Maker: Hawthorne Vineyards, Traverse City, Michigan, USA
Place of origin: Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Traverse City, Michigan, USA
Purchased for $35 (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room, Auburn Hills)
Appearance: Dark ruby.
Nose: Cherry jam, bubble gum, cedar.
Palate: Medium-bodied. Blackberry jam, cherry juice, grows tannic as it hangs around in the mouth.
Finish: Tart, then cheek-filling tannins.
Parting words: Despite my lack of enthusiasm over this increasingly popular grape, I am continuing to drink and review wines made with Lemberger/Blaufränkisch. My thinking is that if I never actually like them, I can at least understand them and appreciate how they should taste.
I expected this wine to be another exercise in “understanding” but to my surprise, I actually enjoyed it! It had the same rustic, tannic character as the other Lembergers I’ve tasted, but this time balanced with acid, which made all the difference. I didn’t even have to chill it. I don’t know if it was the cooler vintage, the terroir, vineyard management, or the skill of the winemaker, but this Lemberger transcends its peasant heritage and becomes a sophisticated, balanced wine even Blau-skeptics like me can enjoy. Hawthorne Vineyards’ 2013 Lemberger is recommended!
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: Chateau Aeronautique, Jackson, Michigan, USA
Grape: Syrah/Shiraz (at least 75%)
Place of origin: Michigan, USA
Price: $25 (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room Sipper Club)
Appearance: Deep burgundy.
Nose: Black currant, plum, cedar, white pepper, coriander seed.
Palate: Medium-bodied and medium dry. Fruit of the Forest pie, button mushrooms, clove.
Finish: Tart and oaky, then earthy.
Parting words: Chateau Aeronautique is a part of the cluster of wineries located in and around Jackson, Michigan. Owner/winemaker Lorenzo Lizarralde is known for bold reds and this Syrah is Lorenzo at his best. This wine is bold but never belligerent. The big, spicy flavors are balanced with fruit and earthiness to make for a very food-friendly, enjoyable wine that’s good to drink right now. Good to visit right now is Chateau Aeronautique’s brand new Irish Hills tasting room in Onsted, Michigan on Pentecost Highway between Sand and Evans lakes, south of US 12! 2013 Chateau Aeronautique Syrah is 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: Sandhill Crane Vineyards, Jackson, Michigan, USA
Grape: Syrah (at least 75% by law)
Place of origin: Michigan, USA
Purchased for: $24 (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room, Royal Oak)
Appearance: Dark burgundy.
Nose: Plum, blueberry, cedar, mace.
Palate: Medium-bodied, medium sweet. Blackberry, cherry juice, French oak, nutmeg, clove.
Finish: Juicy, then oaky with a little tang.
Parting words: Sandhill Crane’s home is in Jackson, Michigan, in a small cluster of wineries including Chateau Aeronautique and Sleeping Bear Winery. They make wine from a mix of estate grown grapes and grapes from other areas of Michigan. They’re known, at least to me, for their reds which are consistantly some of the best in the state. They have a large, swinging tasting room with a restaurant and frequent events. It’s less than ninety minutes from most places in the Detroit Metro area and not far from Ann Arbor and Lansing either, making it a popular destination for those interested in a relaxing Saturday afternoon away.
Syrah’s home is in the Rhöne valley, but tasting this wine left me wondering if its second home could be in southern Michigan. This is cool climate Syrah to be sure, fruity and slightly acidic, but still with the grape’s spicy calling card. The Rhöne vallery isn’t as hot and dry as many people assume anyway. Syrah doesn’t seem to do well in northern Michigan, but in the south and southwest it seems to do better and in the hands of a skilled winemaker like Holly Balansag it can be delicious. We had this wine with chicken tacos and it paired very well. Sandhill Crane Syrah also pairs well with beef and pork. 2012s are going to be hard to find now, but 2016 and 2017 are looking as good as 2012 was or even better. Make sure you give it a good four or five years in the cellar to enjoy it at its best! 2012 Sandhill Crane Syrah is highly 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.
Palate: Medium bodied and well-balanced. Blackberry jam, raspberry juice, light oak, seared steak.
Finish: Fruity and tart, then chewy and oaky.
Parting words: Bel Lago is located on the shores of Lake Leelanau, in the Leelanau peninsula. The view certainly lives up to the name! Owners Charlie Edson and Amy Iezzoni are known for their cherry wine (Amy practically invented the stuff), field blends and their committment to ripeness. That committment is clearest in the Bel Lago’s rich, rounded Pinot Noir and Auxerrois (Blanc) wines.
Tempesta is not estate grown and not a field blend, obviously, but it does have that trademark ripeness. Oak is present, but not used to cover up anything, just to enhance the savory quailities of Cabernet Franc. Fruit and earthy flavors are in the lead, yoked together by Tempesta’s mid-palate tartness.
$44 is a lot for a non-AVA Michigan red. One could find similar wines from California at a lower price. I still think Tempesta is worth the price in a good vintage like 2012 when cellared for at least four years. 2012s may be nearly impossible to find now, but 2016 was a stellar vintage and 2017 is looking like it may be as well. Bel Lago’s 2012 Tempesta is recommended.
Place of origin: Lake Michigan Shore AVA, Michigan, USA
Price: $26 (Michigan by the Bottle Auburn Hills Sipper Club)
Appearance: Dark red, like cherry juice.
Nose: Cherry jam, touch of French oak, cedar.
Palate: Medium bodied, acidic with a little fruit and spice. Cherry juice, blueberry, black pepper.
Finish: Overdone blueberry pie.
Parting words: Burgdorf’s Winery is located in Haslett, Michigan, near Lansing. They’re known for their quality fruit wines and blends but they produce good varietals as well, most of which are not estate grown. This is one of their best. 2011 was an excellent vintage in Michigan overall, though some winemakers struggled with reds. No struggle here. I usually prefer softer Pinot Noir but the spice and oak here make it very food friendly. We had it with pizza margarita and BBQ chicken and it held its own with both. It tastes like its coming to the end of its life, though, so if you find this vintage, open and drink promptly!
Palate: Juicy on entry. Medium bodied. Cherry, red currant, blueberry, pink peppercorn, strawberry.
Finish: Juicy with growing oak.
Parting words: Bel Lago winery lives up to its name, Italian for “beautiful lake”, with one of the most beautiful views on the Leelanau Peninsula. It overlooks Lake Leelanau, which is named after the peninsula & county which was itself named by Indian agent and ethnographer Henry Schoolcraft in honor of his wife Jane Johnston Schoolcraft who wrote under the name Leelinau, a neologism created by her or Henry. Henry used the name for Native American women in some of the stories he wrote. Henry created several other pseudo-indigenous place names in Michigan, including Lenawee, Alpena, Kalkaska and Oscoda, combining native words with Latin or Arabic elements.
Pinot Noir was one of the varieties hardest hit during the disasterous 2014 and 2015 Polar Vortex vintages. I recently spoke to a Northern Michigan winemaker who told me that he was burnt out on the grape. This winemaker said that Pinot Noir is not worth growing in Michigan because it’s a pain in the ass to grow and it’s rarely any good (my paraphrase).
Bel Lago’s Moreno Vineyard Pinot Noir is a brilliant counterpoint to that view. Oak and spice provide the right amount of contrast to highlight the fruit that drives this wine. This wine is an excellent example of how good Pinot can be in Northern Michigan, at least in a long, hot year like 2012. $45 puts it at the top end of Michigan reds, but I think it’s worth the money. It’s as good as Pinto gets in Michigan. Bel Lago Moreno Reserve Pinot Noir 2012 is highly recommended.