2008 El Corazon Carmenere “Tiger’s Blood”

January 29, 2010

Hello friends. Here is a rare chance to taste Washington Carmenere, a grape with a storied history. Up until a phylloxera outbreak in the mid-1800s, Carmenere was one of the six red varietals used regularly in Bordeaux (along with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot). Post-phylloxera, Carmenere was thought for a time to have gone extinct, but it resurfaced many years later in Chile, where it had long been confused with Merlot (the grapes look nearly identical). Much like Malbec in Argentina, Carmenere has thrived in its adopted home. While some Carmenere has since been reintroduced in Bordeaux, it is far more widely planted in Chile, with 15000 acres currently under cultivation.

Carmenere arrived in Washington in the late ‘90s and is planted most widely at Seven Hills Vineyard in the Walla Walla Valley (the vineyard source for this wine). It has been produced most consistently by Colvin Vineyards and Reininger Winery, both of whom started releasing varietal Carmenere early in the last decade. Colvin has since gone out of business (a shame, since Jancis Robinson once called out their Carmenere as the best she had tasted to date), but Reininger continues to bottle the grape.

El Corazon’s winemaker, Spencer Sievers, got his introduction to Carmenere at Reininger, where he worked crush for a few years before branching off on his own. Spencer’s goal is to make single-vineyard, single-varietal wines, using mostly neutral oak to better showcase the fruit and terroir. El Corazon is still a micro-boutique winery, producing just 350 cases total in 2009, of which fewer than 100 were this Carmenere.

On the nose, dark fruits mingle with seductive notes of portobello mushroom and dusty, musky basement. The palate is a lovely mix of fruit and underbrush. With little new oak to get in the way, and with plenty of energizing bright acid, this is a definite palate-expander; a chance to taste what single-vineyard Washington Carmenere is all about.

Please limit order requests to 6 bottles/person, and we will do our best to fulfill all requests. El Corazon is self-distributed, so it might be as long as 2-3 weeks until we have the wine in our warehouse. At that point, it will be ready for pickup or shipping.

2007 Alexandria Nicole Cellars Quarry Butte

January 28, 2010

Hello friends. Perhaps visiting the Horse Heaven Hills in December was not my best idea. Driving south out of Prosser, the scene that greeted us as we turned onto South Ward Gap Road was a little scary. Some wine professionals might have turned back, but not this one; we pushed forward into the fog and sagebrush, undaunted by the flurries of snow and freezing rain falling around us and spurred on by the hope (nay, certainty!) that great wine would await the brave (or the reckless). And it did.

I’m sure that Ali and Jarrod Boyle, who run Alexandria Nicole Cellars, were a bit surprised to see us. Despite our appointment and confirmation, this was an inhospitable day to visit this part of Washington. Although it’s home to Champoux and Alder Ridge Vineyards, the Horse Heaven Hills AVA is a raw, underdeveloped area, with lots of dirt roads and little in the way of services. It was a serious relief that day to arrive at Alexandria Nicole’s production facility (next to their Destiny Ridge Vineyards) and be greeted warmly by Ali and Jarrod, who proceeded to taste us through excellent samples from both barrel and bottle.

Over a lunch of medium-rare steaks straight off the winery grill (here I acknowledge a potential bias: it is eminently possible that red wine tastes better when it’s served with steaks and you’re an hour away from the nearest restaurant), Jarrod told the origin story of Alexandria Nicole. On a trip to the Horse Heaven Hills, in his guise as a Hogue Cellars viticulturalist (where he learned under the tutelage of Dr. Wade Wolfe), Jarrod spotted a piece of south-sloping, sagebrush-dotted land above the Columbia River: perfect for a new vineyard. And in one of those coincidences that seems to happen with alarming regularity in the tight-knit world of Washington wine, it turned out that Jarrod was friends with the owners of that land (the Mercer family), who were happy to enter into a partnership with the Boyles. Soon after, out went the sagebrush, and in went the vines of Destiny Ridge Vineyard.

The vineyard is planted to a wide range of varietals (fifteen at last count!), and four fifths of the grapes are sold to other wineries. Jarrod keeps the rest for Alexandria Nicole’s broad lineup, which includes a number of gems. I want to begin with Quarry Butte because it represents perhaps the best value in the lineup. Named after the rock quarry that Destiny Ridge was slated to become if Jarrod and Ali hadn’t intervened, this is a blend of 57% Cabernet Sauvignon and 27% Merlot, rounded out with small portions of Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Syrah. Estate grown and small production (168 cases), much of the juice is the same as what goes into Alexandria Nicole’s higher-priced bottlings.

Bright nose that gains complexity with time and aeration, starting with pomegranate and red licorice, and moving towards notes of dust and sweet pipe tobacco. Medium-bodied, with loads of bright, citrusy acid framing red and black licorice flavors. A lively wine with a long, buttery finish.

First come first served up to 18 bottles/person. We should have the wine in our warehouse in less than a week, at which point it will be ready for pickup or shipping.

2004 Forgeron Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Champoux Vineyard

January 27, 2010

Hello friends. Today’s offering is an exciting one for me, as I have been trying for some time to locate a decent-sized parcel of this wine. There are only 15 bottles currently available in Seattle; not enough for a proper offering. But I managed to get my hands on a much larger lot, and I’m very happy to pass it along to you.

The reason I have been seeking this wine is that Sean Sullivan named it his #1 Wine of the Year for 2009. Sean is the author of Washington Wine Report, and if you’re not reading his work on a regular basis, you should be. WWR is an independent blog focused on Washington wine, and it is a truly comprehensive information source for anyone with interest in this state’s wine industry. The blog features tasting notes on a regular basis, and there are other excellent recurring features, such as Washington Wine Round-Up (a collection of Washington wine-related stories from across the internet); a monthly Virtual Tasting (where Sean and his readers try the same wine at the same time); and a monthly Five Under Fifteen feature (an analysis of Washington wines from the lower price tiers).

WWR is one of my go-to blogs that I try to read every single day, and I have tasted enough wine with Sean now to trust his palate without question. So when he calls out a single wine as his Wine of the Year and I can get my hands on it, I’m going to. Here is what Sean wrote back in July after first tasting Forgeron’s Champoux Cab during Spring Release: “Almost completely opaque. Violets, tobacco, funk, and earth emerge on the nose. Packs a gigantic punch on the taste. A complete whopper. Almost completely overwhelms all senses and then comes back and sails. ** Score.” (Note: In Sean’s rating system, ** is the highest possible rating, representing what he calls “an exceptional wine.”)

And here is the Wine of the Year writeup from December: “Of the many wines I tasted this year, none wowed me more than this gem from Marie-Eve Gilla at Forgeron. As I described in my original post, this was a wine that literally brought all conversation to a stop. From one of Washington’s finest vineyards and one of its finest winemakers.”

Champoux Vineyard Cabernet is the fruit by which all other Cabernets in this state are judged. During my December research trip, I had a chance to stop briefly and snap a few pictures of the gnarled old vines of Block 1 Champoux Cabernet Sauvignon. I felt like I was standing on hallowed ground.

I recently had a chance to try this wine myself, and it was an impressive effort indeed (not surprising to any of us who tried Marie-Eve’s 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon, a very early Full Pull offering). What was notable for me were the layers of flavors that unfolded over the palate from attack to midpalate to finish; there was black fruit, blue fruit, minerals, coffee, earth, smoke, tropical fruits; and the mouthfeel was liquid silk – just a complete palate-stainer. This is 100% Champoux Cabernet, and only 175 cases were produced. It’s also worth noting that this is a one-off wine; Marie-Eve has not made a Champoux Cab since 2004, so this is a unique chance to experience a potent combination of a top winemaker working with the finest raw materials.

Jay Miller also dug this wine. Here he is, writing in Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate: “[REVIEW TEXT WITHHELD. 94pts.”

We have had a lot of offerings lately with small and dwindling parcels. This is not one of them. As I mentioned, we have a goodly amount of this, so I’m going to open it up to 24 bottles/person, first come first served. We should have this wine in our warehouse in less than a week, at which point it will be ready for pickup or shipping.

2007 Sodovino Viognier “SylviaJames”

January 26, 2010

Hello friends. Short offering today, as this is well-priced Viognier whose number of cases remaining can be counted on one hand.

Viognier is a notoriously difficult grape in the vineyard and in the winery. It can go from underripe to overripe in a span of 2-3 days. Pick too early and you get a thin, green mess. Pick too late and the resulting wine can turn flabby and oily. It takes a vigilant winegrower to nail the harvest date precisely, and even if that part of the winemaking process is done correctly, Viognier juice is finicky and subject to a number of different flaws.

In sum, Viognier is difficult, and its inherent difficulty means that there is plenty of bad Viognier out there. Fortunately, I have the luxury of only offering the good stuff. Like this bottle.

Sodovino is a neighbor to Full Pull. They are located (along with two other wineries), in the Atlantic Street Vintners complex, just one mile north of our warehouse, so it was easy for winemaker Jim Musielewicz to make it down to Full Pull for a tasting. Jim’s knowledge of wine is expansive, and he is clearly a generous guy. To wit, he poured on a day when we had several TPU members coming in for pickups, and he ended up sticking around for a few hours, pouring much more wine than he anticipated for all the TPU members who came in.

Jim did not make any Viognier in 2008 or 2009, so this 2007 (single-vineyard from Rosebud Ranch in the Wahluke Slope) is the last Sodovino Viognier that any of us will see for awhile; a shame, given his steady hand with the grape. The nose is a beautiful combination of citrus (pineapple) and stone (peach) fruits, and displays some of the secondary aromas, like ginger and salted nuts, that good Viognier can pick up with a year or two of bottle age. This was fermented in stainless steel, yet the mouthfeel retains a lovely creaminess. The crisp, clean finish is more typical for stainless, and the flavors are peachy, with background notes of flowers and minerals. 12.9% alcohol with an unnoticeably tiny amount of residual sugar (0.08%).

Please limit order requests to 4 bottles, and we will do our best to fulfill all requests. This wine will not be available for any reorder requests. We will have it in our warehouse in less than a week, at which point it will be ready for pickup or shipping.

2007 Milbrandt Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon “Traditions”

January 22, 2010

Hello friends. Today’s offering is delicious, estate-grown, Wahluke Slope Cabernet Sauvignon for twelve bucks. Should I stop there?

You might remember my contention from previous offerings for McKinley Springs and Airfield Estates that some of the best values in Washington wine come from traditional growers who branch out into winemaking. The Milbrandts are a similar story. Butch and Jerry had been farming on the Wahluke Slope for years before planting vineyards in 1997. Since then, they have grown from 350 acres at 2 sites to 1600 acres at 13 separate sites. Most of their sites fall within the Wahluke Slope AVA, but 2 (Evergreen and Ancient Lakes) are in the “Ancient Lakes Area,” which has a good chance of becoming an AVA all its own in the next few years.

The Milbrandt brothers are the kings of the Wahluke Slope, and astute followers of Washington wine will recognize some or all of these vineyard names: Sundance, Talcott, Clifton, Pheasant, Northridge, Evergreen (here is a map showing their locations). While they still sell the vast majority of their fruit, in 2005 the Milbrandts decided to begin producing wine under their own label. They hired Gordy Hill as their winemaker, and their lineup was immediately hailed as a standard-bearer for value in Washington wine (the 2006 vintage of this wine received 90pts from Wine Enthusiast; the 2007 has yet to be scored).

I had the pleasure this past December of meeting with Jim McFerran, the vineyard manager for the Milbrandt sites, and he explained the geology of the Wahluke Slope in great depth. This Cabernet comes from four of the Milbrandt Vineyards. Katherine Leone (47%) and Talcott (13%) Vineyards  sit on soils deposited about 15000 years ago by the Missoula Floods. Northridge (18%) and Wahluke Slope (22%) Vineyards sit at elevations above the floodplain, and their soils are more like two million years old.

This is ripe, luscious Cabernet Sauvignon. Aromatically expressive, it brings notes of crème de cassis, espresso, and dark-chocolate-dipped bananas. The palate is round and rich, and the structure here is acid-driven; the silky tannins are barely noticeable. This is one of those eminently-approachable Cabernets that is a simple joy to drink, and it is an impressive achievement at this price point.

First come first served up to 24 bottles. We will have this wine in our warehouse in less than a week, at which point it will be ready for pickup or shipping.

2007 aMaurice Malbec

January 20, 2010

Hello friends. I mentioned last week that I have been keeping my eye out for good Chenin Blanc. Similarly, since our first Malbec offering sold out very quickly, I have been on the lookout for another great example of Washington Malbec. And here we have it.

Since Stephen Tanzer declared aMaurice’s inaugural (2005) vintage “certainly one of the finest malbecs I’ve tasted to date from North America,” this has been a difficult wine to come by. That is high praise from a critic not prone to high praise. Combine those accolades with small production and you get a wine that exits retail shelves with alacrity.

I recently had the chance to meet the vibrant Anna Schafer (aMaurice’s winemaker) at Citizen Coffee (a wonderful Seattle café/creperie that is well worth checking out). I had allocated 90 minutes for the meeting, but the entire afternoon ended up evaporating amidst the joy of compelling and varied conversation. While we certainly spent a good amount of time talking about winemaking (I learned, for instance, that Anna’s proclivity with Malbec has been aided by working multiple harvests in Argentina with Paul Hobbs of Vina Cobos), we also talked about everything from razor-clam hunting (Anna was giving me lessons that I have not yet had the chance to apply) to art (an art history major, Anna helped design the striking aMaurice labels).

After tasting through the aMaurice lineup, my notepad had two words underlined repeatedly: “vibrant” and “lively.” This is a portfolio of acid-driven wines whose flavors simply pop. The Malbec (Gamache and Stone Valley Vineyards) was a mouthful of minerals: rocks and iron interlaced with boysenberries and black cherries. There is a compelling mix here of cool and warm notes: coolness from all that minerality, followed by baking-spice-cabinet warmth from the 30% new French oak. I envision this bottle as an excellent foil to all sorts of hearty winter meals.

While this is small-production Malbec (244 cases of the 2007 were released), we’re getting in the game early enough (the 2007 was released recently) to secure a decent-sized parcel. I will open this up to 12 bottles/person, and we will try our best to fulfill all requests. We should have the wine in our warehouse in less than two weeks, at which point it will be ready for pickup or shipping.

2008 Dowsett Family Winery Gewurztraminer Celilo Vineyard

January 19, 2010

Hello friends. Today’s offering is one of the most exciting wines I tasted during my December trip to Walla Walla; a profoundly satisfying combination of vineyard, varietal, and winemaker. The vineyard is Celilo, profiled here in a wonderful 2005 article by Paul Gregutt. Celilo is the flagship vineyard in the Columbia Gorge AVA and perhaps the most exciting white-grape vineyard in the state. This Gewurztraminer block was planted in 1984, enough age to produce serious depth of character in this wine. And then there’s the winemaker.

There’s a funny phenomenon during these research/buying trips, where almost universally, the first or second question asked by the winemaker is “who else are you going to visit?” The answers I give are then used by the winemaker to place me somewhere on the spectrum from knowledgeable oenophile to tasteless schmuck. In most cases, my answers elicit little in the way of feedback from winemakers. But a weird thing happened when I mentioned that I was going to meet with Chris Dowsett: universal smiles. Multiple instances of “say hi to Chris for me.” Several mentions of “oh, I love Chris. And have you tasted his Gewurztraminer?” This sort of universal affection is, shall we say, atypical, and eventually led me to conclude that Chris was either a) a really, really good guy; or b) a shadowy Tony Soprano figure, pulling all the strings of the Walla Walla wine scene and forcing his minions to spout endless accolades about him.

Sometimes my imagination gets the best of me. It turns out that a) Chris is a really, really good guy. He is a Gewurztraminer savant. The grape is his muse, and it is clear that his devotion to it over the years has engendered deep respect from the winemaking community. Chris has been making Gewurztraminer in Oregon and Washington since 1996, and he has been making a Celilo version since 2003 (mostly with Latitude 46 Winery). He has a deep knowledge of the grape, and we probably spent a full hour talking about nothing but Gewurztraminer. Over the years, Chris has developed a winemaking style that he feels is best suited to this fruit. He ferments to near-dryness (0.5% RS), but avoids the bitter notes that he says come with complete dryness. He ages in neutral barrels (as opposed to stainless steel) to add some richness and weight to the already-crisp juice.

After his time at Latitude 46, Chris was the lead winemaker for two years at Artifex, which is the custom crush facility in Walla Walla. More recently he has been assisting Caleb Foster with the Buty lineup of wines. The first vintage for Dowsett Family Winery was 2007, and Chris’ 2007 Celilo Gewurztraminer was an immediate hit, scoring 92 pts from Wine Enthusiast and selling out quickly. The 2008 has not yet been scored and is likely to be sold out before scores are published. There were only 100 cases produced, and most of that never made it out of Walla Walla, but we have access to a 5-case parcel of this delicious nectar.

I have sampled this twice: once at the Full Pull warehouse and once in Walla Walla, and my notes are consistent: Intensely aromatic nose of orange blossom, tropical fruits, and spice. The mouthfeel has wonderful richness and density (this is definitely a wine for winter), and there are tongue-tingling spices (ginger and cinnamon) overlaying the citrus and stone fruits. 13.9% alcohol, and as I mentioned before, just 0.5% residual sugar.

I wish we had endless supplies of this lovely wine, but given the (grim) reality, I will need to limit order requests to a maximum of 6 bottles. This wine is unlikely to be available for long-term reorder. We will have this wine in our warehouse in less than a week, at which point it will be ready for pickup or shipping.