Maker: Sandhill Crane Vineyards, Jackson, Michigan, USA
Grape: Cabernet Sauvignon (at least 75%)
Place of origin: Michigan
Purchased for $22 (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room)
Appearance: Brick red.
Nose: Toasted oak, walnut, crushed black cherries, dark chocolate.
Palate: Medium bodied. Tart and a little chewy. Balanced. Blackberry, black pepper, mushroom.
Finish: Tart, then a little tannic.
Parting words: Sandhill Crane is located in Jackson County Michigan, in the south central part of the state. While Jackson doesn’t have the lakefront and glacial features of Southwest and Northwest Michigan wine country, it does have three fine wineries, Lone Oak (in Grass Lake), Chateau Aeronautique, and Sandhill Crane.
Sandhill Crane is the biggest of the three with a wide variety of blends and varietals, including this Cabernet Sauvignon. Michigan isn’t known for this grape, but it is grown more widely than one might think. Still, it’s rare to find it bottled as a varietal here, so when it is, it’s almost always worth picking up. This wine is no exception.
No one would confuse this wine for a Napa Cab or a Left Bank Bordeaux, but it has some very nice varietal and cool climate notes with fruit, acid and tannin pleasantly balanced. It would probably hold up for another year or two at least, but this vintage is drinking very well right now, so sear yourself a steak and crack open your bottle if you have one. The 2016 and 2017 vintage should be able to age this long too if you have one of those. 2012 Sandhill Crane Cabernet Sauvignon is recommended.
Maker: Mari Vineyards, Traverse City, Michigan, USA
Place of origin: Jamieson Vineyard, Mari Estate, Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Traverse City, Michigan, USA
Style: Red field blend
Purchased for $60 (winery, -media discount)
Appearance: Dark red.
Nose: Subtle. Toasted oak, black currant jam, blueberry, sweet cherry.
Palate: Well-balanced and elegant. White mulberry, blackberry, leather, clove, nutmeg, white pepper.
Finish: Fruity and a little chewy with a pinch of spice.
Parting words: Row 7 comes from a mishap when Jamieson vineyard was being planted. An unknown assortment of red wine vines were planted in Row 7. Instead of figuring out what they were and moving them accordingly, the vines were left in place and used to create this wonderful field blend, one of Mari’s most popular wines.
I’m not going to try and guess what varietals are in this wine, but it tastes like a Rhone or a lighter Bordeaux blend. It has a firm tannic backbone, but shows a lot of acid, fruit and a little baking spice. Row 7 is expensive for a Michigan red, but I think the quality justifies the price. Maybe it goes without saying in Mari’s price range, but this wine is one that you should cellar for a few years after purchasing. It tastes good right out of the box, don’t get me wrong, but when you’re spending this much on one bottle of wine, it’s wise to get the most out of your investment. This one could probably go another year or two even! Mari Vineyards Row 7, 2013 is recommended.
Maker: Boathouse Vineyards, Lake Leelanau, Michigan, USA.
Place of origin: Leelanau Peninsula AVA, Michigan, USA
Grape: Pinot Noir (at least 85%)
Purchased for $20
Appearance: Dark red.
Nose: cedar, blackberry jam, blueberry pie, clove.
Palate: Semi-sweet. Black cherry, raspberry, red currant jelly.
Finish: Blackberry jam, French oak, apple wood smoked pork.
Parting words: I discovered this bottle sitting on a dusty bottom shelf at Holiday Market in Royal Oak. The bottle was on the shelf, that is. I had heard of Boathouse, but never visited there. I wasn’t sure if a Pinot Noir from a small winery would hold up after seven years, but I decided to take a chance. I was pleasantly surprised!
This is a full-flavored and ripe Pinot, similar to some California ones I’ve tasted in the same price range. I prefer a softer, more acidic wine from this grape, but there’s nothing to complain about, really. This is a very food-friendly wine that has held up surpisingly well for being left to languish in obscurity. 2012 Boathouse Pinot Noir is recommended.
Four wines: A, B, C & D. Four tasters: Josh, Liz, Amy & Pete. Notes are a combination of mine and those of the other tasters.
Makers: Revealed at the end.
Grape: Pinot Noir
Places of origin (in no particular order): Lake Michigan Shore AVA, Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Willamette Valley AVA, Oregon, Russian River Valley AVA, California.
A: 14.5%, B: 11.6%, C: 13.1%, D: 14.3%
A: $23, B: $18, C: $15, D: $14
A: Dark ruby.
B: Light. Translucent.
C: Medium dark red.
D: Darkest. Brick red.
A: Cherry jam, plum, cedar.
B: Wild blackberry, hint of brett (fades quickly), wet earth, black pepper, cedar.
C: Mild compared to the others. Crushed strawberry, a little oak.
D: Crushed mulberry, oak, coffee, pepper.
A: Cherry juice, black pepper, smoke, almost no acid.
B: Light mouthfeel. Broken grape stem, tangy. Raspberry, toasted oak.
C: Light bodied. Strawberry, red currant, lightly acidic.
D: Black current jam, blackberry, lemon, earth.
A: A little oak, black cherry.
B: Chewy. One taster noted an unpleasant aftertaste.
C: Toasted French oak, a little fruit.
D: Light. Fruity with a little oak and leather.
A: De Loach PN, Russian River Valley AVA, Sonoma County, California.
B: Domaine Berrien PN, Martha’s & Katherine’s Vineyards, DB estate, Lake Michigan Shore AVA, Michigan.
C: Chateau Chantal PN, Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Traverse City, Michigan.
D: Kirkland Signature PN, Willamette Valley AVA, Oregon.
Parting words: I got idea for this head to head after I noticed that I had purchased a lot of 2016 Pinot Noir in the past couple months. I thought comparing an LMS Pinot to an OMP Pinot and comparing both of them to ones from Oregon and Sonoma might be a fun and educational excercise. They had to be around the same price, too, to keep us from tasting the price differences rather than the terroir and technique of the wine makers.
I know this is a Michigan wine blog, but I will say that my personal favorite was the Kirkland. It was the most balanced and was a delight to drink from beginning to end. My least was the De Loach. It tasted overripe and was nothing but sweet fruit. Of the two Michigan wines, the Chateau Chantal Pinot was the most balanced and drinkable, but it was very mild compared to the others. I’ve complained about this before. Domaine Berrien was good, but tasted a little green and unrefined compared to the others. I know from experience, though, the Wally’s wines can take a while to blossom, even in a warm vintage like 2016. Another year or two in the bottle is recommended for DB PN.
The other tasters varied in their choices, but the differences were all a matter of taste not of disagreement of quality or flaws. One taster liked the fruity sweetness of De Loach, but disliked Domaine Barrien strongly. Another found Chateau Chantal delightful, but Kirkland overbearing.
These are all good value wines. Kirkland and Chateau Chantal are recommended. Domaine Berrien is recommended with further cellaring and De Loach is mildly recommended.
Maker: Old Westminster, New Windsor, Carroll Co, Maryland, USA
Grapes: Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot.
Place of origin: Maryland, USA (Northern Maryland according to back label)
Purchased for $32 (Glen’s Market, Washington, DC)
Note: 50 cases produced
Appearance: Brick red.
Nose: Blackberry, cut green pepper, allspice, a drop of vanilla.
Palate: Dry, medium-bodied. White cherry, blueberry wine, roasted red pepper, nutmeg, oak.
Finish: Chewy with a little fruit.
Parting words: New Windsor is a historic small town in Maryland, about 25 miles northwest of Owings Mills. It’s known for its hot springs and the presence of a Church of the Brethren mission center.
Andrew Stover, the sommelier behind the Somm Cuvée is based in DC currently but is from Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is also the founder of Vino50 selections, a wine wholesaler that specializes in “regional” American wines.
I enjoyed this wine, but it was a little high in pyrazine (bell pepper aroma) for my taste when drinking solo. I don’t mind little bit of that aroma, but I expected something a little more refined in a wine this expensive and this rare. That said, it did pair very nicely with quinoa and lamb chops and homemade pork and beans. Maybe it just needed more time in the bottle. That might mean less fruit, unfortunately. So, I don’t know what exactly to tell you to do with this wine. Anyway, due to the relatively high price, I’m going to give this vintage at this time a mild recommendation.
Maker: Chateau Grand Traverse, Traverse City, Michigan, USA
Grape: Pinot Noir (at least 85%, looks and tastes like 100%)
Place of origin: Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Traverse City, Michigan, USA
Note: 5 months in oak
Purchased for $13 (Meijer)
Appearance: Translucent ruby, like a good red Burgundy.
Nose: Very ripe strawberry, cherry syrup, crushed mulberry, nutmeg.
Palate: Medium-bodied. Dry but fruity. Strawberry fruit leather, black cherry, raspberry, actual leather, earth.
Finish: Fruity and leathery.
Parting words: Although I think it should be Gamay, Pinot Noir is probably Old Mission’s finest red wine grape right now. Chateau Grand Traverse produces some of the peninsula’s finest, and they should, seeing how long they’ve been at it.
This wine is like a quality vin de bourgogne, or even a village Burgundy at a similar age. There’s not much earthiness, but loads of fruit and cool-climate Pinot character. It should improve and show better integration over the next two or three years too, if stored properly. That said, it’s very tasty now and at a price where one doesn’t feel obliged to let it lounge in the cellar for a long time. I like this wine a lot. 2016 Chateau Grand Traverse Limited Edition Pinot Noir is highly recommended.
Maker: Cave Spring, Jordan, Ontario, Canada
Grape: Gamay Noir (at least 85%)
Place of origin: Niagara Escarpment VQA, Ontario, Canada
Price: $12.50 USD ($17 Canadian, LCBO)
Appearance: Dark burgundy.
Nose: Black pepper, earth, blackberry jam, peony.
Palate: Semi-dry and full-flavored. Reminiscent of Cru Chénas or Cru Juliénas. Earthy but fruity. Blackberry, mushroom.
Finish: Tart with a little spice. Fades pretty quickly.
Parting words: This is the last wine I have left from my last trip to the LCBO a few months ago. It was a part of my effort to give myself a crash course in Gamay. I expected it to be similar to the Gamay produced by Chateau Grand Traverse or Hawthorne on Old Mission Peninsula in Northern Michigan, but it was not like those at all. Cave Spring’s was fruity but “darker” and spicier than I expected. I found that quality off-putting at first, but I grew to enjoy it over the time it was open. That’s where the comparison to Chénas comes in. I remember the first time I tasted one, I was shocked at how unlike it was from any other Beaujolais I had tasted before. I was intrigued, though, and at that moment began planning the crash course.
At any rate, this is a Gamay that one can easily drink with any sort of cuisine and at $12.50 (plus border toll) it’s affordable enough to be in weeknight rotation. 2015 Cave Spring Gamay is recommended.
Maker: Fenn Valley Vineyards, Fennville, Michigan, USA
Grape: Merlot (at least 85%)
Place of origin: Fenn Valley estate, Fennville AVA, Lake Michigan Shore, Michigan, USA
Purchased for $22 (winery)
Appearance: Dark reddish-purple.
Nose: Blackberry pie, clove, oak.
Palate: Medium-bodied and mostly dry. Baking spice, blackberry, mulberry.
Finish: Crushed blackberry, toasted oak.
Parting words: Fennville is Michigan’s only sub-appellation. It’s as old or older (sources conflict) than its parent AVA Lake Michigan Shore. It’s essentially a one winery appellation. That winery is Fenn Valley. It’s to the north and west of the big wineries in LMS, so it doesn’t get the same traffic as the others, but it’s very much worth a trip up the road to Fennville or to the tasting room in Saugatuck. Those are the only place one can reliably find Fennville wines. Judging by this one, it’s a prime spot.
This wine is a classic cool-climate Merlot. It has the chewy fruit one expects from Merlot, but with that cool climate (and cool vintage) tang that brings it all together and makes it a perfect match with pork chops, roast duck or sirloin steak. At $22, it’s worth every dollar and more. 2013 Fenn Valley Merlot Reserve is highly recommended.
Maker: Round Barn Winery, Baroda, Michigan, USA
Grape: Merlot (at least 85%)
Place of origin: Lake Michigan Shore AVA, Michigan, USA
Purchased for $33 (with press discount) at winery.
Appearance: Dark ruby.
Nose: Cherry juice, smoked Memphis-style pork ribs.
Palate: Medium bodied and a little chewy. Fruit of the forest pie, vanilla, clove, aniseed.
Finish: A little sweetness and tannin in the cheeks.
Notes: Received complementary tour, free tasting and press discount at time of purchase. Grapes harvested October 21, 2013 at 20.5 brix. In French oak for 20 months.
Parting words: Merlot isn’t a grape that is very closely associated with Michigan but it does pretty well here, especially (but not exclusively) in the LMS AVA. It is often used in red blends where it serves to balance out the bold, savory flavors of the widely grown Cabernet Franc, which I suspect may be rounding out the blend here.
Vintners will tell you that 2013 was a tough vintage in Michigan, mostly on account of it being a cool one, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a lot of very good wine made. Wines of 2013 in just took a little longer to mature than their 2012 (or 2016) compatriots. As a result, the 2013 Bordeaux variety reds are hitting their stride now, so dig into your cellar and drink up now!
This wine has the cherry and berry flavors one expects from Merlot, but with a touch of pork (yes, I know that sounds like a Pigs in Space porn parody) and spice with judicious use of oak. The price is too high, but not so high that I feel like I need to wag my finger at the folks in the Barn by only giving this a mild recommendation. 2013 Round Barn Merlot is recommended.