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.

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.

Domaine Berrien Syrah, 2016

Maker: Domaine Berrien, Berrien Springs, Michigan, USA

Grape: Syrah (at least 85%)

Place of origin: Domain Berrien estate, Lake Michigan Shore AVA, Michigan, USA (at least 85%)

Vintage: 2016

ABV: Undisclosed (“table wine”)

Purchased for $22 (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room)

Appearance: Dark ruby.

Nose: Oak, sautéed mushrooms, mulberry, white pepper, nutmeg.

Palate: Tart blueberry, oak, clove, mace.

Finish: Mild, but a little spice and oak on the back end.

Parting words: I reviewed the 2011 vintage of DB’s Syrah back in 2016. It had spent a little longer in the bottle than this wine, but only by a few months. 2016 was a very warm vintage so I expected the 2016 to be fruitier than the 2011 was. While it can be hard to remember what I was thinking four and a half years ago, that does not seem to be the case. The notes are similar enough to be nearly identical. The only difference seems to be the earthy mushroom aroma I got in the nose. Earthiness is a Domaine Berrien trait, so it’s perhaps a little surprising that the 2011 didn’t seem to have much in the way of earth at all.

Anyway, Syrah does well in Southwest Michigan when it can get ripe enough, and 2016 was one of those years. $22 is a steal for a relatively rare, high quality wine like this. Domaine Berrien Syrah, 2016 is recommended.

Troglodyte Rosso

Maker: Mari Vineyards, Traverse City, Michigan, USA

Grapes: 50% Pinot Noir, 40% Teroldego, 10% Merlot

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

Style: Dry red blend.

Vintage: 2017

ABV: 13%

Purchased for $26 (Red Wagon, Rochester Hills)

Appearance: Slightly overdone fruit of the forest pie.

Palate: Medium bodied. Wild blackberry, black currant, clove, a little smoke.

Finish: Medium chewy, a little acid, a little fruit.

Parting words: Teroldego is a grape grown mostly in the Alpine vineyard areas of Northern Italy. It produces wines that are sometimes compared to Zinfindel, but it also bears more than a passing resemblance to its nephew Syrah. I don’t know how much Teroldego is grown in Michigan, but I’m guessing that it’s not a lot. I don’t know enough to say whether it should be grown more widely in Michigan, but I do like it in this blend. It brings a spicy, tarry (in a good way) punch to this wine that makes it food-friendly and well-rounded. For a grape this rare, and a wine this good, $26 is more than fair. Troglodyte Rosso 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.

Chateau Aeronautique Syrah, 2010

Maker: Chateau Aeronautique, Jackson, Michigan, USA

Grape: Syrah (at least 75%)

Place of origin: Michigan (at least 75%)

ABV: Not listed (“Table wine”)

Purchased for $28 (Michigan by the Bottle Sipper Club selection)

Appearance: Brick red.

Nose: Cedar, pink peppercorn, cherry juice, mulberry.

Palate: Juicy and a little tannic. Red currant, wild blackberry, leather, white pepper.

Finish: Leathery, with a little acid and spice

Parting words: Chateau Aeronautique is the project of airplane pilot Lorenzo Lizzaralde. He’s been at it for quite some time now and the ChA empire has expanded to include a brew-pub and coffee shop in downtown Auburn Hills, Michigan, both joint operations with the Caseys of Michigan by the Bottle.

Lorenzo’s wines are, generally speaking, bold. I like spicy Syrah, but my favorites are balanced with fruit and acid. This wine may have started out a little brash, but ten years in a bottle has done it a lot of favors. The oak is a little heavier than I prefer, but everything else is nicely balanced and great for drinking with or without food. $28 is a fair price for a wine of this age. Chateau Aeronautique Syrah, 2010 is recommended.

Ultima Thule, 2013

Maker: Mari Vineyards, Traverse City, Michigan, USA

Grapes: 45% Nebbiolo, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot

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

Vintage: 2013

ABV: 13.5%

Purchased for $60 at winery (minus 18% [IIRC] media discount)

Thanks to Sean O’Keefe and everyone else at Mari for the generous media discount.

Appearance: Brick red.

Nose: Plum, black currant jam, blackberry, white pepper, leather.

Palate: Full-bodied and tart. Raspberry, black currant, mulberry, tart cherry, oak.

Finish: Acidic and relatively short. Chewy on the back end.

Parting words: The islands of Thule were first mentioned by the Greek geographer Pytheas of Massalia (died c. 285 BCE). It was as six days sail north of Great Britain and was the most northern point known to people of the ancient Mediterranean. It’s unclear what, if any, real place Thule was. Iceland, Greenland, Orkney, Shetland, or some island off Norway have all been suggested. One later geographer suggestions the name may come from an old name refering to the Polar night, the sun never sets for weeks or months on end in high latitudes. When we were in Orkney, locals refered to it as the “simmer (summer) dim” when the sun never completely sets but just hangs around the horizon all night. We actually experienced a bit of this ourselves during our brief time there. I remember waking up around 2 am or so to see sunlight peaking through the blinds in our B & B.

On ancient and Medieval European maps, Ultima Thule became a fixture in the northwest, representing the northernmost inhabited bit of land. While the Old Mission Peninsula is much closer in latitude to Bordeaux or Torino than to Orkney or Iceland, Mari’s vineyards are at the northernmost point of Old Mission and this wine represents the ultimate expression of their nellaserra (hoop-house) system. Northern Michigan has enough sun to ripen Nebbiolo, but the cold springs present a big problem for the grape, which needs a relatively long time to ripen. The hoop-houses act as large cold frames and enable Nebbiolo to get the head start it needs to ripen.

As for the wine itself, it’s complex but not busy. It’s more acidic than I expected, but 2013 was a very cool vintage that saw pretty tart and but very long-lived wines. It’s not bracing or pucker-inducing by any stretch, though. The acid is firmly grounded in the fruit, and rounded off with judicious oak and spice.

$60 is a lot of money for a Michigan wine, or any wine period, really. I think it’s worth the money, however, and I think there’s three reasons why. First is rarity. To my knowledge there are no other Nebbiolo vines in Michigan besides those belonging to Mari Vineyards. Second is longevity. Cab Sauv and Nebbiolo are known for their ability to age for long periods of time so I originally planed to open this wine in the fall of 2023 but I just couldn’t wait that long. I have no regrets about opening it when I did but I think it could have gone for two or three more years at least. This is born out by how good it still tasted one and even two days after open.

Finally, this wine is worth at least $60 because it’s just so good. It’s good with food, by itself, in a box, with a fox, however you want to drink it. Mari Vineyards Ultima Thule, 2013 is recommended!