Some Plants and Some Dirt

This past Wednesday, we spent the day visiting vineyards. We had done this a few weeks ago, immediately after I had arrived, visiting some of our sites in Horse Heaven Hills, but this was a little more intense. We visited four or five sites and took samples at each.

Even though Waters is located in Walla Walla, the winery sources a fair amount of grapes from further in the Washington interior. This year, it’s almost a necessity, since last years frosts have left much of Walla Walla without fruit. Gramercy has a vineyard basically on our front lawn and it won’t be yielding  The more famous Pepper Bridge vineyard is across the street from us was fairly hard-hit by the frosts as well. At Va Piano, one of our other neighbors, they were cutting plants down to their trunks and only using completely new shoots. As I said, the frosts were very bad this year, with temperatures reaching the single digits in mid-November, before any of the vines had entered their winter hibernation. Some of the sites at higher altitude in the valley (800 feet plus, or so) were saved the damage.

Frost-damaged vines at Va Piano. Notice the new growth to the left of the old dead trunk, which was topped. The new growth and the old trunk are both the same plant.

The first vineyard we visited was Candy Mountain, from which we get a parcel of Cabernet Sauvignon. The vineyard is Geneva Double Cordon trained, as opposed to Sprawl and VSP (vertical shoot positioning), which is what most vineyards are planted to in Washington. I’m no viticultural wizard, so I’m going to defer to Tom Stevenson in Southeby’s Wine Excyclopedia who basically says that GDC offers more generous yields, provides frost protection (since the berries are relatively far off the ground). He also says it’s easily machine harvested, which cuts both ways, I guess.

Cabernet Sauvignon at Candy Mountain trained in the Geneva Double Curtain Method. The fruit hangs very evenly off the plant, all in a row, since the spurs are all hung evenly off canes.

Jamie, my winemaker, says that this fruit is consistently excellent, and one of the few sites that we source from which has the potential to be as good as the Bordeaux-variety fruit we get from Cold Creek (a much more pedigreed vineyard site). Candy Mountain has the aesthetic misfortune of being situated directly above I-82 a few miles east of Richmond, but other than that, the vineyard was very well maintained, with healthy fruit, no trash in the rows, appropriately groomed plants. Curiously, the sprinklers down by the highway all turn on progressively as you drive by them. Here I clipped a bag of samples, which we took back to to the lab to run brix (sugar content of the grapes), TA (tartaric acid), and pH.

The soils here, as seemingly everywhere, are a silty, sandy, alluvial, dusty: definite phylloxera deterrent. Loess, a calcareous silt, is so common that we have a single-vineyard bottling of it at Waters.  The one exception I have seen is Christoph Barron’s Cayuse vineyards (the one’s directly next to his winery) which have large, gallet-esque* stones in them. I would love to taste his wines, but as they’re permanently sold out, his tasting room is never open (but he maintains it, directly on Main Street). He’s the only guy doing biodynamics in Walla Walla, or at least the only one touting that fact. I’d love to meet him before I leave Walla Walla and am endeavoring to make that happen.

Not an excellent picture, but you can see the soils here at Olsen Vineyard just north of Benton City, between Yakima and Richmond. As I said, I have yet to step foot in a vineyard that isn’t mostly comprised of sandy, alluvial soil.

For anyone who doesn’t know, Eastern Washington’s geological history is fairly fascinating, especially vis-a-vis volcanic activity and some tsunami-like super-floods which occurred towards the end of the last ice age (roughly 15,000 years ago).  The floods made what would have been a totally flat environment in to a series of rolling hills, which give most of the vineyards in Washington greatly variable aspect.

At least two of the best vineyard sites in Washington are on classic vineyard locations: south-western-facing, gently-sloping hills. Red Mountain, just outside Yakima, is more of a hill, and is probably better profiled here at the Washington State Wine website. Jamie says we don’t use fruit from Red Mountain because it’s just a little to baroque for his taste, but these wines from Hedges just came across my radar, and they’re mostly under 14% alcohol. I’m going to try to make it out there, possibly next weekend.

We do get a very small portion of the Andre-Tchelistcheff-consulted, Chateau-St.- Michelle-owned Cold Creek vineyard, however. Located in the middle of nowhere, on a scenic bi-way between Yakima and Richland, just miles from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation Superfund Site, Cold Creek would seem an unlikely place for one of the best vineyards in the state. The first vineyard-designated wines ever released in Washington state came from this vineyard, labeled without AVA, simply as “Benton County”. Some of the Cabernet plantings here are from 1973, which makes them the some of the oldest in the US, due to the AXR-1/phylloxera disaster in California in the late 1980s/1990s**.

Fan-trained Cabernet Sauvignon at Cold Creek. This plant is at least 35 or 40 years old, as is most of the block that Waters gets from Cold Creek. Most of this fruit goes into their super-cuvee 21 Grams which they make with Gramercy Cellars.

Tasting fruit from these vines was fascinating. The acids were higher, the skins more tannic, the berries more concentrated than any of the other sites we were at that day, where all the plants were much younger. Given that soil types are so (to my untrained eye) nearly identical, I do wonder what contributes to site-specificity here. I think much of the pedigree from this fruit comes from vine age, but also probably the aspect of the vineyard and weather patterns (higher winds thicken skins, much as with Red Mountain).

We also visited Stone Tree in Wahluke (Wah-loo-kay) Slope, which was gorgeously maintained, and planted to all sorts of crazy things like Tempranillo, Zinfandel, and some Portuguese-sounding grape I had never heard of whose name is escaping me at the moment. We source some Malbec out of the vineyard.

I’ll leave you with a portrait of Petite Verdot***, which I’m gaining a new-found respect for in my time here in Washington. I blended some for a wine a few weeks ago, and and got a fast-moving mouthful of it from a siphon tube. Massively tannic and pretty acidic (for Washington), it was powerful juice. I can see why it only makes it into 5-10% of most Bordeaux blends.

Petite Verdot at the Olsen vineyard. Tiny berries, tiny clusters. Still totally green in early September.

Every other vineyard we visited Wednesday had nearly complete veraison, and this Petite Verdot had not even begun to start. Oddly, there was one plant with a single veraisoned cluster. I tasted a berry from it, which was also super-gnarly, especially compared to the Grenache I had just been tasting previously: piercing acid was matched with sandpaper tannins. Powerful stuff to be used in small quantities, for sure.

*Gallet are one of the traditional soils in Chateauneuf du Pape, smooth stones about the size of grapefruits.

**This data comes from Paul Gregutt’s excellent Washington Wines and Wineries: The Essential Guide. I have the 2007 edition, but it was re-released in September 2010.

***My only experience with a varietal bottling of this grape was earlier this year with the Clendenen Family’s ’05 (13.5% alcohol), which I loved, but was not nearly as intense or brooding as what I tasted at Waters. Possibly due to the development?

About Morgan

Liquid enthusiast. Sommelier and wine communicator living and working in New York City.
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