Sandhill Crane Syrah, 2012

Maker: Sandhill Crane Vineyards, Jackson, Michigan, USA20171027_174701.jpg

Grape: Syrah (at least 75% by law)

Place of origin: Michigan, USA

Vintage: 2012

ABV: 13.9%

Purchased for: $24 (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room, Royal Oak)

Appearance: Dark burgundy.

Nose: Plum, blueberry, cedar, mace.

Palate: Medium-bodied, medium sweet. Blackberry, cherry juice, French oak, nutmeg, clove.

Finish: Juicy, then oaky with a little tang.

Parting words: Sandhill Crane’s home is in Jackson, Michigan, in a small cluster of wineries including Chateau Aeronautique and Sleeping Bear Winery. They make wine from a mix of estate grown grapes and grapes from other areas of Michigan. They’re known, at least to me, for their reds which are consistantly some of the best in the state. They have a large, swinging tasting room with a restaurant and frequent events. It’s less than ninety minutes from most places in the Detroit Metro area and not far from Ann Arbor and Lansing either, making it a popular destination for those interested in a relaxing Saturday afternoon away.

Syrah’s home is in the Rhöne valley, but tasting this wine left me wondering if its second home could be in southern Michigan. This is cool climate Syrah to be sure, fruity and slightly acidic, but still with the grape’s spicy calling card. The Rhöne vallery isn’t as hot and dry as many people assume anyway. Syrah doesn’t seem to do well in northern Michigan, but in the south and southwest it seems to do better and in the hands of a skilled winemaker like Holly Balansag it can be delicious. We had this wine with chicken tacos and it paired very well. Sandhill Crane Syrah also pairs well with beef and pork. 2012s are going to be hard to find now, but 2016 and 2017 are looking as good as 2012 was or even better. Make sure you give it a good four or five years in the cellar to enjoy it at its best! 2012 Sandhill Crane Syrah is highly recommended.

 

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Early Times Bottled-in-Bond

Maker: Brown-Forman, Shively, Kentucky, USA20171027_174632.jpg

Style: High corn bonded bourbon

Age: At least four years old

Proof: 100 (50% ABV)

Michigan state minimum: $21/ 1 liter

Appearance: Medium copper.

Nose: Roasted corn, cayenne, Mexican oregano, leather.

Palate: Jalapeño, caramel. Gets a little fruity with water. Blueberry, blackberry, watermelon.

Finish: Grape soda, alcohol. Caramel comes out with water.

Mixed: I tried it in an old-fashioned, Manhattan, boulevardier, with Benedictine and with amaretto. Worked well in all of them, even though it didn’t really stand out. That’s not necessarily bad, though. Sometimes the base spirit is best as a, uh, base.

Parting words: Early Times is one of the oldest American whiskey brands still in existence. It was founded in 1860 by Jack Beam (uncle to Jim). Despite the name (an early example of marketing by nostalgia), Jack’s distillery was a throughly modern operation strategically located next to a rail line (the Louisville & Nashville railroad) near Bardstown. After Jack’s death in 1915, his nephew John Shaunty took over. After John’s death in 1922, a man named S.L. Guthrie bought the distillery and sold the Early Times brand to Brown-Forman. Brown-Forman has owned it since then. They even built a new distillery dedicated to the brand (their best seller at the time) in 1955. It’s still in operation today and is home to ET, Old Forester and Cooper’s Craft.

Jack had a colorful family. His final wife, Anna Figg Brown, was much younger than he and lived into the 1960s. After John Shaunty’s death, his widow took up with a con man who robbed her and left her stranded in Atlantic City. S.L. Guthrie had to drive there to pick her up and take her home. All this according to Sam Cecil’s The Evolution of the Bourbon Industry in Kentucky (1999).

At any rate, Early Times spent several years as America’s best-selling bourbon in the mid twentieth century and hung around at number two even after it was overaken tby Jim Beam. Early Times’ slide began when in 1983, as a cost cutting measure, B-F changed ET from a bourbon to “Kentucky Whisky”, a mix of bourbon with whiskey aged in used barrels, in the US. It remained a straight bourbon overseas. The brand still sells with “price sensitive” consumers, but has not regained its former widespread popularity. Back in 2011 Brown-Forman tried to jumpstart Early Times by releasing a new straight bourbon version called Early Times 354. It was not good. My video (!) review of it is here.

Luckily, B-F decided to give ET another chance and released this new bonded version with a beautiful retro label earlier this year. It’s a hit, with me, anyway. It’s sweet, as it and other high corn bourbons tend to be (e.g. Eagle Rare, Elmer T. Lee) but it has enough oak and spice to keep it from becoming boring. It mixes well, but I think it is at its best with one or two ice cubes and maybe a dash or two of bitters.

Price-wise, ET BiB is in a great place. If it were a standard 750 ml bottle, it would be $15.75. That would make it the cheapest bonded bourbon available in Michigan, less than Old Grand Dad ($28), sibling Old Forester Signature ($25, not technically a BiB, but close), Jim Beam ($22), and Evan Williams White Label ($18). All are fine products but Early Times Bottled-in-Bond is as good as any of those and none of them can deliver the same value. Brown-Forman has hit it out of the park again. Early Times Bottled-in-Bond is highly recommended.

What’s next for B-F? I’m hoping an ET with a double digit age statement. Get on it, George.

Peninsula Cellars Lemberger, 2013

Maker: Peninsula Cellars, Traverse City, Michigan, USA20171019_172611.jpg

Grape: Lemberger, aka Blaufränkisch

Place of origin: Old Mission AVA, Traverse City, Michigan, USA

Vintage: 2013

ABV: 12%

Purchased for $22.50 (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room, Royal Oak)

Appearance: Dark ruby.

Nose: Blueberry pie, tomato, black pepper. “grapes when you eat them” -nosing note from my 7 y/o daughter.

Palate: Blackberry juice, wild mushroom, pink peppercorn, a little tartness.

Finish: Tannin, then acid.

Parting words: What do Pinot Blanc and Lemberger have in common? They’re both popular grapes that I just haven’t been able to get excited about. Both grow well in Up North, West Michigan and southern Michigan wine countries and both have been floated as “signature grapes” for the state. I’m not a fan of the concept of regions promoting one “signature grape” in general, but if I had to pick, neither Lemberger or Pinot Blanc would be in my top five.

As I do with a lot of things, I’ve been questioning myself over my disinterest in Lemberger and Pinot Blanc and wondering if it meant that my palate was flawed or I’m some kind of moron. So I’ve been trying to drink more of both kinds of wine. This bottle is a part of that effort.

Austria is considered Lemberger’s home turf, although it probably originated farther south and east. It’s known as Blaufränkisch in Austria where it is the second most planted red wine grape. The first is Lemberger’s offspring, Zweigelt.

While I may have had a breakthrough regarding Pinot Blanc, Lemberger’s appeal remains elusive. This is a well made wine, better than the last Lemberger I tried, but I still find myself wondering why it’s such a favorite of some Michigan wine drinkers. For me it’s too rough around the edges. In the past year or two I’ve been moving into sweeter, fruitier wines (Gamay, Riesling, Pinot Noir, cool climate Cab Franc and Merlot) and this wine’s tannic finish and unbalanced earthiness were an unpleasant surprise to my palate. Chilling it did eliminate much of that roughness but I would rather not have to chill a red wine at this price.

I think much of Lemberger’s popularity in Michigan is being driven by how well it grows here (which is a good thing!) but as for me, I still prefer it in blends rather than bottled as a varietal. Austrian Blaufränkisch often improves with extended cellar time, so maybe this one needs more time. Luckily I have another bottle of this in my cellar so I can test that theory in a couple years. Anyway, as it is now 2013 Peninsula Cellars Lemberger is mildly recommended.

Talisker Distiller’s Edition (2013 release)

Maker: Talisker, Carbost, Isle of Skye, Highland, Scotland, UK (Diageo)20171013_121622.jpg

Region: Island

Style: Peated single malt, finished in amorosa (cream) sherry casks

Age: 10-11 y/o (distilled 2002, bottled 2013)

ABV: 45.8%

Michigan state minimum: $81

Appearance: Light copper.

Nose: Peat, old oak, roasted almond, vanilla, lemon meringue.

Palate: Medium-bodied, medium sweet, creamy. Custard, toffee, apricot.

Finish: Big and ashy. Fireplace with a nibble of toffee.

Parting words: Back in 2014 I reviewed Talisker Storm and I liked it a lot, but I thought it was “by the numbers” with little in the way of surprises. The Distiller’s Edition does have some surprises up its sleeve. I’m not a fan of sweetened cream sherries as beverages but their casks do good things to peaty whisky! Talisker DE is complex and rounded in a way that Storm and the 10 y/o aren’t. It’s more than worth the extra $3 over the Storm (which I still do enjoy). It’s a Talisker suitable for after-dinner sipping in the living room, while Storm and the 10 are post-snow-shoveling malts, if that makes sense. This is an older vintage but I don’t think much has changed since 2013. Talisker Distiller’s Edition is recommended.

 

 

 

Domaine d’Espérance, 5 ans

Maker: Domaine d’Espérance, Mauvezin-d’Armagnac, Landes, France.20171019_164323.jpg

Grape: Baco Blanc

Region: Bas-Armagnac

Age: 5 y/o

ABV: 40.2%

Michigan state minimum: $62

Appearance: Medium copper.

Nose: Alcohol, raisin bread, toasted French oak.

Palate: Sugared raisins, alcohol, vanilla, clove, oak.

Finish: Rubbery, with more dried fruit and alcohol.

Parting words: Why am I reviewing a French brandy? First, it’s my blog and I’ll do what I like, man. Secondly, and more importantly, I review foreign brandies so that I can better know what I’m talking about when I review Michigan and other US brandies. The focus of this blog is now and always will be local (or at least North American) wine and spirits but I can’t place them in their proper context without understanding them globally.

Domaine d’Espérance, 5 ans is, I think, the second least expensive Armagnac available in the state of Michigan. It’s definately the cheapest Espérance expression available with the XO at $86 and the 1998 vintage at $123. It’s brash and lacks complexity compared to older Armagnacs, but is still an enjoyable after dinner or afternoon sip, especially as the weather turns cold. The only thing unpleasant is the rubber in the finish, but it isn’t too obnoxious. Having cut my proverbial teeth on bourbon, I had a hard time bringing myself to mix a spirit that costs $62 but it does mix well, though I would stick to quality, classic cocktails. Domaine d’Espérance, 5 ans is recommended.

 

 

Blackbird Blackberry

Maker: Walloon Lake Winery, Petosky, Michigan, USA20171018_094013.jpg

Purchased August of 2016

Variety: Marionberry

ABV: 12%

Price: $19 (winery)

Appearance: Dark purple, almost opaque.

Nose: Crushed blackberries.

Palate: Sweet with a tang. Blackberry jam.

Finish: Tangy. Fills the cheeks.

Parting words: Walloon Lake is a medium sized lake (6.67 square miles), oddly shaped, spring-fed lake in northern Michigan east of the much larger Lake Charlevoix (27.88 square miles) and south of the much much larger Lake Michigan (22,404 square miles). It’s one of northern Michigan’s prime locations for vacation homes, including one owned by the Hiltons and Windemere, the Hemmingway family cottage . It is also home to more modest cottages including Greentree, co-owned by friends of the blog Amy and Pete.

panoramic walloon lake
Walloon Lake, as viewed from Greentree cottage.

Walloon Lake Winery is located east of the North Arm of the lake, outside of Petosky. They’re a part of the Bayview Wine Trail and the Tip of the Mitt AVA. For my thoughts on that AVA, see here. Walloon Lake pulled out a surprise win earlier this year when their North Arm Red (made from hybrid Marquette grapes) won best dry red at the state-sponsored Michigan Wine Competition. The name Blackbird comes from Blackbird Road which runs from the North Arm of Walloon up to Lake Michigan just west of the winery.

screenshot_20161103-104818.jpg
The tasting room at Walloon Lake Winery

Taking notes on fruit wines is difficult because most of them just taste like an alcoholic version of fruit juice. There are some differences between cherry wines, but even those are more subtle than in wine grapes, even across different cherry varieties. That said, Blackberries are my favorite type of berries and its fairly rare to see a blackberry wine so I thought it was worth a review. Walloon Lake also makes cherry, blueberry and sparkling peach wines.

Blackbird Blackberry does great service to a great berry. It’s full-bodied and balances the sweetness, tartness and that earthy musk that makes blackberries so distinct. $19 is expensive for a fruit wine but I think it delivers. Blackbird Blackberry is recommended.

Kroupa Orchards Apple Wine

Maker: Peninsula Cellars, Traverse City, Michigan, USA.20171008_113908.jpg

Varieites: Macintosh, Spy, Empire, Rhode Island Greening.

Harvest: 2016(?)

Style: Sweet apple wine.

ABV: 10%

Price: $16/750 ml (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room, Royal Oak)

Appearance: Light gold.

Nose: Cut table apple, swimming pool.

Palate: Full-bodied and sweet. Apple juice, Gala apple.

Finish: A faint glimmer of tannin but still sweet. Long.

Parting words: Kroupa Orchards Apple Wine falls into the weird category of products that are good but disappointing. Peninsula cellars is one of the best wineries in Michigan’s best wine region. I love almost every wine they produce, so maybe my expectations were too high for this product. It’s not bad by any stretch. It has a lucious sweetness that is pleasant, but I expected something more thoughtful from this winery.

I think much of my disappointment stems from the choice of fruit all of which are baking apples. It’s the equivalent of making wine from Concord or Niagara grapes. Concord wine can be enjoyable, but it will never be as good as a well-made Pinot Noir or Riesling. It’s the same with apple wine or cider made from baking or table apples. Kroupa Orchard Apple wine is easy drinking with lots of apple flavor, but it lacks the complexity of a finely crafted hard cider that tannic or acidic apples would bring to the mix. Even accounting for the larger bottle and higher ABV, $16 is pricy for a product like this. Kroupa Orchard Apple Wine is mildly recommended.

Tempesta, 2012

Maker: Bel Lago, Cedar, Michigan, USA.20170926_160931

Grapes: Cabernet Franc, others.

Place of origin: Michigan, USA.

Style: Red blend.

Note: Spent 32 months in French and American oak.

ABV: 13.2%

Price: $44 (Michigan By the Bottle Sipper Club)

Appearance: Brick red.

Nose: Wild blackberries, toasted oak, sautéed mushrooms.

Palate: Medium bodied and well-balanced. Blackberry jam, raspberry juice, light oak, seared steak.

Finish: Fruity and tart, then chewy and oaky.

20150725_135829
Il bel lago

Parting words: Bel Lago is located on the shores of Lake Leelanau, in the Leelanau peninsula. The view certainly lives up to the name! Owners Charlie Edson and Amy Iezzoni are known for their cherry wine (Amy practically invented the stuff), field blends and their committment to ripeness. That committment is clearest in the Bel Lago’s rich, rounded Pinot Noir and Auxerrois (Blanc) wines.

Tempesta is not estate grown and not a field blend, obviously, but it does have that trademark ripeness. Oak is present, but not used to cover up anything, just to enhance the savory quailities of Cabernet Franc. Fruit and earthy flavors are in the lead, yoked together by Tempesta’s mid-palate tartness.

$44 is a lot for a non-AVA Michigan red. One could find similar wines from California at a lower price. I still think Tempesta is worth the price in a good vintage like 2012 when cellared for at least four years. 2012s may be nearly impossible to find now, but 2016 was a stellar vintage and 2017 is looking like it may be as well. Bel Lago’s 2012 Tempesta is recommended.

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)

20170920_163846
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.

 

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.