Rockway Small Lot Syrah, “Alter Ego”, 2017

Maker: Rockway Vineyards, St. Catherines, Ontario, Canada.

Grapes: Syrah with Viognier skins added during fermentation.

Place of origin: Rockway Estate, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario, Canada.

Vintage: 2017

Notes: Spent 18 months in French and American oak. For more information, click here.

Purchased for $30, Canadian. Listed at $36 on website.

Other note: Liz and I received a complimentary tasting at the time of purchase.

Appearance: Dark red.

Nose: Chocolate covered cherry, blackberry.

Palate: Dry to semi-dry. White cherry, red currant, chocolate orange.

Finish: A little chewy and a little tart, with a hint of oak.

Parting words: The family and I visited Rockway back in July on our way to Niagara Falls for a vacation. We went there to pick up a bottle of When Pigs Fly Rosé and Ruff Pinot Noir from 80x, the wine company co-founded by friend of the blog André Proulx.

I feel uncomfortable drawing attention to myself in situations like that, especially outside of Michigan where even fewer people know who I am. It was lunch time, so we got a table at the winery restaurant and I ordered a glass of Gewürztraminer. After we ordered our food, I walked over to the tasting bar and mentioned that I was picking up two bottles from André and might want to buy another bottle or two. That’s when wine club manager Bonnie Bates sprung into action.

After a sip at the bar, she offered to move the rest of the tasting to our table and we accepted. Liz was included in the tasting as well, and we weren’t changed or given any sort of limit for it. This is a dangerous situation for yours truly to be in, but I managed to keep it in second gear so my palate wouldn’t get tired or my head dizzy.

In addition to the Gewürz, we also tried the Pinot Gris, Gamay Noir, Small Lot Syrah, Meritage, Cab/Shiraz (featuring Cabs Franc and Sauvignon), Pink Ribbon Rosé, and this wine. They were all good, but the standouts to me were the Pinot Gris and Alter Ego. Liz liked the rosé better than the Gris, so we bought a bottle of that, Alter Ego, and a bottle of the surprisingly tannic (in a good way) Gamay Noir which I was eager to try again in a different setting.

On the way out I attempted to tip tasting room manager Mike (he had taken over from Bonnie who had wine club managing to do), but I was waved off. That said, always tip your tasting room pourer, or at least try to!

Anyway, don’t let the touristy vibe of Rockway and its golf course fool you, there is seriously good wine being made there, and seriously good hospitality too. It’s worth a leisurely stop if you’re driving through the area or you could stop at the tasting bar after a round of golf, if you’re into that sort of thing.

As for this wine itself, the unique process is a twist on the way Syrah is often made in the grape’s traditional home in the Rhône valley. Rhône Syrah is often co-fermented with Viognier for added complexity, a rounder mouthfeel, tamer tannins, and to stabilize the color. The practice is most associated with the sub-region of Côte-Rôtie in the northern part of the valley. It’s not done as much in that area anymore, but it’s still done in many places, including Northern Michigan, where Nathaniel Rose uses that technique with his Syrah.

$30 CA works out to about $22 US at the time of writing, so this is an easy buy. It’s very good now but you could probably cellar it for another year or two if you really wanted. Rockway’s 2017 Small Lot Syrah, “Alter Ego” is recommended.

Domaine Berrien Syrah, 2016

Maker: Domaine Berrien, Berrien Springs, Michigan, USA

Grape: Syrah (at least 85%)

Place of origin: Domain Berrien estate, Lake Michigan Shore AVA, Michigan, USA (at least 85%)

Vintage: 2016

ABV: Undisclosed (“table wine”)

Purchased for $22 (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room)

Appearance: Dark ruby.

Nose: Oak, sautéed mushrooms, mulberry, white pepper, nutmeg.

Palate: Tart blueberry, oak, clove, mace.

Finish: Mild, but a little spice and oak on the back end.

Parting words: I reviewed the 2011 vintage of DB’s Syrah back in 2016. It had spent a little longer in the bottle than this wine, but only by a few months. 2016 was a very warm vintage so I expected the 2016 to be fruitier than the 2011 was. While it can be hard to remember what I was thinking four and a half years ago, that does not seem to be the case. The notes are similar enough to be nearly identical. The only difference seems to be the earthy mushroom aroma I got in the nose. Earthiness is a Domaine Berrien trait, so it’s perhaps a little surprising that the 2011 didn’t seem to have much in the way of earth at all.

Anyway, Syrah does well in Southwest Michigan when it can get ripe enough, and 2016 was one of those years. $22 is a steal for a relatively rare, high quality wine like this. Domaine Berrien Syrah, 2016 is recommended.

Ultima Thule, 2013

Maker: Mari Vineyards, Traverse City, Michigan, USA

Grapes: 45% Nebbiolo, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot

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

Vintage: 2013

ABV: 13.5%

Purchased for $60 at winery (minus 18% [IIRC] media discount)

Thanks to Sean O’Keefe and everyone else at Mari for the generous media discount.

Appearance: Brick red.

Nose: Plum, black currant jam, blackberry, white pepper, leather.

Palate: Full-bodied and tart. Raspberry, black currant, mulberry, tart cherry, oak.

Finish: Acidic and relatively short. Chewy on the back end.

Parting words: The islands of Thule were first mentioned by the Greek geographer Pytheas of Massalia (died c. 285 BCE). It was as six days sail north of Great Britain and was the most northern point known to people of the ancient Mediterranean. It’s unclear what, if any, real place Thule was. Iceland, Greenland, Orkney, Shetland, or some island off Norway have all been suggested. One later geographer suggestions the name may come from an old name refering to the Polar night, the sun never sets for weeks or months on end in high latitudes. When we were in Orkney, locals refered to it as the “simmer (summer) dim” when the sun never completely sets but just hangs around the horizon all night. We actually experienced a bit of this ourselves during our brief time there. I remember waking up around 2 am or so to see sunlight peaking through the blinds in our B & B.

On ancient and Medieval European maps, Ultima Thule became a fixture in the northwest, representing the northernmost inhabited bit of land. While the Old Mission Peninsula is much closer in latitude to Bordeaux or Torino than to Orkney or Iceland, Mari’s vineyards are at the northernmost point of Old Mission and this wine represents the ultimate expression of their nellaserra (hoop-house) system. Northern Michigan has enough sun to ripen Nebbiolo, but the cold springs present a big problem for the grape, which needs a relatively long time to ripen. The hoop-houses act as large cold frames and enable Nebbiolo to get the head start it needs to ripen.

As for the wine itself, it’s complex but not busy. It’s more acidic than I expected, but 2013 was a very cool vintage that saw pretty tart and but very long-lived wines. It’s not bracing or pucker-inducing by any stretch, though. The acid is firmly grounded in the fruit, and rounded off with judicious oak and spice.

$60 is a lot of money for a Michigan wine, or any wine period, really. I think it’s worth the money, however, and I think there’s three reasons why. First is rarity. To my knowledge there are no other Nebbiolo vines in Michigan besides those belonging to Mari Vineyards. Second is longevity. Cab Sauv and Nebbiolo are known for their ability to age for long periods of time so I originally planed to open this wine in the fall of 2023 but I just couldn’t wait that long. I have no regrets about opening it when I did but I think it could have gone for two or three more years at least. This is born out by how good it still tasted one and even two days after open.

Finally, this wine is worth at least $60 because it’s just so good. It’s good with food, by itself, in a box, with a fox, however you want to drink it. Mari Vineyards Ultima Thule, 2013 is recommended!

Beacon 17 Riesling

Maker: Charlevoix Moon, Chalevoix, Michigan, USA

Grape: Riesling (at least 85%)

Place of origin: Charlevoix Moon estate, Tip of the Mitt AVA, Michigan, USA

Style: (Semi-) Dry Riesling.

Vintage: 2017

Purchased for $24 at the Boyne City Farmer’s Market

ABV: Forgot to write it down.

Appearance: Pale gold.

Nose: Pear, old golden apple.

Palate: Golden apple, green apple, Meyer lemon.

Finish: Chewy and acidic.

Parting words: When the Tip of the Mitt AVA in Northern Michigan was announced, I was very skeptical as to whether most of the winemakers there would be interested in making serious wine or just emptying tourists’ wallets. As I familiarize myself more and more with the region and its winemakers, I realize more and more how unfounded my skepticism was. Barring some sudden climate catastrophe, Tip of the Mitt will never be able to produce the same sorts of wines as Lake Michigan Shore, Leelanau or Old Mission, but that’s ok. They can produce their own sorts of wines, though. Almost all of them are/will be cold-hardy hybrids, and not European vinifera varieties.

Note that I said “almost all of them” in that last sentence. The “almost” is where this wine comes in. There are a scant few acres of Riesling in Tip of the Mitt, some of which belongs to Tom Jaenicke, owner and Man in the Moon of Charlevoix Moon Winery. The rest of the Riesling in Tip of the Mitt is owned by an unnamed vineyard owner who sells it to another winery that blends it away, for reasons that baffle Tom (and me).

This is a tart, chewy, very food friendly Riesling, reminiscent of Oregon or Alsace, but with a big acidic kick those don’t always have. Tom’s wines take a little bit of work to get a hold of currently, with farmer’s market season over and a pandemic raging, but they can be ordered from the Charlevoix Moon Website or over the phone (the number is on the website). Tom’s hybrid wines are also very good, but a Tip of the Mitt Riesling is a very rare bird, so be sure you include some with your order. You won’t regret it!

$24 is a very fair price for such a rare and delicious wine. Beacon 17 is recommeded!

Semi-dry Riesling Head to Head: 2017 Shady Lane vs 2017Arcturos

S= Shady Lane, A: Arcturos

Makers

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

A: Black Star Farms, Suttons Bay, Michigan, USA

Grapes: Reisling (at least 85%)

Places of origin

S: Shady Lane Estate, Leelanau Peninsula AVA, Michigan, USA

A: Montana Rusa, Capellla, Leorie vineyards, Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Michigan, USA

Vintage: 2017

ABV

S: 10.8%

A: 12%

Price

S: $13

A: $15

Appearance

S: Medium light gold

A: Light gold.

Nose

S: Semi-sweet apple

A: Gravel, peach.

Palate

S: Full-bodied, semi sweet, a little chewy.

A: Full-bodied, drier. Underripe peach.

Finish

S: Sweet and apply.

A: Semi-dry, clean.

Parting words: A few weeks ago, I was perusing my cellar and I discovered I had two or three bottles of Arcturos Semi-Dry Riesling and Shady Lane Semi-dry Riesling so I decided to invite friends of the blog Amy and Pete over for some homemade jambalaya and a head to head tasting.

The jambalaya

Everyone seemed to enjoy both of these wines, but Arcturos won the night by a nose, as it were. It’s flinty dryness paired perfectly with the toasty spice of the dish and was a little more balanced and true to type. Shady Lanes’ Semi-dry tasted much more like how I expect a semi-sweet Riesling to taste and was a little chewy (a little lees contact maybe?), not a style that typically does as well with food.

That said, both of these wines are good and worth the price. 2017 Shady Lane Semi-dry Riesling and 2017Arcturos Semi-Dry Riesling are both recommended.

If you want to do more comparing, check out my review of the 2017 St. Julian Semi-dry Riesling!

Scriptorium Riesling, 2016

Maker: Mari Vineyards, Traverse City, Michigan, USA.20191023_205658.jpg

Grape: Riesling (100%)

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

Vintage: 2016

Style: Semi-dry Riesling. Light lees contact.

ABV: 12%

Purchased for $26 (winery)

Appearance: Pale gold.

Nose: Lychee, canned pears, gravel, pineapple sage, pinch of epazote.

Palate: Full-bodied and lush. Underripe bartlett pear, mandarin orange, and lemon sherbet but without the sweetness of all those things. A little tarragon too.

Finish: Acid first, then gravel.

Parting words: Scriptorium is a semi-dry Riesling, but it drinks like a lucious late harvest one. There’s a lot of fruit and big acid up front with some minerality and herbs bringing up the rear.

Riesling might not seem to fit the profile of Mari Vineyards at first glance. Mari is known for elegant red blends, especially ones featuring grapes not commonly grown in Michigan like Nebbiolo and Sangiovese (they can grow these grapes because of their nella serra system). Riesling very much fits the profile of Mari winemaker Sean O’Keefe, though. His family founded, and still owns, Chateau Grand Traverse just five miles up the peninsula from Mari. So when he was hired as winemaker at Mari, he knew he had to make Riesling too. It’s in his blood.

I’m very glad it is too. Scriptorium is a wonderful wine that is a bargain at $26. Drink it now or drink it later, but just drink it! 2016 Scriptorium Riesling is highly recommended.

Good Harbor Rosé, 2016

Maker: Good Harbor Vineyards, Lake Leelanau, Michigan, USA20180910_114821.jpg

Grape: 100% Marechal Foch

Place of origin: Good Harbor estate, Leelanau Peninsula AVA, Michigan, USA

Vintage: 2016

ABV: 11.7%

Purchased for $16 (winery)

Appearance: Very dark for a rosé. More light ruby Burgundy than pale Provançal pink.

Nose: Grape jelly, crushed mulberry.

Palate: Cherry soda, allspice.

Finish: Sweet and fruity.

Parting words: This is a simple but very tasty wine. It’s very fruity but not overly sweet. Goes down easy with food or on its own. I haven’t had a lot of Foch, but I think maybe the world needs to see more of it, at least in pink.

2016 Good Harbor Rosé is recommended.

Ch de Leelanau Rosé of Pinot Noir

Maker: Chateau de Leelanau, Suttons Bay, Michigan, USA20180530_220820.jpg

Grape: Pinot Noir (at least 85%)

Place of origin: Chateau de Leelanau estate, Leelanau Peninsula AVA, Michigan, USA

Vintage: 2016

ABV: 11%

Purchased for $26

Appearance: Dark ruby.

Nose: Watermelon, cranberry juice cocktail, cedar.

Palate: Medium-bodied and semi-dry. Cranberry/raspberry cocktail, cherry juice, toasted oak.

Finish: Dry, oaky, slightly tart.

Parting words: In Michigan, 2016 is beginning to be spoken of in the same breath as 2012 as one of Michigan’s greatest vintages. Wines like this juicy beauty are why. It’s refreshing but never boring. It’s food friendly but also great for porch sipping. It’s all you want in a summer rosé. It’s very good now, but will surely improve or at least maintain its quality with another year or so in the bottle. 2016 Chateau de Leelanau Rosé of Pinot Noir is recommended.

Wyncroft Avonlea Chardonnay 2011

Maker: Wyncroft/Marland, Pullman, Michigan, USA20170502_111830

Place of origin: Avonlea vineyard, Lake Michigan Shore AVA, Michigan, USA

ABV: Unknown.

Price: $35 (Michigan by the Bottle, Auburn Hills)

Appearance: Medium gold with a thin robe.

Nose: Rancio, golden raisins.

Palate: Full bodied and medium sweet. Sherry, gruyere cheese, sweet butter, hint of oak.

Finish: Sweet. Apricot, croissants.

Parting words: Wyncroft/Marland is a very limited production, estate winery in the Southwestern Michigan co-owned by winemaker Jim Lester. Jim was one of the earliest boutique winemakers in Michigan, as he frequently reminds people. He’s one of the rare big talkers who lives up to his own hype, though.  The Wyncroft label is used for limited production estate wines with Marland used for their line of more affordable wines from vineyards they don’t own. I’m very fond of his reds, but I haven’t always liked his whites. It’s not that they’re inconsistent, it’s that I haven’t always enjoyed the style in which they’ve been made. No accounting for taste, as they say.

Avonlea vineyard is Wyncroft’s flagship, planted with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling. Avonlea was hit hard by the Polar Vortex in 2014 with substantial loss of Chardonnay vines, according to Wyncroft’s website. The surviving Chardonnay vines had their fruit devoured by a murder of crows shortly before harvest. The damaged area has been replanted. In the meantime the 2011, 2012 and 2013 vintages are available.

This heavy, buttery style of chardonnay is not my favorite, especially not when from Michigan. Avonlea Chardonnay was pleasant but heavy handed  when first opened. As it opened up, it became even more unbalanced and took on unpleasant oxidized and burnt butter flavors. Even Mrs. Sipology, who normally enjoys oaky chards, didn’t like it. I can’t say I liked it either. I don’t know if this wine is flawed or tainted (I don’t think it’s the latter) or what, but I really can’t recommend it, especially not at $35.

Shady Lane Sparkling Riesling, 2014

Maker: Shady Lane Cellars, Suttons Bay, Michigan, USA20170320_112711.jpg

Grape: Riesling (100%)

Style: Medium dry sparkling white wine (secondary fermentation was using the cuve close, aka “tank” method)

Place of origin: Shady Lane estate (Blocks M, I & N), Leelanau Peninsula AVA, Michigan, USA

ABV: 10.6%

Price: $25 (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room, Auburn Hills)

For more information, scroll down to this wine’s entry here on Shady Lane’s website.

Appearance: Very pale straw with steady, delicate bubbles.

Nose: Whiff of yeast then classic Riesling profile. Big peach, plum, jackfruit, fresh squeezed blood orange juice.

Palate: Light bodied and medium sweet with moderate acidity. Mineral water, grapefruit, lemon peel, vanilla bean.

Finish: Clean & crisp. Minerals, acid.

Parting words: Shady Lane, one of Leelanau’s best wineries, is named after the founder’s favorite Pavement song (ok, probably not but I like to pretend that it is). Almost all their wines are made from estate grown grapes. That sets them apart from most of their peers. It also makes their wines harder to find and a little more expensive, but it’s worth it.

Sparkling Riesling is relatively rare in the US or anywhere else for that matter. The last one I had was this one but it doesn’t really count since it was the result of an accident. I enjoyed Shady Lane’s intentional version quite a bit, as did a friend I served some to. My wife didn’t like it as much. She found it to be lacking in flavor and aroma. I will say that it is a little bland right out of the refrigerator. Letting the glass or bottle warm for a couple minutes before drinking brings out all the deliciousness described above. It is balanced enough that it pairs very well with spicy Thai or Middle Eastern food.

Sparkling Riesling is rare and a wine this well made at $25 is even more rare. It’s like that easy going but never boring friend with a bubbly but never unbalanced personality you always want to have around at a party (once she comes out of the cold, anyway). Shady Lane Sparkling Riesling is recommended.