2896 Langley, 2010

Maker: Bowers Harbor, Traverse City, Michigan, USA20170509_183841

Grapes: 60% Cabernet Franc, 39% Merlot, 1% Cabernet Sauvignon

Place of Origin: Langley Vineyard, Bower’s Harbor estate, Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Traverse City, Michigan, USA.

Style: Meritage

ABV: 13.5%

Price: $38 (original price on shelf. Purchased on sale with a discount from the owner)

Appearance: Inky dark purple.

Nose: Blueberry, cherry juice, oak.

Palate: Medium sweet. Cherry juice, blackberry, pepper, chewy leather on the back end.

Finish: Cherry and lightly fruity. Stays in the cheeks for a good bit of time.

Parting words: 2896 is Bowers Harbor’s big, flagship red. The 2013 vintage is currently selling on the BH website for $55 and the 2012 vintage (considered the best recent vintage for Michigan reds) for $100. I haven’t had either of those, so I don’t know if they’re worth the money, but they are both at the top end of red wine prices in this state.

As for this wine, it’s very good and worth the price that was on the shelf on which it sat. It is well balanced, but still has the laid back, fruity character of a cool season Bordeaux-style red. Enough oak and alcohol to keep it from becoming a fruit bomb but not aggressive or overly tannic. It goes well with beef and smoked or grilled meats. My only complaint is that the gold wax is very hard to get off and it looks corny. The bottle would be better off without it. At any rate, at around $40 or so, 2896 Langley 2010 is recommended.

 

Left Foot Charley Tale Feathers Pinot Gris, 2011

Maker: Left Foot Charley, Traverse City, Michigan, USAwp-1488403717038.jpg

Place of origin: Tale Feathers Vineyard, Old Mission Peninsula AVA (western slope), Traverse City, Michigan, USA. For more information on the vineyard, see here.

Vintage: 2011. For more information on the vintage, see image below.

ABV: 12%? (From memory)

Purchased for $19 (Holiday Market)

Appearance: Medium gold.

Nose: Roasted brazil nuts, mineral water, lychee, lavender.

Palate: Medium bodied and medium dry. Nutty brown butter, coconut, oregano.

Finish: White grapefruit fading into herbal tastes.

20170301_162702.jpgParting words: Tale Feathers has partnered with Left Foot Charley for many years now. It’s a small (2 1/2 acre) vineyard in west central part of Old Mission. It’s planted entirely with Pinot Gris. The Wilsons’ focus on that grape has paid off in a big way for them and LFC. Theirs is arguably northern Michigan’s best Gris.

The 2011 vintage was strong for whites in Michigan, though not as strong as 2013. It was still one of the best of the past decade. A lot of its fruit has faded over the past 5+ years, but it remains a beautifully structured wine. I wouldn’t let it go much further than this, though. 2011 Left Foot Charley Tale Feathers Pinot Gris is recommended.

Hawthorne Pinot Noir Reserve, 2012

Maker: Hawthorne Vineyards, Traverse20170208_211507.jpg City, Michigan, USA

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

Grape: Pinot Noir (100%)

ABV: 12.3%

MSRP: $22

For more information, see tech sheet here.

Appearance: Bright ruby, almost transparent.

Nose: Blueberry, new oak, cherry juice, raspberry jam, allspice, pepperoni.

Palate: Light bodied and semi dry. Fruit cocktail but with beefy oak and tannins looming in the background like hired goons.

Finish: A little chewy and oaky, but still refreshing and fruity.

Parting words: I had this bottle in the wine rack in our dining room (the wine version of the on deck circle in our house) when I saw a local wine loving friend of mine raving about it on social media. So I had to make it the next one I opened. I’m glad I did. It’s very good.

Perfectly balanced between fruit, spice and meat, it’s easily one of the top Michigan Pinots I’ve had. Hawthorne is becoming one of my favorite Michigan wineries on the back of the wonderful wines they produced in the 2012 and 2013 vintages. Don’t let the shiny labels and modern condo-esque tasting room fool you, these are people who take growing grapes and making wine very seriously. These bottles can be found on the odd grovery store or wineshop shelf, but Michigan by the Bottle Auburn Hills is the place you can be sure to find some. Hawthorne Vineyards 2012 Pinot Noir Reserve is highly recommended.

2 Lads Cab Franc/Merlot

Maker: 2 Lads, Traverse City, Michigan, USA20161215_163704.jpg

Grapes: Cabernet Franc (90%), Merlot (10%).

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

ABV: 13%

Price: Don’t remember. 2013 vintage is $32 at winery)

Appearance: Dark ruby.

Nose: Blackberry, blueberry, cherry, new oak.

Palate: Medium dry. Fruity but with backbone. Blueberry juice, roasted sweet red pepper, oak, vanilla.

Finish: Oak. A little chewy, then light vanilla.

Parting words: My wife and I bought this bottle several years ago when we made our first trip to 2 Lads. It was a part of the hallowed stash of bottles we brought with us from the old house.

I almost opened it a couple times after listening to the opinion of a couple folks in the “screw top wines don’t age” camp, but I’m glad I waited. This wine has aged into an elegant, harmonious example of what a cool climate Cab Franc can be. 2012 is generally the vintage to look for in Michigan reds, but 2 Lads Cab Franc/Merlot is proof that Michigan’s best winemakers still made good wines in cooler “white” vintages. We had this bottle with porterhouse steaks and it paired well, but given its character it could go just as well with BBQ or turkey. 2011 2 Lads Cab Franc/Merlot is recommended.

Just the Tip

screenshot_20161103-104818.jpg
Walloon Lake Winery

Lots of interesting things are going on in the Michigan wine scene right now. The latest big news is that as of 2017 Michigan will have a new AVA.

What’s an AVA, you ask? AVA stands for American Viticultural Area. The program was begun in the early 1980s as an answer to the French AOC appellation system and other European systems. The first AVAs were awarded in 1982, and they continued to roll in at a good clip through 1991. There are 238 total, with 138 (58%) of them in California. In addition to AVAs, a number of counties and all fifty states are allowed to put their names on a bottle as a legally defined place of origin. At least 85% of the grapes going into the wine have to be from the place in question. If the wine is bottled as a varietal (Old Mission Peninsula Riesling, for example), at least 75% of the grapes of that variety must come from the place on the bottle. Currently Michigan has four AVAs. By way of comparison, New York has nine and Virginia has seven. Indiana has one entirely to itself and shares another with Ohio and Kentucky. In Michigan, Leelanau Peninsula and Fennville were established in 1982, Lake Michigan Shore in 1983 and Old Mission Peninsula in 1987. The fifth, dubbed “Tip of the Mitt” will become official in 2017.

So this is a good thing, right? It’s certainly getting a lot of publicity, relatively speaking. Unfortunately, not all publicity is good publicity. I believe that the Tip of the Mitt AVA is unnecessary and may even end up hurting the reputation of Michigan wine overall. It’s too large to be meaningful and its inability to produce vinifera does not warrant the spotlight of AVA recognition. Recognition for a marginal (at best) area occupied by marginal winemakers drags down the reputation of Michigan wine as a whole.

AVAs don’t just fall from the sky, they’re the result of a long process that starts with a 20161103_112649.jpgpetition from winemakers in that particular area. In this case the Straits Area Grape Growers Association (SAGGA) petitioned the federal government for this designation. SAGGA is made up of wineries in the area included in Tip of the Mitt. All those wineries are also members of Michigan’s newest wine Trail, Bay View, named for the Chautauqua resort community near Petoskey, Michigan. Ironically, the Bay View community does not allow the consumption of alcohol in public spaces within its borders.

Granting an AVA to an area is a federal recognition of a geologically distinct region where wine grapes are grown. It gives the marketing advantage of having a name on the bottle that consumers can recognize and seek out. It comes with the added bonus of being able to use the “estate bottled” (the American equivalent of the French mise en bouteille au chateau) designation on the label if all the grapes that went into the wine were grown in vineyards owned by the winery.

All this is supposed to give a marketing advantage to wines produced within an AVA, but the marketing for TotM has been confused from the outset. The wine trail is Bay View, the AVA is Tip of the Mitt and the trade association is Straights Area. Three completely different names are being used for the same region. The name of the wine trail itself is confusing since its wineries are not only in Bay View but stretch across the region. Tip of the Mitt sounds silly and is only readily understood by Michiganders who are used to referring to the lower peninsula as “the mitten” because of its mitten-like shape. Michigan Straights or Mackinac Straits might have been a better name. In the short term, changing the name of the trail and the growers association might be a good fix, but that’s not the only problem TotM has.

Tip of the Mitt is huge, the largest AVA in the state by far. It stretches from Charlevoix to Alpena and north to Cheboygan, encompassing six counties and over 2,700 square miles. It is a little larger than the state of Delaware. Lake Michigan Shore is about 2,000 square miles, Leelanau is around 117, and Old Mission about 30. Fennville (which is entirely inside LMS) is tiny, but I can’t get a good number for its actual area. Online sources say 117 square miles, same as Leelanau, but that can’t be right. At any rate, there are many larger AVAs around the country, but they are either umbrella AVAs with many smaller ones within them (e.g. Central Coast in California or Finger Lakes in New York) or they are like the 6,000 square mile Mississippi Delta AVA which barely produces wine except a little from the Muscadine grapes, a pungent native species.

Like other far north areas (the 30,000 square mile Upper Mississippi Valley AVA for example) Tip of the Mitt is too cold to grow anything other than hybrid grape vines. Not even relatively cold hardy varieties like Riesling or Chardonnay will grow. As Cortney Casey writes in her excellent article on TotM in Hour Detroit Magazine:

In fact, the AVA is too cold to grow traditional vinifera grape varieties like cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and riesling, [Harvest Thyme Farm & Vineyards’ Brendan] Prewitt says. Instead, the area’s growers depend heavily on newer hybrid varieties like Marquette, La Crescent and frontenac gris “that can provide a full crop … in spite of low winter temperatures and short, cool growing seasons,” he says. “We want the Tip of the Mitt to convey the mastery of growing grapes in a challenging climate and the production of top-quality wines from these relatively new grape varieties.

Note how Prewitt avoids the H-word: “hybrid” and instead calls them “new grape varieties”. This is probably because hybrids have a bad reputation among wine enthusiasts.

20161103_112026.jpgHybrids are crosses between two different species of grape, usually the European one (vitis vinifera or vinifera for short) and a North American species. The best known varieties of wine like Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot et al are all different varieties of the vinifera species. Think of the differences between breeds of dogs. They’re all the same species, but they can vary a lot from each other.

Hybrid grapevines are grown because they are generally more disease resistant and are more reliable producers in marginal climates than vinifera. The tradeoff is that they usually don’t taste as good. I’m not anti-hybrid. I’ve had good wines made from hybrid grapes. Some, like Chardonel and Traminette, work well bottled as a varietal but I think most are best used in blends or special applications like sparkling or ice wines. The hybrid grapevines used in northern climates are mostly ones developed by the University of Minnesota like La Crescent, Marquette and Frontenac.

I’m all for bringing hybrids to respectability and using them for “the production of top quality wines” but that’s a long journey, one that none of the TotM producers seem to be taking at the moment. None of the wines from SAGGA members that I’ve tasted have conveyed a “mastery of growing grape in a challenging climate”. Many of them were made with grapes grown elsewhere, even the ones made with hybrid grapes. At best they’ve been boring wines. In fact, two of the worst wines I’ve ever had were from producers in TotM. One was an unintentionally sparkling Merlot that also tasted bad and another was a red hybrid blend of some sort that smelled like store brand bacon. Highlighting these wineries by giving them an AVA, at least as they are now, isn’t exactly putting Michigan’s best foot forward. A Michigan wine newcomer could get a poor impression of Michigan wines after drinking something from Tip of the Mitt.

There’s room in the Michigan wine world for table wines. I don’t object to unambitious, or unbalanced wines for weeknight dinner or porch sipping. If the AVA designation is to be meaningful it should denote a certain level of quality, though. Contrast TotM with the situation of winemakers in Southeast Michigan. Many of them are making very good wine, especially reds, but all they can do is put “Michigan” on their labels, with no AVA or estate grown designation. The value of an AVA is undermined when a marginal area receives one but an area producing high quality wine grapes has to soldier on without. AVAs should be granted to areas that are already producing quality wine as a recognition of the quality and distinctiveness of their area, not handed out to areas that might, under some circumstances, produce decent wine at some point in the future.

All this makes me wonder if the creation of the new AVA was for wine reasons or for tourism reasons. When the Bay View wine trail was created, I questioned the wisdom of creating a wine trail to promote wineries in a marginal area that were producing marginal wine. By “questioned” I mean that I made snarky remarks about it on Twitter. I called it the “tourist trap wine trail” because I think what motivated the creation of the Bay View wine trail and Tip of the Mitt was vitis envy. The Lake Michigan Shore and Northern Michigan are popular tourist areas. Leelanau Peninsula and Traverse City (home to the Old Mission Peninsula) have their own AVAs, as does the Lake Michigan Shore to the southwest. Charlevoix, Petoskey, Cheboygan and Boyne City to the north didn’t, even though tourism has been just as important there as it has been elsewhere in Northern Michigan. SAGGA may have wanted the AVA and wine trail to keep their tourists from driving south to spend their wine tourism dollars. The first paragraph of this article implies as much.  A trail and AVA help in that regard but the quality of wine in the area needs to improve quickly or momentum and tourist dollars will be lost. As much as I snarked about the Bay View wine trail, a wine trail is an instrument for tourism. Its creation is appropriate for the goal of promoting wine tourism in the area. An AVA should be about the wine itself, not tourism.

What the Tip of the Mitt AVA has brought into focus for me is the need for Michigan winemakers and the state department of agriculture to work together to develop a unified strategy for increasing the number of AVAs in the state (among other things). Letting regional wine organizations like SAGGA go it alone will result in a crazy quilt of AVAs some of which will be TotMs types. Luckily a new organization has brought together winemakers, famers, retailers, tourism boards and others for support and cooperation. It is the called the Michigan Wine Collaborative. It has the potential to prevent such a and advance a unified strategy for Michigan’s expanding wine industry. Yours truly inquired about being on the board, but all the positions were already filled at the time. Also, taking care of a six-month old baby sucks up a lot of my time.

I already mentioned the need for an AVA or AVAs in Southeast Michigan but another possibility for expansion could the subdivision of existing AVAs. Lake Michigan Shore is big itself and is ripe for further division. Maybe an arrangement similar to the villages in Beaujolais or Cote de Rhone could be adopted. It would be great to see Baroda, Paw Paw and Coloma join Fennville as AVAs within LMS. Perhaps there could even be an LMS Villages designation for wines made from a combination of grapes from near those towns. Leelanau could benefit from a similar arrangement or it could be divided into three parts based on the Sleeping Bear, Northern and Grand Traverse Bay loops of the Leelanau Wine Trail. These subdivisions could also add another layer of interest to wines made by Michigan’s growing stable of garagiste style winemakers.

If Michigan wine is to continue to grow its regional and national reputation, its wine producers and the state need to be strategic and deliberate about adding AVAs and wine trails. It might even be a good idea for to meet with winemakers from Ontario and New York to come up with regional strategies as well. Then, hopefully, we avoid any more Tip of the Mitts. Or is it Tips of the Mitt?

All photos by me.

Hawthorne Barrel Reserve Chardonnay

Maker: Hawthorne Vineyards, Traverse City, Michigan, USAwp-1472691746227.jpg

Style: Oak aged Chardonnay (17 months in oak).

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

Vintage: 2013

ABV: 12.3%

Price: $22 (winery)

Appearance: Bright straw.

Nose: Brown roux, lemon thyme, oak.

Palate:Mandarin orange, bitter oak.

Finish: Strong oak with a bit of tartness and sweetness.

Parting words: This is a pretty good buttery, oaky  Chardonnay. I was a big fan of it at the winery but for whatever reason (probably the state of my palate), it’s not thrilling me currently. Nothing remotely objectionable here, though. It’s not complex but it does serve up pleasant citrus, butter and oak flavors. The oak is strong but some people like that sort of thing (even I do sometimes). If you’re a fan of big Cali Chards, you will also enjoy 2013 Hawthorne Barrel Reserve Chardonnay. It is recommended.

Semi-dry Riesling Head to Head: Chateau Grand Traverse vs Gill’s Pier

Chateau Grand Traverse (Traverse City, Michigan, USA)= CGT20160531_195230-2.jpg

Gill’s Pier (Traverse City, Michigan, USA)= GP Now defunct.

Place of origin

CGT: Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Traverse City, Michigan, USA

GP: Leelanau Peninsula AVA, Leelanau County, Michigan, USA (estate)

Vintage: 2013

ABV

CGT: 11%

GP: 10%

Appearance:

CGT: Medium gold.

GP: Pale gold

Nose

CGT: Rich. Slightly musty, old Riesling aroma when first opened, then peachy all the way through.

GP: Crisp yellow apple, Meyer lemon, lemon thyme.

Palate

CGT: Full-bodied, old Riesling feel. Mandarin orange, sage.

GT: Bracing, but still sweet. Tangerine, bottled lemon juice.

Finish

CGT: Dry, with a little bitterness.

GP: Cheek-filling tartness. Fades slowly.

Parting words: I got the idea for this head to head when I pulled a wine out of our liquor cabinet to put in our china cabinet for near term-consumption (we have an overly complex three-part staging system for wine in our house). I pulled out the CGT Semi-dry Riesling and then went to move up the bottle below it and noticed it was the Gill’s Pier Semi-dry of the same vintage. I’ve done a lot spirits head to heads, but not many wine ones so I thought this was the perfect opportunity.

I didn’t expect there to be much of a difference between these two, honestly. I was quite surprised at the contrast between two wines made from grapes grown a few miles apart in the same style and year. It’s a testimony to the varied terroir of northwest Michigan and the flexibility of Riesling. CGT is lush and decadent where Gill’s Pier is focused and elegant. If I had to choose one over the other, I would probably opt for Gill’s Pier, but just by a hair. Both are recommended. Unfortunately, Gill’s Pier estate is now an alpaca farm, but Chateau Grand Traverse is still going strong and readily available all over Michigan.

Hawthorne Pinot Grigio, 2012

Maker: Hawthorne, Traverse City, Michigan, USA20160515_181721-2.jpg

Place of origin: Old Mission Penninsula AVA, Traverse City, Michigan, USA (2013 vintage was made from a mix of estate grapes and grapes from the Rue de Vin vineyard)

ABV: 13.1%

Purchased for $15 (winery)

Appearance: Pale straw

Nose: Mild. Papaya, underripe peach, honeydew melon, butter.

Palate: Rich and buttery. Grilled peaches, mandarin oranges, heirloom apples,

Finish: Bitter, smoky finish. Burnt butter, but in a good way.

Parting words: I don’t think I’ve ever had a Michigan Pinot Gris/Grigio this buttery, certainly not one from Northern Michigan. As you know, dear readers, the butter comes from malolactic fermentation, a secondary fermentation that can happen in wines. It also has the effect of softening out the tartness of a wine. It is commonplace in red wines, but less common in white where it imparts that buttery flavor and aroma most of us associate with California Chardonnay. It is allowed to occur in many warm climate Pinot Grigios too. Traverse City is almost nobody’s idea of a warm climate location but 2012 was a hot year by Michigan standards. Although it can be controlled, malolactic fermentation is more likely to occur naturally in warm conditions so maybe the folks at Hawthorne just decided to allow nature to take its course.

However it happened, the result was good. As in many Chards, the bitter oak and butter complement each other and make it even more food friendly. I’m not sure I would want a steady diet of this style of Grigio, but it’s good for a change of pace. 2012 Hawthorne Pinot Grigio is recommended.

Forty-Five North Dry Riesling, 2011

Maker: Forty-Five North, Lake Leelanau, Michigan, USA20160405_115701-1.jpg

Place of origin: Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Michigan, USA

ABV: 11.25%

Purchased for $19 (Hills, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan)

Appearance: Medium gold.

Nose: Dry and flinty. Lychee, water chestnut, Bartlett pear, dried savory, epazote.

Palate: Peach, tangerine, ruby red grapefruit, mineral water, dried chicory.

Finish: Medium length. Dry, herbal with a slight bitterness.

20160402_182008-1.jpgParting words: Having had an odd experience when I visited Forty-Five North last summer, I had been put off from reviewing any more of their stuff. I’m very glad I reviewed this one, though. I found it languishing on a shelf at store at which I usually buy Scotch and decided to pick it up earlier this year, even though I was unsure if it would still hold up.

Held up it did. This wine was wonderful. It’s one of the driest Michigan Rieslings I’ve had. I ate it with a couple different meals, including a cheese tart, made with Raclette from Leelanau Chesse (it’s all they make). It did well with everything. It’s drinking very well now, obviously, but it will probably still be good a year or more from now. $18 was the original MRSP but it’s easily worth $19-$20 or more. 2011 is still showing very well for Michigan whites. Forty-Five North’s 2011 Dry Riesling is highly recommended.

Arcturos Dry Riesling, 2012

Maker: Black Star Farms, Traverse City, Michigan, USA2016-03-02-11.08.03.jpg.jpeg

Place of origin: Leorie, Montague Estate, Capella vineyards, Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Traverse City, Michigan, USA

ABV: 12%

Price: $19 (website, 2013 vintage)

Appearance: medium gold

Nose: Canned peach syrup, freshly opened can of mandarin oranges, almonds, dried herbs de Provence.

Palate: Very mild. Faint tang then abruptly shifts to a bitter herbal taste, like ripped sage leaves.

Finish: Similar to the palate, but even fainter. Fades quickly.

Parting words: This is a cautionary tale, my friends. According to Cellartracker, I bought this wine last June at the winery. I don’t remember going to Black Star Farms last June, but I was in northern Michigan last summer so it’s entirely possible that I did. I wish I had opened it that summer instead of waiting until today. The 2012 vintage was not a consistently good one for Michigan Riesling and dry Rieslings often don’t age as well as late harvest ones. Those two combined with possible poor storage on my part may have doomed this poor wine. It’s not undrinkable, mind you, just fallen apart. I’m sure it was better a year ago, but as it is right now, Arcturos Dry Riesling, 2012 is not recommended.