An Evening With Domaine Berrien’s Crown of Cab

When my wife and I first became interested in Michigan wine, several years ago, we decided to take a weekend trip to southwest Michigan to visit the wineries there. We were looking forward to seeing the wineries we had grown to know and love via supermarket purchases. After a stop at Peterson & Sons in Kalamazoo (worth a stop for the tasting experience and Peterson’s idiosyncratic wines and mind), our first official stop in the Lake Michigan Shore AVA was Domaine Berrien in Berrien Springs, Michigan. We went in knowing nothing about the winery at all. As we sampled and chatted, we were very impressed with how seriously DB winemakers and owners Wally and Katie Mauer took red wines, and how good theirs were. We bought a bottle of Wolf’s Prairie Red and something else. We’ve been fans ever since, but since their wines were (almost?) exclusively available at the winery, we haven’t had an opportunity to drink DB as much as we would like.

We were both excited when we heard that the second Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room was opening in the very neighborhood we were about to move to and that they would be selling Domaine Berrien. I was even more excited when I got an email inviting me to a vertical tasting of DB’s red Bordeaux-style blend, Crown of Cab, at MBTBTR, Royal Oak (my tasting was complementary, but regular tickets were $35). The tasting was officially titled Crown of Cab: An Evolution and hosted by Wally Mauer. The tasting was originally supposed to be five vintages, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2012 but the Mauers came through with two additional vintages at the last minute: 2005 and 2006. One rarely gets the chance to taste Michigan wines at those advanced ages, so I was even more exited on top of two levels of excitement I was already feeling. The wines were all from the personal cellar of Michigan by the Bottle propriators Cortney and Shannon Casey. Cort says that she had no idea they had so much Crown of Cab from so many vintages when she stumbled across them in a section of the cellar. She said that she initially thought they should have a party to use up the wine, but I for one am very glad that they chose this vertical tasting instead!

We were seated around a number of small tables in the front part of the tasting room Seating was assigned, which I like because it’s a good way to meet new Michigan wine lovers. I was seated next to George Heritier of Gang of Pour. George was an excellent tasting companion. We didn’t agree on all of them but he’s an interesting cat. He’s a musician too. His music website is here. There was one other set of samples at our table, but they had no card in front of them. George thought they might be for Chris Kassel of Intoxicology Report, but he never showed. So after going through our own samples, we went divided the extras between ourselves.

The tasting began with some remarks from Cort and Sahnnon and then Wally took over. He gave an outline of the philosophy behind Domaine Berrien and this label in particular. All Domaine Berrien wines are from estate grown grapes. They grow a fair number of hybrids, but most of them end up in their blends aside from varietal Traminette, Vignoles and St. Vincent offerings. DB is notable for producing vinifera varietal bottlings of grapes that are not often seen in the northeastern U.S. like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Roussanne, Marsanne and Sauvignon Blanc. Wally also repeated that DB runs a very clean shop and faces no “microbial pressure”. Somebody raised the issue of “brett”(see this brief tutorial from Wine Folly here) and how many of the French wines Wally and Katie are modeling their wines after show the influence of brettanomyces yeast. Wally said that’s fine for those wineries in which the fungus has become established, but as for his, he’d rather not have to worry about it.

Crown of Cab, as I mentioned above, is Domaine Berrien’s red Bordeaux-style blend. The 2012 vintage contained 28% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Cabernet Franc, 40% Merlot, 2% Malbec and 5% Petit Verdot. Wally said that over the past few vintages he tried to alternate which bank of the Gironde Crown of Cab leaned toward. Even numbered years are supposedly right bank (Pomerol & St-Emilion, heavier on Merlot and Cab Franc) and odd are left bank (Médoc & Graves, heavier on Cab Sauv). That said, none of the vintages we tasted were more than 59% Cab Sauv (2005; cf. 80% for Latour, 75% for Margaux, 65% for Ducru Beaucaillou), and most of them were 42% or less, roughly declining over time. The percentages of the other grapes have varied considerably, but Malbec and Petit Verdot have remained in the single digits. He stressed that he doesn’t aim for consistency with Crown of Cab, he just tries to make the best blend he can with what the vineyards give him. The wine from each grape is put into barrels separately, then into neutral cooperage after bench blending. All Crown of Cab vintages spent a total of 24 months in oak.

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The line up.

Anyway, on to the vintages themselves. They started out with a bang. 2005 was a good vintage all over Michigan and Crown of Cab was no exception. George loved it, and it remained his favorite throughout the rest of the tasting. At first sniff and taste, it seemed fragile and past its prime. Big, heavy cocoa and oak aromas but little else. As it opened up (or as the alcohol began to take effect), it began to taste more balanced. It grew on me, but it was still in the “drink immediately” category. The 2006 was an odd duck. George didn’t get this but the nose had big bell pepper and butter aromas on the nose. Curiously, the proportion of Cabernet Franc (infamous for bell pepper aromas) wasn’t especially high in 2006. On the palate it was very tannic and oaky, even more than its older sibling. Overall, I thought the 2006 was ok, but out of balance.

The 2007 was my favorite vintage and I wasn’t alone in that opinion. I still tasted some green pepper, but the wine as a whole was much more balanced. It was more like a very good tomato sauce but with a whiff of smoke. It just had more of what I’m looking for from a wine like this. More acid, fresh fruit and perfect integration of all the elements. I though the 2008 was very similar but with less tomato sauce, more supreme pizza. Bread, green pepper, sweet tomato sauce and button mushrooms. To continue the Italian food theme, 2009 was eggplant parmesan. Fresh marinara and pleasantly bitter eggplant, but with some new elements of vanilla and fresh berries coming in. I would have to give 2008 the edge over 2009, but in another year or two 2009 could overtake it.

The final two vintages were 2010 and 2012. 2011 was a banner year for white wines in Michigan but not as much for reds, so maybe it’s for the best that 2011 was excluded. George and I differed on this, but I got big dessert flavors out of the 2010. It was crème brulèe: vanilla, custard and smoke with strawberries on top. The finish was mild, like all of these wines, but 2010 was heavy on the fruit. We got a big pour of 2012 so I was able to spend a lot of time with it. I think it was the best one since 2008, and will only get better over the next two to five years. I highly recommend stocking up on 2012 Crown of Cab. Your patience will be rewarded but if you can’t wait, it is really good now too.

Vertical tasting are a great way to learn more about wine, especially about the differences in vintage and the effect age has on wine. They usually don’t include as many as seven vintages but it’s a nice thing when they do. When hosting vertical tastings of whiskey in the past, I’ve tried to limit the pours to a maximum of five so palate fatigue and intoxication don’t ruin the fun. Seven worked fine for wine, though. I would guess this is because of the lower alcohol content. That said, palate fatigue did start to set in about halfway through my big pour of 2012. The informational sheet was a big help too. It contained information pertaining to grape proportions, harvest dates, Brix at harvest, growing degree days, total acidity, pH, chaptalization, final Brix, finished pH, ABV and cases produced. The grape proportions for nine other wines were listed for the sake of comparison. They were Chateaux Haut-Brion, Margaux, Decru Beaucaillou, Mouton-Rothschild, Latour, Cheval Blanc, L’Angelus (all Bordeaux), 2007 Opus One (Napa) and 2006 Entrancia Meritage (Monterrey).

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The sheet.

At any rate, it was a wonderful experience as always at MBTBTRRO. Vertical tastings, wherever they are held, are a fun and educational experience. See if you can find one near you, or better yet, host one yourself sometime soon! $35 was a good price for a tasting this large of a wine of this quality.

Thanks again to everyone else involved in putting the whole thing together, especially Cort and Shannon for opening their cellars and Katie and Wally for making the wine and also making the trip to talk to us about it!

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