Yes, it’s another head to head! This time I decided to pit a 2014 Gamay Noir from Chateau Grand Traverse on Old Mission Peninsula against a 2014 Beaujolais-Villages from Joseph Drouhin, one of Burgundy’s biggest négociants (wine buyers/blenders/bottlers). I enlisted the help of friends of the blog Amy and Pete to help us out (last seen here). Just to make sure we were tasting the wine and not our biases, we tasted these two wines blind. I’ll review them that way too, revealing which is which (and price and ABV) at the end. I’ll integrate the co-taster’s notes into my own, noting if they differ from mine.
A: Dark rose.
B: Similar, but a little darker
A: Fruity, berries specifically. I also smelled pepper and a drop of balsamic vinegar (in a good way)
B: Very similar, maybe a little more oak and a little less balsamic.
A: Light bodied. Strawberry, blackberry, oak.
B: Same flavor palette, but a little drier, chewier and more intense. That said, none of us knew if I could tell these two apart in a wider tasting. They both grew tart as they warmed, shifting into raspberry.
A: Drying. Balsamic, oak.
B: Similar but drier and longer.
A= Joseph Drouhin Beaujolais-Villages, 2014. 12.5% ABV. $16 (Holiday Market)
The CGT Gamay Noir performed slightly better, but as I wrote above, the wines were virtually identical. Both were delicious and paired well with the chocolate and cheese we nibbled on during the tasting. They’d both do well with grilled or roasted chicken, salmon or pork. Both are recommended, but why not save yourself a buck while supporting the Mitten state and pick up a bottle of CGT Gamay Noir the next time you buy wine!
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: Peninsula Cellars, Traverse City, Michigan, USA
Grapes: Merlot (75%), Cabernet Franc (25%).
Place of Origin: The Hog’s Back vineyard, Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Traverse City, Michigan, USA
Notes: 230 cases produced, 13 months in French oak.
Purchased for $25 at Michigan by the Bottle, Royal Oak (another bottle purchased at winery for $30)
Appearance: Dark red.
Nose: Crushed sweet cherry, oak smoke, allspice, raspberries.
Palate: Juicy and slightly tart. Cherry juice, nutmeg, red currant, sautéed mushroom.
Finish: Chewy, then sweet, then tart.
Parting words: The Hog’s Back is a ridge in the central part of Old Mission Peninsula, just north of the unincorporated village of Mapleton (home to the Peninsula Grill). The Hog’s Back vineyard is on the western slope of the ridge. It’s one of the few vineyards on Old Mission to specialize in red varietals. It’s planted with Merlot and Cabernet Franc. While Cabernet Franc is common in all parts of Michigan, Merlot is more rare, especially in the north of the state. It evidently thrives on The Hog’s Back or at least it did in 2012.
This wine is wonderful from start to finish. It was one of my favorites when it was on the menu at MBTBRO, even at a relatively young age. Its structure, fruit and acid made it irresistable. It has gotten even better since then, and is probably the best northern Michigan red I’ve had or the best Bordeaux-variety blend at the very least. It tastes just as good with food as it does after dinner. It’s great now but I’m sure it will still be great in another five years. I’ll report back when I open my other bottle. Hopefully there will be a 2016 vintage of this wine or something like it! 2012 Peninsula Cellars Merlot/Cabernet Franc (The Hog’s Back) is highly recommended.
Maker: Left Foot Charley, Traverse City, Michigan, USA
Grape: Riesling (at least 85% by law)
Place of origin: Seventh Hill Farm vineyard, Old Mission Penninsula AVA, Traverse City, Michigan, USA
Purchsed for $20 at Holiday Market
Appearance: Pale gold.
Nose: Lychee, minerals, dried apricot,
Palate: Mineral water, mandarin oranges, lemon thyme, underripe peach.
Finish: Peachy and mineral-y.
Parting words: I’ve said before that I think Left Foot Charley is the best winemaker in Michigan. Seventh Hill Farm Riesling is more evidence to support that claim. 2013 was a difficult vintage for many growers in the state, but one that ultimately produced many wonderful whites (and some good reds too!) According to the label, this wine was fermented for a relatively long time to soften the edgy nature of the vintage. What has emerged is a sophisticated, complex (but not busy) semi-dry Riesling that offers up everything you’re looking for: minerals, herbs, fruit and acid in perfect harmony. This wine is like that extremely chill friend who is at his or her best just lounging in the backyard with you some summer afternoon and talking or even not talking. No awkward silences at Seven Hill Farm.
Seventh Hill Farm Riesling is drinking great right now but would probably hold up for at least another year or two. It goes very well with food (we drank it with grilled porkchops) and is a fair price. There still lots of 2013s hanging around (it’s still available on the LFC website) so buy some if you see them! I’m not sure if there’s going to be a 2016, but if there is, it’s sure to be great too. 2013 Seventh Hill Farm Riesling is highly recommended.
Maker: Bowers Harbor Vineyards, Traverse City, Michigan, USA
Grape: Riesling (German clones)
Place of origin: Block II, Bower’s Harbor estate, Old Mission AVA, Traverse City, Michigan, USA.
Price: $32 (winery)
Note: received complementary media tour in conjunction with 2015 City of Riesling festival (see here).
Appearance: Pale gold.
Nose: Lychee, lemon thyme, dry gravel.
Palate: Medium-bodied and dry. Mineral water, Meyer lemon, fennel, winter savory, clementine.
Finish: Dry and tart. A little pineapple.
Parting words: Block II is a very sandy section of the Bowers Harbor estate, known for its old (by northern Michigan standards) stand of Riesling vines, planted in 1991. Block II is one of three single vineyard Rieslings BHV currently produces. The others are Smokey Hallow (also dry) and Langley Vineyard late harvest.
This is the second review of Block II Riesling I’ve written. I did a review of the 2010 vintage in 2015. It was running out of gas at that point but still good. The 2013 seems to be at its peak or close to it right now. While the 2010 tasted a little tired, this one is vibrant and still full of fruit, with lots of mouth-puckering acid, especially at room temperature. That combo makes for a classically food friendly wine, one that would make for a great addition to the Thanksgiving table.
With some work, you can probably still find a few 2013s kicking around but your better bet is to stock up on 2016s which are sure to be fantastic. The 2016 vintage of Block II Riesling is selling for $26 on the BHV website which is more than fair for a wine of this quality. If you love dry Riesling, stock up now! 2013 Bowers Harbor Block II Riesling is highly recommended.
Maker: Black Star Farms, Sutton’s Bay/Traverse City, Michigan, USA
Grape: Cabernet Franc (at least 75%)
Place of origin: Michigan (56% Leelanau Co, 44% Grand Traverse Co), USA
Price: $28.50 (website, 2013 vintage)
Appearance: Dark burgundy. Opaque.
Nose: Roasted red pepper, sautéed mushrooms, raisins, crushed blueberry.
Palate: Medium-bodied and dry. Chicken jambalaya, oak.
Finish: Tangy and oaky.
Parting words: Chicken jambalaya is a weird tasting note, I know, but I think it’s apt for the combination of vegetal (bell pepper, celery), sweet (tomato, onion), tart (tomato), toasty (toasted rice) spicy (bell pepper, black pepper) and earthy (tomato, celery, chicken) flavors I got in this wine.
I reviewed the 2004 Arcturos Three Black Lot Old Mission Peninsula Cab Franc back in 2011 in the early, halcyon days of this blog. It was more subtle and refined than this wine, but it was also two years older. At the time I thought it was too old, but my palate has shifted toward lighter, fruitier reds so it sounds really good to me right now. The 2012 Cab Franc is good right now but I think it will continue to improve into the first couple years of the next decade. $28.50 is a fair price, especially if one holds on to it for a few more years. There are probably a few 2012s still kicking around, but 2016 and 2017 should be as delicious as this vintage and as age-worthy. Goes well with beef, pork, turkey and spicy Latin chicken dishes. 2012 Arcturos Cabernet Franc is recommended.
Maker: Peninsula Cellars, Traverse City, Michigan, USA
Grape: Lemberger, aka Blaufränkisch
Place of origin: Old Mission AVA, Traverse City, Michigan, USA
Purchased for $22.50 (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room, Royal Oak)
Appearance: Dark ruby.
Nose: Blueberry pie, tomato, black pepper. “grapes when you eat them” -nosing note from my 7 y/o daughter.
Palate: Blackberry juice, wild mushroom, pink peppercorn, a little tartness.
Finish: Tannin, then acid.
Parting words: What do Pinot Blanc and Lemberger have in common? They’re both popular grapes that I just haven’t been able to get excited about. Both grow well in Up North, West Michigan and southern Michigan wine countries and both have been floated as “signature grapes” for the state. I’m not a fan of the concept of regions promoting one “signature grape” in general, but if I had to pick, neither Lemberger or Pinot Blanc would be in my top five.
As I do with a lot of things, I’ve been questioning myself over my disinterest in Lemberger and Pinot Blanc and wondering if it meant that my palate was flawed or I’m some kind of moron. So I’ve been trying to drink more of both kinds of wine. This bottle is a part of that effort.
Austria is considered Lemberger’s home turf, although it probably originated farther south and east. It’s known as Blaufränkisch in Austria where it is the second most planted red wine grape. The first is Lemberger’s offspring, Zweigelt.
While I may have had a breakthrough regarding Pinot Blanc, Lemberger’s appeal remains elusive. This is a well made wine, better than the last Lemberger I tried, but I still find myself wondering why it’s such a favorite of some Michigan wine drinkers. For me it’s too rough around the edges. In the past year or two I’ve been moving into sweeter, fruitier wines (Gamay, Riesling, Pinot Noir, cool climate Cab Franc and Merlot) and this wine’s tannic finish and unbalanced earthiness were an unpleasant surprise to my palate. Chilling it did eliminate much of that roughness but I would rather not have to chill a red wine at this price.
I think much of Lemberger’s popularity in Michigan is being driven by how well it grows here (which is a good thing!) but as for me, I still prefer it in blends rather than bottled as a varietal. Austrian Blaufränkisch often improves with extended cellar time, so maybe this one needs more time. Luckily I have another bottle of this in my cellar so I can test that theory in a couple years. Anyway, as it is now 2013 Peninsula Cellars Lemberger is mildly recommended.
Maker: Peninsula Cellars, Traverse City, Michigan, USA.
Varieites: Macintosh, Spy, Empire, Rhode Island Greening.
Style: Sweet apple wine.
Price: $16/750 ml (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room, Royal Oak)
Appearance: Light gold.
Nose: Cut table apple, swimming pool.
Palate: Full-bodied and sweet. Apple juice, Gala apple.
Finish: A faint glimmer of tannin but still sweet. Long.
Parting words: Kroupa Orchards Apple Wine falls into the weird category of products that are good but disappointing. Peninsula cellars is one of the best wineries in Michigan’s best wine region. I love almost every wine they produce, so maybe my expectations were too high for this product. It’s not bad by any stretch. It has a lucious sweetness that is pleasant, but I expected something more thoughtful from this winery.
I think much of my disappointment stems from the choice of fruit all of which are baking apples. It’s the equivalent of making wine from Concord or Niagara grapes. Concord wine can be enjoyable, but it will never be as good as a well-made Pinot Noir or Riesling. It’s the same with apple wine or cider made from baking or table apples. Kroupa Orchard Apple wine is easy drinking with lots of apple flavor, but it lacks the complexity of a finely crafted hard cider that tannic or acidic apples would bring to the mix. Even accounting for the larger bottle and higher ABV, $16 is pricy for a product like this. Kroupa Orchard Apple Wine is mildly 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.
I always seem to run into Sean O’Keefe when he’s busy. One time I ran into him was at the 2015 Michigan Wine Showcase in Detroit. He invited me out to see his new place of employment, Villa Mari (now Mari Vineyards) on Old Mission Peninsula. The winery was still being built then but he was eager to show me around anyway. I took him up on his offer over two years later, on July 7, 2017. In my defense, my wife and I did have a new baby in that time period. That baby tagged along with us.
Anyhow, when we walked up to the tasting room and asked for Sean, we learned he was in his office filling spreadsheets and he would be up in a few minutes. Mari’s tasting room and winery is in a beautiful stone building perched on top of a hill, The building (and the whole enterprise) is a tribute to the owner’s family origins in northeast Italy. It’s intended to resemble a Romanesque Italian monastery.
The tasting room has an airy Mediterranean feel with a decorating theme that could be described as “DaVinci Code”. Energy mogul and Upper Peninsula native Marty Lagina is the owner and founder of Mari Vineyards. He’s best known as co-star of the Canadian-produced reality show The Curse of Oak Island, in which Marty and his brother Rick search for treasure on an island in Nova Scotia. In the course of the show they consult with a number of self-described experts on “mysteries in history” type topics who link the yet-to-be-found treasure to Aztecs, Africans, pre-Colombian European mariners and the like. As playwright Anton Chekov once said, “Money, like vodka, turns a person into an eccentric.”
After Sean arrived and said a few words, he took us down the next level to the winery. There we tasted some of the white wines being fermented in the stainless steel tanks at the time.
We tasted samples of Pinto Grigio , Grüner Veltliner and Riesling. The Grüner was bound for Troglodyte Bianco, a white Pinot Blanc-heavy white blend Sean compared to his own Ship of Fools. There was one white Grigio (closer to an Alsatian Gris than an Italian Grigio) but also an “orange” version. If a rosé is a red wine treated like a white, then an orange wine is a white wine treated like a red. As is usually done with red wines the skins are left in contact with the juice for an extended period of time to add tannins, color and other things.
This style has become trendy recently, so much so that Sean prefaced pouring us some of this wine said he has resisted making hipster wines but this one is actually good. And I agree.
We also had three Rieslings each from a different vineyard. Sean likes to segregate wines by vineyard in the winery and the cellar so that they can develop their own character. It’s easier to then blend the wines together to produce the profile he wants for the expression. Or bottle as a single vineyard offering of course. The first one we tasted was dry (Sean made a point of pointing out that it was truly dry, not semi-dry like many Michigan Rieslings labeled as dry), the second was described as more of a semi-sweet feinherb style and the third was fruity like the second but even sweeter. About releasing the third one as a varietal Sean said, “People like this one [the most] but..”
After tasting the whites, it was down to the cave for the reds. The extensive cave/cellar was dug specifically for the winery though there were some utility trenches under where the winery is now.
The variety of reds in the cellar was staggering. The usual suspects were there, Cabernets Franc & Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah but also estate grown Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Malbec and a number of obscure Northern Italian like Refosco, Teroldego, and Scuppatino. How can they grow these, you may ask? It’s due to their nellaserra system, aka hoop houses. They’re similar to cold frames, only they don’t go all the way to the ground, they just warm the soil under them more quickly. One the biggest surprises for Sean was how well some varieties did in this system, Nebbiolo in particular. On the other hand, others like Merlot don’t seem to do any better under the hoops than not.
Most of these wines will be blended, but some may be released as off-beat varietals on sub-labels.
We then went back up to the tasting room. They were officially sold out of white wines but we were able to sample some of Mari’s Malvasia Bianca. The grape is grown in Croatia, Friuli and California and a few other places. Mari’s Malvasia Bianca vines are the only ones in Michigan. The clone they planted is virtually extinct in Italy, according to Sean, but is widely grown in California. Unfortunately, it was not available for purchase at that time because Sean was still waiting on label approval from the TTB.
There were three reds available. Bel Tramonto (below), Row 7 (Cab Franc & Merlot field blend) and Ultima Thule (Cab Sauv, Nebbiolo, Merlot, Syrah). All were very good. We came home with a bottle of Ultima Thule and a bottle of Row 7 at an 18% media discount. Both retail for $60 at the tasting room.
Sean started at Mari Vineyards as a consultant charged with hiring a winemaker for the new winery. As is often the case in these situations he ended up recommending and hiring himself. As the winery was being built, he made the wines at his family winery, Chateau Grand Traverse, of which he is still co-owner along with his father and brother. He was responsible for many of the “special” labels put out by CGT over the years like Ship of Fools, Whole Cluster Riesling and the acclaimed Lot 49 Riesling. Sean described his approach to winemaking as one that seeks to use as few interventions and additions as possible. He does add yeast to Mari’s wines, but he has experimented with wild fermentation. While he seeks to intervene as little as possible, he said he didn’t want to be like some natural winemakers who make mistakes and then take an “I meant to do that” attitude when their wine turns out funky.
As I was writing this review I sipped on wine from a 2010 bottle from Mari I found at A & L Wine Castle in Ann Arbor a year or so ago. It’s more of a Bordeaux Blend with a little Syrah thrown in than a straight up Cab Franc. Juicy but well structured. I recommend it, although there are very few bottles of anything from Mari Vineyards kicking around outside the tasting room anymore.
Look for an icewine in the near future, as well as more bottlings of Mari’s standard blends and a few oddball varietals.
Mari is still relatively new, but Sean has a brain that is constantly thinking about his wines and what he’s going to do with them. He didn’t ask me, but I’d like to see more dessert wines and maybe a passito from Mari Vineyards in the future. Even more fun might be planting some Trebbiano and hooking up with Black Star Farms or Red Cedar and producing an aged brandy. I’d love to see what spirits do in that cellar. Whatever is actually coming down the pike, I’m looking forward to it. Next time you’re in Traverse City, stop into Mari Vineyards tasting room!