Two from Charles Smith

Hello friends. I have often heard Charles Smith described as a “marketing genius,” which may be true, but which is also unfair: a case of damning with faint praise.

During the times that I have spent with Charles, he never seems to talk about marketing, or packaging, or billboards. He talks about vineyards.

The guy is a vineyard freak, always ahead of the curve in identifying important new areas in Washington viticulture. He was in early on Ancient Lakes (Washington’s 13th and newest AVA, approved in November 2012). He’s in early on the Royal Slope (a mortal lock to become a future AVA). A gambler who wanted to bet on Washington’s future AVAs could do worse than just following Charles’ fruit contracts.

The focus on vineyards has certainly served him well with K Vintners, and better yet, it extends to his value wines, the “modernist project”: Charles Smith Wines. Rarely have I seen $10 whites and $15 reds with such extensive vineyard information on the tech sheets. I’m sure it’s true that many buy the wines for the flashy black-and-white labels. But we buy them for the raw materials inside.

2011 Charles Smith Chardonnay “Eve”

To wit, here are the vineyard descriptions for Eve:

Evergreen: Planted in 1998 by Jerry Milbrandt, the vineyard rows lie along a stretch of steep cliffs above the Columbia River, one of the state’s newest AVA’s The Ancient Lakes. A cooler site due to river influence, the soils are composed of fragmented basalt, gravel silt, and caliche deposited during ice age floods. As all are of Milbrandt’s vineyards, Evergreen is farmed using sustainable practices. This site produces fruit with sublime mineral character and the acid balance that winemakers love.
Weyns: Located in the Royal Slope area which is part of the Columbia Valley AVA. It is about 1000 ft elevation on sandy loam soils. The vineyard was planted in 1980.
Purple Sage: Wahluke Slope AVA, planted beginning in 2006 by the Milbrandt Family, Soils are uniform over large areas, excessively well drained and coarse in texture.
Roza Hills: Established in 1981, Roza Hills is the largest and one of the oldest vineyards in the Rattlesnake Hills AVA.
Newhouse: Located in the Snipes Mountain AVA in the heart of the Yakima Valley, this vineyard is grown on ancient soils at the very top of the vineyard with Ellensburg flood soils in the middle and bottom of the vineyard. The flood soils consist of lime, and caliche, the ancient soils are loamy with basalt and granite intermingled. There is also a layer of volcanic ash from the 1980 Mt. St. Helens eruption.

This is a lovely little wine because it doesn’t try to be anything it’s not. It takes what the cool 2011 vintage gives it, doesn’t try to gussy it up with oak chips, and ends up presenting a clean, pure example of Washington Chardonnay fruit. A steely nose of tree fruit (apple, green pear) and apple blossom gives way to a palate that has no overt oak influence (this got 9 months in barrel, but they were all neutral French oak) but some textural richness from the micro-oxidative influence of barrel (and perhaps partial ML?). There’s a lush creaminess to the pear and green apple flavors, a fine counterpoint to all that rippin’ 2011 acidity. This is clean, balanced, and expressive, three adjectives that rarely apply to sub-$10 Chardonnay.

2011 Charles Smith Cabernet Sauvignon “Chateau Smith”

This is again a study in vineyards:

Northridge: Wahluke Slope AVA at 1100 feet elevation, 93 acres planted in 2003, the soils feature an alluvial fan gravel bed, creating heavy, dense and tannic wines. The site rests on the foothills of the Saddle Mountain range, facing south in one of the warmest and driest climates in the state.
Milbrandt: Wahluke Slope AVA, planted beginning in 1998, the soils are uniform over large areas, sandy gravelly soils deposited by ancient glacial floods, excessively well drained and coarse in texture.
Upland: Snipes Mountain AVA nestled in the heart of the Yakima Valley. Ancient, rocky soils mostly untouched by the Missoula floods which deposited large amounts of foreign topsoil on the valley floor. Slopes facing in all four cardinal directions 750 to 1300 feet range in elevation.
Purple Sage: Wahluke Slope AVA, planted in 2006 by the Milbrandt family, soils are uniform over large areas, very well drained and coarse in texture.
Art den Hoed: 250 acres over the north slope of the Rattlesnake Mountains in the Yakima AVA at 1300 feet elevation. The excellent air drainage and higher elevation work to preserve the natural acids in the fruit while flavors mature.

No surprise for the cooler 2011 vintage: this comes in at a relatively brisk 13.5% alcohol. But I didn’t find any of the greeny-meanies that have plagued a lot of 2011 Cabernet (I certainly don’t mind herbal nuance in Cabernet – in fact, I welcome it – but several that I’ve tasted have gone well beyond nuance. I prefer to eat my green vegetables, thank you.) Instead, this offers appetizingly juicy, black-fruited aromas, something like sticking your nose into a kir. The palate is indeed juicy: the structure comes almost entirely from acid, with very little tannin to speak of, especially for Cabernet. Flavors mix blackberry and blackcurrant fruit with appealing mole-poblano complexities. This too was done all in neutral barrel, so don’t look for any oaky notes here. The texture is brisk, mouthwatering. It’s that rare beast: a refreshing Washington Cabernet.

(Note: the past two vintages reviewed by Wine Spectator received 90pts and 91pts, but the 2011 has yet to be reviewed).

First come first served up to 60 bottles of each wine, and the wines should arrive in about a week, at which point they will be available for pickup or shipping during the spring shipping window.

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