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.
Place of origin: Lake Michigan Shore AVA, Michigan, USA
Purchased for $8 (? Winery tasting room, Troy, Michigan)
Appearance: Orangy pink, effervescent.
Nose: Strawberry, mulberry.
Palate: Fizzy, medium-bodied and mild. White raspberry, mineral water.
Finish: Acid, a little tannin.
Parting words: I recall tasting this wine at the tasting room and I must have liked it a lot since I ended up buying three bottles of it! Oddly, two of those bottles are listed at $8 and one is listed at $14 in my Cellar Tracker account, so I’m not really sure how much I paid.
This is a decent, quaffable sparkling rosé that tastes best when chilled. There’s not much in the way of balance or integration, though, and the palate is a little flat. For $8 (if that’s what I paid for it), it’s fine. At $14, not so much. I’ll err on the side of generosity, though and give St. Julian Dry Sparkline Rosé a mild recommendation.
Note: This wine is no longer on the St. Julian website, but seems to have been replaced by something called Dry Bubbly Rosé. Hopefully the name change means that the wine has been revamped.
Maker: Old Westminster, New Windsor, Carroll Co, Maryland, USA
Grapes: Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot.
Place of origin: Maryland, USA (Northern Maryland according to back label)
Purchased for $32 (Glen’s Market, Washington, DC)
Note: 50 cases produced
Appearance: Brick red.
Nose: Blackberry, cut green pepper, allspice, a drop of vanilla.
Palate: Dry, medium-bodied. White cherry, blueberry wine, roasted red pepper, nutmeg, oak.
Finish: Chewy with a little fruit.
Parting words: New Windsor is a historic small town in Maryland, about 25 miles northwest of Owings Mills. It’s known for its hot springs and the presence of a Church of the Brethren mission center.
Andrew Stover, the sommelier behind the Somm Cuvée is based in DC currently but is from Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is also the founder of Vino50 selections, a wine wholesaler that specializes in “regional” American wines.
I enjoyed this wine, but it was a little high in pyrazine (bell pepper aroma) for my taste when drinking solo. I don’t mind little bit of that aroma, but I expected something a little more refined in a wine this expensive and this rare. That said, it did pair very nicely with quinoa and lamb chops and homemade pork and beans. Maybe it just needed more time in the bottle. That might mean less fruit, unfortunately. So, I don’t know what exactly to tell you to do with this wine. Anyway, due to the relatively high price, I’m going to give this vintage at this time a mild recommendation.
A few months ago we invited my friends Pete and Amy over to taste two 2012 Late Harvest Rieslings (one from Lake Michigan Shore and one from Old Mission Peninsula) and I wrote it up for the blog. A couple weeks ago I noticed I had a few bottles of 2012 Michigan Cabernet Franc in my cellar and I thought it would be a great opportunity for another four-person wine tasting.
From those 2012 Cab Francs I picked two from two boutique-y wineries, one in Lake Michigan Shore and one on Old Mission Peninsula. Free Run is a sub-label of Round Barn specializing in estate grown and/or single vineyard wines run by Matt and Christian Moersch. Brys Estate is one of the most popular destinations on Old Mission with a dark, swanky tasting room and a beautiful deck that stretches out into the vineyards. It is known for its upscale reds and dry Riesling.
For this tasting we asked our bordeaux varietal-loving friends Jessica and Brian to join us. They suggested we make a dinner of it and so we and our kids gathered at their place for a delicious meal and hopefully delicious wines to go along with it! Big thanks to them for hosting! Now, on to the tasting.
FR= Free Run Cellars Cabernet Franc, Berrien Springs, Michigan USA (Round Barn)
BE= Brys Estate Cabernet Franc, Traverse City, Michigan, USA
Grape: Cabernet Franc (at least 85%)
Place of origin
FR: Lake Michigan Shore AVA, Michigan, USA
BE: Brys Estate, Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Traverse City, Michigan, USA
FR: $25 (winery) At time of purchase I received a complimentary tour, tasting, lunch and discount.
BE: $50 (winery)
FR: Dark ruby.
BE: Darker. Plum.
FR: A little reserved at first. Cherry, strawberry jam, oak.
BE: Less fruity and less tannic. More reserved. French lavender, fig, mulberry, chocolate.
FR: Tart. A little cherry.
BE: Tight, clove, lavender again.
Pairing: Baby spinach salad, sausage and lentil casserole, chocolate tarts.
FR: The spinach salad clashed a bit with the tannins in FR, but FR was wonderful with everything else, especially the casserole. The earthiness of the lentils and spice of the sausage complemented FR’s fruit and tannin perfectly.
BE: While BE wasn’t unpleasant with the main dish, it did sort of stand aloof from it. When we got to the chocolate tarts it seemed to feel more at home. Its floral aroma was a great complement to the dark chocolate and sea salt.
Tasters other than me
Jessica: Liked both. Thought FR took a long time to open up, but once it did, she liked the fruit and tannins and thought it paired very well with the casserole (which she made after seeing lentils listed as a good pairing for Cab Franc). Thought BE was good, but not very food friendly, except as an accompaniment for the chocolate. She did not think either was a good value compared to the similar wines from Napa and France that she and Brian usually drink. On BE: “This is not a $50 wine.”
Brian: Wasn’t aware that Cab Franc was grown in Michigan before this tasting! He agreed with most of what Jessica said. He found BE to be easy drinking with almost no tannin. He found FR to be more aggressive but agreed that FR was more food-friendly.
Liz: Seemed to like everything and agreed with everyone else.
My parting words: I enjoyed both of these wines, but I do agree with the consensus opinion. FR was what I expect when I buy a Cabernet Franc: Food friendly, with fruit, tannin and some oak and spice. The food friendliness is not surprising given the “full culinary experience”-type tastings Free Run wines are made for.
BE was surprising. The lavender aroma dominates and makes it difficult to pair with a meal. There was also very little tannin. It was subtle and elegant, but almost too much so. Some chewiness would have brought things together a little better.
I think FR was worth the money, but BE was not. Brys wines are overpriced across the board. I’d probably pay $30 or $35 for BE Cab Franc, but at $50 I expect more going on. My final verdict: 2012 Free Run Cabernet Franc is recommended and 2012 Brys Estate Cabernet Franc is mildly recommended.
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 $25 at Michigan by the Bottle, Royal Oak (another bottle purchased at winery for $30)
Appearance: Dark red.
Nose: Crushed sweet cherry, oak smoke, allspice, raspberries.
Palate: Juicy and slightly tart. Cherry juice, nutmeg, red currant, sautéed mushroom.
Finish: Chewy, then sweet, then tart.
Parting words: The Hog’s Back is a ridge in the central part of Old Mission Peninsula, just north of the unincorporated village of Mapleton (home to the Peninsula Grill). The Hog’s Back vineyard is on the western slope of the ridge. It’s one of the few vineyards on Old Mission to specialize in red varietals. It’s planted with Merlot and Cabernet Franc. While Cabernet Franc is common in all parts of Michigan, Merlot is more rare, especially in the north of the state. It evidently thrives on The Hog’s Back or at least it did in 2012.
This wine is wonderful from start to finish. It was one of my favorites when it was on the menu at MBTBRO, even at a relatively young age. Its structure, fruit and acid made it irresistable. It has gotten even better since then, and is probably the best northern Michigan red I’ve had or the best Bordeaux-variety blend at the very least. It tastes just as good with food as it does after dinner. It’s great now but I’m sure it will still be great in another five years. I’ll report back when I open my other bottle. Hopefully there will be a 2016 vintage of this wine or something like it! 2012 Peninsula Cellars Merlot/Cabernet Franc (The Hog’s Back) is highly recommended.