2009 Tulpen Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon “Dry Land”

Hello friends. Want to start a fight? Get a bunch of winemakers and growers talking about the role of irrigation in winemaking. For years anathema in Europe and necessity in much of the New World, irrigation tends to bifurcate wine folks in no time.

Gross generalizations ahead: On the one hand, you have the anti- crowd. Mostly European (especially French). They say that natural rainfall is the only acceptable water source if the goal is to express the terroir of the site. Adding irrigated water is an adjustment, if not an outright abomination, and it masks the truest expression of the site.

On the pro- side, advocates point to the fact that irrigation opens up entire regions that would otherwise be unable to grow vinifera (cough, much of Australia; hacking-cough,  much of eastern Washington and California). The right kind of irrigation allows growers to control stress levels on the vine, adding another tool to the vigneron toolkit.

Generally it’s hard to find common ground. I remember Alice Feiring stirred up a minor kerfuffle a few years ago when she visited Walla Walla, gave a lecture on terroir and irrigation, and then wrote a blog about it that included a few incendiary lines: One was: “The winemaking was good. The terroir limited. The wines tasted hydroponic.” Another: “perhaps there’s too much reliance on irrigation and not enough on finding the right sites that don’t need water.”

I understand both sides, and as consumers, we’re lucky: we get to have it both ways, get to enjoy all manner of wines. But I will admit to being intrigued by the latter of those two Feiring quotes. Are there spots in eastern Washington that can support vinifera without irrigated water?

Why yes, yes there are:

Kenny Hart is one of the premier growers in the Walla Walla Valley, and so it should come as no surprise that he’s among the vanguard of “dryland” (non-irrigated) farming. His focus is on the Mill Creek drainage, the area in the eastern part of the Walla Walla Valley where Mill Creek Road passes Abeja and continues climbing up into the foothills of the Blue Mountains. As the drainage gains elevation, the Blues start to wring moisture out of the atmosphere, so you also gain annual precipitation: just enough to support viticulture without added water.

The progress of these dryland-farmed sites is fascinating, and there’s no better place to witness their development than through Kenny’s Tulpen Cellars bottlings. Beginning in 2010, all Tulpen wines will be completely dryland-farmed. We’ve offered four of Tulpen’s 2009s, a transition vintage where much of the fruit is from Mill Creek, but some of it is also from some other sites. What we’ve saved for last is the new addition to the Tulpen lineup: a Cabernet Sauvignon that comes entirely from dryland vineyards.

Specifically, it comes from Yellow Bird (60%; location here) and Tokar (40%; location here), and it’s 98% Cabernet Sauvignon, with just a splash of Petit Verdot. Regardless of whether it’s the dryland impact or not, this is singular Washington Cabernet. The nose is earthy, zesty, with big notes of busted sagebrush to go with blackcurrant fruit, tomato leaf, and minty topnotes. The palate is oh so succulent, with a core of crème de cassis fruit framed by wonderful complexities, streaks of savory tomato paste and sweet grain and mint. It’s a unique flavor profile, for sure: delicious and deep, concentrated and complicated. The balance is impressive, as is the intensity for such young vines. A bottle like this certainly bodes well for ongoing experimentation in dryland farming.

I believe we’re the only retail source for this in Seattle, and we’ll likely only get one shot at it (Kenny has side aside a parcel for our list; the remainder has already sold out through the winery door). Please limit order requests to 12 bottles, and we’ll do our best to fulfill all requests. The wine should arrive in a few weeks, at which point it will be ready for pickup or shipping during the next temperature-appropriate shipping window.

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