Maker: Peninsula Cellars, Traverse City, Michigan, USA
Grapes: Merlot (75%), Cabernet Franc (25%).
Place of Origin: The Hog’s Back vineyard, Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Traverse City, Michigan, USA
Notes: 230 cases produced, 13 months in French oak.
Purchased for $30 at winery.
Appearance: Dark ruby.
Nose: Medium bodied and fruity. Cherry juice, fruit of the forest pie filling, mace, blueberry.
Palate: Cherry juice, ancho chili, toasted oak.
Finish: Juicy, then a nip of bitter oak.
Parting words: The Hog’s Back is the next entry in the 2012 project, the goal of which is the see how Michigan wines age. I last reviewed this wine in 2017, when it earned coveted “highly recommended” status. See that review for more information on The Hog’s Back vineyard, and Peninsula Cellars, one of my favorite Northern Michigan wineries.
Going by that review, this wine has changed in a few ways. First, it’s not nearly as acidic (in taste anyway) as it was back then. The cherries and berries are still there, but it’s like the tang has been almost completely removed. The baking spice is also still there, but there’s a bitter oak taste in the finish that was surprising.
This is still a very good wine at over ten years old, but it is probably starting its inevitable downward slide. If you still have a 2012 Hog’s Back, it’s time to drink up! Still, Peninsula Cellars 2012 Merlot/Cabernet Franc, 2012 is recommended.
Palate: Juicy. Mulberry, then wild blackberry, then a growing leathery grip.
Finish: Delicate. Juice, then tannin, then fades.
Parting words: The time has finally arrived! The 2012 project has begun! Our first entry is the Right Bank blend from friend-of-the-blog Nathaniel Rose. For the post on my visit to his winery back in 2018, click here. For a review of his one-off Find Wild Fruit Traminette, click here.
Right Bank is modeled on right bank red Bordeaux blends, which tend to have a larger proportion of Merlot compared to Left Bank blends, which have more Cabernet Sauvignon in the mix. Right Bank wines tend to have more Cabernet Franc as well. Nathaniel’s wines come from the best vineyards around the state, which includes those at Domaine Berrien, of course. Both the Right and Left Bank 2012 blends were made from grapes grown at Domaine Berrien.
At any rate, the hallmarks of typical Michigan Merlot/Cab Franc blends are all here: berries, oak, and spice. Time has done interesting things to it, though. It’s “darkened” the fruit, for one, moving from cherry and blueberry to black currant and blackberry. For another, it’s smoothed out the edges and created a wine that shifts more on the palate from one taste to another, rather than everything popping out at once. Right Bank takes my palate on a nice little journey from aroma to aroma and flavor to flavor. There’s nothing for my brain to disentangle. Everything reveals itself in time. A big reason for that seems to be that the acid has mellowed considerably, even compared to similar wines at seven years old.
What it lacks in tangy punch, it more than makes up in sophistication. 2012 Right Bank may not be as hard to find as one might assume, if one lives close to a Red Wagon store. Last time I went to both of them, there were 2012 Right and Left Bank blends on the shelf.
The purpose of the 2012 Project is to taste through these wines and see how they age, so price is less of a factor in my review. Nevertheless, this is a very good wine that I don’t regret paying $90 for. It’s not a weeknight pizza wine, but I didn’t buy it to be that. I think the key with many of these wines is to buy them when they’re young and less expensive, then let them hibernate for several years in a well-regulated cellar.
At any rate, Nathaniel Rose’s 2012 Right Bank is recommended.
Place of origin: Domaine Berrien estate, Lake Michigan Shore AVA, Michigan, USA.
ABV: Undisclosed (table wine exception).
Purchased for $21 (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room, Royal Oak).
Appearance: Brick red.
Nose: Cherry juice, toasted French oak, wild blackberry.
Palate: Medium bodied. Tart and a little chewy. Tart cherry, blackberry, leather.
Finish: Chewy like a good Bordeaux.
Parting words: Crown of Cab is the crown jewel of Domaine Berrien’s cellar. It’s produced every year from a blend of red Bordeaux varieties. In odd numbered years, winemaker and co-owner Wally Maurer aims for a Left Bank Bordeaux, producing a Cab Sauv-forward blend like this one. In even numbered years, he goes for a Right Bank, Merlot & Cab Franc heavy blend.
Although Wally encourages his customers to drink his wines promptly, they are some of the most age-worthy wines produced in the Mitten State. That fact is even more astounding when one factors in how affordable they all are.
At five years old, this blend is just starting to get going. 2017 was an especially fine vintage in Michigan as well, so this wine will probably end up having a long, fulfilling life for anyone who can wait a while.
Speaking of aging, I have a fun series of reviews planned for this winter and spring that involve aging Michigan wine. Watch this space for more information soon!
At any rate, 2017 Crown of Cab is recommended for cellaring and for drinking right now!
Place of origin: Leelanau Peninsula AVA, Michigan, USA. (at least 85%)
Purchased for $44 (Michigan by the Bottle Royal Oak)
Appearance: Brick red.
Nose: Blackberry, blueberry, violets.
Palate: Dry but fruity. Blueberry, mulberry, tiny nip of tannin.
Finish: Tart and a little chewy.
Parting words: Bel Lago consistently makes some of the best wines from Burgundian (and Burgundy-adjacent) grape varieties in Northern Michigan. Their Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Auxerrois are all sought after by Michigan wine enthusiasts.
Judging by this wine, they have some work to do with their Bordeaux varietals. While perfectly drinkable, it lacks the depth and complexity of Bel Lago’s Pinots and Auxerrois. It’s virtually all fruit, without anything in the way of spice, minerals, or oak, despite spending 34 months in the latter. 2016 was a hot vintage, and Charlie, Bel Lago’s co-founder, likes his grapes ripe (and the microclimate of the estate is happy to oblige him) so perhaps they had a little too much hangtime.
As I said before, there’s nothing flawed or unpleasant here, it just doesn’t quite live up to my expectations of Bel Lago or of $45 wines. That said, I’m definitely trying the 2017 if I see it. 2016 Bel Lago Cabernet Franc, 2016 is only mildly recommended.
Parting words: Cabernet Franc is one of the great workhorse red wine grapes of the world, but as longtime readers know, it can make excellent varietal wines as well. This is a great example. There’s loads of fruit and acid with a little spice as the only trace of the infamous bell pepper aromas that can show themselves in poorly made Cab Franc.
St. Julian puts too much energy into making a bewildering assortment of forgettable wines, but the Braganini Reserve line is almost always a good glass of wine. This is no exception. This wine is probably at its peak now, but it could probably go for another year or two if you are so moved. Braganini Reserve 2017 Cabernet Franc is recommended.
Place of origin: Leelanau AVA, Leelanau County, Michigan, USA (at least 85%)
Grapes: Cabernet Franc & Merlot.
ABV: Undisclosed.(labed as table wine).
Purchased for $45 (MBTBTR wine club).
Appearance: Dark ruby.
Nose: Cherry jam, clove, white pepper, toasted oak.
Palate: Semi-sweet and medium bodied. Mixed berry jam, allspice, oak.
Finish: Well balanced. Sweet, tangy, and tannic.
Parting words: Laurentide is one of my favorite Leelanau wineries. They’re good people making good wine. The name is a celebration of the Laurentide glacier that shaped so much of the present landscape of Northwestern Michigan.
I’d been celaring this wine for a couple years, since I got it in my Little Sipper package from Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room, Auburn Hills. When I saw the Laurentide Instagram account post a picture of an open bottle of this vintage, I figured the time had come to open it!
This wine is sweeter than I expected in a “Meritage” blend. That’s not a knock by any means, you, dear readers, know that I am no sweetness snob. It’s just more of a heads up. There is nothing unharmonious about, though. It fits in that fun little pocket of wines that are beautiful and well made but also very quaffable.
At $45 a bottle, one needs to pace one’s self, though. I would like it better at a lower price but that applies to any wine, really. There’s nothing not to like, so 2016 Laurentide Reserve Meritage is reccomended.
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!
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: Black Star Farms, Suttons Bay, Michigan, USA.
Grapes: 73% Merlot, 27% Cabernet Franc
Place of origin: Leorie Vineyard, Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Michigan, USA
Purchased for $46 (Holiday Market)
Note: for more information on this wine and vineyard, read this post on Black Star Farms’ Blog.
Appearance: Dark red.
Nose: Cedar, black currant jam, clove, smoke.
Palate: Juicy but structured. Full bodied. Black currant, cherry juice, blueberry pie.
Finish: A little chewy, with some acid.
Parting words: Leorie Vineyard is in an old gravel pit on Old Mission Peninsula that has become one of Black Star Farms’ finest vineyards, especially for reds. It consistently produces ripe (a challenge for Merlot in Northern Michigan), disease-free Merlot that finds its home under this label year after year.
I’m afraid my notes don’t really do this wine justice. It’s fruity for sure but nicely balanced with spice and tannins producing an elegant but not austere red worthy of the Right Bank of the Gironde. It cellars well too, obviously. I’m looking forward to cracking my other bottle of Leorie in 2022 or sometime after that. $46 is expensive by Michigan standards, but that’s a good price for a quality Merlot blend from one of Michigan’s finest vineyards made by one of Michigan’s finest wineries. 2012 Leorie Vineyard Merlot/Cabernet Franc is recommended.
2: $38 (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room, Royal Oak)
D: Dark ruby.
2: Very similar, maybe slightly lighter.
D: Plum, cedar, black currant
2: More subtle. French oak, cherry
D: Tart blueberry, red currant, leather.
2: More integrated. Chewy leather, unfoxy table grapes, ripe blueberry.
D: Drying with oak, a hint of ripe bell pepper.
2: Chewy. Clove, currant.
Parting words: Cabernet Franc is a “Workhorse” grape that does well in a wide variety of climates, particularly in cooler ones like Michigan. Many excellent examples of cool climate Cab Franc (like these two) are made here, in both the northwest and southwest parts of the state. That said, there are some big geological and climatic differences between the northern peninsulas and Lake Michigan Shore.
Although 2016 was a warm vintage and practically every vineyard in Michigan was able to get grapes as ripe as they wanted, I still expected Dablon’s Cab Franc to be riper and more lush, and 2 Lads’ to be more tart. I was surprised to discover that the opposite was true!
Dablon Cab Franc was quite acidic, but not unpleasantly so. 2 Lads was more elegant and subdued, perhaps helped in this regard by the addition of Merlot. The prices on these vary quite a bit, but every price I’ve seen for either has been within an acceptable range. If I had to pick a favorite between them, I’d say it was 2 Lads, but they’re both worth buying. Both go great with food too. They are both drinking well now, but probably wouldn’t come to any harm in another year or two (or more!) in the cellar. Dablon and 2 Lads 2016 Cabernet Francs are both recommended.