Burning Chair

Maker: Savage and Cooke, Vallejo, California, USA.

Distillery: Ross & Sqibb, Lawrenceburg, Indiana, USA.

Style: Bourbon whiskey finished in Zinfandel and Grenache (70/30%) barrels.

Age: NAS

Proof: 119 (59.7 ABV)

Barrel: 213

Purchased for $70 (Vine and Table)

Tasted with a little water.

Appearance: Medium copper.

Nose: Big spice, char, cayenne, oak, and sweet red wine.

Palate: Full-bodied with a velvety, sweet opening. Wild cherry Lifesavers, then oak, spice, and burn that slowly grows until it burns the roof of my mouth like a hot slice of pizza.

Finish: Burn and cherry wine. Not quite cough syrup but right on the edge.

Parting words: Savage & Cooke is a restaurant/distillery in Vallejo, California. It was founded and is owned by Dave Phinney, known as “the The Prisoner Guy” in wine circles. It’s another case of a rich guy getting into the micro-distilling business, and also another case of a distillery that seems to be more of a distillery-themed restaurant than what normally passes for a distillery.

As cheesy as all that sounds, this is one of the better finished bourbons I’ve tasted. One of the keys is starting with good, already aged whiskey. Too many producers, large and small, try to use finishes to cover up flaws in the spirit. That almost never works, so I’m glad Savage & Cooke didn’t try. This has a solid whiskey base. The finish is noticeable, but not overwhelming, and well-integrated. It’s everything a wine-finished bourbon should be.

The price, on the other hand, is higher than it should be. I knew $70 was too much when I paid for it, but it is barrel strength, unavailable in the Mitten State, an exclusive retail bottling, and Dave Helt was pouring samples of it at the time. So I paid it, and I haven’t really been disappointed. As a result, Burning Chair (barrel 213) is recommended.

Tempesta, 2016

Maker: Bel Lago, Cedar, Michigan, USA.

Grapes: Cabernet Franc, Regent, Merlot, Marquette, “and more (?).” Label calls it a “vineyard blend”.

Place of origin: Bel Lago estate, Leelanau Peninsula AVA, Leelanau County, Michigan.

Vintage: 2016

ABV: 13.5% ABV

Notes: Spent 34 months in oak barrels.

Purchased for $44 from Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room, Royal Oak.

Thanks to Cortney Case for the information on the grapes that went into this wine!

Appearance: Brick red.

Nose: Cherry jam, lightly toasted oak, anise, mace.

Palate: Blackberry jam, mulberry, leather.

Finish: Chewy with a little tang.

Parting words: I bought this wine about a year ago. At the time, I’m sure I took note of what the composition of the wine was, but over the months, that knowledge drifted out of my mind. So in preparation for this review, I emailed friend-of-the-blog Cortney Casey (co-owner of Michigan by the Bottle) and asked if she had any information on the grapes in this wine. She wrote back promptly with the above information but noted that Bel Lago co-founder “Charlie [Edson] is notoriously difficult to get full blend lists out of since a lot of his wines are field blends.” Since that is the case, I’m going to assume the term “vineyard blend” on the label means field blend.

I didn’t have that information at my fingertips when I tasted this wine, though, so I went in assuming this would be a Bordeaux/Meritage style blend like many of the “flagship” red blends in Michigan. I was therefore surprised at the “fruit of the forest” flavors of Tempesta at first taste, but with Regent and Marquette in the mix, it makes a lot more sense. That is not intended as a knock in any way, though. Tempesta is an excellent food wine, pairing well with just about anything except shellfish, which it would overwhelm.

$44 is pretty expensive. Not Bel Lago’s most expensive (that would be the Riesling ice wine), but it is in the top four. I’ve had the second most expensive one, sibling wine Tempesta Cabernet Franc, but I think I actually prefer this over that!

I vacillated between a full and a mild recommendation because of the price, but I’ve settled on full. Even though Regent and Marquette are pretty easy to grow in Northern Michigan, Merlot is not (even in a hot vintage like 2016), and Cab Franc can be a pain from time to time. If it is indeed a field blend, that’s worth a bit more as well. All in all, I feel comfortable recommending 2016 Bel Lago Tempesta.

The 2012 Project

In my last wine review, I stated that there was a blogging project coming up that involved aging and Michigan wines. Well, here it is: the 2012 project.

A few of the wines that will be a part of the 2012 Project.

In the early 2010s, around the time this blog was born, there was a run of excellent vintages in Michigan. 2010, 2011, and 2012 were all hailed as superb at the time. By the time the 2012 wines were released, I finally got the memo I and started collecting them with an eye on seeing how they would develop in my cellar. 2013 was more challenging, with a cooler autumn, but was recognized as a good year for whites at the time. In retrospect, some excellent reds were produced that year as well; they’ve just taken longer to develop than their older siblings.

Two cellars, one alpaca farm, and countless wine shops later (OK, mostly MBTB, Red Wagon, and Holiday Market), the time has come. Starting in January 2023, I will be embarking on a series of reviews of Michigan wines from the 2012 and 2013 vintages with the goal of understanding how they’ve changed in the bottle and what difference factors like terroir, winemaker, and closure make, among other things. The wines are mostly red, but there will be a few whites in the mix. They are all from Michigan AVAs that existed at the time: Lake Michigan Shore, Leelanau Peninsula, and Old Mission Peninsula. Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to grab any from Fennville.

Why include 2013s in the 2012 Project? As I mentioned above, 2012 and 2013 were pretty different vintages. A lot can be learned just tasting through the 2012 vintage, but including 2013 opens up the possibilities to explore how the variations in weather from year to year factors into the aging of wine.

Winemakers: It’s not too late to get your wines in on the action! If you have library wines you want me to include in this project, send me an email at sipologyblog@gmail.com . The project is currently weighted toward red Bordeaux variety wines, so any samples of whites or other red varieties you may have are especially welcomed!

I’m looking forward to exploring these bottles with you all in the new year!

Happy Holidays from your internet drinking buddy Josh.

Crown of Cab, 2017

Maker: Domaine Berrien, Berrien Springs, Michigan, USA.

Grapes: 42% Cabernet Sauvignon, 29% Cabernet Franc, 25% Merlot, 3% Petit Verdot, 1% Malbec.

Place of origin: Domaine Berrien estate, Lake Michigan Shore AVA, Michigan, USA.

Vintage: 2017

ABV: Undisclosed (table wine exception).

Purchased for $21 (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room, Royal Oak).

Appearance: Brick red.

Nose: Cherry juice, toasted French oak, wild blackberry.

Palate: Medium bodied. Tart and a little chewy. Tart cherry, blackberry, leather.

Finish: Chewy like a good Bordeaux.

Parting words: Crown of Cab is the crown jewel of Domaine Berrien’s cellar. It’s produced every year from a blend of red Bordeaux varieties. In odd numbered years, winemaker and co-owner Wally Maurer aims for a Left Bank Bordeaux, producing a Cab Sauv-forward blend like this one. In even numbered years, he goes for a Right Bank, Merlot & Cab Franc heavy blend.

Although Wally encourages his customers to drink his wines promptly, they are some of the most age-worthy wines produced in the Mitten State. That fact is even more astounding when one factors in how affordable they all are.

At five years old, this blend is just starting to get going. 2017 was an especially fine vintage in Michigan as well, so this wine will probably end up having a long, fulfilling life for anyone who can wait a while.

Speaking of aging, I have a fun series of reviews planned for this winter and spring that involve aging Michigan wine. Watch this space for more information soon!

At any rate, 2017 Crown of Cab is recommended for cellaring and for drinking right now!

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.

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.

Hawthorne Gamay Noir, 2017

Maker: Hawthorne Vineyards, Traverse City, Michigan, USA.

Borrowed from 2016

Grape: Gamay (at least 85%)

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

Vintage: 2017

ABV: 12.5%

Price: $12.50 (Meijer)

Appearance: Dark red.

Nose: Fruit punch, sweet cherry.

Palate: Sweet cherry pie, a little allspice.

Finish: Fruit and tannin.

Parting words: Almost a year ago, I reviewed the 2016 vintage of this wine for the second time. It had moved from being something of a fruit bomb, to something more complex and spicy. This wine is about halfway there. There’s still quite a lot of fruit, but a little spice is starting to develop. There are good things ahead for this wine, and given how good the 2017 vintage was, generally, it will probably end up being even better than its younger sibling. $12.50 is a steal for this wine. You’d be stupid NOT to buy a couple bottles of it at that price! Hawthorne’s 2017 Gamay Noir is 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.

Chateau Grand Traverse Gamay Noir Reserve, 2016

Maker: Chateau Grand Traverse, Traverse City, Michigan, USA

Grape: Gamay (at least 85%)

Place of origin: Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Traverse City, Michigan, USA (at least 85%)

Vintage: 2016

ABV: 13.9%

Purchased for $26

Appearance: Dark ruby.

Nose: Red currants, crushed blackberries, cedar, velvet.

Palate: Silky and full-bodied. Blueberry pie, pink peppercorn, black pepper.

Finish: Black currant jelly, clove.

Parting words: I reviewed the “regular” Chateau Grand Traverse Gamay Noir back in 2019. You can read that review here. The difference between that and CGT’s reserve Gamay Noir is the amount of time the wine spends in oak, and $11 in price. That extra time has given the reserve fuller body, silkier texture, and more spice, although I’m sure two extra years in the bottle had an impact as well.

While that other Gamay was the equivalent of a good Beaujolais-Villages or bargain cru Beaujolais, this wine is like a Cru Beaujolais at around the same price point or even a little higher. The standard Gamay is an even better value, but there’s no reason to punish the reserve for the success of its cheaper sibling. It’s very much worth the price. 2016 Chateau Grand Traverse Gamay Noir Reserve is recommended.