By Chuck Hill
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Wines of the Week Archive
As I discussed in previous weeks, there are many varietals allowed in southern Rhone blends by the French AOC laws. The evolution of these blends has taken hundreds of years, and the varietals included have been evolving for millennia. The inclination for American winemakers has been to follow the laws and traditions set down by early vintners and government regulation agencies (formerly the ATF, alcohol, tobacco and firearms, now the TTB, alcohol and tobacco tax and trade bureau). These traditions rewarded varietal wines with the ability to use the named varietal on the label (i.e. Syrah) if a certain high percentage of the wine was of the named varietal. Blends with no dominant varietal could only be labeled “Red Table Wine,” hardly a moniker that would attract a buyer in the store.
The tide has turned with consumers being more sophisticated and better informed, and with winemakers discovering varietal blends that truly make the wine greater than the sum of its varietal parts. Our tasting today deconstructed the blends to examine Rhone varietals as these individual parts. The three most important red grapes – Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre – are now sometimes made into dominant varietal wines, qualifying for single-varietal labeling by the TTB.
Grenache is often described as the part of Rhone blends that provides the fresh and fruit forward component (cherry, berry, etc.), leaving the middle palate and bass notes to Mourvedre and Syrah. Jarrod Boyle of Alexandria Nicole Cellars (and proprietor of Destiny Ridge Vineyard) is able to control the fruit source at his estate vineyard thus nurturing his Grenache to greatness. His wine achieved first place at my tasting, showing ripe and spicy red fruits, refreshing middle palate acidity and a complex finish.
Brothers Pinto and Billo Naravane craft Rhone varietal red wines in Walla Walla, creating powerful wines that will reward additional aging in the cellar. After releasing a varietal Mourvedre – Vox Populi (see below) – winery fans clamored for a varietal Grenache. Grapes for this new wine were sourced from Monette’s Vineyard in the Walla Walla rocks area. The resulting powerful Grenache features aromas and flavors of earthy cherry, cherry brandy, violets, spicy pepper and notes of toasty oak and vanilla.
Apex Cellars Grenache is only available at the winery tasting room, being of limited production. This muscular Grenache comes from grapes grown at the warm Alder Ridge Vineyard above the Columbia River and will benefit from additional aging in the bottle. Juicy aromas of cherry and raspberry mingle with notes of fresh herbs, kirsch and violets. The palate is rich with flavors of dark cherry and pomegranate with earthy mineral flavors and a finish of cherry and vanilla.
The warm Snipes Mountain growing area has seen additional interest in its plantings of Rhone varietals with the popularity of such wines in recent years. Robert Smasne crafted his 2010 Grenache from grapes grown at Upland Vineyard – one of the oldest vineyards in Washington, dating back to the first plantings of vinifera in 1917. The wine shows ripe Grenache aromas of cherry and raspberry with notes of caramel and vanilla from oak aging. The palate is juicy with cherry and berry flavors mingling with spicy oak.
Ginkgo Forest Winery
Mike Thiede named his Wahluke Slope winery after a tree that became extinct in North America millions of years ago. In the 1950s, highway construction near Vantage, Washington uncovered thousands of petrified trees, among them the rare Ginkgo. Mike’s winery and vineyards are just down Highway 243 from this remarkable site, now a Washington State Park. Ginkgo Forest vineyards are located near the winery and receive ample heat to ripen all of the Rhone varieties.
Mike’s jammy and juicy Grenache offers lip-smacking aromas and flavors of black cherry, raspberry and pomegranate with notes of floral perfume and mineral.
Herb Quady’s Grenache from Southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley is blended with 10% Syrah, with grapes sourced form Del Rio and Quail Run Vineyards. The wine is fermented in small bins and aged in neutral French oak barrels. Aromas of black cherry, menthol and earthy mineral lead to a lean palate with flavors of blackberry, cherry and fresh herbs. The winery suggests chilling the wine slightly to accompany informal foods from the grill.
As mentioned above, Vox Populi was Rasa Vineyard’s first red varietal bottling of Mourvedre and has been quite successful. The wine was the favorite of my Mourvedre tasters with a unanimous number one ranking. Look for dark, intense aromas of black cherry mingling with notes of rosemary and baking spice, accented by smoky oak and meaty notes. The palate is rich with flavors of dark plum and cherry, dark chocolate and earthy mineral. Serve with roast or grilled beast of any stripe.
Coeur d’Alene Cellars specializes in crafting Syrah and other Rhone varietal wines (with occasional nods to Bordeaux blends) from Columbia Valley vineyard sources. Grapes for “Mo” came primarily from the Horse Heaven Hills vineyard of McKinley Springs. The wine is blended with 24% Syrah. Tasters found the wine to be on the feminine side of the Mourvedre varietal offering stylish aromas and flavors of red fruits, herbs and spicy meat with notes of ripe rhubarb and hints of oak – great with your favorite picnic fare.
Mike Thiede is the Wahluke Slope specialist in red Rhone varieties (see above), producing rich and mouth-filling wines from his estate vineyards near Highway 243. His tasty Mourvedre bottling offers aromas and flavors of cranberry and cherry with creamy black fruits and a spicy finish.
The Alder Ridge Vineyard above the Columbia River supplies fruit for several Washington wineries crafting red Rhone varietals. The Apex Cellars Mourvedre is dense and dark with intense blueberry and pomegranate flavors and nuances of peppery herb, spicy oak and notes of vanilla and black currant. It is available at the Apex Cellars tasting room in Woodinville.
Soaring Rooster is the brainchild of Tagaris Winery owner Michael Taggares and his winemaker Frank Roth to make (at first) Bordeaux style wines from grapes grown in Michael’s Vineyard in the middle of the Wahluke Slope AVA. The name pays homage to the barnyard rooster who went aloft in one of the world’s first hot air balloons in 1783. This Mourvedre blend is rich with aromas of boysenberry and floral perfume and a jammy palate of sweet berry fruit mingling with notes of vanilla and toasty cedar and finishing with food-friendly acidity.
Hard Row to Hoe
As I finish my examination of some of the best Rhone varietals vinted as varietal wines, it is nice to discover another bottling of rare beauty and breeding. Judy Phelps at Hard Row to Hoe Winery crafted this varietal Cinsault from grapes grown at the venerable Rosebud Vineyard on the Wahluke Slope. This charming wine shows like a distinctly feminine version of a red Rhone, with aromas and flavors of red fruits and floral perfume and refreshing acidity on the finish. It is a superb accompaniment to any light to medium summer fare.
Eight Bells Winery
Eight Bells winemaker Tim Bates crafted this Syrah from a special block at Red Willow Vineyard that is an experimental planting containing eight different clones of Syrah. The eight clones are picked together and co-fermented with 5% Grenache. My tasters commented that this bottling offered distinct varietal character of earthy cherry and cassis with notes of herbs and spice and hints of toasty cedar.
Ethos by Chateau
Chateau Ste. Michelle winemaker Bob Bertheau crafts his limited production wines under the Ethos label describing “unique style and complexity that integrate his image of bold Washington fruit with subtle but intense European-style complexity and structure. The effect is power wrapped in elegance.” The 2010 Ethos Syrah came from grapes grown on the Wahluke Slope and at Chateau Ste. Michelle’s Cold Creek Vineyard. Look for aromas of rich blueberry and spice with notes of plum and caramel, and flavors on the palate of very ripe dark fruits with components of brown sugar, vanilla and smoky oak.
This lean and flavorful wine took a half hour to breathe up after pouring, which is a lesson for wine lovers to be patient and give wines adequate aeration for them to show their best. Though Earl and Hilda Jones originally were looking for a site to grow Tempranillo in Oregon (that worked very well, too), their Faultline Estate Vineyard does a fine job with Syrah as well. Look for aromas and flavors of spicy cherry and raspberry wrapped in judicious amounts of toasty oak to make a delicious accompaniment to foods from the grill.
There is no person named Ward Johnson, instead the name of this urban winery near downtown Seattle is the combination of last names of two brothers (Charlie and Kurt Johnson) and their wives’ maiden names (Ward), though they are not related. The two families run the winery on Elliott Avenue below Queen Anne Hill crafting a variety of red wines and a Chardonnay. Fruit comes from Red Mountain vineyards and other quality sites. The 2009 Syrah is drinking very well right now with aromas and flavors of ripe cherry and blackberry well integrated with toasty oak and a finish of spice and licorice.
Winemaker Dirk Brink recently joined Coeur d’Alene Cellars after spending five years as assistant winemaker at Kestrel Vintners in Prosser. He is a native of South Africa where he received his diploma in viticulture and enology. Scarlet Lake Syrah is crafted from grapes grown at Boushey, Stillwater Creek and Alder Ridge Vineyards. Look for aromas and flavors of ripe blueberry and plum in this medium-bodied wine with notes of cocoa and barrel spice.
Utilizing vineyard sources mostly on the Wahluke Slope and Royal Slope, Charles Smith added just enough Syrah from the Yakima Valley to craft a complex and value-priced Syrah for the masses. Boom Boom Syrah offers aromas of blueberry and black currant before smacking the palate with juicy dark cherry, blueberry, toast and vanilla flavors.
Here is another Rhone varietal wine from the Upland Vineyard on Snipes Mountain. The 2011 growing season was even cooler than 2010 and most vineyard managers adjusted irrigation parameters and reduced crop load to fully ripen fruit prior to fall frosts. Aromas and flavors of very ripe blackberry and plum mingle with notes of caramel and vanilla with a finish of juicy berry and toasty oak.
Wines from other areas:
Fruit for Cakebread Cellars Syrah comes from the winery’s Suscol Springs Vineyard in the southern Napa Valley and from two other cool-climate Napa Valley vineyards. The growing conditions in the southern Napa Valley are similar to that in the northern Rhone, Syrah’s old world native home. The young wine is aged in French oak barrels (34% new), and a portion of the barrels were steam coopered instead of fire coopered, minimizing the aggressive oak character that masks the wine’s fruit. The wine is warm and earthy with rich aromas of black fruits, caramel and spice. The palate is complex with flavors of blackberry, cassis and cherry with notes of coffee and tobacco on the finish. The wine is a very tempting pairing with steaks from the grill.
Tablas Creek Vineyard is a partnership between the owners of Chateau de Beaucastel in Chateauneuf-du-Pape and wine importer Robert Haas. They established some of the first certified Rhone varietal vineyards in the new world. In addition to Rhone-style blends, the winery also bottles varietal examples of Mourvedre, Syrah, Grenache and others. This flavorful Mourvedre was a favorite with my tasters showing aromas and flavors of sweet herbs, roasted meat, black currant and earthy mineral – great with steak from the grill.
Cass Vineyards and Winery is located in the rolling, oak-studded hills between Paso Robles and Creston on California’s Central Coast. It is sited due east of the “Templeton Gap,” where cooling breezes come in from the Pacific Ocean to moderate high temperatures during the growing season. All Cass wines are crafted from estate fruit. Winemaker Lood Kotze aged this Grenache in neutral oak to preserve the fresh aromas and flavors of the varietal. Look for bright aromas of strawberry and cherry with notes of bergamot flower leading to a mature palate with flavors of ripe berry, vanilla and juicy cherry.