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Hello friends. It is not easy for a new Washington winery to elbow its way into the Full Pull lineup. For the most part, we have our stable of long-term partners. Our list members love their wines; the wineries love our list members. But every once in awhile, there’s a debutante with enough intrigue that it makes sense to open our windows a crack and let a little light in.
In this case, even calling the winery a debutante feels a little disingenuous, considering it comes from a family that has been deeply intertwined with the Washington wine industry for forty years. In 1975, Jim Holmes – along with four other partner families – broke the first Red Mountain vineyards out of sagebrush. I’ll let the Holmes family set the scene:
In 1975, Red Mountain was a primitive place. A mixture of grasses, desert wildflowers, and sagebrush dominated the landscape. Most of the year it was brown and dry, with a few weeks of green in the spring. The land was bereft of anything that resembled topsoil. The wheat farmers from the nearby Horse Heaven Hills took one look at the place and turned away. It wasn’t worth their effort. Sheepherders had tried to use it as grazing land. They quit. The land didn’t bear the kind of fodder that could support a thriving sheep operation. Everything that had been tried had failed. The place was not suited for traditional agriculture. It was a risk to plant wine grapes on Red Mountain, but there was some evidence that it might work. The soil was well-drained, something wine grapes prefer. The soil also had high calcium carbonate concentrations, a trait that is common in the great wine-growing regions of the world.
So it was a risk, but a calculated one. Here is what the site of Ciel du Cheval looked like in 1975. Here is what it looks like today. Here is a picture I snapped during a visit a few years ago, showing a) how gnarled those old vines are; and b) how sandy the topsoil is on Red Mountain. Fortunately, the Holmes family has a picture from an excavation pit that shows how complex the subsoils are, once the grapevines get below that initial sand.
To my mind, Ciel du Cheval is the queen of Red Mountain, the master of elegance and finesse, with a terrific combination of climate and soil. The warm climate is the accelerator pedal, encouraging vigorous ripening, but the high-pH soils are the brakes, forcing the vines to struggle for nutrients. The result is healthy, hardy vines and small berries that produce complex, concentrated powerhouses. The uniqueness of the terroir has led many of Washington’s top wineries to seek out Ciel du Cheval fruit over the years: Andrew Will, Betz, Cadence, Force Majeure, Quilceda Creek, Soos Creek are a few list favorites.
In 2012, the Holmes family launched Cotes de Ciel as a showcase for some of the best fruit the family grows. There are now two generations involved, with Jim’s son Richard as the “wine grower” for this project. The winemaking team is led by Charlie Hoppes of Fidelitas, a man with deep knowledge of Red Mountain and a long history of making lovely wines from Ciel du Cheval. These are small-production gems, and with big press on the way and pedigree to spare, I can’t imagine they will last long. Today we’ll feature three wines from the Cotes de Ciel portfolio: one white and two reds, all from 2012.
Ciel was one of the earliest sites to plant Viognier in Washington, with their first vines going into the ground in 1994. Red Mountain is a warm AVA by Washington standards, and 2012 was a nice down-the-middle vintage. As expected then, this is a lush powerhouse, clocking in at 14.5% listed alc and offering something of a red wine drinker’s palate. It has Viognier’s lovely perfumed signature, with honeysuckle, orange creamsicle, and gratings of fresh ginger to go with fat peach and apricot fruit. It’s big and balanced, with just enough citrusy acid to pair with all that generous fruit. A white for winter, to be sure, and discounted from its initial $18 tag in order to move it out and prepare for the 2013.
Wine Enthusiast (Paul Gregutt): “[REVIEW TEXT WITHHELD]. 90pts.”
This comes from two of the Syrah clones planted at Ciel (ENTAV/INRA Clone 174 and FPS Shiraz 02 if you must know), and it spent about two years all in neutral oak. I think neutral wood is almost always the right choice for Red Mountain Syrah. Syrah in general tends to soak up new wood tones like a sponge and then squeeze them back onto your palate. Syrah on Red Mountain expresses that terroir in a way that seems oaky even when there’s no new wood involved. I get notes of whiskey barrel and peat smoke and cocoa from a wine like this, and that’s all fruit character. It lists 15.5% for alc, and that seems about right. The fruit is wild brambly raspberry, the minerals are ferrous in character, and this is rich and ripe and very true to Red Mountain. The case production (122 cases) leads me to believe they only made a mere five barrels of this.
Now then, our spies in the east tell me that this wine is set to receive a 93pt review from Paul Gregutt in an upcoming issue of Wine Enthusiast. As of yet, I don’t have any review text, but with that miniscule production, I think it’s safest not to wait.
Speaking of strong press and miniscule production, those same trustworthy artists of espionage tell me that this Cabernet will be receiving a 94pt review in the same issue of Enthusiast. And if the Syrah was a five-barrel run, this Cabernet seems to be an even smaller three-barrel run, at production of just 74 cases. Zoinks, Scoob!
You know what’s weird? How few bottlings of Ciel du Cheval Cabernet Sauvignon are currently being made. Charlie Hoppes for Fidelitas and Mike Januik for Januik and…? Is that really the end of the list? I suspect most folks end up deciding that softening the Cab up with a little Ciel Merlot makes more sense, but jeez, a bottle like this really makes you wonder why there aren’t more folks trying it.
All Clone 8 Cab (the granddaddy clone for Washington), this saw two years in new French oak, and unlike Red Mountain Syrah, Red Mountain Cabernet is well suited to the right kind of new French wood. This comes soaring out of the glass with lovely Cabernet fruit (plums, cassis, blackberry), floral violet, deep rich soil, and straight-out-of-your-neighbor’s-chimney woodsmoke. Again ripe, rich (15.0% listed alc), and honest to Red Mountain character, it is a sneaky powerhouse. I say sneaky because it is such a velvety-smooth easy drinker through the attack and mid-palate, and it’s almost not until after you’ve swallowed that you realize the finish is a structure monster, leaving you with impressions of English breakfast tea and a wonderful sense of toothsome grip. Drink it young for its wonderful plushness of primary fruit, or wait for those tannins to unfurl into tertiary glory.
Please limit order requests to 36 bottles total (mix and match as you like), and we’ll do our best to fulfill all requests. The wines should arrive in about a week, at which point they will be ready for pickup or shipping during the next temperature-appropriate shipping window.