Tag Archives: Horse Heaven Hills

Geek Notes 8/23/18 — I’ll Drink To That! Episode 331 Featuring Greg Harrington

Screenshot from I’ll Drink To That! channel on SoundCloud.

As part of our celebration of Washington Wine Month in August, I’m reviewing some of the resources that folks can use to learn more about Washington State wine.

For this edition of Geek Notes, I’m encouraging readers to check out Levi Dalton’s I’ll Drink To That! podcast episode 331 featuring Washington winemaker and Master Sommelier Greg Harrington of Gramercy Cellars in Walla Walla. To listen to the full podcast on Sound Cloud click here.

The first half of the 2 hour podcast covers Harrington’s pre-Washington story including his path to Master Sommelier and his experience working with Wolfgang Puck, Emeril Lagasse, Joyce Goldstein and Stephen Hanson as well as the Vegas wine scene during his time developing the wine program at the Bellagio. That later segment in particular includes several intriguing anecdotes about opening up the Bellagio with 150 cases of 1982 Petrus (Wine Searcher Average $5,835 a bottle now) that was completely sold out within 6 months (43:27 mark) as well as how wine comps are handled for high rollers. (Yeah, I think I’ll just be content playing my Somm Game in Vegas)

Harrington also makes some great points about how his experience working in restaurants taught him how to run a business (a “MBA in a box”) (1:48:32 mark) with skills that he still uses in his winery today.

The whole episode is well worth a listen but at around the 1:10:00 mark, Dalton and Harrington turn their attention to the Washington side of his story.

Some Washington-related items I learned from this podcast.

(1:16:40) While Harrington bought at a really good time in the mid 2000s, he still thinks there is about 10 years (from 2017) left where buying vineyards in Walla Walla is still a good financial decision.

Photo by Stephan Ridgway. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

While Grenache has huge potential and promise in Washington State, we still have a long way to go before we can reap the benefit of old vine plantings like this Grenache vineyard at Charles Melton Winery in South Australia.

(1:19:42) Harrington thinks Grenache offers a lot of potential but the freeze of 1984 killed nearly all of the Grenache that was previously planted in the state so the grape is being rethought now with new plantings in new locations.

(1:20:25) Whites in Washington don’t seem to excite Harrington as much as the reds though he is intrigued at the potential of the Columbia Gorge for white wines like Sauvignon blanc and even unique varieties like Trousseau gris and Fiano. Very interesting commentary especially considering how delicious Gramercy Picpoul is.

(1:22:43) The “blessing and curse” of Washington is its long growing season with Harrington noting that Syrah could be harvested in some vintages anywhere from September 1st to November 1st, producing a wide variance of style in the same year. Harrington notes that Gramercy is usually among the first in all their contract vineyards to pick Syrah.

Located on the eastern edges of the Walla Walla Valley, the Forgotten Hills Vineyard is very cool climate site that is usually harvested later in the season.


(1:23:50) A really great explanation of the frost issues that can impact Walla Walla as well as what actually happens to the vine when it is damaged by frost. Super geeky and one of my favorites tidbits from the podcast.

(1:25:30) “Syrah likes a view” with Harrington preferring higher altitude vineyards above 1300 feet including the Les Collines Vineyard.

(1:26:17) Harrington talks about both the positives (the aromatics) and negatives (too high pH) of fruit from the Rocks District. He prefers to use Syrah from here as “salt & pepper” seasoning for blends.

(1:27:03) He is also a big fan of Red Willow Syrah and considers that vineyard to be one of the premiere areas in the state for the grape.

(1:28:19) The benefit of fermenting with the stems with Syrah and answering the myth about using “green stems”. Really informative section! From here the podcast gets into a lot of geeky winemaking stuff about dealing with reduction, volatile acidity and native fermentation that isn’t necessarily Washington-centric but definitely worth listening to.

(1:34:33) Dalton asks Harrington if Syrah from Washington is less reductive than Syrah grown elsewhere. Harrington gives a very interesting answer and notes that perhaps the fact that Washington vineyards and wineries here tend to use less sulfur treatments on the grapes and in winemaking could play a role. He also notes that all of Gramercy’s estate vineyards are organic.

(1:38:40) Harrington thinks the drinking curve for Washington Syrahs starts at around 5 years from vintage date while Cabernet Sauvignon tends to be more approachable younger after around 2 years in the bottle. He also feels that Washington Cabernet Sauvignon tends to be soft and needing tannin.

Photo taken by self and uploaded to Wikimedia commons as User:Agne27 under CC-BY-SA-3.0

The warm climate, steep aspect and poor sandy soil of the Alder Ridge Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills seems to be particularly well suited for Mourvedre.

(1:42:01) Among Washington vintages, Harrington is very high on the 2007 and 2010 vintage as among the best in Washington. Both 2010 and 2011 were very Old World-style vintages. 2012 was a great Cabernet Sauvignon vintage but not as much for Syrah.

(1:43:26) Harrington is high on Mourvedre in Washington but it needs to be planted in spots warmer than areas like the Rocks District in Oregon. He cites Olsen Vineyards in the Yakima Valley and Alder Ridge as promising vineyards for the grape.

(1:45:50) Dalton asks how often Washington winemakers look to the Old World for inspiration with Harrington encouraging more winemakers to explore the classic wines of the Old World.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Getting Geeky with Robert Ramsay Mourvèdre

We’re back after a vacation to take the nieces and nephew to the happiest place on Earth. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to play the Somm Game in between rounds of chocolate milk, lemonade and Sprit soda. Though absence does make the heart grow founder. And boy, am I ready to get back into the world of grown-up beverages!

So let’s continue our celebration of Washington Wine Month by taking more than 60 Seconds to geek out about the 2010 Robert Ramsay Mourvèdre from McKinley Springs Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills.

Full disclosure: During the 2012 vintage, when this 2010 Mourvèdre was just released, I did an internship at Robert Ramsay Cellars. Here I worked under the mentorship of Kristin Scheelar who was head winemaker at the time.

The Background

Robert Ramsay Cellars was founded in 2005 as a specialist in Rhone-style wines by winemaker Bob Harris. The winery’s name is a combination of Harris’ full name “Robert” with the last name of his great-uncle Mason Ramsay who helped raised Harris’ father when his grandfather was working overseas.

Before starting his winery, Harris served as winemaker for Coeur d’Alene Cellars and was mentored by Kristina Mielke-van Löben Sels of Arbor Crest, Nicolas Quille of Pacific Rim, Chuck Reininger of Reininger Winery and Ron Coleman of Tamarack Cellars.

Inspired by the great wines of Côte Rôtie, Harris’ first vintage was 125 cases of Syrah. A tasting room in Woodinville was opened in 2009. By 2014 the winery was making over 3000 cases. Among the notable vineyards that the winery was sourcing from include Red Heaven on Red Mountain, Phinny Hill and Mckinley Springs in Horse Heaven Hills, Dineen Vineyard in Yakima Valley and Upland Vineyard on Snipes Mountain.

Kristin Scheelar

In 2010, Harris hired Kristin Scheelar, a 2009 graduate of the Wine Production program of the Northwest Wine Academy (NWA) at South Seattle College. Prior to joining Robert Ramsay, Scheelar served as a harvest intern for Patterson Cellars under the tutelage of John Patterson.

My wife Beth also did an internship working with Kristin at Robert Ramsay. Here she is doing punch downs during the 2012 harvest on some Dineen Syrah.

Scheelar would stay at Robert Ramsay for four years, leaving just before the 2014 harvest to join Goose Ridge winery as an assistant winemaker. During her time at Robert Ramsay, she was an influential mentor to many female winemakers in the Woodinville wine scene including Lisa Packer of Warr-King Wines and her successor at Robert Ramsay, Casey Cobble–another NWA graduate.

Along with Packer, Cobble and Hillary Sjolund of Sonoris Cellars, Scheelar is a founding member of the Sisters of the Vinifera Revolution which aims to promote women in the wine industry. Through the years the organization has grown to include several wineries owned and headed by women winemakers including Lisa Swei of Three of Cups Winery, Pam Adkins of Adrice Wines, Lisa Callan of Callan Cellars, Mari Womack of Damsel Cellars, Toby Turlay of Ducleaux Cellars, Jody Elsom of Elsom Cellars and Kasia Kim of Kasia Winery.

Winemaking is messy work. This is me after working the sorting table near the destemmer at Robert Ramsay.

Today Kristin Scheelar is currently an assistant winemaker with Gallo at Columbia Winery.

The Vineyard

McKinley Springs Vineyard was first planted in 1980 by Robert Andrews in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA. Located at an elevation of around 1000 feet, the sandy loam soils over broken basalt of the vineyard are noted for producing early ripening fruit that create well-structured wines with intense aromatics.

Today the vineyard covers more than 2800 acres with over 20 different varieties of grapes planted including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Chenin blanc, Viognier, Malbec, Syrah, Petit Verdot, Cinsault, Roussanne, Counoise and Mourvèdre. Along with their Mourvèdre bottling, Robert Ramsay produces a varietal Cinsault and Syrah from McKinley Springs and uses some of the vineyard’s fruit for their Châteauneuf-du-Pape style blend Le Mien and Bandol-style Par La Mer wine.

In addition to Robert Ramsay, several wineries source fruit from McKinley Springs including Thurston Wolfe, Domaine Pouillon, Forsyth Brio, Maryhill Winery, Cor Cellars, Coeur d’Alene Cellars, Mercer Estates, Hestia, Robert Karl, Bunnell Family Cellars and Syncline.

In 2002, the Andrews and Roswell families of McKinley Springs established a winery that focuses on their estate fruit.

The Grape

In their book Wine Grapes, Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz note that Mourvèdre origins are likely Spanish with the first written account of the grape variety being under the synonym Monastrell in a 14th century document by Catalan writer Francesc Eiximenis.

The name Monastrell is derived from the Latin monasteriellu, meaning monastery. It is likely that the grape was first propagated by the Church.

Photo taken by self and uploaded to wikimedia commons as user:Agne27 under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Mourvèdre grapes from the Columbia Valley of Washington

By 1460, the Valèncian doctor Jaume Roig noted that Monastrell was the most widely planted grape in València–particularly in the region of Camp de Morvedre where the synonym Mourvèdre emerged from. Another common synonym, Mataro, likely comes from town of Mataró in the province of Barcelona. Located north of València, it would have been along the grape’s likely route out of Spain into Southern France.

Today, Mourvèdre/Monastrell is the 5th most widely planted grape in Spain with over 150,000 acres. It’s only behind Airén, Tempranillo, Bobal and Garnacha in acreage. Most of these plantings can be found in the València, Murcia and Castilla-La Mancha regions. It is the primary red wine grape in the DOs of Jumilla, Alicante, Almansa, Valencia and Yecla.

In France, plantings of Mourvèdre rose sharply in the late 20th century. It went from around 517 ha (1,278 acres) in the 1950s to 9,363 ha (23,136 acres) by 2009. It is most commonly found in the Languedoc-Roussillon, Provence and Southern Rhone regions. In Provence, it is the primary grape of Bandol. Here it must make up 50-95% of the blend along with Grenache, Carignan, Cinsault and Syrah.

Mourvèdre in Châteauneuf-du-Pape

Harry Karis notes in The Châteauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book that today Mourvèdre accounts for around 6.6% of all grape plantings in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Historically, the grape was known as Estrangle-Chien (“dog strangler”) due to its harsh tannins and high acidity. This thick-skinned grape thrives on warm, south-facing slopes that receive plenty of heat. This allows the vine to fully ripen the tannins and metabolize some of the hard malic acid.

photo taken by self and uploaded to wikimedia commons as user:agne27 under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Mourvèdre sample and a saignee rosé sample taken after 24 hours of skin contact. The thick skins of Mourvèdre contain lots of anthocyanins that contribute deep color to blends.

However, Mourvèdre is also very susceptible to drought conditions.  Karis notes that water-retaining clay soils and drought-resistance rootstock like 41B and 110R are ideal for the variety.

In the traditional Châteauneuf-du-Pape blend, Mourvèdre contributes structure via its high acid and tannins. It also provides ample alcohol and color. In the winery, winemakers have to balance the reductive nature of Mourvèdre with the very oxidation-prone Grenache.  To do this you need to ensure that Mourvèdre has plenty of oxygen during fermentation and élevage. Meanwhille, Grenache needs to be kept more anaerobically protected.

Varietal Mourvèdre wines are known for having meaty and spicy (particularly tobacco spice and clove) characters. They often have ample dark fruit flavors that can age into tertiary aromas of game and leather.

Mourvèdre in Washington State

photo taken by self and uploaded to wikimedia commons as user:agne27 under CC-BY-SA-3.0

The original block of Mourvèdre/Mataro planted in 1993 in Red Willow Vineyard in the Yakima Valley of Washington.

In Washington Wines and Wineries: The Essential Guide, Paul Gregutt notes that the first plantings of Mourvèdre in Washington was by Mike Sauer in 1993 at Red Willow Vineyard in the Yakima Valley.

By 2017 there were 126 acres of the grape planted in the state where it is used as a component in both Rhone-style blends and as a varietal wine.

Vineyards with notable plantings of Mourvèdre beyond McKinley Springs and Red Willow include Ciel du Cheval on Red Mountain, Alder Ridge, Coyote Canyon and Destiny Ridge in the Horse Heaven Hills, Elephant Mountain in the Yakima Valley and Northridge Vineyard in the Wahluke Slope.

Gregutt describes the style of Washington Mourvèdre as “…medium-bodied, lightly spicy with pretty cherry-flavored fruit and occasionally a distinctive, gravelly minerality.”

The Wine

The 2010 Robert Ramsay Mourvèdre from McKinley Springs has medium-plus intensity aromatics. Very much in the spicy and earthy category. There are some slight red fruit notes in the red currant and raspberry range. But they are very much overshadowed by the black pepper spice and forest-floor earthiness.

On the palate, the pepper spice is still the dominant note. The medium-plus acidity gives juiciness to the red fruit flavors and keeps them hanging around. The medium-plus tannins are very present. However, they have a soft, velvety-ness to them now that holds up the full-bodied weight of the wine. The finish unfortunately fades fairly quickly. It does bring back, albeit for a short moment, some of those savory earthy notes from the nose.

The Verdict

At nearly 8 years of age, this 2010 Mourvèdre is still delivering ample pleasure in the $30-35 range. But I suspect its peak may have been 2 to 3 years earlier.

There is definitely a good amount of complexity and balance. However, there is also the sense that the wine is on the wane with the short finish and fading flavors. Still this wine is in a good spot for those who crave more savory and tertiary-driven flavors in their wines. The wine will shine with a food pairings that compliments its spicy and earthy notes.  I can see it going particularly well with roasted lamb or a savory mushroom dish.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Getting Geeky with Davenport Cellars Ciel du Cheval Rosé of Sangiovese

Going to need more than 60 Seconds to geek out about Davenport Cellars’ 2017 Rosé of Sangiovese from the legendary Red Mountain vineyard of Ciel du Cheval.

The Background

Davenport Cellars was founded in 2006 by Jeff and Sheila Jirka. Alumni of the Northwest Wine Academy at South Seattle College, the Jirkas were members of the very first Wine Production class–helping to pioneer a program that would go on to educate such award winning winemakers as Michael Savage of Savage Grace Wines, William Grassie of William Grassie Wine Estates, Charlie Lybecker of Cairdeas Winery, Kit Singh of Lauren Ashton Cellars, Tom Stangeland of Cloudlift Cellars, Jason Morin of Ancestry Cellars, Scott Greenberg of Convergence Zone Cellars, John Patterson of Patterson Cellars and Louis Skinner of Betz Family Winery among many others.

In addition to their studies at NWA, Jeff studied winemaking through the University of California-Davis Extension winemaking program while Sheila studied viticulture through Washington State University’s certificate program.

Located in the Woodinville Warehouse District, Davenport Cellars makes around 1000 cases a year from fruit sourced from some of the top vineyards in Washington State such as Les Collines, Pepper Bridge and Seven Hills Vineyard in Walla Walla, Boushey and Sheridan Vineyard in the Yakima Valley as well as Ciel du Cheval and Kiona Vineyard on Red Mountain.

The 2017 Rosé of Sangiovese is 100% Sangiovese sourced from Ciel du Cheval. Around 25 cases were made.

The Vineyard

In his book Washington Wines and Wineries: The Essential Guide, Paul Gregutt list Ciel du Cheval as among the Grand Cru vineyards of Washington along with Boushey Vineyard, Cayuse Vineyard in Walla Walla, Celilo Vineyard in the Columbia Gorge, Champoux Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills and Klipsun Vineyard on Red Mountain.

The author with John and Ann Williams of Kiona Vineyards who help plant Ciel du Cheval Vineyard with Jim Holmes.

Along with Kiona Vineyard, Ciel du Cheval was first planted in 1975 by Jim Holmes and John Williams, two engineers from the nearby Hanford nuclear site. The two were inspired to plant on the relatively barren scrubland near Benton City after reading Dr. Walter Clore’s report from Washington State University on the viability of grape growing in the area.

After purchasing 80 acres from Williams’ father-in-law in 1972 for $200 an acre, the men invested in bringing electricity to Red Mountain for the first time, constructed roads and drilled in search of an underground aquifer. Their funding was close to running out by the time the drillers finally hit pay dirt with a water source located 560 feet beneath the surface.

Those first acres of plantings would become what is today known as Kiona Vineyard. Soon after its establishment, Holmes and Williams began planting another 80 acres across Sunset Road with a group of investors that included David and Patricia Gelles (who would later establish Klipsun Vineyard). This second vineyard was called Ciel du Cheval, a rough French translation for the Horse Heaven Hills that were visible from Red Mountain across Highway I-82.

The early vintages of the new vineyard were sold to local wineries like Preston Winery and Quilceda Creek as well as Amity Vineyards from Oregon. In the 1980s, Andrew Will began sourcing Ciel du Cheval fruit and DeLille Cellars started a long term relationship with the vineyard in 1990.

The Horse Heaven Hills from which Ciel du Cheval gets its name as seen from Col Solare on Red Mountain.
Just behind the vineyards of Col Solare in the foreground are the vineyards of Kiona’s Heart of the Hill, Ciel du Cheval and Galitzine.

In 1994, Holmes and Williams amicably split up their partnership with Williams taking complete control and ownership over the original Kiona Vineyard while Holmes took over Ciel du Cheval. In the early 2000s, Holmes started planting adjacent plots next to Ciel du Cheval as part of joint ventures with Quilceda Creek (Galitzine Vineyard) and DeLille (Grand Ciel Vineyard).

Today there are 103 acres of vines planted at Ciel du Cheval broken up into 36 plots of Barbera, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cunoise, Grenache, Merlot, Mourvédre, Nebbiolo, Petit Verdot, Pinot gris, Roussanne, Sangiovese, Syrah and Viognier. The vineyard is farmed sustainably with no herbicides used on the vines and low impact viticulture practiced for soil conservation and dust control.

In 2012, the Holmes family started Côtes de Ciel winery but still sell the majority of their vineyard’s fruit to an all star roster of Washington wineries such as Andrew Will, Betz, Cadence, DeLille, Fidelitas, Force Majeure, Januik, Mark Ryan, McCrea, Quilceda Creek and Seven Hills.

What Makes Ciel du Cheval Fruit So Highly Sought After?

Photo taken by self and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as User:Agne27 under CC-BY-SA-3.0

A sample of the sandy loam and rocky soils of Ciel du Cheval featured at Betz Family Winery which uses fruit from Ciel du Cheval for several of their wines including their La Côte Rousse Syrah and Clos de Betz Merlot-based blend.

The soils on Red Mountain were formed through a series of cataclysmic floods and glaciation during the Ice Ages which left an uneven dispersal of soils and cobblestones across the vineyards and even rerouted the ancient Columbia River around the contours of Red Mountain.

The soils that were deposited on what is now Ciel du Cheval are different from neighboring vineyards with more than 12 feet of sandy loam on top of a layer rich in calcium carbonate. The very high pH levels of the soils due to the calcium carbonate keeps a lot of the nutrients in the soil insoluble and inaccessible to the vines. This encourages the vines to struggle and dig their roots even deeper in search of nutrients.

This results in much smaller canopies and berry sizes compared to vines grown elsewhere. In Washington Wines, Holmes notes that while a typical grape berry grown in Napa Valley will weigh around 1.3 grams, from Ciel du Cheval the average weight is 0.88 grams.

These smaller berries develop fully ripe and intense flavors from the 2950 average heat units that the vineyard receives each year but maintain fresh acidity due to the wide diurnal temperature variation that can drop as much as 40-50 degrees from the day time highs in the 90s.

The balance of fresh acidity with intense flavors and ripe tannins is a trademark style of fruit from Ciel du Cheval.

The Grape

Photo taken by self. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as User:Agne27 under  CC-BY-SA-3.0

A cluster of Sangiovese from Alder Ridge Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills.

Widely known as the dominant grape of Tuscany, one of the earliest commercial plantings of Sangiovese in Washington State was at Red Willow Vineyard in Yakima Valley in the 1990s though it is likely that Italian immigrants to Walla Walla in the late 1800s brought cuttings from their native land for personal cultivation.

By 1999, there were around 100 acres of Sangiovese planted in Washington. After jumping to 220 acres in 2002, plantings dropped to around 134 acres in production as of 2017.

As a red wine, the style of Washington Sangiovese is noted for its combination of red fruit flavors like cherry, currant and cranberry paired with spicy anise and herbal tobacco leaf notes. As a rosé, those cherry and cranberry notes are often complimented with strawberry aromatics. The grape’s trademark high acidity lends itself well to rosé production with a good portion of Washington’s approximate 75,000 cases of Sangiovese based wines being rosés.

One of the distinctions of Sangiovese is its propensity to develop clonal mutations when it is grown in different environments.

At Ciel du Cheval there are two clones of Sangiovese planted, VCR 6 and VCR 23, that were cultivated and studied at the Vivai Cooperativi Rauscedo in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of north east Italy.

Photo by Francesco Sgroi. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Sangiovese grapes growing in the village of Certaldo outside of Florence in the Chianti zone.


The VCR 6 clone was sourced from vineyards in the Brunello di Montalcino region of Tuscany while VCR 23 was sourced from Vecchiazzano in Romagna.

The Wine

Medium-plus intensity nose. Lots of strawberry and cherry notes with a little subtle spice that almost seems black pepper like.

On the palate this rosé has a lot of weight–more so than the WT Vintners Pinot noir rosé sampled the same night. Some noticeable residual sugar but amply balanced by the high acidity that gives the fruit a mouthwatering juiciness. Moderate length finish brings back the subtle pepper spice from nose and adds an intriguing savory/sweet element.

The Verdict

While no one would would confuse this for a bone-dry and minerally Provençal rosé, at around $18, the Davenport 2017 Rosé of Sangiovese is a refreshing and easy to drink rosé that is very crowd-pleasing and food friendly.

Quite enjoyable on its own, the bold flavor and touch of sweetness in this rosé would particularly shine with foods that have a hint of spiciness like ethnic Thai or Indian.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Cinsault — The Black Prince of South Africa

As promised in my summary post about the 2018 Hospice du Rhône Weekend, I’ll tackle each of the four seminars with their own posts beginning with the first seminar on Friday — South Africa’s Cinsault Renaissance.

I’m hard-pressed to narrow down which of the four seminars were my absolute favorite but, without a doubt, this seminar was the most eye-opening. In my Quick Take on Day 1, I commented how neither Cinsault nor South Africa tends to be on the radar of most US consumers. The trade organization WOSA (Wines of South Africa) reported in 2016 that the US receives only 3% of the wine exported from South Africa. In 2014, when US sales of wine (both domestic and exported) were around 370 million cases, wines from South Africa accounted for less than 0.33% of those sales.

But after attending this seminar moderated by Lauren Buzzeo of Wine Enthusiast and reading about my friend Adrienne’s wine adventures drinking South African wines in Nambia, it’s clear that South Africa is a wine producer worth paying attention to—not the least of which for the country’s treasure trove of old vine Cinsault.

The seminar featured 9 Cinsaults and Cinsault-dominant blends from 7 producers with winemakers Tremayne Smith (The Blacksmith Wines), Andrea Mullineux (Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines), Danie Steytler (Kaapzicht Wine Estate) and Ryan Mostert (Silwervis) on the panel.

I will get into my tasting notes on the individual wines in the moment but first some geeking about Cinsault.

Cinsault: The Mediterranean “Pinot noir”?

Jancis Robinson notes in Wine Grapes that the earliest recorded mention of Cinsault was under the synonym ‘Marroquin’ in 1600 by the French writer Olivier de Serres. The modern spelling ‘Cinsault’ emerged in the 1880s as a likely derivative from ‘Sinsâou’ that was used in the Hérault department along the Mediterranean coast as early as 1829.

Photo by Varaine. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Cinsault growing in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

DNA analysis suggest this area is the probable birthplace of Cinsault due to its close genetic relationship to the Piquepoul varieties and the potential parent-offspring relationship with Rivairenc (Aspiran), the very old Languedoc grape.

Today some of the oldest vines of Cinsault in the Languedoc date back to 1900. While Cinsault suffered the same post-WW II image problem here it did in South Africa, it is also benefiting from renewed interest in the variety with even acclaimed Burgundian producers like Anne Gros (of the notable Vosne-Romanée family) and her husband Jean-Paul Tollot tending to 50+ year old vines in Minervois.

Outside of France, the grape is found in the Puglia region of Italy where it is known as Ottavianello and must make up a minimum of 85% of the red blends in the Ostuni DOC. In Morocco it is the most widely planted grape variety but that is largely because Cinsault is also a popular table grape variety.

Chateau Musar has long championed the grape variety in Lebanon, frequently blending it with Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.

In Washington State, Paul Gregutt describes wines made from Cinsault as like a “good Beaujolais” and notes in Washington Wines that it can be found in Walla Walla in the Morrison Lane and Minnick Vineyards as well as in the Horse Heaven Hills at Alder Ridge.

Cinsault in South Africa

Tim James in Wines of the New South Africa notes that Cinsault was introduced to South Africa in the 1880s and quickly became a popular planting. By 1909, it was the most widely planted red grape variety and the third most popular grape after Greengrape (Semillon) and Muscat.

Originally known as “Hermitage” until the mid-1930s, Cinsault would eventually account for as much as a third of all vineyard plantings in South Africa and was used to make everything from dry reds to sweet fortified wines to even brandy. The rise in popularity of Chenin blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon after World War II would eventually signal the grape’s decline throughout rest of the 20th century but even as its popularity wane it was still frequently used as a blending grape to add perfume and acidity to some of the country’s top Cabernet Sauvignon.

By 2008, Cinsault accounted for around a tenth of all vineyards in South Africa with notable plantings in Paarl, Breedekloof and the ward of Malmesbury in Swartland. Roughly translated to “The Black Land” in reference to the renosterbos (“rhino bush”) shrubs that dot the landscape, it is somewhat poetic that old vine vineyards of the Black Prince in Swartland would be the source of some of the most delicious Cinsault at the seminar.

Seminar Wines

Most of these wines are limited releases and hard to find in the United States. But they are well worth the hunt if you can get them.

Color of the The Blacksmith Barebones. Note how you can read through the core to see the text underneath.


2017 The Blacksmith Barebones, W.O. Paarl (Wine Searcher Average $24)
Medium intensity nose with black cherry and fresh uncured tobacco.

On the palate, those black cherry notes come through and are quite juicy and fresh with medium-plus acidity. Medium tannins and medium body contribute to the “Beaujolais” quality of the wine making it very pleasant and enjoyable with a moderate finish.

2017 The Blacksmith Prince of Bones, W.O. Swartland (No WS listing. At the seminar, Lauren Buzzeo priced it at $45)
Medium-plus intensity nose with lots of blue floral notes to go with the black cherry and tobacco notes exhibited by the Barebones.

On the palate, those fresh uncured tobacco notes from the nose change to more cured tobacco spice–not that dissimilar from Bordeaux wines. Medium-plus acidity maintains the juiciness of the cherry fruit with medium-plus tannins contributing to the medium-plus body of the wine. Long finish ends on the spicy note and mouthwatering fruit. Outstanding wine and probably my favorite of the tasting.

2017 Sadie Family Pofadder, W.O. Swartland (WS Average for 2016 vintage $42)
Medium-minus intensity nose. Light raspberry and some herbal notes. With some air a slight watermelon note (both flesh and rind) come out which is intriguing.

On the palate, the fruit flavors are similarly light. High acidity and chalky medium-plus tannins contribute to a thin and skeletal feel of the wine. Very short finish brings an earthy element that is hard to make out.

2017 Craven Wines Cinsault, W.O. Stellenbosch (WS Average $14 but I’m skeptical as Buzzeo listed the price at $55)
Medium intensity nose with red cherry, rose petals and fresh forest earthiness.

On the palate, the earthy element becomes a little more herbal but also brings a savory black pepper spice note. High acidity and medium-plus tannins are balanced a bit better with the fruit than the Sadie Pofadder so the wine feels more firm and structured rather than thin and skeletal. Seems young but promising.

The Badenhorst Ramnasgras from Swartland was fantastic.


2016 A.A. Badenhorst Cinsault Ramnasgras, W.O. Swartland (WS Average $38)
Medium-plus intensity with black cherry notes and lots of spice and meatiness. A mix of Burgundian and Rhone notes on the nose that had my mouth watering before even taking a sip.

On the palate, the cherry and spice carries through with the mouthwatering continuing with the medium-plus acidity. High tannins hold up the full-bodied fruit of the wine really well and contribute to this wine feeling like a meal in itself. Another favorite.

2016 Kaapzicht Cinsault 1952, W.O. Stellenbosch (NO WS listing though one merchant offering it for $31)
Medium intensity nose with an intriguing mix of cherry pie spices and leather.

The Kaapzicht 1952. Note how much darker this wine is in the core.


On the palate, those cherry pie notes come through with a toasty graham cracker crust character as well. Juicy medium-plus and ripe medium-plus tannins gives the wine great structure and mouthfeel. Long finish keeps with the cherry pie note with some cured tobacco spice joining the party. Very delicious.

2015 Kaapzicht Cinsault Skuinberg, W.O. Stellenbosch (NO WS listing though one merchant offering it for $79)
Medium-minus intensity nose. A mix of minty menthol and coffee espresso with some undefined red fruits.

On the palate, the red fruits become more defined as cherry and raspberry but the menthol and espresso dominant. Like the 1952, the medium-plus acidity and tannins give the wine exceptional balance and structure. I just don’t know if I’m a fan of this flavor profile as much.

2015 Leeu Passant Old Vine Cinsault, W.O. Franschhoek (NO WS listing though one merchant offering it for $103)
Medium-plus intensity nose with black raspberry and blackberry notes. There is also a minty element here but it smells more like fresh mint leaves rather than menthol.

The black fruits carry through on the palate with the minty notes being more subdued. In their place some of that Bordeaux-style tobacco spice emerges which gives the wine a savory element with the medium-plus acidity. Medium-plus tannins balances out the full bodied weight of the fruit. Long finish lingers on the spice. Really well made wine.

2015 Silwervis Cinsault, W.O. Swartland (WS Average $26 but I’m skeptical as Buzzeo listed the price at $50)
Medium intensity nose with coffee and cherry notes. With some air, a little floral mint and fresh tobacco leaf comes out.

On the palate, the coffee notes dominant with fruit present but struggling to emerge. Medium acidity and medium-plus tannins have firm edges to them. Even though this one of the oldest wines at the tastings, it felt really young. Intriguing though.

Takeaways

Cinsault’s diversity is a joy for food pairing but a nightmare for blind tasting.

As I reviewed my notes I saw some patterns emerging (cherry and tobacco) but many of those notes overlap with styles familiar to Burgundy, Beaujolais and lighter Bordeaux. A few examples even hit some of those savory meaty notes of a Rhone. Still, this diversity is exciting because here we have a wine that can be anything from a great picnic & BBQ sipper to something savory and complex that can hold up to robust dishes.

While two of my favorites (The Blacksmith’s Prince of Bones and A.A. Badenhorst’s Ramnagras) were from the Swartland–along with the intriguing but young tasting Silwervis–it was hard to pinpoint terroir characteristics. Considering how much I’ve liked other wines from these producers, I wonder how much of it is more producer style verses the region?

But a big takeaway, and one that the moderator and panelists frequently referred to, was the importance of older vines for Cinsault. The vine lends itself easily to overproduction and with its thin skins can be prone to producing thin flavors. While that may work for bulk rosé, it’s not ideal for making character driven wines.

With over 1600 acres of Cinsault vines over 20 years old (and many of the wines featured in this tasting coming from 40+ year old vineyards), South Africa does have a good bounty of older vines to work with. The really lovely Leeu Passant Old Vine Cinsault from Franschhoek was sourced from South Africa’s 2nd oldest red wine vineyard from vines that are 91+ years old. You can taste the added complexity and concentration from these older vines.

Remarkable stuff that is, again, well worth the hunt to find.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Event Review — Washington vs The World Seminar

Every year as part of Taste Washington weekend, the Washington Wine Commission host several education seminars to highlight the unique terroir, wines and personalities of the Washington wine industry.

This year I participated in the Washington vs the World: Old World, New World, Our World seminar that was moderated by Doug Charles of Compass Wines. The event was presented as a blind tasting of 5 flights–each pairing a Washington wine with a counterpart from elsewhere in the world.

Featuring a panel of winemakers including Casey McClellan of Seven Hills Winery, Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen of WT Vintners, Keith Johnson of Sleight of Hand and Anna Schafer Cohen of àMaurice Cellars as well as Damon Huard of Passing Time Winery and Sean Sullivan of Wine Enthusiast and The Washington Wine Report, the one and half hour event was a terrific opportunity to learn insights from the panel while honing your blind tasting skills with some world class wines.

Below are my notes from each of the flights followed by the reveal of what the wines were.

Flight 1

Wine 1: Opaque ruby with more red than blue hues. Medium-minus intensity nose–floral roses with red berries. Some oak spice.
On the palate–red cherry and currant. High acidity, medium-plus tannins. Little skeletal and thin. Short finish but the floral notes come back and seem promising. Feels like a young Cab that needs some time to flesh out. No minerality so likely New World. Cool climate Washington–Yakima/Walla Walla?

Wine 2: Very opaque purple. Much darker than #1. Little hazy so likely unfiltered. Medium-minus intensity–dark fruit but also a noticeable green note. Vanilla.

The sediment from wine #2. There was no sign of age so clearly this wine wasn’t filtered.

On the palate, the noticeable oak vanilla comes to the forefront but the green leafy notes are also there. Dark fruits but still not very defined, especially with the oak. Medium-plus acidity and high tannins that have a chalky grittiness to them. Some clove spice from the oak. Likely a Cab like wine #1 and it feels like a New World Napa with dark fruit and all the oak but the green notes are throwing me off. Napa Mountain AVAs? 2014 Walla Walla?

Flight 2

Wine 3: Opaque with more red than blue hues. Medium intensity nose. Chocolate covered cherries and spice.

On the palate, chocolate cover cherries still with blue floral notes (Cab Franc?) and a mix of oak baking spice and Asian cooking spice. A lot of layers to evolve. High acidity–very juicy cherries. Medium-plus tannins, very velvet. Some pencil graphite minerality on the long finish (Cab Franc x2?) Kinda Old Worldish but the chocolate covered cherries seem New World or a very modern Right Bank Bordeaux? Very lovely.

Wine 4: Opaque ruby with a little fuchsia hues. Pretty similar color depth to #3, just slightly different shades. Medium intensity nose with some floral and perfume nose. Vanilla blossoms. Smells like a Macy department store. Some blue fruits.

On the palate, the blue fruits–plums and blueberries–carry through and has noticeable oak. Medium-plus acidity and high grippy tannins. Seems very Cab-like with that big structure. No minerality and really short finish. Like wine #1 this seems a bit skeletal and young but I don’t think this one is as promising as #1. Washington BDX blend?

Flight 3

Wine 5: Opaque ruby with noticeable blue hues. High intensity nose. Smokey tobacco and meatiness but also an earthy forest element. It smells like you’re hiking through the forest to get to a brisket BBQ.

On the palate, lots of dark fruit–black currant, black raspberry–but lots of smokey, meatiness too. Some leather. High acidity, high tannins. Big wine! Long finish with cigar notes. Taste like a Left Bank Bordeaux and Cote Rotie had a baby. Fantastic wine but I can’t think of a WA producer doing this.

Wine 6: Opaque ruby with noticeable blue hues. A tad darker than #5. Medium-plus intensity nose. Dark fruits. Chocolate covered acai berries. Lovely blue floral notes.

On the palate, rich black fruits–black plums, black currants. Noticeable oak vanilla. Juicy medium-plus acidity and medium-plus tannins. Very well balanced. Long finish. Taste like a high-end Napa so high-end WA? Both of these are outstanding.

Flight 4

Wine 7: Opaque ruby with some blue hues. High intensity nose with leather and smoked meat. More intense than Wine #5! A little green olive tapenade on toasted bread. Grilled rosemary skews. Floral violets. Roasted coffee. Lots and lots of layers!

On the palate, blackberries and bacon. The roasted coffee notes come through as well as most of the bouquet. Medium-plus acidity and medium-plus tannins. Little back end heat. Long finish. Very Northern Rhone-like. Really delicious wine that I want more time with.

The panel for the seminar. (Left to Right)
Doug Charles, moderator
Casey McClellan, Seven Hills
Jeff-Lindsay-Thorsen, WT Vintners
Keith Johnson, Sleight of Hand
Damon Huard, Passing Time
Anna Schafer Cohen, àMaurice
Sean Sullivan, Wine Enthusiast


Wine 8: Very opaque purple. Much darker than #7. Medium-intensity nose. Almost shy compare to #7. Black fruits. Citrus-lime zest? (WA Syrah?) Medium acidity and medium tannins. High pH. Little rocky minerality on moderate finish. Warm climate New World. Seems like a Red Mountain Syrah. Reminds me a little of the Betz La Cote Rousse.

Flight 5

Wine 9: Clear ruby with red hues. First wine that I can see through. Medium-plus intensity nose. Roasted chicken herbs–thyme and sage. Some blue floral notes.

On the palate, a mix of red and dark fruits–cherries and berries–with the herbal and floral notes. High acidity. Medium-plus tannins. Little minerality on the moderate finish. Seems like a cool climate New World or Old World Rhone.

Wine 10: Clear pale ruby. Lighter than #9 but darker than a Pinot noir. High intensity aromatics with earthy notes and red fruits. Some bacon fat smokiness.

On the palate, all red fruits–cherries and tart cranberries. The smokey bacon fat also comes through (Syrah?). High acidity and medium-plus tannins but way more biting. Not as well balanced as #9 and coming across as more thin and skeletal. Short finish. Seems young.

The Reveal
My favorite for each flight is highlighted with ***

Wine 1: 2012 àMaurice Cellars Artist Series Ivey Blend Columbia Valley (Wine Searcher Ave $43)***
Wine 2: 2013 Joseph Phelps Vineyards Insignia Napa Valley (Wine Searcher Ave $213) Update: Sean Sullivan informed me that this was poured from a magnum which likely highlighted how young tasting and underwhelming this wine was.

Wine 3: 2014 Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot Napa Valley (Wine Searcher Ave $47)***
Wine 4: 2014 Seven Hills Winery Merlot Seven Hills Vineyard Walla Walla Valley (Wine Searcher Ave $45)

Wine 5: 2012 Château Lynch Bages Pauillac (Wine Searcher Ave $114)***
Wine 6: 2015 Passing Time Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Horse Heaven Hills (Winery price $80)

Wine 7: 2015 Sleight of Hand Cellars Psychedelic Syrah Stoney Vine Vineyard Walla Walla Valley (Wine Searcher Ave $61)***
Wine 8: 2015 Glaetzer Wines Amon-Ra Shiraz Barossa Valley (Wine Searcher Ave $75)

Wine 9: 2015 WT Vintners Rhone Blend Boushey Vineyard Yakima Valley (Winery price $40)***
Wine 10: 2014 Sadie Family Columella Coastal Region (Wine Searcher Ave $107)

My Top 3 Wines of the Event

2015 Sleight of Hand Cellars Psychedelic Syrah Stoney Vine Vineyard — WOW! This wine was so funky and character driven that I can still memorably taste it over 4 days later. I’m usually not that blown away by Sleight of Hand wines–finding them well made but often jammy and fading quickly–and while I don’t think this wine is necessarily built for the cellar, it certainly built to deliver loads of pleasure and layers of complexity over the next few years.

The Sleight of Hand Psychedelic Syrah from the Stoney Vine Vineyard was my Wine of the Event.


2012 Château Lynch Bages Pauillac — I don’t know what kind of decanting this wine saw before the event but this wine was tasting exceptional for a young Pauillac–more so for a young Lynch Bages! I suspect it was opened earlier in the morning with the somm team pouring the glasses at least an hour before the event started–which is still a relatively brief amount of time for a top shelf Bordeaux. Update: I learned from Nick Davis of Medium Plus and the somm team at the seminar that the 2012 Lynch Bages was opened only 40 minutes before the event and poured 20 minutes prior to the tasting beginning. That only adds to how impressive the wine was showing.

The 2012 vintage in Bordeaux is not getting a lot of attention being bookend between the stellar 2009/10 and 2015/16 vintages. Like 2014, you hear Bordeaux lovers note that 2012 is much better than 2011 and 2013 but that almost seems like damning with faint praise. It’s clear that there is a lot of great value to be had in this vintage–compare the Wine Searcher Ave for 2010 Lynch Bages ($190) & 2015 ($142) to the $114 average for 2012–and if it is starting to deliver pleasure at a little over 5 years of age then it’s worth investing in as a “cellar defender” to enjoy while waiting for your 2009/10 and 2015/16 wines to age.

2014 Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot Napa Valley — I was not expecting this result. During the blind tasting I was very intrigued by this wine and ultimately pegged it as a Right Bank Bordeaux made in a style along the veins of Valandraud, Fleur Cardinale, Monbousquet or Canon-la-Gaffelière. Never would have pegged it as a Napa Merlot! In hindsight the chocolate covered cherries should have been my clue but they were so well balanced by the acidity and minerality that it didn’t come across as “Napa sweet”. Well done Duckhorn!

An honorable mention goes to the 2015 Passing Time Horse Heaven Hills Cabernet Sauvignon. I was very impressed with how how Napa-like it has become. I was already a fan of the winery and tried this 2015 as a barrel sample at last year’s release party where its potential was evident. Still, I wasn’t expecting it to be this good, this quickly. It was rather unfair to compare the Passing Time to the 2012 Lynch Bages which was so different and so fantastic in its own right. A better pairing would have been with the Joseph Phelps Insignia or any other high end Napa like Silver Oak, Caymus, Frank Family, Cakebread, etc and I have no doubt that the Passing Time would have came out on top for most tasters.

Things I Learned About Blind Tasting

Admittedly I was a tad concerned finding myself consistently liking the first wine in each tasting flight but I can’t think of any systematic reason that would lead to that result. The wines were all poured in advance and I cleared my palate with crackers and water between each so I have to chalk it all up to coincidence.

For the most part, the varietal character and identity of each flight stood out and I was fairly accurate in identifying them. The main outlier was the Merlot flight (#2) featuring the Duckhorn and Seven Hills Merlots. The Duckhorn was tripping some of my Cab Franc notes while the Seven Hills was exceptionally Cabernet Sauvignon-like so that led me to deduce Right Bank Bordeaux blend which was wrong but at least in the ballpark.

The more difficult task was trying to nail down the region and which was the Washington example versus the World example. Here I felt like I only solidly hit 2 of the 5 flights (Flight #1 and Flight #3–Cab and Cab-dominant blends) but that was mostly just by 50/50 luck–especially in Flight #1.

The WT Vintners Rhone blend from Boushey Vineyards in the Yakima Valley is a tough wine to pin down in blind tasting because of its mix of Old/New World characteristics.

I was often tripped up by how “Old Worldish” many of the Washington wines were–especially the Sleight of Hand Cellars Psychedelic Syrah from the Stoney Vine Vineyard in the Rocks District. In hindsight, this should have screamed “ROCKS!” to me much sooner. While technically Oregon, this sub-AVA of Walla Walla produces some of the most complex and interesting Syrahs being made in Washington. I commented from the audience that putting this Syrah in a blind tasting is a little evil because of how Old World and Cote Rotie-ish it is.

Another thing that makes Washington a bit difficult to peg down is how frequently “cool climate notes” like red fruit, juicy medium-plus acidity, bright floral perfumes and subtle herbal notes appear in wines that are actually grown in rather warm climates (especially compared to Old World regions like Bordeaux). This is largely because of the significant diurnal temperature variation in Eastern Washington that can swing as much as 40℉ from the high heat of the daytime to cool low temperatures of night. This allows Washington grapes to get fully ripe and develop some of those dark fruit notes but, especially in cooler areas like Boushey and Red Willow Vineyard in Yakima and parts of Walla Walla, also maintain ample acidity and some of those cool climate characteristics.

From a blind tasting perspective, I need to solidify in my mind that getting a wine with that mix of warm/cool climate characteristics should be a tip off that I’m dealing with a Washington wine.

Is it Worth it?

Hell yeah. While I wasn’t impressed at all with attending The New Vintage, I will certainly make an effort to attend future seminars at Taste Washington.

At $85 a ticket, this was one of the more expensive seminars with others being as low as $45 a ticket, but the experience (and tasting over $800 worth of wine) delivers more than enough value to merit the cost.

A lot of great wine to taste through.


The only slight criticism is the rush between tasting each wine and getting the panel and audience to start commenting on them. Especially being a blind tasting, I wanted more than just a minute or two to critically taste and evaluate the wine before I start hearing other people’s comments that may sway my assessment.

Granted, I’m sure I’m in the minority here as I could tell that for many other participants in the audience, tasting the wines and being able to ask questions of the panel was a bigger draw than getting a chance to sharpen their blind tasting skills. When you have 10 wines being presented over 90 minutes–and allotting time for questions about vineyards, grape varieties, winemaking style, etc–something got to give so I understand why the tasting time got the short shrift.

Still, it was an exceedingly worthwhile experience that I highly recommend for Washington wine lovers and wine geeks alike.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

60 Second Wine Review — Temper Red Blend

A few quick thoughts on the 2015 Temper red blend from Javier Alfonso of Pomum Cellars.

The Geekery

Temper is a special project of Spanish-born winemaker Javier Alfonso. A native of Ribera de Duero, Javier and his wife Shylah started Pomum Cellars in 2004. Seeing the similarities in the continental climate of Eastern Washington to that of central Spain, Alfonso was fascinated at the potential for Spanish grapes in Washington.

In addition to Pomum Cellars (which now focuses on French varietals) and Temper, Alfonso also produces wines under his Idilico label that highlights Spanish varietals.

Alfonso works with several vineyards in the Columbia Valley including Dubrul, Konnowac and Dineen Vineyards in the Yakima Valley, Upland Vineyard on Snipes Mountain and Elerding Vineyards in both the Yakima Valley and Horse Heaven Hills. In 2003, Alfonso planted his own estate vineyard, AD Dunn, in the Yakima Valley near Zillah with Tempranillo and Merlot.

The 2015 Temper red blend is majority Cabernet Sauvignon and Tempranillo with small amount of other Bordeaux and Spanish varietals. The wine is sourced completely from the Yakima Valley.

The Wine

Medium-plus intensity. A mix of red and dark fruits–cherries and currants–with some fresh tobacco and black pepper spiciness around the edges. Very intriguing bouquet that continues to evolve in the glass.

Photo by ShakataGaNai. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Juicy red cherries and spice notes are a hallmark of this elegant wine.

On the palate, mostly the red fruits carry through and are amplified by the medium-plus acidity. The spiciness also seems to jump up a notch with a smokey element that adds to the savoriness. The fresh tobacco moves to a cured flavor. The medium-plus tannins are firm, holding up the full-bodied weight of the fruit well. The long finish lingers with the spice notes.

The Verdict

While this wine has ample fruit, the balanced hand of oak and impressive structure comes across as very Old World in style. The juicy savoriness and spice is tailor made for food pairing.

At $25-30, this is a very solid and character driven red blend that is perfect for foodies.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Getting Geeky with Whidbey Island Siegerrebe

Going to need more than 60 Seconds to geek out about the 2015 Whidbey Island Winery Siegerrebe from the Puget Sound AVA.

Full Disclosure: This wine was received as a sample.

The Background


I gave some of the backstory of Whidbey Island Winery in my 60 Second Review of their Pinot noir from Cultus Bay Vineyard. A pioneer on the Puget Sound island, today Whidbey Island Winery is known as the “grande dame” of Whidbey Island vineyards.

In addition to sourcing fruit from Whidbey Island, the winery also works with several vineyards in Eastern Washington including Crawford Vineyards in the Yakima Valley, Upland Vineyard on Snipes Mountain, Coyote Canyon Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills and Elephant Mountain Vineyard in the Rattlesnake Hills AVA.

The Whidbey Island Siegerrebe comes from the Osenbach’s estate vineyard. First planted in 1986, the Osenbachs experimented with the grape along with Madeleine Angevine and Madeleine Sylvaner. The first vintage release of Siegerrebe was in 1991.

The Grape

Heinz Scheu, son of the famous German grape breeder Georg Scheu, claimed that his father discovered Siegerrebe in 1929 from a spontaneous self-pollination of Madeleine Angevine. However, Jancis Robinson notes in Wine Grapes that DNA analysis has definitively shown that the grape is a crossing of Madeleine Angevine and Savagnin rose.

Siegerrebe (whose name roughly translates to “champion vine”) is one of several new grape varieties–along with with Scheurebe, Huxelrebe and Chancellor–that Scheu bred in his nearly 40 year career at the State Institute of Vine Breeding in Alzey, Rheinhessen.

Photo by self. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as User:Agne27 and released under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Siegerrebe grapes.

In 1948, German breeder Hans Breider used Siegerrebe to cross with Müller-Thurgau to create Ortega–named after the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset. Another German breeder, Johannes Zimmermann, crossed Siegerrebe with Villard blanc to create the table grape Rosetta in 1960.

Today there is only around 255 acres of Siegerrebe in its homeland of Germany–mostly in the Rheinhessen and Palatinate (Pfalz). Other countries with Siegerrebe include Denmark, Switzerland and in the Gloucestershire region of England.

Siegrrebe in the US

Siegerrebe was brought to the US in the 1980s when Gerard Bentryn of Bainbridge Island Winery became the first American winegrower to plant the variety. It was from these Bainbridge Island cuttings that the Osenbachs of Whidbey Island Winery planted their estate Siegerrebe.

Another Whidbey winery, Comforts of Whidbey, also produce Siegerrebe from cuttings they procured from Whidbey Island Winery. Other islands in the Puget Sound AVA are home to Siegerrebe plantings–most notably Lopez Island Vineyards and San Juan Vineyards.

The Wine

Medium-plus intensity nose. A mix of orange blossoms and pear drop candy.

Photo by Kate Hopkins. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Just a little too much pear drop candy note in this wine for my taste.

On the palate that pear drop candy note comes through and brings noticeable sweetness. The orange blossoms also carry over but, surprisingly, the flavors get even more floral in the mouth with rose petals and undefined white flowers joining in. This wine feels like you are drinking a glassful of petals.

Medium acidity gives some lift but I find myself wishing that it had just a bit more to help balance the sweetness. Moderate length finish ends with the pear candied note.

The Verdict

While I absolutely adored Whidbey Island’s Pinot noir, this Siegerrebe is a bit too sweet for my personal style. However, it is very character-driven with lovely floral elements that I can see fans of Moscato enjoying as an opportunity to trade out some of their same ole, same ole.

But at around $17-20, I do think wine drinkers are paying a little bit for the novelty of the grape. There are certainly more compelling values for off-dry whites such as Riesling and Gewürztraminer.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

60 Second Wine Review — Lauren Ashton Cuvee Meline

A few quick thoughts on the 2016 Lauren Ashton Cuvée Méline from the Columbia Valley.

The Geekery

Lauren Ashton Cellars was founded in 2009 by Kit Singh, a dentist by training, with the winery named after his two children. Full disclosure, Kit was one of my wine science instructors when I was going through the wine production program at the Northwest Wine Academy.

The labels for each of Lauren Ashton’s wines feature notable architecture from Singh’s wife, Riinu’s, home country of Estonia.

The 2016 Cuvée Méline is a white Bordeaux-style blend of 55% Semillon and 45% Sauvignon blanc that was aged in a combination of stainless steel, new French and neutral oak barrels. The fruit source for this vintage was Mercer Estates in the Horse Heaven Hills and Cave B Vineyard in the Ancient Lakes of the Columbia Valley AVA. Around 300 cases were made.

The Wine

High intensity nose–lots of citrus zest and white floral notes like wisteria and lillies. Around the edges there is a little tree fruit trying to peak out but is overwhelmed by the citrus and floral notes.

Photo by Zeynel Cebeci. Released on Wikimedia Commons under  CC-BY-SA-4.0

The rich tropical citrus note of this wine adds a lot of depth.


On the palate those tree fruit notes come out more and become defined as very ripe white peaches with the citrus becoming more tropical like pomelo. The wine has a lot of weight and texture to the mouthfeel that hints at the oak but you don’t taste any oak flavors. The medium-plus acidity keeps the fruit tasting fresh and balances the weight very well. Moderate length finish brings back the floral notes from the nose but they quickly fade.

The Verdict

It’s clearly a New World style white with the big body and weight but there is a lot of white Bordeaux-like elegance with this wine. Only thing missing is minerality.

At $23-28, it is a solid value for a very well made and food-friendly white. Definitely a white wine for a red wine drinker that wants something different than a light Sauvignon blanc or an oaky Chardonnay.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Quilceda Creek Release Party

If you ask Washington wine lovers what are the “cult wines” of Washington–the Screaming Eagles, the Harlans or the Grace Family Vineyards of the state–one name that would be unanimously mentioned is Quilceda Creek.

With the mailing list long since closed, and a healthy waiting list to boot, my wife and I were lucky to get on the members list back in 2009. Each year we look forward to the release of the Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Below are some of my thoughts from this year’s release party.

But first, some geeking.

The Background

Quilceda Creek was founded in 1978 by Alex and Jeannette Golitzin. Alex’s maternal uncle was the legendary André Tchelistcheff who helped Golitzin secure vineyard sources and provided barrels from Beaulieu Vineyards. At the time of Quilceda’s founding, there were only around 12 wineries operating in Washington. In 1992, their son Paul joined the winery and today manages both vineyard operations and winemaking.

In addition to Tchelistcheff, the Golitzins can also count Prince Lev Sergeyevich (1845-1915/16) of the House of Golitsyn as another winemaking ancestor. Sergeyevich was the official winemaker to Czar Nicholas II with the sparkling wines produced at his Crimean winery, Novyi Svit, served at the Czar’s 1896 coronation. It is believed that Sergeyevich’s sparkling wines were the first “Champagne method” bubbles produced in Russia.

Quilceda Creek has received six perfect 100 point scores from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate–for the 2002, 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2014 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2014 Galitzine Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon from Red Mountain. In 2011, the 2005 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon was served by the White House for a state dinner with Chinese president Hu Jintao.

The winery has been featured several times on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list, including twice being named #2 wine–in 2006 for the 2003 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and in 2015 for the 2012 edition of that wine.

The Vineyards

Photo by Williamborg. Released on Wikimedia Commons under PD-self

Kiona Vineyard on Red Mountain–which played an important role in the early wines of Quilceda Creek.


Paul Gregutt, in Washington Wines, notes that in the early years of Quilceda Creek, Otis Vineyard in the Yakima Valley was the primary source of fruit.

In the 1980s, the focus moved to Red Mountain with Kiona Vineyards providing the fruit for several highly acclaimed vintages. Eventually Klipsun, Ciel du Cheval and Mercer Ranch (now Champoux) were added to the stable.

Today, Quilceda Creek focuses almost exclusively on estate-own fruit, making four wines that are sourced from five vineyards.

In 1997, Quilceda Creek joined Chris Camarda of Andrew Will, Rick Small of Woodward Canyon and Bill Powers of Powers Winery/Badger Mountain to become partners in Champoux Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA. First planted by the Mercer family in the 1970s, fruit from Champoux Vineyard has formed the backbone for nearly all of Quilceda Creek’s 100 pt wines. In 2014, when Paul and Judy Champoux decided to retire, the Golitzins purchased their interests in the vineyard.

The author with Paul Golitzin.


In 2006, they acquired a 4.5 acre parcel next to Champoux which they named Palengat after Jeannette Golitzin’s side of the family. Located on the south slope of Phinny Hill, the vineyard was planted between 1997-2002.

In 2001, the Golitzins partnered with Jim Holmes of Ciel du Cheval Vineyard to plant a 17 acre estate vineyard, the Galitzine Vineyard, on Red Mountain next to Ciel du Cheval. The vineyard takes its name from an old spelling of the family’s surname and is planted exclusively to clone 8 Cabernet Sauvignon. Originally derived from 1893 cuttings taken from Chateau Margaux in Bordeaux, clone 8 is highly favored by acclaimed Cabernet Sauvignon producers.

Planted in 2010, Lake Wallula Vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills is 33 acres planted exclusively to Cabernet Sauvignon on a plateau overlooking the Columbia River.

The Wallula Vineyard near Kennewick was developed by the Den Hoed family in 1997 in partnership with Allen Shoup (now with Long Shadows Vintners).

The Wines

In addition to tasting and releasing the 2015 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, the 2015 Columbia Valley Red blend was also tasted.

2015 Columbia Valley Red Blend is a blend of 81% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Franc, and 4% Petit Verdot that was sourced from the Champoux, Galitzine, Palengat and Wallula vineyards. Essentially a “baby brother” to the flagship Cab and vineyard designated Galitzine and Palengat, the CVR is selected from declassified lots that have been aged in 100% new French oak 18-21 months.

The 2015 Columbia Valley Red blend (CVR) just wasn’t doing it for me at this tasting.


Medium intensity nose. Surprisingly shy as this wine is usually raring to go. Some dark fruits–blackberry and cassis–and noticeable oak spice.

On the palate, those dark fruits carry through but become even less define than they were on the nose. Medium acidity and a bit of back-end alcohol heat contribute to the disjointed feeling with this wine. The medium-plus tannins are firm but do have a soft edge that adds some texture and pleasure to the mouthfeel. Moderate length finish of mostly heat and oak.

2015 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is 100% Cab sourced from the Champoux, Lake Wallula, Palengat and Wallula vineyards. The wine was aged 20 months in 100% new French oak.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Rich dark fruits with razor sharp precision–black plums, blackberries and even blueberries. There is also a woodsy forest element that compliments the noticeable oak spice.

On the palate, a lot more of the vanilla and oak baking spice notes carry through–particularly cinnamon–that adds a “pie-filling” richness to the wine. However, the medium-plus acidity balances this hefty fruit exceptionally well to add elegance and freshness. High tannins are present but like the CVR have a soft edge that makes this very young Quilceda Cab surprisingly approachable now. You can very much feel the full bodied weight of its 15.2% alcohol but, unlike the CVR, there is no back-end heat tickling the throat. Still only a moderate length finish at this point but the lasting impression is the juicy, rich fruit.

The tasting and barrel room of Quilceda Creek in Snohomish.


The Verdict

This tasting was a complete role reversal of the CVR and Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Usually it is very consistent that the CVR is happily ready to be consumed young while the Cab needs some cellar time to fully integrate and shed the baby fat of oak.

Though that “baby fat” of new oak is still present in the 2015 Columbia Cabernet Sauvignon, the precision of the fruit and elegance is striking right now. This is, by far, one of the best tasting new releases of the Columbia Valley Cab that I’ve had. While I’m still concerned with the high alcohol level, I’m very optimistic about how this wine will age and develop in the bottle.

While I was able to get this for the member’s price of $140, the Wine Searcher average for the 2015 is now $218. Putting this in context of similar priced Napa Valley wines like Opus One, Caymus Special Select, Pahlmeyer Proprietary, Joseph Phelps Insignia, Stag’s Leap Cask 23, Mondavi To Kalon and Dominus—there is no doubt that the Quilceda Creek Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon belongs in that league and should probably be batting clean-up in that line-up.

Pallets of the 2015 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Even at the member’s $140 a bottle price, this is still over a million dollars worth of wine.

The CVR was $42 for members ($65 on Wine Searcher) and is usually one of the most screaming deals in wine. I would compare previous vintages of the CVR to $70-100 Napa wines like Silver Oak, Frank Family, Groth, Cakebread and Caymus and watch the Quilceda Creek Columbia Valley Red blend blow them out of the water.

But this 2015 vintage…I don’t know. It’s very possible that I got an awkward bottle or that the wine, itself, is just in an awkward phase of its development. It’s worth keeping an eye on but till then I would recommend the almost ironic advice of enjoying your 2015 Quilceda Creek Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon now while waiting for the “baby brother” 2015 CVR to age.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

60 Second Wine Review — Fidelitas Optu Red

A few quick thoughts on the 2009 Fidelitas Optu from the Columbia Valley.

The Geekery

Fidelitas was founded in 2000 by Charlie Hoppes, a 30 year veteran in the Washington wine industry. A graduate of UC-Davis, Hoppes started out working with Mike Januik at the Snoqualmie/Langguth winery before moving onto Waterbrook. He returned to Chateau Ste. Michelle where he worked with Januik and Bob Betz, eventually rising to be in charge of red wine production.

While at Chateau Ste Michelle, he worked with the Antinori family for the inaugural 3 releases of their joint Red Mountain project, Col Solare. In 1999, he left Chateau Ste. Michelle to help launch Three Rivers Winery in Walla Walla and to work on his own project with Fidelitas.

Known as the “Wine Boss” of Washington, Hoppes also runs a consulting firm where he has worked with numerous small wineries such as Gamache, Market Vineyards, Ryan Patrick and Goose Ridge.

The 2009 Optu is a blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 5% Malbec and 5% Cabernet Franc. The wine was sourced from Champoux Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills, Red Mountain Vineyard located near Hedges Estate, Milbrandt’s Northridge Vineyard and Weinbau on the Wahluke Slope with around 240 cases made.

The Wine

Medium-minus intensity nose. Some dark fruits but they seem pretty dried and faded at this point. Little tobacco spice around the edges.

Photo by Emőke Dénes. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

The black plum fruits flavors in this wine are a little dried out at this point.


On the palate, those dried dark fruits carry through and get some definition as black plums and currants. The tobacco spice is more pronounced and also brings an autumn forest sort of woodsiness. Medium acidity and very soft medium tannins keep good balance with what is left of the fruit. Moderate length finish.

The Verdict

It’s clear that this wine is on the waning curve of its life but it still has some pleasure to give, especially if it can be paired with food that can compliment its soft elegance.

At around $50 for a bottle, it’s holding decent value for an 8+ year old wine.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!