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New Wine Reviews: a California Zinfandel, and a mixed bag from Michigan



Every once in a while, I still get some wine to review, even though I retired three years ago. The latest batch includes a very good Zinfandel from Sonoma County, and eight wines from the Great Lakes State, Michigan.

Beekeeper 2016 Montecillo Vineyard (Sonoma County); $65. This is one of those big, galumphing, blood-warming Zins that brings thoughts of summertime barbecued ribs or wintertime hearty stews. The grapes got really, really ripe, soaking up the sun in their vineyard, 1,500 feet above Sonoma Valley. First the flavors hit cherries—then they soar into blackberries—and then finally burst onto the raisins and black currants that high alcohol so often inspires in Sonoma Zin. (The official reading is 14.5%, but I suspect it’s higher.) The tannins are considerable, but they’re Zinny tannins, furry and slightly bitter, like the skins of mulberries. The wine spent 15 months in 25% new oak barrels, but there’s nothing oaky about it, just an aura of vanilla and caramel, although the wood also lends tannins. Wonderful acidity, thorough dryness, a very nice, deliciously voluptuous Zinfandel, although it is on the pricy side. Score: 92.


A recent (Nov. 6) article in the Oakland Press (in this case, Oakland, Michigan, not my hometown of Oakland, California) was headlined, “Michigan’s wine industry flourishes with powerful combination of tourism, agriculture.”

The article stressed the “tremendous growth” of Michigan’s wine industry, which contributed an aggregate $5.4 billion to the state’s coffers. The leading wine production area is perhaps Old Mission Peninsula, a cool-climate growing region of 19,200 acres, a smallish appellation equal in size to California’s Carmel Valley, and containing only nine wineries. Located on the 45th parallel, the same as Bordeaux, Piedmont and Willamette Valley, the peninsula lies in the northeast corner of Lake Michigan; winters are cold, but are tempered by the proximity of water on both sides, while summertime growing conditions are ideal: the temperature seldom rises above 80 degrees, and nights are as cool as they are in California’s wine valleys.

The trade group Wineries of Old Mission Peninsula sent me these wines for review:

Chateau Chantal 2016 Proprietor’s Reserve Trio (Old Mission Peninsula); $27. This is a Meritage-style wine, although the Merlot and Cabernet Franc have a tiny drop of Pinot Noir in there–why, I don’t know, but it doesn’t hurt. The alcohol is 13.5%. I’m giving it a good score because it shows real Bordeaux flavors and suppleness, even though it’s not particularly complex or ageable. If you’d given it to me blind, I might have guessed Italy, but certainly not Michigan! It’s fully dry, with firm but pliant tannins and a good bite of acidity. But the best sign of all is that it gets easier and nicer to drink as you drain the bottle. Not all wines can say that! The winemaker suggests drinking with “rich meat-based pastas with traditional Italian red sauce” and I totally agree. Score: 90.

2 Lads Winery 2016 Cabernet Franc (Old Mission Peninsula); $35. With 15% Merlot, this wine shows some green pea flavors alongside the cherries, blueberries and spices, in the fashion of a Loire Cab Franc. It’s fully dry (good), with nice, silky tannins and a mouthwatering bite of acidity, as well as some subtle oak. I mention the Merlot because it brings added weight and texture to the Cab Franc, which on its own can be light. The alcohol is a refreshingly low 13.3%. As tasty as the wine is, it isn’t an ager; if anything, it will go downhill fast. So drink up soon. Score: 88.

Hawthorne 2016 Rose Table Wine (Old Mission Peninsula): $12. Rosé is in many respects the hardest wine to make. It requires the delicacy of white, but with at least some of the body of red. This wine largely succeeds. It’s medium-bodied and rather darkly colored for a blush; the blend is based on Cabernet Franc, with lesser amounts of Pinot Meunier, Gamay, Merlot and Pinot Noir. No oak was used, so all you get is the fruit: raspberries and strawberries, with a tobacco spiciness. Acidity is high, although not searing. Best of all, for me, is the dryness: absolute and total, with lowish (13.2%) alcohol. All in all, a success. The winemaker recommends drinking it with chicken, salmon or game, but I think the range is far greater, because the wine is so versatile. I’d even drink it with a juicy steak. Score: 89.

Black Star Farms 2016 Arcturos Sauvignon Blanc (Leelanau Peninsula); $18. I have definite expectations of what I want a Sauvignon Blanc to be: dry, crisp and elegant (as in Sancerre), with a citrus and tropical fruit taste and, sometimes (as in Marlborough) a tang of green gooseberry. It should never be sweet, as too many California Sauv Blancs were in the 1990s. This bottle satisfies on many levels—not all. It is indeed dry and crisp, and there is a tanginess, even a spritziness, that refreshes the palate. I’m not sure if there’s any oak; sadly, the tech notes don’t say (which they should). If there is, it’s subtle. There is a bit of heaviness that’s hard to define, except that the wine lacks that delicate finesse a light white wine needs. I’ll rate it at 87 points and say that it’s a pretty good buy for a wine to drink with a firm, full-flavored fish, such as halibut. The Leelanau Peninsula, like Old Mission Peninsula, sits at the 45-degree latitude near Lake Michigan, and is thus cool.

Chateau Grand Traverse 2017 Dry Riesling (Old Mission Peninsula); $13. A lovely white wine, light and delicate, perfect for summertime fare, or now that we’re headed into cold weather, light lunches or starters like smoked trout, scrambled eggs, a leafy salad of greens and citrus fruits. As the label states, it’s mostly dry, yet there’s plenty of rich, ripe green apple and peach fruit, white flowers and Riesling’s slight hint of petrol, with honey showing up on the finish. Refreshing acidity provides a grapefruit tang; almost effervescent, but not really, just mouth-awakening. The alcohol is only 12%. At this price, I’d buy it by the case. Score: 90.

Mari Vineyards 2017 Gamay Noir (Old Mission Peninsula): $26. I think of the Gamay Noir grape as midway between the light, refreshing fruitiness of the Gamay varietal, which is what French Beaujolais is made from, and the more serious Pinot Noir. This is a light-bodied wine, silky and smooth, with pronounced acidity and flavors of sour cherry, cranberry, cola, orange zest and sandalwood. It’s bone dry, and the alcohol is a mere 13%. Not particularly complex or sophisticated, but pleasant enough. I’d call it gulpable: drink up and don’t overthink. Score: 87.

Brys Estate 2016 Reserve Pinot Noir (Old Mission Peninsula); $32. California and Oregon have nothing to fear from Michigan in the Pinot Noir department, to judge by this wine. It’s okay in its dryness and zesty acidity, as well as the gentle tannins and silkiness you expect from Pinot. But there’s very little substance. Some cherry-berry fruit, a sprinkle of white pepper and cinnamon, a touch of oak. But the complexity Pinot Noir needs to go beyond being a drinkable little wine to a truly fine one just isn’t there. Score: 86.

Bowers Harbor Vineyard 2017 Unoaked Chardonnay (Michigan); $16. I’ve tasted a ton of unoaked Chardonnays from many countries but I have to say this is not one of the better ones. Chardonnay doesn’t need oak to succeed, but it does have to be ripe and opulent. This wine is neither. It’s watery and bland, and moreover has some unpleasant green notes, like bell pepper. Score: 81.


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