Bel Lago Cabernet Franc, 2016

Maker: Bel Lago, Lake Leeland, Michigan, USA

Grapes: Cabernet France (at least 85%)

Place of origin: Leelanau Peninsula AVA, Michigan, USA. (at least 85%)

Vintage: 2016

ABV: 13.5%

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.

Blustone Pinot Noir Rosé, 2019

Maker: Blustone, Lake Leelanau, Michigan, USA.

Grape: Pinot Noir (at least 85%)

Place of origin: Leelanau Peninsula AVA, Michigan, USA (at least 85%).

ABV: 12.5%

Purchased for $20 (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room, Royal Oak).

Appearance: Pale rust.

Nose: White mulberries, strawberry, pink peppercorn.

Palate: Dry, crushed orange raspberries, limestone.

Finish: Tart, and dry.

Parting words: I don’t usually let my rosé get this old, but we bought a big pack of pinks from MBTBTRRO and the beginning of the pandemic as they had switched entirely to retail. Because of my overly complex system of rotating wine through my cellar, liquor cabinet and then china cabinet we still had a couple of those bottles left at the beginning of the year.

This is a very good pink Pinot Noir. Time seems to have dried it out and muted the fruit flavors somewhat, but this is still very refreshing and fantastic with food or just chilling on the back porch on a sweaty afternoon. Given the amount of crap being sold these days at well over $20, this was a steal. The 2022 vintage is selling for $22 currently, which is less of a steal, but still a good price for a good wine. 2019 Blustone Pinot Noir Rosé is recommended.

Shady Lane Pinot Noir, 2017

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

Grape: Pinot Noir (at least 85%)

Place of origin: Shady Lane estate, Leelanau Peninsula AVA, Michigan, USA (at least 85%)

Vintage: 2017

ABV: 12%

Purchased for $20 (Michigan by the Bottle Sipper Club).

Appearance: Dark ruby.

Nose: Fresh strawberry, red currant, blueberry, white pepper.

Palate: Medium bodied. Red raspberry, red currant, clove, French oak.

Finish: A little more tannic but with a lot of fruit still present.

Parting words: We drove past Shady Lane (the road) on our last trip Up North, but we unfortunately didn’t have time to stop in. Thank God for Michigan by the Bottle, then, for carrying Shady Lane wines at their Auburn Hills location.

This is a solid Northwest Michigan Pinot Noir with a bit of spice, and loads of fruit, but not overly ripe fruit. If I have any criticism of this wine it’s that it has a little more tannin than I like in my Pinot, though it’s mostly held in check by the acid.

2017 reds from all over Michigan are drinking well right now, except for the really cheap ones which you should have drank already. Given the strength of the 2017 vintage and the quality of the winemaking at Shady Lane, this wine should be able to take at least another year in the cellar and still taste great. Good thing, too, since I have another bottle of this squirreled away to try next year or the year after that.

2017 Shady Lane Pinot Noir is recommended.

Verterra Malbec, 2016

Maker: Verterra Winery, Leland, Michigan, USA

Grape: Malbec (at least 85%)

Place of origin: Leelanau AVA, Michigan, USA (at least 85%)

Vintage: 2016

ABV: Undisclosed (Table wine loophole)

Purchased for $40 (Michigan by the Bottle, Royal Oak).

Appearance: Brick red.

Nose: Plum, clove, leather, blueberry.

Palate: Medium-bodied and well-balanced. Plum, blackberry, black raspberry, allspice, white pepper.

Finish: Drying and a little chewy, but still with lots of fruit. Acid faded as the bottle was open.

Parting words: Verterra has made a name for itself as a major (by Northwest Michigan standards) producer of red and rosé wine. It’s one of the few wineries in the state that produces a varietal Malbec, an old Bordeaux variety that is most famously grown in Argentina.

Malbec is not a variety I regularly seek out. It’s too often indistinguishable from its close cousins Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Those two are easier to find, so why bother? This one is worth seeking out, though. It has the fruit of a Merlot, but perfectly balanced with spice and tannin. This balance makes it more than just a home-cooked steak or burger wine, but one that quickly becomes the star of any meal or event it’s a part of.

At $40, it’s not cheap, but it turns into a bargain after a few years in the cellar. The 2017s and 2020s should be even more cellar worthy than this vintage, too! 2016 Verterra Malbec is highly recommended.

Laurentide Reserve Meritage, 2016

Maker: Laurentide, Lake Leelanau, Michigan, USA.

Place of origin: Leelanau AVA, Leelanau County, Michigan, USA (at least 85%)

Grapes: Cabernet Franc & Merlot.

Vintage: 2016

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.

Shady Lane Cabernet Franc, 2016

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

Vintage: 2016

ABV: 12.5%

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.

Verterra Rosé of Merlot, 2019

Maker: Verterra Winery, Leland, Michigan, USA

Grape: Merlot (at least 85%)

Style: Dry rosé.

Place of origin: Leelanau Peninsula AVA, Michigan, USA (at least 85%)

Vintage: 2019

ABV: 12%

Purchased for $24 (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room)

Appearance: Orangey pink.

Nose: Cedar, white cherry, crushed mulberry.

Palate: Medium bodied. Strawberry, watermelon, pink raspberry.

Finish: Dry and Tangy.

Parting words: Verterra’s walk-in tasting room in downtown (such as it is) Leland, Michigan might give the impression of a tourist trap at first impression, but this is a serious winery whose founder, Paul Hamelin, has a passion for pushing the limits of what Northwestern Michigan wine can be. In recently years, he has embarked on a project to make high quality dry varietal rosé (the Polar Vortex years of 2014 and 2015 gave him a bit of a push in this direction too).

He started with rosés of Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc, and then added a rosé of Merlot for the first time in 2019. They’re all delicious. This Merlot is as good as the Cab Franc, and probably even better. Riesling will always be king to me, but I think rosés like this are going to be a big part of the future of Michigan wine.

This ’20s are out already but there may still be some ’19s still hiding on the backs of shelves around the state. They’re worth seeking out. Verterra Rosé of Merlot, 2019 is recommended.

Michigan Merlot Head to Head: Crane vs Lane

C= 2016 Sandhill Crane Merlot

L= 2016 Shady Lane Merlot

Makers

C: Sandhill Crane Vineyards, Jackson, Michigan, USA

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

Grapes

C: Merlot (at least 75%)

L: Merlot (at least 85%)

Places of origin

C: Michigan (at least 75%)

L: Shady Lane Estate, Leelanau Peninsula AVA, Michigan, USA (at least 85%)

Vintage: 2016

ABV

C: 13.7%

L: 12%

Purchased for

C: $25 (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room, Royal Oak)

L: $26 (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room, Auburn Hills)

Appearance

C: Translucent ruby, almost like a Pinot Noir.

L: Darker, more purplish.

Nose

C: Cedar, blueberry, oak.

L: Cherry jam, Hawaiian Punch, white pepper.

Palate

C: Tart. Black currant, smoked ham.

L: More balanced and better integrated. Oak, BEAR jam, clove.

Finish

C: HiC, oak. Fades quickly.

L: More harmonic. Blackberry, oak, nutmeg.

Parting words: Merlot is a grape that, if it gets ripe, can produce wonderful Michigan wines. In some years that’s a big IF, but 2016 was not one of those years, to the relief of vineyard owners who had just come off two Polar Vortex years in 2014 and 2015. 2016 was hot by Michigan standards, and the wines of that year are generally full of ripe fruit flavors. These two wines are great examples of that.

I tasted these two with a meal shared with friends-of-the-blog Amy and Pete. The dish was potato chorizo tacos (one of my favorites) made with my own homemade chorizo. Both of these wines performed well, and easily stood up to spiciness of the sausage and earthiness of the potatoes.

All of us agreed that Shady Lane was the superior of the two wines. There was nothing unpleasant about Sandhill Crane Merlot, but it lacked the depth and integration of flavor Shady Lane had. I would classify Sandhill as a good BBQ wine and Shady Lane more of a steak dinner wine. I was surprised when I saw there was only a dollar difference between the two, but there’s no need to make the great the enemy of the good, so to speak. Sandhill Crane Merlot is worth the price, it’s just that Shady Lane is worth much more than its price. Both Sandhill Crane and Shady Lane 2016 Merlots are recommended.

Verterra Sparkling Pinot Blanc, 2019

Maker: Verterra, Lake Leelanau, Michigan, USA

Grape: Pinot Blanc (at least 85%)

Place of origin: Leelanau Peninsula AVA (100%), Leelanau County, Michigan, USA

Style: Semi-dry sparkling wine.

Vintage: 2019

ABV: 12%

Purchased for $20 (Michigan by the Bottle, Royal Oak)

Appearance: Light gold with moderate, steady bubbles.

Nose: Ripe mango, pear, custard, Meyer lemon.

Palate: Moderately effervescent with medium body. Off dry with lots of tropical fruit and just enough acid.

Finish: Semi-dry and fruity.

Parting words: The last time I spoke to Verterra Winery owner Paul Hamelin he was extremely excited about making his first sparkling wines. That was several years ago, and now the winery has a full line of blended sparkling wines, all of which are delicious. As far as I know, this wine is the only varietally bottled sparkling Pinot Blanc being produced in Michigan, although it is used frequently in blends.

I really enjoyed this wine, but unfortunately it is currently out of stock at Michigan by the Bottle’s Royal Oak tasting room. MBTBTR owner Cortney told me that they may get some more in soon, so watch for it! In the meantime, go buy some other Pinot Blanc, Verterra, sparkling wine or something else at your local MBTBTR! They are open for wine purchases on NYE & NYD, fyi.

Verterra Sparkling Pinot Blanc 2019 is recommended.

Earnest Dry Cider

Maker: Tandem Ciders, Suttons Bay, Michigan, USA

Apples: Brown Snout, Dabinette, Crimson Crisp, Russet Beauty, Kilcherman Select Penny Blend, Crimson Gold, Swayzee Russet, Harrison, Riene de Pomme, Fameuset, Fameuse, Honey Crisp (according to website).

Place of origin: Leelanau, Old Mission Peninsulas, Michigan, USA.

Style: Dry blend.

ABV: 6.9%

Purchased for $13 (Westborn Market)

Appearance: Dark gold and lightly effervescent.

Nose: Intense. Cut apple wood, sourdough, apple juice.

Palate: Dry and tannic, but juicy. Bitter apple core, freshly pressed apple.

Finish: Dry and clean, with a little astringency.

Parting words: My laptop passed away right before Thanksgiving, so I haven’t been able to post for a few weeks. I appreciate your patience, dear readers!

Anyway, Tandem is one of Michigan’s best cider producers and this is one of their best ciders. It has everything a dry craft cider should have: Fruit, tannin, and yeasty funk. Of those, Tannin is in the lead. It’s never chewy, though, but crisp and a bit woody, although it didn’t spend in time in a barrel as far as I know. It doesn’t clash with food, but it’s better as a sipper than a table cider.

$13 is a good price for a quality dry cider like this. Earnest is recommended.