Hello friends. Today we showcase the broad skills of Jean-Francois Pellet when it comes to Cabernet Sauvignon: his ability to make an approachable Cab that way over-performs its price (Amavi), and his ability to make a serious, structured Cab that will likely live for three decades (Pepper Bridge).
I should begin by noting that Amavi and Pepper Bridge are separate entities. Closely related sister wineries yes, but separate entities nevertheless. In addition to a good bit of ownership overlap between Pepper Bridge and Amavi, the important things that the two wineries share are a) an incredible, gravity-flow facility; one of the finest in the valley; and b) JF Pellet, the Swiss petanque master of the Walla Walla Valley, one of the best winemakers and friendliest folks to roam southeast Washington. The wines under the Amavi label see a bit less new oak, are released a little younger (2014 vintage today, compared to 2012 for Pepper Bridge), and are generally designed for earlier consumption.
Two more reasons why this wine is extra appealing: pricing and vineyards. First, it is becoming more and more rare to see a Walla Walla Valley Cabernet Sauvignon hit a price point in the mid-$20s. In my mind, other than Amavi, the list starts and ends with Saviah. And second, this was already a cool project when the vineyard sourcing included Pepper Bridge and Seven Hills and Les Collines Vineyards (the king and queen and, erm, crown prince of the valley). But now: this is a glimpse into the future of the valley, which is going to include a mix of old vineyards and exciting newcomers. Here is the vineyard breakdown for this 2014:
Oldheads: 30% Pepper Bridge + 19% Seven Hills + 14% Les Collines = 63%
Noobs: 16% Summit View + 11% Octave + 10% Goff = 37%
Both Octave and Summit View are part of the Sevein project (map here), one that has huge implications for the future of the valley. Sevein is a 2700-acre property long coveted by valley growers/winemakers for its high elevation (900’-1500’) and fractured basalt soil. After long ownership by the Mormon church (who farmed wheat there), the site was finally purchased in 2004 by a group comprised of many of the Seven Hills partners. If all the Sevein land that can be planted out to vineyard is eventually planted out, it will nearly double the vineyard acreage in the Walla Walla Valley.
I first became aware of the project during a visit with JF Pellet back in April 2010. We walked some of the rows at Octave, which had just recently been planted, and JF’s excitement was palpable, contagious. To be above the frost zone, in fascinating terroir, looking down across the valley; it was impossible not to be entranced.
Now, nearly seven years later, here we are tasting wines from these promising sites. This one kicks off with a glorious Cabernet nose, combining blackcurrant fruit, savory black olive, and earthy soil tones. Dark and inviting. “Fantastic vintage” was my first note when this wine hit my lips. It’s rich and intense, a palate-stainer to be sure, with depth and character to spare. This vintage has a silky lusciousness to the mouthfeel that is just perfect for winter weather. Cue roaring hearth. Cue prime rib. It drinks like approachable Pepper Bridge, with a plump attack and middle, and then Bridge-like tannins taking over on the back end and carrying this wine home through its long finish, its polished tannins redolent of English breakfast tea. This is killer Cabernet, worthy of a splurge for those of us who put a $20 ceiling on most of our purchasing.
Originally offered November 29, 2015, and now it’s last-call time on a reference point Washington Cabernet from a reference-point vintage. Excerpts from the original:
I was thrilled to participate in the panel that awarded Jean-Francois Pellet Winemaker of the Year for Seattle Magazine’s 10th Annual Washington Wine Awards. Not only because he is deeply deserving of the honor, but also because it meant I got to write up the award blurb:
When the French influence on the Walla Walla Valley is discussed, Jean-François Pellet is often mentioned with Christophe Baron, Marie-Eve Gilla and Gilles Nicault (three outstanding French-born Walla Walla Valley winemakers). There’s only one problem: Pellet isn’t French. He was raised in Switzerland, in a family with deep roots in the wine trade. Pellet’s father worked the same Swiss vineyard for more than three decades, and Jean-François’ first winegrowing experience was working alongside his dad. Degrees in enology and viticulture followed, as did stints making wine in Switzerland, Germany and Spain before Pellet landed in the Napa Valley in the mid-’90s. After four years at the venerable Heitz Cellar, he was persuaded in 1999 to move to the Walla Walla Valley and join Pepper Bridge Winery. Since Pellet’s arrival, the Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots under the Pepper Bridge label have become reference points for the Walla Walla Valley, exemplars of structured, classy, age-worthy wines.
Now I know Pepper Bridge can still be confusing for folks, because there is Pepper Bridge Vineyard and there is Pepper Bridge Winery. Pepper Bridge Winery uses (estate) Pepper Bridge Vineyard fruit, and it also uses fruit from other sites, especially Seven Hills Vineyard (and yes, there is a Seven Hills Winery as well; I know, I know, and I think if the folks involved had it to do over again, they would almost certainly come up with some separate names).
So, for most of the years of its existence, Pepper Bridge Cab came from two sites: Pepper Bridge Vineyard and Seven Hills Vineyard, the king and queen of the Walla Walla Valley. But what’s exciting about this 2012 is that it adds a wildcard to the deck (maybe the joker?): Octave Vineyard. Octave comprises about 20% of the blend here, Pepper Bridge about a quarter, and Seven Hills the remainder. The juice spent 18 months in French oak, 43% new, before bottling in May of 2014, giving it another 18 months to come together in bottle. Listed alc is 14.6%.
But of course this is still just a baby. One consistent aspect of Pepper Bridge Cab, year in and year out: this is one tightly wound mother. I for one really admire that JF has maintained the house style here, which is all about terroir expressiveness *over time*. What that means in the short-term is that the wine displays more in the way of structure (tannin) and power than overt fruit. That fruit is there, but it is densely packed in a way that only micro-oxygenation will allow to unfurl. The flip side of Pepper Bridge’s short-term inaccessibility is that these wines become outrageous once you hit about 7-10 years past vintage, and then they evolve glacially for many years after that. If you’re not in for that kind of patience, consider a multi-hour decant, which at least offers the patina of true bottle aging.
I’m not sure that JF even submits this wine to the press all that often anymore, and I understand why. It’s a trip reading through many of the reviews, which are filled with head-scratching caveats about the scores likely being way too conservative when the wine has time to come around. Again, the house style here is not really suited to easy reviewing in the year or two after release. I do what like the influential wine writer Jon Bonné (author of New California Wine) said a few years ago: [TEXT WITHHELD].
The nose broods plenty initially, but with time and air begins to reveal itself in waves of crème de cassis fruit, graphitic pencil-lead minerality, star anise-studded mocha, and wonderful floral top-notes. There is such depth of flavor here, such concentration, and all of it with nary a shred of excess weight. Classy, polished, and already surprisingly delicious after a few hours open, we know this wine’s best years are still well ahead of it. A marvel of power and grace, I’d be comfortable opening a bottle of this every few years until, what, 2040 maybe? Jean-Francois Pellet is one of the best in the business, and this is a vintage (and an exciting new vineyard) that shows him at the very top of his game.
First come first served up to 24 bottles total (mix and match as you like), and the wines should arrive in a week or two, at which point they will be ready for pickup or shipping during the next temperature-appropriate shipping window.