2007 Syrahs from Gramercy Cellars

June 30, 2010

Hello friends. It makes no sense. It makes no sense that we have offered two wines from Gramercy Cellars and neither has been a Syrah. I blame the changeable trade winds of the wine world, which always blow towards dwindling wines. We offered Greg Harrington’s “Inigo Montoya” Tempranillo back in October and his Cabernet Sauvignon in January; in both cases, great wines that were rapidly disappearing. But it’s Greg’s ethereal Syrahs that have built Gramercy’s reputation, and it’s criminal that I have waited this long to write about them.

Greg is one of the faces of the reactionary Syrah movement in the Walla Walla Valley (and a savant with animated videos). This is a movement away from alcohol and new wood, and towards natural acid and earth. In the past few years, Gramercy and Waters Winery (they share a facility) have been churning out vibrant, sleek, stinky Syrahs with alcohols in the 13% range. And heads have turned.

What Greg shares with a vigneron like Christophe Baron of Cayuse is a desire to express the earthy side of Syrah. Where they differ is in mouthfeel, texture, and body. While many would frame this as a dichotomy – an either/or proposition – I think there is plenty of room in the world for both styles of wines, especially wines as aromatically complex as these. Some days, and some meals, lend themselves to bigger wines; other days and meals to racier wines. So be it. A fascinating experiment would be a barrel trade: let Christophe work with one small section of Forgotten Hills Vineyard and Greg work with a piece of Cailloux Vineyard. Unfortunately, this kind of terroir-expression experiment is more likely to exist only in my wine-addled brain than in any reality. Alas.

Some things that Greg does differently with Syrah: he considers it a delicate grape; one that should be treated more like Pinot Noir than like Cabernet. He embraces whole cluster fermentation, including stems for their earthy aromatics, their mid-palate body, and their lick of tannins. And he picks early, obsessing much more over acid development than sugar. In short, the man is a Côte Rotie-head, and it must have been a massive compliment to have Jancis Robinson call one of Greg’s Syrahs “not so unlike a really ripe Côte Rotie.” (As a frame of reference, many Côte Roties come in at 11-12% alcohol, so by Rotie standards, 13.5% is “really ripe”). Fruit-and-barrel Syrah lovers beware: these wines are not for you. But for those of us who love dirt and acid, meat and funk, these are among the finest examples our state has to offer.

2007 Syrah “Lagniappe”

This is a near-50/50 blend from two cool-climate vineyards: Forgotten Hills, which you may remember from our Waters single-vineyard offering, and Minick Vineyard, a fascinating, high-elevation (1250ft) site in the Rattlesnake Hills that consistently imparts a lovely citrus-peel quality to its Syrahs. Here is an opportunity to taste whole-cluster fermentation, as a full 50% of the grapes included stems.

The 07 Lagniappe began to make real haste off the shelves after Wine & Spirits Magazine made the wine its highest-scored American Syrah of the year:

Wine & Spirits: “($40); [REVIEW TEXT WITHHELD]. 96 pts.”

Please limit order requests to 10 bottles, and we’ll do our best to fulfill all requests. We should have this wine in the warehouse in less than a week, at which point it will be available for pickup or shipping.

2007 Syrah Walla Walla Valley

The 2007 Walla Walla Valley Syrah comes from another savory Syrah vineyard: Les Collines. While Les Collines is only 15 minutes away from Forgotten Hills, Les Collines is much warmer and tends to come in a full moth before Forgotten Hills. This is a bit rounder than the Lagniappe to my palate, but it is still racier than just about every other Syrah coming out of the valley. A full 30% whole-cluster, and this saw just 10% new French oak (the rest neutral).

Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate (Jay Miller): “($42); [REVIEW TEXT WITHHELD]  94 pts.”

Washington Wine Report (Sean Sullivan): “($42); [REVIEW TEXT WITHHELD] Rating: ** (Exceptional).”

I just grabbed the last parcel of this remaining in Western Washington, and it’s miniscule. Please limit order requests to 2 bottles, and we’ll do our best to fulfill all requests. We should have this wine in the warehouse in less than a week, at which point it will be available for pickup or shipping.

NV Cavatappi Barbera Boushey Vineyard

June 29, 2010

Hello friends. In Italy’s Piedmont, they drink their Barberas young while they wait for their Nebbiolos (Barolos and Barbarescos) to properly mature. Unlike fussy Nebbiolo, Barbera grows successfully in lots of soils and under a wide range of climatic conditions. Barbera’s yields are high, and it has preternatural levels of acidity, which endears it to the Italian palate (you need a lot of acid to cut through tomato-drenched richness).

Much of what has made Barbera successful in northern Italy is replicable here in Washington. The grapes yield high and are sold at inexpensive prices, which lead to inexpensive wines; good for our belt-tightening times. And as we all move away from the rich, lush, cocktail wine movement, Barbera will be there waiting for us, with acid-laden open arms. For me, this is a grape poised to succeed here, and today, we have a well-priced example from familiar terroir.

We have offered Peter Dow’s Cavatappi wines twice before: a Sangiovese offering in December and a Red Willow Vineyard Nebbiolo offering in March (given how rare Washington Nebbiolo is, I’ll include a reorder link for this one below). As a reminder, Peter began his winery in the basement of Café Juanita in 1987. To this day, his restaurant roots are still evident in the wines, which are food-friendly and much more likely to show up on restaurant lists than on retail shelves.

Boushey Vineyard is most famous for its Syrahs (we have offered several), but the site has shown itself to be successful at expressing terroir through plenty of other grapes (Merlot, Grenache, Sangiovese, Granche Blanc, and Picpoul, just to name a few). Dick Boushey was kind enough to interrupt his cherry harvest (“a masochistic fruit to grow”) to provide some details about his Barbera. It’s just a half-acre plot, planted in 1997 mostly because Dick always liked Italian Barbera (he is something of an acid-head). Dick combats the screaming natural acids by making Barbera one of the last varietals he picks. He also has some vineyard tricks (Geneva Double Curtain training, aggressive cropping-down) to manage the grape’s natural vigor.

This Barbera (a blend of 05, 06, and 07 vintages) does not display the telltale Boushey funk. Instead, the funk has instead been transformed into compelling notes of dust and earth, which sit on top of fresh aromas of pie cherry and golden raisin. This is a varietally correct Barbera, which means lots of lipsmacking acid, and it saw only neutral oak. The fruit is tart and lively: a stampede of cranberry, pomegranate, raspberry, and lemon peel that cries out for a great meal to complement.

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

2009 Hestia Cellars Chenin Blanc

June 24, 2010

Hello friends. Today is another in our ongoing series designed to save old-vine Washington Chenin Blanc grapes the only way we know how: by drinking them. I have noted previously Chenin’s role as the utility player of the wine world. It makes lovely wines in all sorts of styles: dry to sweet; still to sparkling. This is the driest version we have offered to date (0.6% residual sugar; almost imperceptible) and the fullest as well.

Shannon Jones, Hestia’s winemaker, came to our #WAMerlot tasting event a few months ago (we were pouring his dynamic Boushey Vineyard Merlot, long since sold out I’m afraid). He brought with him a sample of this Chenin, which quickly became a sought-after item, despite the fact that it had been bottled days earlier. I had to spirit it away to a hidden spot in the fridge (in the crisper, behind the salad greens) to make sure I had a sample for myself.

Once I had a chance to try it, and again in subsequent tastings, I saw what the fuss was about. This shows all the varietal character and complexities that make Chenin so lovely: the nose is earthy, honey-drizzled, and leesy, with background notes of fresh pears and malted milk. Shannon learned from the 2008 vintage of this wine, which came in at higher brix than he was seeking. So in 09, he picked nice and early, retaining all the zingy acids that lead to technicolor flavors – ginger, orange rind, bread, brown sugar, apples – and keeping the alcohol at a reasonable 13%. Despite the low alcohol, the mouthfeel is full and weighty, the finish is lingering, and this conveys a strong sense of balance. Texture and length here come from a full five months on the lees.

This is a where-has-dry-Chenin-Blanc-been-all-my-life kind of wine. I have seen multiple people unable to resist goofy grins when they try this for the first time, because a) they haven’t previously tasted a wine with this flavor profile; and b) it’s grin-inducing in its sheer deliciousness. The grapes come from a 1981 block of Andrews Ranch Vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills, across the street from McKinley Springs and farmed by the same family.

Review of Washington Wines (Rand Sealey): “($15); [REVIEW TEXT WITHHELD]. 18+/20 pts.”

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

2007 Saviah Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Walla Walla Valley

June 23, 2010

Hello friends. [WORLD CUP SPOILER ALERT!!] Well, that was scintillating way to start a morning. My heart is still racing from that epic ending for Team USA in the World Cup. Wow! Quick reminder that this Thursday, Marie-Eve Gilla will be in the warehouse pouring five of her current Forgeron releases from 5-7 PM for TPU members. I can only hope that Marie-Eve is not an ardent follower of French soccer. Please remember to let us know if you’re planning on bringing non-TPU members as guests, so that we can plan accordingly. And now, onto today’s offering:

On the same day I blind-tasted the series of Syrahs that led to last week’s Principia offering, I tasted a flight of Cabernet Sauvignons. But unlike the Syrah flight, where the best of the bunch were also the priciest, the Cabs yielded a favorite that was among the least expensive. After the bag was pulled off, and I learned the price of Saviah’s Walla Walla Valley Cab, I immediately set out to secure a parcel.

Which brings us to today. I’m not sure if it’s a sign of the economic times or a result of new vineyards coming online, but this is the second under-$30 Walla Walla Valley Cab that we have offered in two weeks (2006 Beresan was the other). A word on those vineyards: this has to be one of the most exciting developments happening in Wallywood right now. For such a long time, it seemed that every Walla Walla Cab came from Pepper Bridge and/or Seven Hills (and in fact, today’s wine has 15% Pepper Bridge fruit and 10% Seven Hills). Excellent sites, no doubt, and there is plenty of pleasure to be had from these old stalwarts. But there is also joy in sussing out vineyard characteristics from new sites, and that is what today’s offering is about.

A full 75% of the Cabernet here comes from McClellan Estate Vineyard. This is a site that might be ringing a bell, as we have mentioned it in our initial Saviah offering (2006 Petit Verdot; reorder link below) and in the Watermill Praying Mantis offering from earlier in the month. This is one of Watermill’s Estate Vineyards, and if you check out this Google Map of the vineyard (an ongoing project, this vineyard-mapping, and I add to it whenever I can find the time), you can see that it is located adjacent to Windrow Vineyard, one of the older (1986), more successful Cabernet sites in the Valley. McClellan Estate was planted in 2003, so it has only seen a few commercial vintages. Wines like this indicate tremendous promise going forward.

This is a lovely example of a flawlessly-executed, fruit-and-barrel Cab. Aromas are crème de cassis, coffee, and sweet cream, along with herbal notes in the background that add complexity. The fruit here is rich and layered: pie cherries, plums, and even some tropical fruits. Nicely integrated oak (20 months in 100% French; 50% new) drips streaks of luscious caramel on top of all that delicious fruit. What stood out about this wine is what tends to stand out in blind tasting flights of this size: balance. When you taste several of the same varietal, it’s the out-of-balance components that stand out: too much wood; not enough acid; over-ripe. So when you come upon a wine as seamlessly balanced as this, the reaction is almost one of relief: “Ahhhh. Now there’s a Cabernet Sauvignon.”

Washington Wine Report (Sean Sullivan): “($28); [REVIEW TEXT WITHHELD]. Rating: * (Excellent).”

The 2006 vintage of this wine received 93pts from Wine Spectator. I remember at the time, there was rampant speculation that the wine would end up on Spectator’s end-of-year Top 100 list, given the combination of high score and low price. It didn’t, but the speculation was not unfounded, considering another Washington wine with the exact same score and price did make the list (Efeste’s 2006 Ceidleigh Syrah). Spectator has not yet reviewed this vintage, so we have access to a nice, large parcel. First come first served up to 24 bottles. We should have the wine in the warehouse in less than a week, at which point it will be available for pickup or shipping.

2009 Trust Cellars Rosé

June 21, 2010

Hello friends. The booming popularity of Rosé in recent years has been wonderful and terrible. Wonderful because Rosés, when done right, can be refreshing and delicious, with vivacious acids and complexities that belie their oft-attractive price points. Terrible because the choices of varietal and style vary widely, and it can be difficult to distinguish the good from the bad. So today I present one man’s opinion on Rosé, an opinion that will shape this summer’s Rosé offerings.

First, winemaking. We want to find Rosés made from grapes purposely harvested for Rosé. Typically in this method, the grapes will be harvested a few weeks earlier than the red-grape harvest, which keeps the acids high and the grape sugars low (this also translates into lower alcohol).

The alternative is to make Rosé from the same grapes harvested for red wine. In that case, the wine is bled off after some contact with the skins, which also has the effect of concentrating the red wine that remains (because the ratio of skin surface area to juice increases after the Rosé is bled off). But the negative is that now we have Rosé juice with the same sugar as the red wine it came from, which leaves ugly possibilities; among them: 1) ferment to dryness and wind up with a full-bodied, probably-flabby, 14%-alc Rosé (ick); 2) leave some residual sugar and end up with an off-dry to sticky-sweet Rosé (maybe okay; likely ick); 3) water back the juice (multiple icks). Generally, then, I look for dry Rosés with alcohols in the 11.0% to 13.5% range, which usually indicate grapes picked specifically for Rosé.

Next, varietal. Of course, Rosé *can* be made from any red wine grape, but that doesn’t mean it should. My preferences are generally for Rosés made predominantly from Grenache or Cabernet Franc. Both varietals have relatively thin skins and both have varietal characteristics that add complexities to the finished wine (for Grenache, lovely garrigue notes of Provencal dried herbs; for Cabernet Franc, savory notes of earth and herb). Thicker-skinned varietals (Cabernet Sauvignon especially) rarely produce Rosés that I find appealing.

Today’s Rosé comes from Steve Brooks of Trust Cellars, and this is the fourth vintage that he has made a Rosé of Cab Franc. The genesis was a meal at Creektown Café in Walla Walla. Steve bought lunch for Jean-Francois Pellet, and J-F shared his methods for making his Amavi Rosé of Cab Franc while Steve took copious notes. The fruit mostly comes from Bacchus Vineyard but is picked earlier than the Cab Franc that goes into Steve’s red wine. The juice sits on skins for one day to impart color and is then pressed off into neutral barrels.

Normally, I don’t lift winery tasting notes verbatim, but in this case, I wrote the winery tasting notes, so I’m pleased to take advantage of my first opportunity to plagiarize myself: Pale pink with a light orange tinge, this smells like summer in a glass: honeydew, white flowers, pineapple, and fresh-cut grass. Along with pineapple flavors, we see mineral and herbal complexities here that go well beyond the typical Rosé porch-pounder. This is crisp, dry, and utterly refreshing; each sip invites another.

This wine will also be touted as one of Rand Sealey’s “Best Buys from Walla Walla” in his soon-to-be-published July issue of Review of Washington Wines:

Review of Washington Wines (Rand Sealey): “($16); Pale pink colored, this rose has a floral wild strawberry and raspberry nose, and abounds with lively fruits: watermelon and lightly squeezed strawberries and raspberries, culminating in a juicy finish that shows a little snap of tangerine juice. 17.5/20 pts.”

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

Olsen Estates Wines

June 18, 2010

Hello friends. We have serious price drops on tasty wines today. Olsen Estates is another example (similar to McKinley Springs and Airfield Estates) of long-time growers deciding to get into the winemaking business to establish brand recognition for their vineyards. Olsen fruit has been part of some of Washington’s top wines (their Grenache, for example, goes into Betz Family Winery’s Besoleil), but it wasn’t until 2006 that they began producing wine under their own label.

Very quickly, the winery found itself at a production level of almost 5000 cases, and at that point, they were still self-distributed. The wines moved through the marketplace somewhat slowly, not because of the quality (which is excellent), but because it’s darned near impossible to self-distribute 5000 cases of wine. In the past few months, Olsen picked up a local distributor, and the wines have been re-priced aggressively to get them into consumers’ hands. Suddenly, wines that were already good values have become screaming deals.

2007 Riesling

This is a fascinating example of a Riesling with a little bottle age, and the revised price makes it easy to jump in with both feet. The nose has ginger, orange, and minerals, and the palate is full of marmalade, pears, fennel and rocks. Excellent acid (at only 12.9% alcohol, this was clearly picked with acid retention in mind) easily balances the small amount of residual sugar (1.9%). This came across as just barely off-dry to my palate.

Wine Enthusiast (Paul Gregutt): “($19); [REVIEW TEXT WITHHELD]. 88 pts.”

I’m interpreting this review as a wine that Paul Gregutt really liked, but one whose score suffered a bit due to a lack of typicity (“This may not appeal to purists…”). Some of the flavor notes are indeed unusual for Riesling, but the whole package works in a delicious way.

2007 Rouge des Coteaux

One of the best quality-for-price examples I have seen of a Southern Rhone blend from Washington, this is predominantly Grenache (40%), rounded out with Cinsault (26%), Syrah (23%), and Mourvedre (11%). The wow nose is gloriously Yakima Valley: charred meat, blood, black fruit, and roasted mushrooms. Gamey and bloody, savory and salty; this is just dynamite for the price. I don’t believe the 2007 has been reviewed yet. The 2006 vintage made Seattle Met Magazine’s Top 100 list (#26) in 2009. Back then, this was a $37 wine. Now, we can sample it for less than $20.

2007 Syrah

Another wonderful example of the Yak’s proclivity for Rhone varietals, this is black from start to finish: inky black color; black olives, black fruit, and campfire smoke on the nose; and a tarry black palate. There is freshness to the acids here and a complexity that is just outstanding at the price point.

Wine Enthusiast (Paul Gregutt): “($29); [REVIEW TEXT WITHHELD]. 92 pts.”

2007 Rasa Vineyards “Principia” Reserve Syrah

June 16, 2010

Hello friends. I recently participated in a blind tasting of seven Washington Syrahs. Of those seven, two were absolute standouts: so aromatically fascinating and gobsmackingly savory that I could not wait to tear off the bags and see what I was drinking. The first turned out to be a bottle of 2006 Cayuse Syrah Armada Vineyard. The second was the 2007 Rasa Vineyards Principia.

We have previously offered Rasa’s 2007 QED (reorder link below), which I noted as a remarkable achievement for a first vintage. But this Principia is a whole other animal, and it is just stunning to me what Billo Naravane has achieved with his first at-bat. While the QED had a little Grenache and Mourvedre in the blend, the Principia is 100% Syrah, predominantly from Les Collines Vineyard (Seven Hills, Double River, Lewis, and Portteus Vineyards are here in lesser quantities).

This is exceptionally aromatic, and the aromas are big and layered: smokey and grapey, with a huge floral component and gobs of slab bacon. Intense, endlessly complex, and an absolute palate-stainer, with wave after wave of flavors: blueberry, kirsch, sea salt, olive brine, seaweed, flowers, earth, smoke. The list goes on. Just 30% new French oak here (the rest neutral), and the delicious fruit shines through. As with all of Billo’s wines, the tannins are managed into fine-grained, silky submission, and the wine displays a true sense of harmony and balance.

Soon after I tasted this wine, I learned that it had just received two outstanding reviews. The first is from Rand Sealey, who gave this wine only the second perfect score he has ever bestowed:

Review of Washington Wines (Rand Sealey): “($85); [REVIEW TEXT WITHHELD]. 20/20 pts.”

The second review comes from a source that was unknown to me until recently. Jeb Dunnuck writes a quarterly newsletter called The Rhone Report, and it is an exhaustive source of information for those of us who love Rhone varietals. In his most recent newsletter, he included his first reviews of Rhone varietals from Washington. His introduction adds an objective perspective from someone outside our state (Jeb is based in Colorado):

“All in all, it’s an exciting time for Washington State and I believe the wines are starting to get the attention they deserve. While the region has a fairly rich history in winemaking, interestingly, it seems as if it’s a brand new region. While there are vineyards and organizations going back to the early 80’s, the number of new wineries on only their second or third vintage, who are already producing outstanding wines, is a testament to the region as a whole. Given this, and recognizing the quality coming from the region today, it’s hard not to be excited about the possibilities and overall potential of Washington State to produce world class wines. As the vineyards mature, I can only image that the wines will continue to show more depth and complexity.”

Jeb reviewed 148 wines from Washington, and of those in bottle, none received a stronger review than the Principia (a few Cayuse barrel samples received “95-97” and “96-98” ranges, but their scores will not be finalized until the wine is sampled from bottle):

The Rhone Report (Jeb Dunnuck): “($85); [REVIEW TEXT WITHHELD]. 96 pts.”

This is a unique opportunity to sample a wine that has never been offered through retail channels (to date, it has been winery-only). Once this wine gets reviewed by the mainstream press, it’s going to disappear (the rumor is that Jay Miller, sampling the Principia from barrel, remarked that its score, were it in bottle, would be 3-4 points higher than the 93-pt score he gave to QED). Only 70 cases of this were produced, so it is quite limited. Please limit order requests to 4 bottles, and we’ll do our best to fulfill all requests. We are scheduled to receive one delivery of this wine on or around June 22, and prospects for reorder thereafter are questionable.