Maker: Fenn Valley Vineyards, Fennville, Michigan, USA
Grape: Merlot (at least 85%)
Place of origin: Fenn Valley estate, Fennville AVA, Lake Michigan Shore, Michigan, USA
Purchased for $22 (winery)
Appearance: Dark reddish-purple.
Nose: Blackberry pie, clove, oak.
Palate: Medium-bodied and mostly dry. Baking spice, blackberry, mulberry.
Finish: Crushed blackberry, toasted oak.
Parting words: Fennville is Michigan’s only sub-appellation. It’s as old or older (sources conflict) than its parent AVA Lake Michigan Shore. It’s essentially a one winery appellation. That winery is Fenn Valley. It’s to the north and west of the big wineries in LMS, so it doesn’t get the same traffic as the others, but it’s very much worth a trip up the road to Fennville or to the tasting room in Saugatuck. Those are the only place one can reliably find Fennville wines. Judging by this one, it’s a prime spot.
This wine is a classic cool-climate Merlot. It has the chewy fruit one expects from Merlot, but with that cool climate (and cool vintage) tang that brings it all together and makes it a perfect match with pork chops, roast duck or sirloin steak. At $22, it’s worth every dollar and more. 2013 Fenn Valley Merlot Reserve is highly recommended.
Place of origin: Lake Michigan Shore AVA, Michigan, USA
Vintage: 2013 (harvested October 6)
Purchased for $18 (Winery, received media discount)
Appearance: Pale lemon.
Nose: Funk, lychee, fresh Bartlett pear.
Palate: Full-bodied and dry. Limestone dust, bitter apple, pinch of ginger, cardamom.
Finish: Lychee. Fades fairly quickly.
Parting words: It would be weird to call this an Alsace-style Traminette, since Traminette is a hybrid, but that’s kind of what this is. Gewurztraminer is one of parents of Traminette, so it’s not really too much of a stretch. It has the body, funk and dryness one expects from Alsatian Gewurz. I was taken aback by those characteristics when I first opened the bottle but they grew on me quickly.
This wine comes from a batch of “wild fruit” Nathaniel was able to obtain and bottle. Its label is obviously inspired by the greatest educational DOS game of all time (sorry Number Munchers), Oregon Trail. Nathaniel always thought that finding wild fruit was the most interesting thing that happened on that game, so when he came accross some Traminette, he thought this label would be the perfect tribute to one of his favorite gaming moments.
This is a great wine from a great winemaker at a fair price. Find Wild Fruit Traminette is highly recommended. For more on Nathaniel’s operation see my visit to him here.
Palate: Medium bodied and a little chewy. Fruit of the forest pie, vanilla, clove, aniseed.
Finish: A little sweetness and tannin in the cheeks.
Notes: Received complementary tour, free tasting and press discount at time of purchase. Grapes harvested October 21, 2013 at 20.5 brix. In French oak for 20 months.
Parting words: Merlot isn’t a grape that is very closely associated with Michigan but it does pretty well here, especially (but not exclusively) in the LMS AVA. It is often used in red blends where it serves to balance out the bold, savory flavors of the widely grown Cabernet Franc, which I suspect may be rounding out the blend here.
Vintners will tell you that 2013 was a tough vintage in Michigan, mostly on account of it being a cool one, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a lot of very good wine made. Wines of 2013 in just took a little longer to mature than their 2012 (or 2016) compatriots. As a result, the 2013 Bordeaux variety reds are hitting their stride now, so dig into your cellar and drink up now!
This wine has the cherry and berry flavors one expects from Merlot, but with a touch of pork (yes, I know that sounds like a Pigs in Space porn parody) and spice with judicious use of oak. The price is too high, but not so high that I feel like I need to wag my finger at the folks in the Barn by only giving this a mild recommendation. 2013 Round Barn Merlot is recommended.
On Saturday, June 9, Liz and I headed up to Traverse City, Michigan for the fourth City of Riesling Festival (For my review of the first, click here). We had a great time. We drank wine, we walked on the beach, we drank more wine, we learned about wine. On Sunday we also visited Good Harbor and Chateau Fontaine wineries and drank and bought wine.
On Monday we had one more wine stop: Nathaniel Rose winery at Raftshol Vineyards. Nathaniel Rose has been running his own winemaking business since 2010 operating out of whichever winery he was working at the time, starting at Raftshol and ending up at Brengman Brothers, with several in between. Last year, he purchased Raftshol Vineyards in Suttons Bay in Leelanau and is now using it as his HQ (and homestead!).
The tasting room with its awards, photos and piano.
Warren Raftshol (top).
Raftshol is one of the oldest wineries and vineyards in Leelanau. It began at the turn of the last century as the dairy farm of Anders Raftshol. In 1930 the cows left home and the farm was converted to a cherry orchard. In 1975 the cherry business was bad so the trees had to go. Sometime after that, hybrid grape vines were planted. Anders’ grandsons, Warren and Curtis were not happy with the results so in 1985 they planted vinifera instead, being the first commercial vineyard on Leelanau to do so. Instead of the usual practice of grafting vinifera vines onto native rootstock, they grafted them onto the existing hybrid ones. Rose believes this unusual set up may contribute to the high quality of the fruit produced by the estate. When Warren decided to sell last year, Rose jumped at the chance to own some of the oldest vinifera vines in the state, including Cabernet Sauvignon. According to Rose, the vineyards had been neglected for the past ten years, but he’s in the process of whipping them back into shape using careful pruning.
Nathaniel behind the bar.
Liz in front of it, tasting the orange Marsanne.
Nathaniel Rose’s namesake project is mostly about making quality, single-vineyard red wines. They are currently sourced from vineyards in the Lake Michigan Shore AVA and almost entirely red except for an orange Marsanne and a dry Traminette (we bought a bottle of Traminette for $13 minus trade discount). Rose has worked at nine different wineries in various capacities over the years, including Raftshol and Brengman Brothers, which he operated out of until purchasing Raftshol. His extensive knowledge, experience and contacts in the Michigan wine industry allow him to get quality fruit from quality vineyards. His wines There may also be a Chardonnay in the works, but Rose says he doesn’t really have the proper equipment for whites at the moment.
Rows of Cabernet.
The carefully pruned vines
Sandy vineyard soil.
Pruned hunk of vine
Everything we tasted there was wonderful, but my favorites were his excellent Syrahs (we purchased a bottle of the single barrel #4 Syrah at $85 minus trade discount). They were the best Michigan Syrahs I’ve tasted and maybe the best Michigan reds I’ve tried overall. For the single barrel, Rose was aiming for a wine reminiscent of Côte-Rôtie in the northern Rhône valley, so he cofermented the Syrah with Viognier. When we were tasting, he helpfully provided a bottle of Côte-Rôtie for comparison and the two wines were indeed very close and I would be hard pressed to say which I liked better.
Left & Right Bank
Back labels featuring actual photo of Nathaniel performing a feat of strength.
His signature wines are his Cabernet Sauvignon blends, Left Bank and Right Bank. They were both very good. Rose is rightfully very proud of these, especially the Left Bank. He loves to tell the story of the tasting he attended with several sommeliers (including Master somm Brett Davis), winemakers, writers and other experts in which his 2012 Left Bank Blend went up against a group of Second Growth Bordeaux and cult California Cabs, including Cardinale (~$270), Ridge Monte Bello (~$250), and Jos. Phelps Insignia (~$190), all of the 2012 vintage. Left Bank won. None of the experts could pick Left Bank out of the lineup blind and tasters could not tell the difference between it and the 2012 Cardinale Cab at all. In fact, they belived they had mistakenly been poured the same wine twice. Rose believes that Northern Michigan and his new vineyard in particular (which is not the source of Left Bank) has a climate that is very similar to high elevation viticultural areas in California and is capable of producing reds of the same high quality.
Left Bank sells for $150 (we also purchased a bottle of this at a trade discount) which puts it at or near the top of the price range for Michigan wines, even higher than wineries like Brys Estate or Mari Vineyards. When I asked him if he thinks consumers will be willing to pay that much for Michigan wines, regardless of quality, he responded with a few points. First, that his wines are plainly worth the money as tastings like the ones he’s entered Left Bank into prove. Second, that he’s had no trouble selling any of his wines so far. Finally, he pointed out that, while he is selling it at the Raftshol tasting room, the primary purpose of a wine like Left Bank is to enter into contests and tastings to bring attention to the quality of his wines. In other words, he’s not expecting Left Bank to fly off the shelf. It’s intended as a showpiece, not pizza wine (although it would be good with pizza!).*
Nathaniel Rose’s winery is one of the most exciting things happening in Michigan wine right now. I’m a cheap skate but his wines are as good or better than ones from more prestigious and expensive regions and if any wines deserve to push the price envelope in Michigan, Nathaniel’s do. A visit to Nathaniel Rose at Raftshol Vineyards is highly recommended! Joining his wine club is also recommended, so you can get the generous club discount!
*When I spoke to Nathaniel on August 29, 2018 he informed me that Left Bank has actually turned out to be his best seller! Collectors are stocking up.
Parting words: Peaches are usually associated with Georgia, but California actually produces the most peaches of any state. New Jersey, Washington and New York also rank in the top ten. Those three states are also major cool-climate wine producers, like Michigan. While Michigan isn’t a major peach producer nationally, its climate is great for growing peaches. There are few things I love more than a perfectly ripe Michigan peach in the late summer.
When I first tasted this peach wine at MBTB, that’s what I tasted. It was a beautiful experience and I took a bottle home with me. That was in September 2017. I had a few fruit wines in the cue ahead of this one, so I didn’t get around to opening it until earlier this week. That was a mistake. I love fruit wines, but they usually don’t reward cellaring.
2016 Cody Kresta Peach is tasty and recommended. It has lost some of its freshness, though, so I also recommend drinking it promptly after release!
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: Free Run Cellars, Berrien Springs, Michigan, USA (Round Barn)
Grape: Vidal Blanc.
Age: 8 y/o
Price: I forgot.
Note: At time of purchase, I received a complimentary tour, tasting, lunch, and discount on purchases. See my visit to Round Barn cellars here.
Appearance: Light copper.
Nose: Golden raisins, alcohol, oak, Juicy Fruit gum.
Palate: Light bodied and mild. Banana pudding with vanilla wafers.
Finish: Also mild. Alcohol, oak, fruit punch.
Parting words: Free Run was founded by Matt and Christian Moersch, sons of Round Barn founder (and former Tabor Hill winemaker) Rick Moersch. The name is a play on the “free run” juice of the initial grape crush and the brothers being given “free run” of the cellar by their father. Free Run began by specializing in estate, single vineyard wines, but has since branched out. Free Run’s “Epicurean” tasting room in Berrien Springs is more than the traditional “belly up to the bar” set up. It offers a culinary experience for groups (with paired wines of course) but it’s only open seasonally. Free Run’s Union Pier tasting room is more conventional.
At any rate, the label describes this brandy as “Cognac style” which it sort of is, though it would fall on the fruity and mild end of the Cognac spectrum, in spite of the high ABV. While I don’t like it as much as I liked the Free Run grappa (review here), it is an easy-drinking, even refreshing sipper that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend were it more readily available. I’m not sure if it’s made anymore, but if it isn’t I hope it gets put into production again but in bigger bottles and with wider distribuition. Free Run Cellars XO Brandy is recommended.
Maker: Lawton Ridge Winery, Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA
Grape: Chardonnay (at least 85%)
Place of origin: Lake Michigan Shore AVA, Michigan, USA
Style: Oaked, malolatic fermented Chardonnay
Price: $15 (winery)
Appearance: Very pale gold.
Nose: Creamy, slightly bitter, French oak, lemon thyme.
Palate: Full-bodied and medium sweet. Oak, citrus peel, white peach, pineapple sage.
Finish: Clean and fruity with a hint of oak.
Parting words: Lawton Ridge winery is located west of Kalamazoo, Michigan, but thier vineyards (around 10 acres planted) are near Lawton, Michigan, south of Paw Paw. It has been in commercial operation since 2005 or so. According to their website, they pride themselves on producing terroir-focused food-friendly wines.
This Chardonnay was one of my favorites when we visited the tasting room last year. It’s a departure from their standard, all stainless Chard. According to the label, this wine is finished in oak barrels for three months immediately before bottling. It’s a good example of judicious use of oak in Chard. It has a hint of the brown butter aroma that California Chardonnay is known for, but it’s balanced by fruit and herbal aromas. It’s one of the best oaked Michigan Chards I’ve had and a steal at $15. 2013 Lawton Ridge Vintner’s Select Chardonnay is highly recommended.
St. Julian Lake Michigan Shore Reserve Late Harvest Riesling= SJ
Arcturos Old Mission Peninsula Late Harvest Riesling= Arc
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)
Price (current vintages)
SJ: $13 (website, though I have seen it for under $10)
Arc: $17.50 (website)
SJ: Medium gold
Arc: Light gold, almost green.
SJ: Pear, orange juice
Arc: Kerosene (I was the only one who got this note), lemon thyme, peach.
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.
SJ: Sweet, almost sherry-like.
Arc: Cleaner. Bitter sage.
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.
The Panel: Liz and me.
Amy and Pete
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.
Place of origin: Lake Michigan Shore AVA, Michigan, USA
Price: $26 (Michigan by the Bottle Auburn Hills Sipper Club)
Appearance: Dark red, like cherry juice.
Nose: Cherry jam, touch of French oak, cedar.
Palate: Medium bodied, acidic with a little fruit and spice. Cherry juice, blueberry, black pepper.
Finish: Overdone blueberry pie.
Parting words: Burgdorf’s Winery is located in Haslett, Michigan, near Lansing. They’re known for their quality fruit wines and blends but they produce good varietals as well, most of which are not estate grown. This is one of their best. 2011 was an excellent vintage in Michigan overall, though some winemakers struggled with reds. No struggle here. I usually prefer softer Pinot Noir but the spice and oak here make it very food friendly. We had it with pizza margarita and BBQ chicken and it held its own with both. It tastes like its coming to the end of its life, though, so if you find this vintage, open and drink promptly!