Tag Archives: Mourvèdre

Wine Geek Notes 3/20/18 — Wine Fraud in Rhone, Robert Haas and Synthetic Yeast

Photo by Phillip Capper. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0
Here is what I’m reading today in the world of wine.

Interesting Tweets and Weblinks

Massive Rhône Valley Wine Fraud Reported by French Authorities from Suzanne Mustacich (@smustacich) of Wine Spectator (@WineSpectator)

This scandal has been making waves in the wine world for a couple days now but this report from Mustacich is the first I saw that named names–pointing to the négociant firm and bulk bottler Raphaël Michel. This is important because when consumers read headlines blaring that 66 million bottles or 15% of the Côtes du Rhônes produced from 2013-2016 were cheap swill passed off as higher AOCs, that naturally cast suspicion on every bottle of Rhone.

It also doesn’t help when publications like The Daily Mail use pictures of esteemed estates like Ch. Beaucastel and Clos de Papes as the illustration for their article that talks about Raphaël Michel’s CEO, Guillaume Ryckwaert’s, arrest back in August 2017.

With Wine Spectator getting the name of the real culprit out there, consumers should know that the Rhone wines made by established and small family producers are not part of this scandal. Unfortunately, it is not easy finding all the names of the bulk wine and négociant labels that Raphaël Michel produces (their eShop has only a few names) so the best advice for consumers is to do their homework. If you’re at a wine shop and see a Rhone wine from a producer you don’t recognize, Google them to see if they have an online presence that connects them to a real person or family behind the wine.

Buying guides like Master of Wine Benjamin Lewin’s (@BenLewinMW) on the wines and producers of the Northern and southern Rhone are also valuable resources.

Tablas Creek Founder Dies by Rupert Millar (@wineguroo) for The Drinks Business (@teamdb). Brought to my dash via Vino101 (@Vino101net)

Photo by Deb Harkness. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under  CC-BY-2.0

Tablas Creek’s nursery in Paso Robles.

The death of Tablas Creek founder Robert Haas is a great loss for the industry and my condolences go out to the Tablas Creek family. The entire Tablas Creek operation is top notch and I recently charted my path to becoming a wine club member there in my post Wine Clubs Done Right.

Beyond just the establishment of Tablas Creek winery, Haas had far reaching influence in the Rhône Ranger movement by pioneering the introduction of several Rhone varieties to the US.

Haas and Tablas Creek did the heavy lifting in getting cuttings from Chateau Beaucastel through quarantine and TTB label approval for numerous varieties like Counoise, Terret noir, Grenache blanc, Picpoul and more. Additionally the high quality “Tablas Creek clones” of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre have populated the vineyards of highly acclaimed producers throughout the US.

For that we should all grab our favorite bottle of Rhone grapes (even better if it is Tablas Creek) and toast the amazing legacy of Robert Haas.

THE FUTURE OF FERMENTATION: THE ROLE OF SYNTHETIC YEAST IN WINEMAKING by Becca Yeamans Irwin (@TheAcademicWino) for Spirited Magazine. Brought to my dash via Wine & Spirits Guild (@WineGuild).

This was a very timely article for me as I just finished reading Clark Smith’s Postmodern Winemaking which deals with some of the philosophical issues and conflicts between improving wine technology, the Natural Wine movement and the winemakers caught in the middle who just want to make good wine.

I’m not going to add any commentary at this point because Smith’s book has given me a bit to chew on. It’s clear that there is still a lot of discussion to be had about the “Future of Fermentation” with Yeamans Irwin’s article adding some worthwhile insight into that dialogue.

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60 Second Wine Review — Sinclair Estate Vixen

A few quick thoughts on the 2013 Sinclair Estate Vixen from Columbia Valley.

The Geekery

Sinclair Estates was founded in 2010 by Tim and Kathy Sinclair, who also own the Vine & Roses Bed and Breakfast in Walla Walla.

This vintage was made by Amy Alvarez-Wampfler, an alum of Walla Walla Community College, who started at Columbia Crest Winery–eventually becoming responsible for their 10,000 barrel Chardonnay program. At Columbia Crest she was mentored by Ray Einberger, Juan Munóz Oca, Daniel Wampfler and Keith Kenison. In 2010, she was hired by the Sinclairs to be their head winemaker and general manager.

In 2015, Alvarez-Wampfler left Sinclair to join her husband, Daniel, as winemakers of Abeja–following John Abbott who launched the winery in 2002. She was succeed at Sinclair by Billo Naravane, a Master of Wine who also owns Rasa Vineyards in Walla Walla.

The 2013 Vixen is a blend of 63% Mourvedre, 26% Syrah and 11% Petit Verdot. The wine was aged for 36 months in French oak with 19 barrels (around 475 cases) produced. Across all their wines, Sinclair Estate only produces around 1500 cases.

The Wine

Medium-plus intensity nose. Lots of black pepper and oak spice with blue floral notes. Underneath there is dark fruit–black cherries and plums–as well as a little tamarind for intrigue.

Photo by kaʁstn Disk/Cat. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0 (DE)

The savory tamarind notes compliment the dark fruits of this wine very well.

On the palate, the spice notes–particularly nutmeg and clove–carry through but more of the vanilla from the oak emerges. The dark fruits and savory tamarind are still present with the medium acidity balancing them enough to compliment the full-bodied weight and medium-plus tannins. On the long finish the black pepper spice re-emerges.

The Verdict

The 2013 Sinclair Vixen is an intriguing “Rhone blend with a twist” with the Petit Verdot replacing Grenache. Very characterful wine that strikes an interesting balance between the lusciousness of New World dark fruit and oak with the savory spiciness of Old World influences.

At around $40-45, this is a very delicious red blend that is great by itself but worth savoring over a long dinner.

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Getting Geeky with Soaring Rooster Rose of Counoise

Going to need more than 60 Seconds to geek out about the 2016 Soaring Rooster Rosé of Counoise from Tagaris Winery.

The Background

I talked a little about the Taggares family and Tagaris winemaker, Frank Roth, in my 60 Second Review of the 2015 Tagaris Pinot noir from the Areté Vineyard.

In addition to the 200 acre Areté Vineyard, Tagaris also owns the 100 acre Alice Vineyard on the south slopes of the Saddle Mountains in the Wahluke Slope AVA. Named after owner Michael Taggares’ mother, this vineyard is home to many grape varieties that are unique to Washington State such as Counoise, Grenache, Tempranillo and Mourvedre.

Located near Weinbau and Rosebud vineyards is Tagaris’ third estate vineyard–the Michael Vineyard–that is also planted to unique varieties like Carménère, Cinsault, Barbera and Sangiovese.

The 2016 Rosé of Counoise was made via the saignée production method where juice from red Counoise must is “bled off” and fermented into a rosé. In her book, Rosé Wine, Master of Wine Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan describes how during this point the must has a higher level of alcohol compared to the short maceration method. As an extracting agent, the alcohol leaches out more color and flavor from the skins producing deeply colored and richer flavored rosés.

The Grape

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

Counoise grapes growing in a vineyard owned by the Syndicat des Vignerons des Côtes du Rhône, Châteauneuf-de-Gadagne, Vaucluse.

Jancis Robinson notes in Wine Grapes, that Counoise is a very old grape variety, distantly related to Piquepoul, that was first mentioned in Avignon in 1626. The French poet Frédéric Mistral (1830-1914) claimed that the grape was of Spanish origins, being first brought to the Rhone in the 14th century during the papal reign of Urban V by a vice-legate named Counesa.

While Harry Karis, in The Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book, believes that Counoise originated in Provence, it was in Châteauneuf-du-Pape where the grape first gained renown in the 19th century as a key component in the blends of Château la Nerthe made by Joseph Ducos. Baron Pierre Le Roy de Boiseaumarié of Château Fortia, who helped write the original AOC laws of the region, was also a fan of the variety and made sure it was included as a permitted grape for red Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

More recently both Domaine du Pégau and Château de Beaucastel have championed usage of Counoise in Châteauneuf-du-Pape–even though today it only accounts for around 0.4% of all plantings. In fact, over the last couple decades Beaucastel has been decreasing their plantings of Syrah in favor of Counoise, feeling that the grape’s natural acidity, spice and late-ripening qualities serve as a better compliment to Grenache and Mourvedre. Making up to 10% of the blend for their CdP rouge in some years, Beaucastel uses the highest proportion of Counoise in the region.

Outside of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the grape can also be found in neighboring Gigondas and several villages permitted to use the Côtes du Rhône-Villages appellation. It is also grown in the Ventoux and can be used in the rosé wines of Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence. In these rosés, Counoise usually sees brief skin contact as part of the short maceration method with the Counoise contributing fresh acidity, spices and dark berry fruits. For the red Counoise wines of Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence, aromas of chocolate and leather can also emerge.

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

Counoise vine growing outside the tasting room of Tablas Creek in Paso Robles.

In the United States, Tablas Creek brought cuttings of Counoise from Château de Beaucastel to California in 1990. From there it spread to other Rhone Rangers in Paso Robles and then up north to Randall Grahm’s Bonny Doon winery in Santa Cruz where Grahm often blends it with Cinsault. In the Livermore Valley, the Wente family makes a small-lot varietal example of Counoise.

The winemaking team at Tablas Creek notes that the grape is prone to oxidation which makes it a useful compliment to the reductive nature of Syrah and Mourvedre in blends.

In 2000, Doug McCrea (of McCrea Cellars/Salida) convinced Jim Holmes of Ciel du Cheval Vineyard on Red Mountain to plant Counoise from Tablas Creek cuttings. By 2012, the acreage of Counoise in Washington had grown to 15 acres with plantings in the Yakima Valley vineyards Meek and Airfield Ranch, the Alice Vineyard in the Wahluke Slope, the Needlerock Vineyard in the Columbia Valley as well as Forgotten Hills Vineyard and Morrison Lane in Walla Walla. In Washington Wines, Paul Gregutt notes that John Farmer, one of the first to plant Rhone varieties in the Horse Heaven Hills, also sought out cuttings to plant at Alder Ridge Vineyard.

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

The Wahluke Slope AVA with the Saddle Mountains in the distance. The Soaring Rooster Rosé of Counoise comes from the Alice Vineyard in this AVA.

In addition to Tagaris Winery, varietal examples of Counoise can also be found in Washington from Cairdeas Winery, Cana’s Feast, Côtes de Ciel, Lindsay Creek Vineyards, Martin-Scott Winery and Syncline.

The Wine

Medium-plus intensity nose. A mix of raspberry and dark berry fruits. There is also a blue floral element that is intriguing.

On the palate, the dark blackberry fruits dominant more and add a bit of weight to this rosé. While there is a lot of fruit, it’s dry. There is also some texture you feel on the tongue. It’s not bitter or pithy like phenolic extract but, again, adds to the overall weight of the wine. Medium-plus acidity adds a juicy freshness with even a bit of minerality peaking out on the moderate length finish.

The Verdict

With the weight and dark fruits, this is a rosé for red wine drinkers. Its full body and richness opens it up to interesting food pairing possibilities. After reading Simonetti-Bryan’s Rosé Wine, I think I’ve found a rosé to experiment with for some of the more robust pairings I mentioned in my review of the book like lamb and beef brisket.

For $12-15, this 2016 Soaring Rooster Rosé of Counoise is a very solid dry rosé that gives drinkers a lot of food pairing versatility as well as a chance to geek out with a very cool grape.

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60 Second Wine Review — Alexandria Nicole Tempranillo

A few quick thoughts on the 2010 Alexandria Nicole Tempranillo from Destiny Ridge Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills.

The Geekery

Founded in 2001, the origins of Alexandria Nicole date back to the first planting of the Destiny Ridge Vineyard by Jarrod and Ali Boyle in 1998.

Jarrod was working as a viticulturist with Hogue Cellars, under the mentorship of Dr. Wade Wolfe (of Thurston Wolfe fame). While checking out vineyard sites, he noticed an unplanted south facing slope north of Alderdale that overlooked the Columbia River. Finding out that the property belonged to the Mercer family (Champoux Vineyards and Mercer Wine Estates), the Boyles and Mercers went into partnership to plant Destiny Ridge Vineyard.

Today, the 267 acres of Destiny Ridge are sustainably farmed and planted with 23 grape varieties–including unique varieties like Tempranillo, Barbera, Carménère, Counoise, Marsanne, Mourvèdre, Petite Sirah, Petit Verdot and Roussanne. While the Boyles get first pick, Paul Gregutt in Washington Wines notes that fruit is also sold to wineries like Chateau Ste. Michelle, Darby Winery, Guardian Cellars, Saviah and Tamarack.

The 2010 Tempranillo is a blend of 94% Tempranillo, 4% Malbec and 2% Cabernet Franc. The wine spent 20 months aging in 1 and 2 year old French barrels with 104 cases made.

The Wine

Medium-minus intensity nose. Red fruit dominant with cherry and cranberries. A little tobacco spice but very muted.

Photo by Tiia Monto. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Dried cranberry notes characterize this wine.

On the palate, the red fruit is carrying through but is faded and dried. This dried fruit element, interestingly, seems to amplify the spice with black licorice notes joining the tobacco. Medium-plus acidity and firm medium-plus tannins add an edge to this wine that is desperately missing the fruit to balance it.

The Verdict

This wine is probably about 3 years past it peak. That said, even at its peak, it’s hard to say this was a compelling enough wine to merit its $55 price tag.

Especially when you compare it to what you can get at that price from Spain (not to mention southern Oregon), it’s clear that you are paying for the novelty of a Washington Tempranillo.

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The Mastery of Bob Betz

Washington State is ridiculously spoiled with talented winemakers.

Alex Golitzin of Quilceda Creek, Christophe Baron of Cayuse, Chris Figgins of Leonetti, Rick Small of Woodward Canyon, Scott Greer of Sheridan, Anna Shafer of àMaurice, Greg Harrington of Gramercy, Kay Simon of Chinook, Charlie Hoppes of Fidelitas, Chris Upchurch of DeLille/Upchurch Vineyard, Ben Smith of Cadence, Chris Camarda of Andrew Will, Charlie Hoppes of Fidelitas, Rob Newsom of Boudreaux, Kerry Shiels of Côte Bonneville, Chris Peterson of Avennia/Passing Time, etc.

And that is only a small sliver of the immense talent in this state.

But if you asked me to give you just one expression of winemaking talent that exhibits the best of Washington, I would answer without any hesitation that it is Bob Betz.

From Chicago to the Chateau

A Chicago native, Bob Betz moved to the Pacific Northwest in 1954. He attended the University of Washington with the goal of entering med school but, when those plans didn’t work out, he spent a year in Europe with his wife, Cathy, where he discovered a passion for wine.

After working at a wine shop for a year, he was hired by Charles Finkel (now of Pike Brewing Company) to work at Chateau Ste. Michelle back when the Washington powerhouse was a small winery operating on East Marginal Way in Seattle. There he was mentored by the famed consultant André Tchelistcheff of Beaulieu Vineyard fame.

Starting in communications with the estate, as Chateau Ste. Michelle moved to Woodinville and grew into Washington’s largest winery, Betz worked his way up to Vice President of Winemaking Research–working closely with an All-Star roster of winemaking talent such Mike Januik (Novelty Hill/Januik Winery), Cheryl Barber-Jones (Sozo Friends), Kay Simon (Chinook Wines), Joy Anderson (Snoqualmie Vineyards), Erik Olsen (Clos du Bois/Constellation Brands) and Charlie Hoppes (Fidelitas). During this time, his own passion for winemaking and starting his own label developed.

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

Bob Betz (in grey sweat shirt) talking with guests at a release party at Betz Family Winery

In the mid 1990s, he embarked on completing the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) program, earning his Master of Wine (MW) in 1998. To this day, he is one of the few MWs who are practicing winemakers (Billo Naravane at Rasa/Sinclair Estate is another), with the vast majority of individuals who hold that title being writers, educators, wholesalers and retailers.

In earning his MW, Betz won the Villa Maria Award for the highest scores on the viticultural exam as well as the Robert Mondavi Award for the highest overall scores in all theory exams.

Betz Family Winery

In 1997, Greg Lill of DeLille Cellars offered space in his winery for Betz to make six barrels of his first vintage. Sourcing fruit from Klipsun vineyard on Red Mountain, Harrison Hill on Snipes Mountain and Portteus vineyard in the Rattlesnake Hills AVA, it wasn’t long before the accolades came in with Betz having numerous wines featured on Best of Washington lists by the Seattle Times and Seattle Met as well as earning Winemaker of the Year from Sunset Magazine in 2007. Moving from DeLille, he was one of the first wineries in the now-famous “Warehouse District” of Woodinville before building his own winery.

Just as he was mentored by Tchelistcheff and others, Betz has mentored other budding talents such as Kathryn House (House of Wine), Tyson Schiffner (brewmaster at Sumerian Brewing), Ross Mickel (Ross Andrews), Chris Dickson (Twill Cellars), Casey Cobble (Robert Ramsay) and his eventual successor as head winemaker at Betz, Louis Skinner.

La Côte Rousse, a “New World style” Syrah from Red Mountain

In 2011, with Bob & Cathy Betz’s daughters expressing no interest in taking over the winery, Betz worked out an agreement to sell the winery to South African entrepreneurs Steve and Bridgit Griessel. Agreeing to stay on with the winery for five more years, a succession plan was worked out with Louis Skinner, a South Seattle Northwest Wine Academy alum and former assistant at DeLille Cellars, taking over the winemaking duties at Betz Family Winery in 2016 with Betz as a consultant.

In 2017, Bob Betz returned to Chateau Ste. Michelle as a consultant for Col Solare, a joint project with the Antinori family located on Red Mountain. Here Betz will be working with Darel Allwine and Antinori’s head enologist Renzo Cotarella.

Tasting the Best of Washington

While the future of Betz Family Winery looks strong with the Griessels and Louis Skinner, there is something magical about “Bob’s vintages” of Betz that are worth savoring. Paul Gregutt, in Washington Wines, describes Betz Family Winery as one of the “Five Star Wineries” in Washington and ascribes their success to Betz’s “painstaking planning and attention to detail”, noting that if even a single barrel of wine didn’t meet his standards then it would be sold off rather than used in the wines.

La Serenne, a “Northern Rhone-style” Syrah from Boushey Vineyard.

The list of vineyards that Bob Betz has worked with includes some of the “Grand Crus” of Washington like Boushey Vineyard and Red Willow in Yakima; Ciel du Cheval, Kiona and Klipsun on Red Mountain; Harrison Hill and Upland Vineyard on Snipes Mountain.

2010 La Serenne Syrah – 100% Syrah sourced from Boushey Vineyard. This cool-climate site north of Grandview, Washington is often harvested more than a month after the Syrahs that go into La Côte Rousse from Red Mountain are picked. Around 535 cases were made.

High intensity nose with a mixture of dark fruit–black plums and blackberries–smoke and spice.

On the palate those dark fruits come through but it is the savory, smokey, meatiness that is the star of the show. Medium-plus acidity keeps it fresh and juicy while the medium-plus tannins have a velvety feel at this point. The long savory finish on this wine would make any Côte-Rôtie lover weak in the knees. Stunningly beautiful and well worth the $70-75.

2011 La Côte Rousse – 100% Syrah sourced from Ciel du Cheval and The Ranch At The End of The Road Vineyard in Red Mountain. The parcels from Ciel du Cheval include some of the oldest plantings of Syrah on Red Mountain. The wine was aged in 45% new oak barrels. Around 559 cases were made.

Medium-intensity nose. A bit more oak driven with the baking spice. Underneath there is a core still of dark fruit but it is not as defined.

On the palate, the fruit is still struggling to be defined. It seems to be a mix of black cherries with a little red pomegranate. Medium acidity and soft medium tannins add lushness to the mouthfeel. The oak is still fairly noticeable with a sweet vanilla edge and rich dark chocolate note that lingers through to the moderate finish. Definitely a more “New World” style that reminds me of a less sweet Mollydooker. Not my personal style but at $70-75, it is well in line with Mollydooker’s Carnival of Love and Enchanted Path for those who enjoy those bold, lush wines.

2011 Bésoleil – A blend of 54% Grenache, 15% Cinsault, 12% Counoise, 12% Mourvedre and 7% Syrah. Sourced from vineyards in Yakima, Red Mountain and Snipes Mountains, this was the first vintage to include Counoise. Around 662 cases were made.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Very evocative mix of blue flowers–violets and irises–with spicy black pepper, anise and Asian spices. This wine smells like you walked into a fantastic Indian restaurant.

On the palate, a mix of dark and red fruits come out but the spices get even more mouthwatering with the medium-plus acidity. The medium tannins are very silky at this point, helping the fruit to wrap around your tongue and linger for a long finish. Still fairly New World in style but at $50-55, this is inimitably charming and complex to entice a Châteauneuf-du-Pape fan.

2011 Clos de Betz – A blend of 67% Merlot, 28% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Petit Verdot. Often features fruit from Ciel du Cheval and Kiona on Red Mountain, Red Willow and Dubrul in the Yakima Valley and Alder Ridge in the Horse Heaven Hills. The wine was aged in 45% new oak. Around 1186 cases were made.

Clos de Betz, a Right Bank Bordeaux style blend.

Medium intensity nose–a mix of red and black currants with a floral element that is not very defined. With some air, tertiary notes of tobacco spice emerge as well as an intriguing graphite pencil lead that would have me thinking Cabernet Franc is in this blend even though it’s not.

On the palate, the tide tilts more towards the red fruits dominating with the medium-plus acidity adding a sense of freshness to the wine. The graphite pencil notes disappear and seem to be replaced with an espresso chocolately note that plays off the tobacco spice that carried through. Medium tannins are well integrated and velvet–showing that this wine is probably at its peak drinking window now. Moderate length finish brings back the floral notes though I still can’t quite pinpoint them.

At $65-70, you won’t confuse this for a St. Emilion or Pomerol but this wine amply demonstrates how fantastic Bordeaux varieties–particularly Merlot–do in Washington State.

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60 Second Wine Review — Tagaris Pinot noir

A few quick thoughts on the 2015 Tagaris Pinot noir from the Areté Vineyard.

The Geekery

Founded in 1987 by Michael Taggares, the Tagaris winery honors the original Greek spelling of the family’s surname that was changed when Taggares’ grandfather, Pete, immigrated to the United States through Ellis Island.

According to Paul Gregutt in Washington Wines, Tagaris became a “winery to watch” in Washington when Frank Roth joined the estate as winemaker in 2006. A former cellarmaster at Barnard Griffin, Roth also spent time in Canada working at Hawthorne Mountain and Sumac Ridge before returning to Washington.

Over the years Tagaris has earned a reputation for focusing on small lots from unusual grape varieties in Washington like Tempranillo, Counoise, Mourvedre, Carmenere, Cinsault and Pinot noir from their three estate vineyards.

The 200 acre Areté Vineyard was first planted in 1983 and is certified organic. Located at an elevation of 1300 feet on Radar Hill near Othello, the vineyard is a source of organically grown fruit for Power’s Badger Mountain and Chateau Ste. Michelle’s Snoqualmie Naked wines. The vineyard include 2.27 acres of Pinot noir planted on sandy loam.

Frank Roth’s winemaking style is noted for his restrained use of oak, preferring to use neutral oak barrels that are at least six years of age.

The Wine

Medium intensity nose. Some red cherry notes with a little herbal tomato leaf. With some air a bit of fresh cranberry comes out as well.

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

This Pinot has fresh cranberry notes.

On the palate those red fruits come through with the herbal notes more muted. There is also a spice element on the palate that is not very defined. Medium-plus acidity with medium tannins and a very light body that makes the fruit taste a bit thin. Perhaps this could have used a little new oak to balance?

The Verdict

At around $30-35, you are paying for the novelty and uniqueness of a Washington Pinot noir.

Admittedly, if you compare this to the quality level you can get from an equivalent priced Oregon or California Pinot, it doesn’t hold well.

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Walla Walla Musings

A few notes from the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance tasting featuring 40 different Walla Walla wineries at Seattle’s McCaw Hall.

New (to me) Walla Walla Wineries that Impressed

With over 900 wineries, even the most avid Washington wine lover has a hard time trying to taste them all. Walla Walla, alone, is home to around 120 wineries so even this tasting provided only a slice of what the AVA has to offer. My strategy at events like this is to hit several new wineries that I’ve never tasted before revisiting old favorites.

Lagana Cellars— Poured 2 whites (Sauvignon blanc and Chardonnay) and 2 reds (Syrah and Cabernet Franc) and while all 4 were solid, the reds were definitely a step above. The 2014 Minnick Hills Syrah was one of the few 2014 Syrahs that seemed to escape the reductiveness that (unfortunately) characterized several of their peers at this tasting and showed a beautiful mix of black fruit, mouthwatering acidity and spice. The 2015 Seven Hills Cabernet Franc demonstrated all the things that are beautiful about Washington Cabernet Franc (More on that below). It had vivacious, high intensity aromatics of violets and blackberry, medium-plus body with silky tannins.

Kontos Cellars— Poured 3 reds (Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and blend) plus a bonus bottle blend named Beckett after the winemaker’s daughter. Founded by the sons of Cliff Kontos of Fort Walla Walla Cellars, the trademark seen throughout the Kontos wines was gorgeous aromatics and pitch perfect balance between oak, fruit, tannins and acidity. Even the two 2014 wines (Cab & Alatus blend) stood out but the star of the flight was the wine club member’s only release Beckett blend. A blend of 61% Cabernet Sauvignon, 31% Merlot and 8% Syrah, the 2013 Beckett showcased Kontos’s high intensity aromatics with a mix of red and black cherries, red floral notes and lots of savory spice.

I’m very glad that I didn’t miss this table.

Tertulia Cellars— Poured 3 reds (Rhone blend, Syrah and Cabernet Franc). This is a little of a cheat since Tertulia is not really a newbie. Founded in 2005, I did try some of their early releases several years ago and wasn’t that impressed. I figured after nearly 10 years, I should give them another shot and boy am I glad I did. The 2013 Riviera Galets “The Great Schism” Rhone blend was outstanding.

A blend of 50% Grenache, 40% Syrah, 7% Cinsault and 3% Mourvedre, this wine would do extremely well in a tasting of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Beautiful savory, meaty nose but with enough rich dark fruit to clue you in that it was a New World wine. This wine also had one of the longest finishes of the night. The 2014 Whistling Hills Syrah had some of the 2014 reductive notes but it blew off fairly quickly with some air. The 2015 Cabernet Franc, like the Lagana above, was delicious.

Other wineries that impressed me were Caprio Cellars (especially the 2015 Walla Walla Red), Solemn Cellars (especially the 2014 Pheasant Run Cabernet Sauvignon) and Vital Wines (especially the 2016 Rose).

Old Favorites that Shined

You can never go wrong with Woodward Canyon and their 2014 Artist Series is a worthy follow up to the 2013. The 2014 Old Vines also did very well. In fact, along with the 2014 wines that are noted throughout this post, Woodward Canyon seemed to be one of the few producers to have 2014 wines that weren’t showing any green or reductive notes. (More on that below)

Despite enjoying their estate red for several years, I actually never knew that Figgins produced an estate Riesling and it was fantastic! From the 2016 vintage, the Riesling is decidedly on the dry side and had all the gorgeous white flower, apple and apricot notes that Washington Riesling is known for. Truly a top shelf Riesling that would go toe to toe with the best of Alsace and the Mosel.

Anna Shafer of àMaurice continues to show why she is one of the best winemakers in the state working not only with her estate vineyards but also making a mouth-filling but elegant 2015 Boushey Vineyard Grenache and a 2016 Connor Lee Chardonnay that would tickle the taste buds of even the most ardent Meursault fan.

The Bledsoe Family rose was also very tasty.

Doubleback introduced their 2015 Flying B Cabernet Sauvignon. I got the first taste of a brand new bottle and I was highly impressed with how aromatic and flavorful it was for a pop and pour young Cab. While I enjoyed the regular flagship Doubleback Cabernet Sauvignon, I will say that for half the price the Flying B is giving it a run for the money. I would highly encourage folks to sit on the flagship Cab for 5-7 years from vintage date and drink the Flying B while it ages.

Geeky Grapes on Display

While Washington State and Walla Walla wineries are known for fantastic Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Riesling, it was fun seeing winemakers embrace more obscure varieties like Albariño (Adamant Cellars), Grenache blanc (The Walls) and Carménère.

Paul Gregutt notes in Washington Wines and Wineries that the Figgins family of Leonetti were likely the first to plant Carménère in the state with cuttings they got from Guenoc Winery in California. Those cuttings were eventually shared with Colvin Vineyards that produced the first varietal Carménère in Washington in 2001. Since then the grape’s acreage in the state has expanded with plantings in Alder Ridge Vineyard, Minnick Hills, Morrison Lane and Seven Hills Vineyard.

I tried to figure out what vineyard in the Wahluke Slope had Carménère but my question was brushed off because they wanted to “highlight the AVA and not the vineyard.”

Among the numerous wineries featuring a Carménère at the tasting were Balboa/Beresan Winery, Drink Washington State (from Wahluke Slope), Reininger Winery and Skylite Cellars. I missed out on trying the Reininger but was fairly impressed with Drink Washington State’s offering. But admittedly at $26 you are paying for the uniqueness of the variety in Washington and, right now, it is hard to compete with some of the Carménère coming in from Chile that often delivers outstanding value under $15.

Probably the geekiest wine at the tasting was Foundry Vineyards’ Stainless Steel Chardonnay from the Columbia Gorge. A Chard? Geeky? It is when it has 6% Maria Gomes blended in. Also known as Fernão Pires, Jancis Robinson notes in Wine Grapes that this obscure Portuguese grape variety is actually the most widely planted white grape in Portugal with over 41,500 acres. It is believed to have originated in either the Bairrada DOC or in the Tejo region but it can be found throughout the country including in the Douro. In the US, though, it is quite the rare bird.

Pay Attention to Washington Cabernet Franc

Walter Clore encouraged the first plantings of Cabernet Franc in the mid-1970s as part of Washington State University’s experimental blocks. In 1985, Red Willow Vineyard in Yakima planted the grape which was used by Master of Wine David Lake at Columbia Winery to produce the first varietal Cabernet Franc in 1991. Since then the grape has seen growth from 150 acres in 1993 to a peak of 1157 acres in 2006 only to decline to 685 acres by 2017.

Which is a crying shame because of how absolutely delicious Washington Cabernet Franc is!

The 2012 Spring Valley Katherine Corkrum Cabernet Franc was, hands down, one of the best wines in the entire tasting.

While Old World examples from places like Chinon and Saumur-Champigny in the Loire can be light to medium bodied and herbal with trademark pencil shaving notes, examples from Washington hold up to the weight and profile of the state’s best Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Here Cabernet Franc can develop perfumed blue floral aromatics with some subtle fresh forest floor earthiness that add layers. The dark raspberry and blueberry carry a juicy edge due to the grape’s natural acidity. With some age, a very enticing fresh ground coffee note often comes out–something that the 2012 Spring Valley Vineyards Katherine Corkrum Cabernet Franc was starting to develop.

Outside of Walla Walla, stellar examples of Washington Cabernet Franc include Chinook Wines, Barrister, Camaraderie, Matthews Cellars, Gamache Vineyards, Chatter Creek and Sheridan Vineyard’s Boss Block.

At the Walla Walla tasting, in addition to the Spring Valley example that was a contender for Wine of The Show, other tremendous Cabernet Francs were showcased by Lagana Cellars (2015 Seven Hills), Tamarack Cellars (2015 Columbia Valley), Tertulia Cellars (2015 Elevation), Tranche (2013 Walla Walla), March Cellars (2016 Columbia Valley) and Walla Walla Vintners (2015 Columbia Valley)

What happened in 2014?

Along with Woodward Canyon, Kontos produced the cleanest and best tasting 2014 reds I encountered at the tasting.

The most baffling aspect of the Walla Walla tasting was how many 2014 reds were disappointing. Despite widely being considered a very good year in Washington State and Walla Walla, in particular, several wines from even big name and highly acclaimed producers showed green pyrazine or reductive notes. One winery had massive volatile acidity (VA) issues with their 2014s. With many wineries also featuring 2013 and 2015 reds, sometimes even of the same wine as their 2014, the shortcomings in the 2014s stuck out like a sore thumb.

And it wasn’t very consistent with one winery’s 2014s being green while another winery’s 2014 example of the same variety would instead have the closed aromas of reduced wines or (at worst with at least 2 examples) the burnt rubber aroma of mercaptans. While the reductive issues are minimized with getting some air into the wine (like with decanting), the green notes don’t go away. I can’t figure a reason why there would be so many green notes in what was a very warm vintage.

As far as I can tell there were no reports of millerandage or coulure which can promote uneven ripeness and hidden green berries inside clusters of varieties like Grenache, Merlot and Malbec. Plus, it was the 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrahs that were more likely to show green notes. My only theory is that with it being such a large vintage perhaps some vineyards were over-cropped? But given the pedigree of the producers, I feel like that is unlikely.

I honestly don’t know. As noted above, there were still 2014s that were drinking well (and I certainly didn’t get a chance to taste every single one that was being poured) so I encourage consumers not to avoid the vintage but be aware that there is some inconsistency. I’m just reporting on a trend that I observed during this one tasting event.

My Top 5 Wines of the Event

The 2016 Figgins Estate Riesling was an absolute gem.

There were plenty of outstanding wines featured at the 2018 Walla Walla Wine Tasting at McCaw Hall that give me reasons to be excited about the future of the Walla Walla wine industry. This region is well worth exploring at your local wine shops and restaurants. Even with my reservations about many 2014 wines, there were numerous wines poured that I could very enthusiastically recommend. But my top 5 overall were:

1.) 2013 Tertulia Riviera Galets
2.) 2012 Spring Valley Vineyards Katherine Corkrum Cabernet Franc
3.) 2013 Kontos Cellars Beckett
4.) 2015 Abeja Merlot
5.) 2016 Figgins Estate Riesling

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60 Second Wine Reviews — Domaine du Pégau CdP

A few quick thoughts on the the 2012 Domaine du Pégau “Cuvée Réservée” Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

The Geekery

According to Harry Karis is his The Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book, even though Domaine du Pégau is a relatively young estate, being founded in 1987, its roots date back to the 17th century when the Féraud family first planted vines in the area.

In the mid 20th century, Elvira (a self-trained winemaker) and Leon Féraud started an estate known as Domaine Féraud. Their youngest son, Paul, ventured out on his own and started Domaine du Pégau with his daughter, Laurence. Prior to joining her father in 1987, Laurence studied winemaking under the tutelage of Paul-Vincent Avril of Clos des Papes.

The name “Pégau” comes from the ancient wine jugs that have been discovered in excavations around papal estates in Avignon. Jeff Leve of The Wine Cellar Insider notes that Paul and Laurence pronounce the name of their estate differently with Paul pronouncing it as “Puh-Gow” and Laurence as “Pay-Go”.

The Cuvée Réservée is typically a blend of 80% Grenache, 6% Syrah, 4% Mourvèdre and 10% of the other permitted grape varieties such as Cinsaut, Counoise, Muscardin, Piquepoul noir, Terret noir and Vaccarèse.

The Wine

High intensity nose. Very evocative mix of dark fruit (blackberry and plum), peppery spice and savory smoke notes.

On the palate, those dark fruits carry through with medium plus tannins framing a lush, velvety mouthfeel that is quite full-bodied. The medium plus acidity adds a juicy component to the fruit and really highlights the gorgeous pepper spice. Coupled with the smoke, these notes linger for a long, minute plus finish.

The Verdict

By Chindukulkarni - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, on Wikimedia Commons

This wine had gorgeous savory pepper notes.

Fantastic wine that more than complimented the scrumptious steak I had it with. Even with out the food, this wine would have held its own as a meal in itself.

It was well worth the restaurant mark up but at around $60-70 for a bottle retail, its a fabulous Chateauneuf that more than delivers for the money.

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