Wally's Reds: Michigan treasure at Domaine Berrien Cellars

Wally Maurer, left, talks wine with Gerry Baker of Clinton Township at the Monday night tasting dinner at Michigan By The Bottle in Shelby Township. (Photo courtesy of Cortney Casey)

Wally Maurer, left, talks wine with Gerry Baker of Clinton Township at the Monday night tasting dinner at Michigan By The Bottle in Shelby Township. (Photo courtesy of Cortney Casey)

The wineries in Southwest Michigan are the playground of people from Chicago and South Bend — who know our Michigan wines. They have been supporting the Michigan wine industry for many years.

It seems as if by rote, Detroiters hop in the car and set the GPS for Traverse City — where many glorious wine adventures await.

But the well-appointed B&Bs, smart antiques shops, cozy cafes and wineries on the Southwest side of the state require a little less gasoline and effort.

Most of the wineries in the Southwest are short hops off I-94, and are hidden away in rural agricultural areas. They do not always sit on scenic knolls overlooking a shoreline, but they are within close range of state parks for camping and quaint towns with good restaurants, and they ooze with charm. And Lake Michigan is only a hop away.

Domaine Berrien Cellars is one of the Southwest’s gems — and in my estimation makes the best red wines in the state.

This week, owners Katie and Wally Maurer are getting plenty of face time with their fans. Monday night: Wally poured wine at a sell-out tasting dinner at Michigan By The Bottle Tasting Room in Shelby Township, Mich.

Wednesday and Thursday: Wally and wife Katie are pouring wine at the Rhone Rangers Grand Tasting and Winemaker Dinner in Chicago, Ill.

Wally and Katie Maurer have made a commercial success out of the vineyards that Katie’s late parents Thomas and Abigail Fricke planted in 1992 — mostly Rhone varietals (whites Viognier, Marsanne, and Roussanne, and the red grape Syrah) in Berrien County. They also planted Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Lemberger, Pinot Noir and Merlot, plus hybrids. They sold the grapes to other wineries until founding their own business in 2001.

With its early emphasis on Rhone varietals, Domaine Berrien Cellars became the first winery in the state to release a commercially grown and vinified Syrah — Shiraz if you are hooked on the Australian wine.

Today, Wally’s wines, especially the reds, are intense with earthy, robust Old World character. They often are brooding wines with good aging potential. Whether it’s the age of the vines — or could it be the age and experience of the winemaker? — they are unique and have developed a wide audience.

“I don’t make recipe wines,” he commented recently. “Every year is a new, clean canvas. I keep the vines happy and stress them when they need stress,” he said. He routinely drops green, unripe bunches, if there are too many of them, to enhance the ripening of the remaining clusters.

He does not grow Riesling and only makes a small quantity of Chardonnay — too little, he says, to age in wood.

He uses oak for the whites when the fruit can stand up to it: His Marsanne was oaked in 2010 and 2012 and fermented in stainless steel in 2011.

Like he said, he has no exact recipe for winemaking.

Wally and Katie sell their wines out of the tasting room, in dozens of West Michigan stores, plus a few around Metro Detroit.

They also sell their wines at the popular Michigan By The Bottle Tasting Room in Shelby Township. Their wines are featured along with the products of five other wineries.

Here’s a taste of Wally’s reds:

Domaine Berrien Cellars Cabernet Franc Lake Michigan Shore 2011, $16.50

Cabernet Franc, a blending wine in Bordeaux and California, is made as a single varietal in many states east of the Rockies. Wally’s is a cocktail of intense cherry, cranberry, chocolate, vanilla and bittersweet chocolate. Tannins are soft as silk. Flavors are rich and deep, and the usual green pepper, herbal tones are muted. It’s one of the most popular reds in the tasting room.

Domaine Berrien Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Lake Michigan Shore 2011, $18

Wow. Yes, in the warm vineyards of Southwest Michigan, heat-loving Cabernet Sauvignon can ripen with success in better vintages. The 2011 shaped up nicely. Flavors are blueberry, blackberry, cherry, dark currant. It’s intense and concentrated with nice integration of the oak and acidity for backbone.

Domaine Berrien Cellars Merlot Lake Michigan Shore 2011, $18

I would be hard-pressed to pick a favorite of Wally’s reds, but this one is high up on the list. It’s a rich, ripe, juicy Merlot — intense aromas and bright fruit flavors of plum, blackberry, cherry, with perfectly integrated spicy, smoky oak, notes of dark chocolate and acidity to zip up this package.

Domaine Berrien Cellars Syrah Lake Michigan Shore 2010, $20

This earthy, well-structured wine reminded me of an Italian Sangiovese in taste and body. I am going to give you Wally’s own notes on this wine: “The 2010 vintage explodes with aromas of apple-smoked bacon and blueberry! Hints of dark plum on the palate with a touch of white pepper spice on the finish. Balanced smooth oak tannins.”

Domaine Berrien Cellars Crown of Cabernet Lake Michigan Shore 2010, $20

This is the crown jewel of DBC’s cellar: a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc with splashes of Petit Verdot and Malbec. It’s aged for 24 months in oak. The Cabernet Franc is 20 percent of the blend but clearly in the driver’s seat. Think dark plum, brown cooking spices, cherry, cranberry and herbs infused with smoky oak.

Domaine Berrien Cellars Lemberger Lake Michigan Shore 2011, $15.50

Wally has always done a nice job with this cool-climate red, which vintners in Michigan and New York love. It has the body of Burgundy, with intense fruit of cherry and raspberry, smoky cedar, supple tannins.

Domaine Berrien Cellars Prairie Wolf Lake Michigan Shore 2011, $10

This table wine is a blend of hybrid grapes de Chaunac and Chelois — and you don’t have to know a thing about them to enjoy it. Give it a try — it has nice red fruit and cedar notes, medium-bodied with good balance. The acidity is there for structure but does not overwhelm it, and it’s on the dry side. I was pleasantly surprised. Wally will tell you this is the wine he and his father-in-law made for their own tables when they were still amateur winemakers.

You can reach Sandra Silfven at ssilfven@hotmail.com.