamay (at least 85%)
Place of origin: Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Traverse City, Michigan, USA (at least 85%)
Purchased for $26
Appearance: Dark ruby.
Nose: Red currants, crushed blackberries, cedar, velvet.
Palate: Silky and full-bodied. Blueberry pie, pink peppercorn, black pepper.
Finish: Black currant jelly, clove.
Parting words: I reviewed the “regular” Chateau Grand Traverse Gamay Noir back in 2019. You can read that review here. The difference between that and CGT’s reserve Gamay Noir is the amount of time the wine spends in oak, and $11 in price. That extra time has given the reserve fuller body, silkier texture, and more spice, although I’m sure two extra years in the bottle had an impact as well.
While that other Gamay was the equivalent of a good Beaujolais-Villages or bargain cru Beaujolais, this wine is like a Cru Beaujolais at around the same price point or even a little higher. The standard Gamay is an even better value, but there’s no reason to punish the reserve for the success of its cheaper sibling. It’s very much worth the price. 2016 Chateau Grand Traverse Gamay Noir Reserve is recommended.
Maker: Tennessee Distilling, ltd, Columbia, Tennessee, USA
Distiller: Undisclosed (almost certainly George Dickel)
Style: (Straight?) Tennessee Whiskey.
Age: 4 y/o.
Proof: 80 (40% ABV)
Michigan State Minimum: $37/1.75 l
Appearance: Light Copper.
Nose: Caramel, leather, walnuts, maple.
Palate: Medium bodied and medium dry. Oak, maple syrup.
Finish: Oak, alcohol.
Mixed: Good in Old Fashioneds, OK in Manhattans. Lacks the power needed to stand up to stronger mixers like Benedictine or cola.
Parting words: I bought this as a “well” whiskey for my home bar. I thought it would make a change of pace from the usual mid-range bourbons that I use for that purpose. I was pleasantly surprised at how dry it was, but disappointed at the low proof. I guess when a product is aimed at Jack Daniels drinkers in 2021, 80 proof makes sense, but mixing bourbons need either a higher proof or younger age to distinguish themselves in this drunk’s opinion.
As a weeknight sipper or in an Old Fashioned (or something similar) it does fine, though, and its hard to complain about something this cheap (it would work out to about $16 for a standard 750 ml bottle) that tastes this mature. So Kirkland Signature Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey is recommended.
A brief word about this whiskey’s label. The word “straight” does not appear anywhere, but unless something hinky is going on, a 4 y/o TN whiskey should qualify as straight. There is no indication that this whiskey was made at Diageo’s Cascade Hollow/George Dickel distillery either, but given the sheer amount of Dickel whiskey that Diageo has been selling to bottlers in the past few years, I would be truly shocked if this was from anywhere else. Jack Daniels sells everything makes, and I doubt any small distillery in Tennessee could make a whiskey of this quality at this price.
Disclosure statement: We received a free night in the guest house, and a complimentary wine tasting of just about everything on the menu during our visit.
Back in December of 2020, I received an email from Bill Schopf, owner of Dablon Vineyards (and the Music Box theater in Chicago and Music Box film distributors). He had seen my head-to-head review of Dablon’s 2016 Cabernet Franc and 2Lads’ 2016 Cab Franc and offered to host me in the winery guest house and show me around the place. December of 2020 being December of 2020, I told him I didn’t feel comfortable going there at that time, but I would email him back when I did feel comfortable.
By mid-May, Liz and I were both fully vaccinated, and things seemed to be settling down for the moment, so I emailed Bill again and took him up on his offer. We arranged to stay at the Dablon guest house for one night on July 5, as the opening night of our scaled-back 20th anniversary trip.
We arrived at the winery at around 2 pm on July 5. Bill was at the tasting bar when we arrived, and he promptly gave us a tour along with one other person, Magda, a friend of Bill’s. It was a very hot day by southwest Michigan standards, so we only visited the vineyards right outside of the tasting room, which happened to be planted with Pinot Noir. Later, Liz and I did have a chance to wander through the Cabnernet Sauvignon, though.
Bill stressed the importance of vine density in the vineyard. His Pinot Noir vines are planted about three feet apart, mirroring the density found in many French vineyards. This results in about 2,000 vines per acre, cropped to yield around 3 tons of fruit per acre. All Dablon’s grapes are harvested by hand, which can be a challenge, given the the tight harvest window here in the Wolverine state. That said, trimming and hedging are done mechanically for the Burgundian varieties. All wines produced under the Dablon label are estate grown. The nearly phased out Music Box label is used for wines from grapes that were purchased from elsewhere.
I asked Bill which clones he used for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Bill referred us to his winemaker/vineyard manager Rudy Shafer, who responded via email. Out of curiosity I asked about some other varieties as well. Here’s how it breaks down*: Four out of the five Pinot Noir clones used are from Cote d’Or in Burgundy. The other one (clone 23) is from Switzerland. For Chardonnay they use two clones from California, two from Dijon in Burgundy, and the remaining three are other French clones. For Riesling, Dablon uses all German clones: 3 from the Rheingau, 2 are from Pfalz, and one from the Mosel. All their Cab Franc and half of their Cab Sauv clones are French. The rest of the Sauvignon clones are from Mendoza in Argentina and one is from California.
It was a very hot day by Michigan standards so after showing us the Pinot Noir block, Bill quickly hustled us inside to take a look at his equipment, his winemaking equipment, that is. Bill said he loves technology, and I could tell by the pride in his voice when he ran down the vital stats on everything in the winery proper. He was especially proud of his new bottling machine.
For fermenting the whites, Dablon uses temperature-controlled, Italian-made jacket tanks. According to Rudy Shafer, Dablon has thirty of these tanks ranging from 1500 to 13,000 liters in campacity for a total capacity of 40,000 gallons. All Dablon wines are cold stabilized to reduce the amount of tartrate crystals in the finished product. Personally, I like wine crystals but I’m not in the business of selling wine. Different yeast strains are also used for different varieties.
Dablon almost exclusively uses French oak for their wines that spend time in wood. Bill estimated that less than 2% of their barrels are non-French. “Good for whiskey, not good for wine.” The exception is their forthcoming Tempranillo, with which they’ve been using American oak, since Bill thinks it works better with wines made from that grape.
The highlight of the tour was the wine library, a small room will racks covering the walls and high-top table and chairs in the middle. All the racks are made from the wood of a single ash tree from the property that was cut down shortly after Bill purchased the farm in 2008. It’s a beautiful room, and he said there had been many proposals made there. I assume he meant marriage, but he wasn’t specific.
We then headed back up to the tasting room for a tasting with wine club manager Cassondra Rudlaff. She grew up in the area and was able to give us some nice insights into the state of SW wine and agriculture in general. One issue that came out of my look at the Michigan Craft Beverage Council’s Small Fruit and Hops report back in May was the slow decline of juice grape farming in southwest Michigan. I asked her if she could see SW Michigan grape-growers shifting over the wine grapes entirely (or close to it). She noted that there are geological limits to where good quality wine grapes can be grown, wine juice types can be grown nearly anywhere. She also expressed pessimism on the future of the blueberry industry in the state, which is facing competition from the coasts.
The tasting room itself is beautiful with lots of glass and wood and an open, airy feel. Liz was instantly a fan because of the purse hooks underneath the bar.
Magda also joined us for the tasting. We started with dry white wines, as one does. Cassondra poured all three of us the 2017 unoaked Chardonnay to start and it ended up being everyone’s favorite of the whites. The other stand-outs in that category were the 2017 Eastate White Blend (75% Chardonnay), the 2017 Pinot Gris (oaked, unlike the Pinot Grigio), and of course the 2017 Dry (<1% residual sugar) Riesling.
Next were the 2018 Pinot Noir Rosé and 2018 sparkling Blanc de Blanc. The Rosé was strong, and according to Cassondra there are no plans to make any of other varieties. The Blanc de Blanc was even better. They make it themselves, and it is a money-losing proposition even at $50 a bottle, according to Bill. It’s a matter of “honor” for him, though. I’m with Bill on this. When you can grow Chard of this quality, producing a Blanc de Blanc is the right thing to do.
As good as their whites were, dry reds take up the most space on the Dablon tasting menu. At the time, it listed one Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Syrah, and Carmenere (according to Bill, the Dablon estate is the only place in Michigan where this grape is being grown), two Cabernet Sauvignons, and three red blends. Petit Verdot and Tannat were available by the bottle but not for tastings and large format bottles of the 2016 Syrah and Cab Sauv Reserve are also available for purchase. Older varietal bottlings and an exclusive blend are available through the wine club. A Tempranillo blend was released earlier this year (2021) and a varietal Nebbiolo is planned for release sometime in the next few years, according to winemaker Rudy Shafer.
All of the dry reds we tasted were good. My favorites (earning the coveted ++ mark on my menu), were the 2016 Merlot, 2017 Cab Sauv, and the 2016 Estate Red blend. The Estate Red varies in its composition from year to year. In 2016 it was 59% Cab Sauv, 25% Merlot, 10% Malbec, and 6% Petit Verdot. The constituent wines spend one year in oak separately and then another year together. The 2016 Estate Red Blend sells for $50 a bottle at the winery.
The other dry red blends include Producer’s Cut and the Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot. The producer’s cut also varies from year to year with regard to grapes and percentages of those grapes. The 2016 we tasted was 45% Cab Franc, 45% Merlot, and 10% Malbec. It sells for $36. The Cab Sauv/Merlot blend is always 50/50, had good acid, and also sells for $36 a bottle.
Dablon produces a limited number of sweet wines. The standouts in that category were the 2018 Traminette, and 2020 sweet Riesling. The only remaining Music Box wine still on the menu was the 2017 Matinee Red, made from the relatively new Arandell variety, a Seyval Blanc descendent created at Cornell University. The grapes were grown in the vineyards of the Nitz family, frequent St. Julian collaborators. Dablon does not produce any fruit or true dessert wines.
After the tasting Cassondra showed us to the guest house. It was a short three-minute walk away, but five to ten minutes by car. (They frown upon driving through the vineyards). I expected a tiny one-room cottage or trailer, but it’s a comfortable, fashionably decorated three-bedroom, three level house with a full kitchen, dining room, patio and a den in the basement. No food or WiFi was provided, but there was an extensive DVD collection (all Music Box films of course). I was too tired to cook anything at the end of the day, so we picked up some grocery store fried chicken and ate it in the dining room.
After a comfortable night’s sleep, we ate a light breakfast and decided to talk a walk along the forest trail next to the house. After a pleasant stroll among the cohosh and ferns, the trailed ended at the top of the huge (by lower Michigan standards) hill that is home to Bill’s Cabernet Sauvignon, a hill made even bigger by dirt excavated from what’s now the wine cellar. We wandered around the vines a bit, taking a few photos and enjoying the beauty of the scene before heading back to pack.
What sets Dablon apart from its peers? A couple things do, in my view. First, their Burgundian-type wines are very good, but Dablon’s overall strength is in age-worthy Bordeaux style reds. This puts them in relatively rare company in Michigan, but what sets them apart from even from the other winemakers that produce strong is their willingness to experiment with different varieties. Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah are relatively rare in Michigan, but Malbec, Tannat, Tempranillo, and Petit Verdot are almost unheard of. Nebbiolo is only grown one other place in the state to my knowledge, and as noted above Carmenere is probably unique to Dablon. You’re not going to get to taste Michigan Carmenere anywhere other than at Dablon’s tasting room, and varietally bottled Michigan Malbec is nearly as rare.
Second, there’s an independent streak to Bill, and Dablon in general. The winery is not a part of the Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail or the Michigan Wine Collaborative, so Dablon doesn’t appear on wine trail maps or participate in many Michigan wine events. They’re a little too big to be called a cult winery, but they do have a dedicated group of fans that have sought them out despite their rugged individualism and remain loyal year after year. After this visit, I think Liz and I consider ourselves a part of that group.
What’s the future have in store for Dablon? Besides new vintages of their current line-up, they’re very excited about the upcoming Tempranillo and Nebbiolo releases. According to Rudy, the 2020 unoaked Tempranillo was released in September, with the 2022 vintage due to be released in the summer of 2022. The 2019 Tempranillo blend may be released this November (2021). As for the Nebbiolo: “The 2021 Nebbiolo will be made as a 100% varietal and aged in French oak. We will taste it every few months to determine for how long we age it in oak. It could be as long as four years.”
Our visit to Dablon was a lot of fun and we appreciate Bill’s hospitality, Cassondra’s knowledge and Rudy’s willingness to take time out from harvest to answer my questions after we returned home. If you have to opportunity to take a tour, visit the tasting room or just buy a bottle of their Cab, I highly recommend it!
Nose: Cassia, star anise, powdered ginger, oak, alcohol.
Palate: Sweet and spicy. Cinnamon, allspice.
Finish: Cola, cinnamon rolls.
Parting words: Old Elk is an NDP/Micro-distillery located in Fort Collins, CO run by Master Distiller Greg Metze, who was chief distiller at MGPI for 38 years. Those years included the ones that saw it rise from an obscure industrial distillery to a famous (and somewhat infamous) bulk and custom whiskey producer that fueled the explosive growth in independent bottlers in the US, and the rye boom.
The big wheaters on the market, currently, those made by Heaven Hill, Buffalo Trace, and Maker’s Mark all trace their recipes back to the bourbons made at the legendary Stizel-Weller distillery in Louisville. While there are differences betweeen them, they have more in common than not.
This wheater is different. It’s the first high wheat bourbon I’ve ever purchased, and boy is it high. It’s 6 percentage points away from being a wheat whiskey. It has a bit of the “biscuity” quality of wheat whiskeys, but its primary characteristic is spice. Specifically what is often called baking or Christmas spice. It’s truly a unique product in the world of bourbon.
Old Elk has a few sharp points, but at 5 years old, that’s to be expected. $67 is too expensive for a 5 y/o, 92 proof bottling from a major distillery, but I’m willing to give it a pass, given how unique and well-crafted it is. I would really like to see the age go up and the price go down, but even as it is, Old Elk Wheated Bourbon is recommended.
A brief word on the bottle itself. The label and shape of the bottle is elegant, but I don’t like how heavy it is. We’re in the midst of a global climate crisis. Heavy bottles=more fuel needed to move them=higher carbon emissions. It’s (past) time to dump the heavy bottles.
Maker: Left Foot Charley, Traverse City, Michigan, USA
16= 2016 vintage
17= 2017 vinatge
Places of origin
16: Terminal Moraine (43%), Seventh Hill Farm original block (32%), Longcore (13%), and Cork’s Vineyard (12%) vineyards, Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Traverse City, Michigan, USA
16: Seventh Hill Farm (44%), Terminal Moraine (28%), Bird’s Perch (20%), Rosi Vineyards (5%), Longcore (2%), and Chown (1%) vineyards, Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Traverse City, Michigan, USA
Style: Dry Riesling.
16: $19 (Red Wagon, Rochester Hills)
17: $18 (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room)
16: Fruity, a little musty at first, lemon thyme.
17: Lychee, dry peach, lemon thyme.
16: Tart. Lemonheads, pear, grapefruit.
17: Drier. Mineral water.
16: Gravely, somewhat tart, but sweetens as it warms.
17: Similar. Gravel, slightly tart, but gets lemony as it warms.
Parting words: This was another head to head tasting Liz & I had with friends of the blog Amy and Pete. They’re old hat at this now so they went in with the focus of experienced wine tasters.
The overall winner was the 2017, although Amy and I liked both. Liz thought the 2016 was much too tart and Pete wasn’t too hot on it either. The 2017 had an austere elegance that the 2016 (at this point anyway) lacked. They both went very well with our snacks.
Left Foot Charley is known for its single vineyard Rieslings, one of the most famous of which is named for one of the vineyards well represented in these blends, Seventh Hill Farm. It’s the largest of the vineyards represented at a whopping 5 acres and goes back to the late 1990s. It’s owned by Tom and Linda Scheuerman and is known for its sunny southern exposure and sandy loam soil.
The second best represented of these vineyards is Terminal Moraine. It’s farmed by Lisa Reeshorst, and is 1.8 acres large. It will celebrate its twentieth anniversary next year. The others are mostly smaller. For more information on these wines and the vineyards they come from, click here for the 2016 vintage and here for 2017.
I’m not sure if the differences in these wines are terroir or vintage drive (although it’s probably a little of both) but it’s an interesting contrast. 2016 was a good vintage in Michigan, but maybe a little too hot (yes, that’s possible here). 2017 was a more balanced vintage and produced some very elegant, well-balanced wines, so our preference was not surprising. The 2016 may be a little over the hill (no pun intended) as well, although it’s still drinking just fine, in my opinion, anyway. In general, I think 2016 Michigan wines are not as age-worthy as the 2017s (although there are always exceptions).
At under $20, LFC Dry Riesling is a real bargain, especially compared to its German cousins. Both vintages are recommended, but unless you have a very expensive, climate controlled cellar, 2016 is a wine to drink now. The 2017 will probably be fine for another year or two, but why wait? It’s great now.
Maker: Left Foot Charley, Traverse City, Michigan, USA
Place of origin: Engle Ridge Farm, Grand Traverse County, Michigan, USA
Apples: Various European heritage varieties.
Price: $8/500 ml (LFC website)
Appearance: Gold with steady bubbles.
Nose: Strawberry, caramel, cut apple.
Palate: Tingly, medium light bodied, and dry. Granny smith.
Finish: Clean, apple butter.
Parting words: Left Foot Charley is best known for making some of the best single vineyard wines in Northern Michigan, but they also make some of the best single orchard ciders in Northern Michigan!
This is a great example. Engle’s Ransom isn’t a brash, funky Iberian or Norman cider. It’s a crisp, clean expression of the apples that went into it and the stony vineyard they came from. There’s a little sweetness and bitterness that keep it from turning into Pellegrino, but it’s still dry and refreshing on a hot summer afternoon.
At $8 for half a liter, this is an easy buy. Engle’s Ransom is recommended.
Palate: Full bodied. Cherry juice, oak, then burn.
Finish: Cherry vanilla ice cream, alcohol.
Parting words: Sazerac has done a lot with the Barton distillery in Bardstown since they purchased the distillery from Constellation in 2009. The latest thing is the Thomas S. Moore line of wine barrel finished bourbons.
I’m not a purist when it comes to finished bourbon. I think a finish can be a nice addition to bourbon when applied judiciously and when the underlying bourbon is good quality. Fortified wine finishes are pretty common with whiskeys of all kinds, so I thought I’d try the Cab Sauv finish first. The finish adds some fun, fruity notes, but they’re quickly overcome by an underlying unrefined harshness. Water reduces the heat, but the harshness remains. It reminds me of going to my senior prom. I was wearing a tux and a sporting a fresh haircut, but underneath I was the same crude, rude teen.
If this were $20 cheaper, this harshness might be easier to overlook or I could write it off as an interesting mixer, but $70 is serious money for a bourbon from a major distiller. Sazerac can do better than this.
While I’m at it, I might as well mention the bottle and label, which are worse than what’s inside. The two tone horse picture, disjointed graphic design, and ugly, generic bottle, makes Thomas S. Moore look more like a prop from a mid-century movie set than a 21st century high-end bourbon.
Thomas S. Moore, Cabernet Sauvignon cask finish is not recommended.
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
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.
Maker: Bruichladdich, Islay, Argyll, Scotland, UK (Rémy Cointreau)
Style: Peated Single Malt
Age: 6 y/o
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.