Rockway Small Lot Syrah, “Alter Ego”, 2017

Maker: Rockway Vineyards, St. Catherines, Ontario, Canada.

Grapes: Syrah with Viognier skins added during fermentation.

Place of origin: Rockway Estate, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario, Canada.

Vintage: 2017

Notes: Spent 18 months in French and American oak. For more information, click here.

Purchased for $30, Canadian. Listed at $36 on website.

Other note: Liz and I received a complimentary tasting at the time of purchase.

Appearance: Dark red.

Nose: Chocolate covered cherry, blackberry.

Palate: Dry to semi-dry. White cherry, red currant, chocolate orange.

Finish: A little chewy and a little tart, with a hint of oak.

Parting words: The family and I visited Rockway back in July on our way to Niagara Falls for a vacation. We went there to pick up a bottle of When Pigs Fly Rosé and Ruff Pinot Noir from 80x, the wine company co-founded by friend of the blog André Proulx.

I feel uncomfortable drawing attention to myself in situations like that, especially outside of Michigan where even fewer people know who I am. It was lunch time, so we got a table at the winery restaurant and I ordered a glass of Gewürztraminer. After we ordered our food, I walked over to the tasting bar and mentioned that I was picking up two bottles from André and might want to buy another bottle or two. That’s when wine club manager Bonnie Bates sprung into action.

After a sip at the bar, she offered to move the rest of the tasting to our table and we accepted. Liz was included in the tasting as well, and we weren’t changed or given any sort of limit for it. This is a dangerous situation for yours truly to be in, but I managed to keep it in second gear so my palate wouldn’t get tired or my head dizzy.

In addition to the Gewürz, we also tried the Pinot Gris, Gamay Noir, Small Lot Syrah, Meritage, Cab/Shiraz (featuring Cabs Franc and Sauvignon), Pink Ribbon Rosé, and this wine. They were all good, but the standouts to me were the Pinot Gris and Alter Ego. Liz liked the rosé better than the Gris, so we bought a bottle of that, Alter Ego, and a bottle of the surprisingly tannic (in a good way) Gamay Noir which I was eager to try again in a different setting.

On the way out I attempted to tip tasting room manager Mike (he had taken over from Bonnie who had wine club managing to do), but I was waved off. That said, always tip your tasting room pourer, or at least try to!

Anyway, don’t let the touristy vibe of Rockway and its golf course fool you, there is seriously good wine being made there, and seriously good hospitality too. It’s worth a leisurely stop if you’re driving through the area or you could stop at the tasting bar after a round of golf, if you’re into that sort of thing.

As for this wine itself, the unique process is a twist on the way Syrah is often made in the grape’s traditional home in the Rhône valley. Rhône Syrah is often co-fermented with Viognier for added complexity, a rounder mouthfeel, tamer tannins, and to stabilize the color. The practice is most associated with the sub-region of Côte-Rôtie in the northern part of the valley. It’s not done as much in that area anymore, but it’s still done in many places, including Northern Michigan, where Nathaniel Rose uses that technique with his Syrah.

$30 CA works out to about $22 US at the time of writing, so this is an easy buy. It’s very good now but you could probably cellar it for another year or two if you really wanted. Rockway’s 2017 Small Lot Syrah, “Alter Ego” is recommended.

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.

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.

Old Westminster Somm Cuvée, 2013

Maker: Old Westminster, New Windsor, Carroll Co, Maryland, USA20190130_190651.jpg

Grapes: Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot.

Place of origin: Maryland, USA (Northern Maryland according to back label)

Vintage: 2013

ABV: 13.5%

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.

 

A Visit to Nathaniel Rose at Raftshol Vineyards

On Saturday, June 9, Liz and I headed up to Traverse City, Michigan for the fourth City of Riesling Festival (For my review of the first, click here). We had a great time. We drank wine, we walked on the beach, we drank more wine, we learned about wine. On Sunday we also visited Good Harbor and Chateau Fontaine wineries and drank and bought wine.

On Monday we had one more wine stop: Nathaniel Rose winery at Raftshol Vineyards. Nathaniel Rose has been running his own winemaking business since 2010 operating out of whichever winery he was working at the time, starting at Raftshol and ending up at Brengman Brothers, with several in between. Last year, he purchased Raftshol Vineyards in Suttons Bay in Leelanau and is now using it as his HQ (and homestead!).

Raftshol is one of the oldest wineries and vineyards in Leelanau. It began at the turn of the last century as the dairy farm of Anders Raftshol. In 1930 the cows left home and the farm was converted to a cherry orchard. In 1975 the cherry business was bad so the trees had to go. Sometime after that, hybrid grape vines were planted. Anders’ grandsons, Warren and Curtis were not happy with the results so in 1985 they planted vinifera instead, being the first commercial vineyard on Leelanau to do so. Instead of the usual practice of grafting vinifera vines onto native rootstock, they grafted them onto the existing hybrid ones. Rose believes this unusual set up may contribute to the high quality of the fruit produced by the estate. When Warren decided to sell last year, Rose jumped at the chance to own some of the oldest vinifera vines in the state, including Cabernet Sauvignon. According to Rose, the vineyards had been neglected for the past ten years, but he’s in the process of whipping them back into shape using careful pruning.

Nathaniel Rose’s namesake project is mostly about making quality, single-vineyard red wines. They are currently sourced from vineyards in the Lake Michigan Shore AVA and almost entirely red except for an orange Marsanne and a dry Traminette (we bought a bottle of Traminette for $13 minus trade discount). Rose has worked at nine different wineries in various capacities over the years, including Raftshol and Brengman Brothers, which he operated out of until purchasing Raftshol. His extensive knowledge, experience and contacts in the Michigan wine industry allow him to get quality fruit from quality vineyards. His wines There may also be a Chardonnay in the works, but Rose says he doesn’t really have the proper equipment for whites at the moment.

Everything we tasted there was wonderful, but my favorites were his excellent Syrahs (we purchased a bottle of the single barrel #4 Syrah at $85 minus trade discount). They were the best Michigan Syrahs I’ve tasted and maybe the best Michigan reds I’ve tried overall. For the single barrel, Rose was aiming for a wine reminiscent of Côte-Rôtie in the northern Rhône valley, so he cofermented the Syrah with Viognier. When we were tasting, he helpfully provided a bottle of Côte-Rôtie for comparison and the two wines were indeed very close and I would be hard pressed to say which I liked better.

His signature wines are his Cabernet Sauvignon blends, Left Bank and Right Bank. They were both very good. Rose is rightfully very proud of these, especially the Left Bank. He loves to tell the story of the tasting he attended with several sommeliers (including  Master somm Brett Davis), winemakers, writers and other experts in which his 2012 Left Bank Blend went up against a group of Second Growth Bordeaux and cult California Cabs, including Cardinale (~$270), Ridge Monte Bello (~$250), and Jos. Phelps Insignia (~$190), all of the 2012 vintage. Left Bank won. None of the experts could pick Left Bank out of the lineup blind and tasters could not tell the difference between it and the 2012 Cardinale Cab at all. In fact, they belived they had mistakenly been poured the same wine twice. Rose believes that Northern Michigan and his new vineyard in particular (which is not the source of Left Bank) has a climate that is very similar to high elevation viticultural areas in California and is capable of producing reds of the same high quality.

Left Bank sells for $150 (we also purchased a bottle of this at a trade discount) which puts it at or near the top of the price range for Michigan wines, even higher than wineries like Brys Estate or Mari Vineyards. When I asked him if he thinks consumers will be willing to pay that much for Michigan wines, regardless of quality, he responded with a few points. First, that his wines are plainly worth the money as tastings like the ones he’s entered Left Bank into prove. Second, that he’s had no trouble selling any of his wines so far. Finally, he pointed out that, while he is selling it at the Raftshol tasting room, the primary purpose of a wine like Left Bank is to enter into contests and tastings to bring attention to the quality of his wines. In other words, he’s not expecting Left Bank to fly off the shelf. It’s intended as a showpiece, not pizza wine (although it would be good with pizza!).*

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Nathaniel’s current residence. To know the grapes, one must live amongst them, or at least down the road from them.

Nathaniel Rose’s winery is one of the most exciting things happening in Michigan wine right now. I’m a cheap skate but his wines are as good or better than ones from more prestigious and expensive regions and if any wines deserve to push the price envelope in Michigan, Nathaniel’s do. A visit to Nathaniel Rose at Raftshol Vineyards is highly recommended! Joining his wine club is also recommended, so you can get the generous club discount!

*When I spoke to Nathaniel on August 29, 2018 he informed me that Left Bank has actually turned out to be his best seller! Collectors are stocking up.

Corrected and updated September 4, 2018.

Chateau Aeronautioque Syrah, 2013

Maker: Chateau Aeronautique, Jackson, Michigan, USA20171122_200800.jpg

Grape: Syrah/Shiraz (at least 75%)

Place of origin: Michigan, USA

ABV: 14.8%

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.

 

Sandhill Crane Syrah, 2012

Maker: Sandhill Crane Vineyards, Jackson, Michigan, USA20171027_174701.jpg

Grape: Syrah (at least 75% by law)

Place of origin: Michigan, USA

Vintage: 2012

ABV: 13.9%

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.