Mulling it over: Spiced wine head to head to head

A three person, three bottle mulled wine tasting.

HM= Homemade mulled wine. Westborn/St. Julian (Paw Paw, Michigan, USA) Market Red + Trader Joe’s Harvest Blend Herbal Tea + sugar.

WB= Witches Brew (Leelanau Cellars, Omena, Michigan, USA)

LR= Revenge of the Living Red (Sandhill Crane, Jackson, Michigan, USA)


HM: 12%

WB: 12.5%

LR: 12%


HM: $8 (wine only)

WB: $8 (Hollywood Market, Madison Heights)

LR: $18 (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room, Royal Oak)


HM & WB: About the same. Dark burgundy.

LR: Beet red, almost blood red.


HM: Sweet with cinnamon and orange.

WB: Big cinnamon with some cherry juice.

LR: More typical red wine. Dry.


HM: Tart orange. Tannic.

WB: Easy Drinking. Sweet cherries, cinnamon. Not much else.

LR: Spicy with a little orange zest and cherry.


HM: Chewy. A little sweet orange.

WB: Sweet & light.

LR: Spicy dried chillies. Ancho?

Amy’s thoughts

HM: Smells sweet but tastes dry. Good once you get used to it.

WB: Cinnamon bomb. Almost too sweet.

LR: Drier. Finish burns. Don’t like it too much.

Pete’s thoughts

HM: Don’t like it. Bad, bitter aftertaste.

WB: Like it better. Cinnamon is good!

LR: Like WB but drier. Like it the best.

Parting words: I had wanted to do a mulled wine tasting for a while, but having three bottles open at the same time is a bit much, even for me. Normally Mrs. Sipology Blog would help out but she’s currently very knocked up so I invited friends of the blog Amy and Pete over to help.

For the homemade mulled wine, I had used TJ’s Harvest Blend Herbal Tea for mulled cider back in the fall with very good results so I thought I’d try it with wine. I thought it was OK, but not as good as the two pre-mulled wines. I kept adding more sugar which made it better but still not good enough. Next fall maybe I’ll start work on perfecting a mulled wine recipe. My own creation is not recommended.

Witches Brew is a big seller for Leelanau Cellars (known for their seasonal table wines) and it floods into grocery stores statewide in September and lingers well into the winter. The Halloween theme has always been a little puzzling to me, since I associate mulled wine with the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. Pete assured me that he and many other people do associate mulled wine with the fall hayride season. At any rate, cinnamon is the dominant flavor, but clove and nutmeg also go into the brew. It has it’s share of haters, but I think it’s a decent buy for the right price (<$8). It’s NV so beware of overly dusty bottles, but they drink fine at a year or a little more after hitting the shelves. Recommended.

Sandhill Crane’s goes with a hipper zombie theme. Their original spiced wine was Night of the Living Red ($17 from the winery). According to the website it’s made with “cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, orange peel… and essence of fresh-squeezed zombies!” Revenge is infused with all those (including the zombie juice) plus estate grown chiles. The chiles add a nice shot of heat to the wine and set it apart from products like Witches Brew. Some, like Amy, may find this off-putting but I loved it. It’s $10 or more than WB but the taste is worth it, plus $2 from every Living Red bottle sold goes toward the college fund of the artist who created the label. That’s added value. Revenge of the Living Red is recommended.

Forty-Five North Pinot Gris

Maker: Forty-Five North, Lake Leelanau, Michigan, USAwpid-2015-06-23-17.07.05.jpg.jpeg

Place of origin: Leelanau & Old Mission Peninsulas (50/50)

Vintage: 2012

ABV: 12.5%

Purchased for $19

Appearance: Bright light gold.

Nose: Bright and mildly fruity. Tart apple, canned pears, crushed mulberry.

Palate: Full bodied and tart. Fresh cut apple, mango, cantaloupe, pinch of lavender.

Finish: Mildly bitter. Limestone and lychee. Fades slowly.

Parting words: Forty-Five North is named after the 45th parallel which runs through Leland and Traverse City, Michigan (and Bordeaux, Piedmont, the Willamette Valley and Upstate New York as Michigan wine folks are fond of pointing out) and the vineyards of winery owners Steve & Lori Grossnickle on Leelanau Peninsula.

While Riesling has reached sublime heights in Northern Michigan, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris/Grigio continue to be underutilized. When they are produced in a good vintage like 2012, they can be very good. This is one of those.

It’s similar in style to other domestic Pinot Gris, falling between the extremes of Veneto crispness and Alsatian buttery fruit. It is food friendly and refreshing without being boring and it even showed up well against the barbecued pork chops I served alongside it last night. $19 is just about right for a Michigan wine of this quality. 2012 Forty-Five North Pinot Gris is recommended.

Verterra Reserve Chardonnay

Maker: Verterra, Leland, Michigan, USAwpid-2015-03-25-14.54.50.jpg.jpeg

Place of origin: Leelanau Peninsula AVA, Michigan, USA

Vintage: 2012

Price: $20 (website)

ABV: Unknown (not listed on label or received from producer by press time)

Appearance: Medium gold with some necklacing.

Nose: Butter, toasted oak, plum, white peach, mineral water.

Palate: Golden delicious apple, lychee, oak, white pepper.

Finish: Chewy oak, canned pear, brown butter.

Parting words: Verterra is one of the best producers on Leelanau and it shows in this wine. They make two Chards, an unoaked (a popular style in these parts) and this one that spent several months in french oak before being bottled, also undergoing malolactic fermentation. It tastes pretty Californian to me, which isn’t a bad thing if you like that style like I do (usually).

As the wine sat and warmed in the glass, some of the fruit seemed to disappear, which was disappointing. It was still tasty, just not quite so well balanced as it was when the cork first came off. Unfortunately, due to poor meal planning, I was unable to taste it with food, but based on experience with similar wines I think it would pair well with chicken, swordfish, shark and the like. The price is very nice for a quality Michigan wine. The 2012 Verterra Reserve Chardonnay is recommended.

Good Harbor Cherry Wine

Maker: Good Harbor, Leland, Michigan, USAwpid-2015-01-21-20.33.42.jpg.jpeg

Place of origin: Leelanau Peninsula, Michigan, USA

Cherries: Montmorency, Balaton.

ABV: 10%

Purchased for $12

Notes: Estate grown.

Appearance: Brick red.

Nose: Spiced cherry pie,

Palate: Medium bodied. Tart cherries, nectarine, white pepper.

Finish: Black cherries slowly morphing into a lingering tartness.

Parting words: I don’t recall ever drinking, let alone seeing, an estate grown Michigan cherry wine before this one. Lots of credit to Good Harbor for taking cherry wine seriously and most of all, making a very good one. This is an elegant dessert wine that’s worth every penny. Good Harbor Cherry Wine is highly recommended.

Verterra Dry Riesling

Maker: Verterra/Chaos, Lake Leelenau, Michigan, USAwpid-2014-09-16-13.28.54.jpg.jpeg

Place of origin: Leelanau Peninsula AVA, Michigan, USA

Vintage: 2011

ABV: 12%

Purchased for $15

Appearance: Light gold with

Nose: ripe peach, granny smith apple, bitter orange.

Palate: Medium bodied. Red pear, navel orange, mineral water, white grapefruit.

Finish: Clean and dry. More peaches and pears with a hint of vanilla.

Parting words: The 2011 vintage in Northern Michigan continues to impress me. Leelanau is a much larger area than Old Mission with many more wineries, so the region as a whole is less consistent than the OMP. Verterra itself is of consistently high quality, though. I recommend trying anything of theirs you see.

This wine is everything a dry Michigan Riesling should be. It’s dry and food-friendly without sacrificing any character. Orchard fruit in abundance with a touch of acid for balance. Even eighteen hours after opening, it was still delicious, maybe even better. It’s worth every penny and then some. Verterra’s 2011 Dry Riesling is highly recommended.


Maker: Good Harbor, Lake Leelanau, Michigan, USAwpid-20140807_084633-1.jpg

Grapes: Riesling, Vidal Blanc, Vignoles, Seyval Blanc.

Place of origin: Leelanau peninsula AVA, Michigan, USA

ABV: 12%

Price: $10 (website)

Appearance: Light gold.

Nose: Light. Dried flowers, white peaches.

Palate: Full bodied and semi-dry. Underripe peaches, light apple juice, a touch of white grape juice.

Finish: Dry and slightly fruity. Fades quickly.

Parting words: Besides being the flower that SHOULD be the Michigan state flower (apple trees aren’t native, bro), Trillium is the name of Good Harbor’s perennially popular white table wine.

Unlike other popular Michigan whites in this price range, Trillium is actually fairly dry. It pairs very well with food like a true table wine should and while it has just a whisker of fox, it isn’t too noticeable and shouldn’t shock any Europeans you may serve this wine to.

Trillium is inoffensive in both senses of the word. Not bad but not interesting either. I’ve seen it as high as $15, but as long as it’s around $10, it’s recommended.

Isidor’s Choice Pinot Noir

Maker: Black Star Farms, Sutton’s Bay, Michigan, USAIsidors Pinot 2011

Place of origin: Isidor’s Choice vineyard, Leelanau Peninsula AVA, Michigan, USA

Vintage: 2011

Price: $22.50 (website)

Appearance: Ruby with medium width, evenly spaced legs. Throws a few crystals into the glass.

Nose: Blackberry pie, cedar, red raspberry, hint of wet earth.

Palate: Fruity but balanced. Mixed berry jam, toasted oak, coriander seed, hint of white pepper and sautéed mushrooms.

Finish: Slightly fruity but moves to a mildly bitter taste. Raspberry, oak, pepper, cedar.

Parting words: As you’ve already guessed, this is another single vineyard Pinot Noir from Black Star farms, done for the owners of Isadora’s Choice vineyard in Leelenau. This is the second bottle of this wine I’ve drank in the last six months, so it’s safe to say I like it.

The profile is classic, well balanced Pinot. It’s got plenty of fruit and oak and earthy notes and everything else you want in a Pinot pleasantly in its place. The best Michigan Pinots can easily stand toe to toe with most red Burgundies in the same price range, and even surpass some. This vintage of Isidor’s Choice can certainly do that. The bottle suggests that it could improve in the bottle for through 2021, although it’s drinking great now, so I would crack it open now or in the next two years.

All that and it’s food friendly too. We had it with BBQ ribs and it performed very well. Isidor’s Choice 2011 Pinot Noir is recommended.

A Visit to the Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room

MBTBTR1Address: 45645 Hayes, Shelby Township, Michigan, USA

Web:, @MBTBTasting,,

Hours: Sun- noon- 6 p.m., Mon & Tues- Closed for special events, Wed & Thurs noon- 9 p.m., Fri- noon – 10 p.m., Sat- noon – 10 p.m.

Appearance/atmosphere: Although MBTB Tasting Room was voted best wine bar for 2014 in Hour Detroit Magazine, it doesn’t feel like a wine bar at all. It really does feel like a tasting room at a winery. The difference is that it is a tasting room for six different Michigan wineries at once!

The outside isn’t much to look at, just a store front in a suburban strip mall. The inside is a bit warmer, but still not fancy by any stretch. It’s bright and airy feeling with nice, ample seating and decorated in the MBTB color scheme. The bar isn’t anything fancy either but feels very much like the bar at a winery tasting room. It’s perfectly up to its task, though.

MBTBTR2Service: The service was excellent. We sat at the bar and our server Krystal was quick and attentive. I recognized Shannon from the Michigan by the Bottle blog and I introduced myself. He seemed to remember me from our online interactions (or at least faked it very well) and made us feel very welcome in spite of being busy. Cortney briefly appeared but disappeared into the back before I could introduce myself to her. Maybe next time. Both Krystal and Shannon answered all our questions clearly and politely.

The tastings work as follows: The server places a paper placemat in front of each taster with circles numbered 1-6 for a full flight (mini-flights of three wines are also available). For the standard flight, each taster circles five regular selections on the menu. Glasses are poured in traditional tasting order (starting with dry whites, ending with dry reds). When a “tour” is purchased, two special pours (and bonus cashews) are included. These are usually dessert wines or at least they were when we were there.

Menu/Prices/Selection: The full menu is here. A full flight is $10 or $15 after six (with the extra $5 being applied toward a bottle purchase) with tasty Michigan-made snacks (cheese and chocolate) included. A mini flight is $5/$10. A tour is $17/$22 and a tour for two is double that. If you’re a fan of dessert wines like I am, I would recommend the tour, but if you don’t enjoy them, I would stick to the flight.

They partner with six Michigan wineries from around the state. Those wineries are Chateau Aeronautique, Sandhill Crane (both Pioneer Wine Trail), Chateau de Leelanau, Gill’s Pier (both Leelanau Peninsula AVA), Domaine Berrien (Lake Michigan Shore AVA) and Peninsula Cellars (Old Mission Peninsula AVA).  I expected a broader selection of wines, but I think how they’ve done it works better than carrying something from everybody. They astutely included two wineries known for reds, Domaine Berrien and Chateau Aeronautique, to complement the fine whites Northern Michigan is known for. Cider and fruit wines are also included.

I didn’t love every wine I tried but that’s not really the point. I got to taste some things I would have had to drive several hours to taste and that’s great in itself. The best wines I had that afternoon were the 2012 Dry Riesling from Peninsula Cellars (not surprising given what an Old Mission fanboy I am) and the 2010 Domaine Berrien Pinot Noir. The most surprising selection was DB’s 2011 Marsanne. Michigan is not where one might expect to run into a grape from the northern Rhone valley but it was quite good. All the selections are also available by the bottle, and those prices are helpfully included on the tasting menu.

The prices for bottles are about standard and the tasting prices are reasonable considering the number of pours included and the quality and abundance of the snacks.

It should also be noted that, also like an actual winery, they have their own wine club. Information on that is here.

Transportation/Parking: Unless you’re up for a mile walk or bike ride from the nearest SMART stop on unfriendly roads, public transit isn’t really an option. There is a large parking lot at the shopping center where the tasting room is located, so parking is not a problem, and it’s close to Hall Road/M-59 so getting there is fairly easy. That said, it’s quite a hike out there unless you live in Macomb county. Google maps estimates a 30 minute drive from Sipology HQ and that’s just with good traffic which is a rare thing on Hall Road. Luckily for me and others living in Oakland Co. or Detroit, a Royal Oak location will be opening up on Woodward soon.

Parting Words: Overall a great experience was had. We went home with abundant leftover snacks and a few bottles of wine. Can’t wait for the Royal Oak location! It promises to be good for my tummy but probably bad for my bank account and limited cellar space. Michigan By the Bottle Tasting Room is recommended.

Gill’s Pier Riesling

Maker: Gill’s Pier, Traverse City, Michigan, USA
Gill's Pier 2011 Riesling

Place of origin: Leelenau AVA, Michigan, USA

Style: Semi-dry

Vintage: 2011

ABV: 10%

Online from winery: $17

Appearance: Pale straw.

Nose: Ripe pear, Golden Delicious apples, gravel, a pinch of thyme.

On the palate: Full bodied and medium dry. Bosc pear, more Golden Delicious, white grape juice, flint.

Finish: Slightly tart and dry. Get more tart as it fades, but the faint mineral background remains.

Parting words: The first product I reviewed from Gill’s Pier was their tasty cherry wine. This is the first grape wine of theirs I’ve tried. When introducing myself to a Michigan winemaker, I always go for a Riesling first. I love Riesling and, like it or not, it’s Michigan’s unofficial signature grape and it has been for a while. Gill’s Pier passed the Riesling test with flying colors.

When I read “semi-dry” on a wine bottle, I usually expect something sweet. For once a semi-dry actually tastes semi-dry to me. It has a robust mouth feel and orchard fruit notes typical of sweeter Rieslings but without their sappiness and weight and with the minerality of better drys. It’s good with food, but is best on its own. If any aspect of this wine could stand improvement, it’s the nose. I would have preferred more intensity. That said, this is a good wine and worth the price I paid. 2011 Gill’s Pier Riesling is recommended.