Washington’s Challenging White Wines

No white wine routinely gets the level of respect and reverence earned by the great red wines of the world. With the exception of Mosel, the generally accepted greatest wine regions in the world are all dominated by, and known for, their red wine: Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rhone Valley, Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino, Rioja, Napa, Sonoma, Barossa Valley, Porto, Tuscany, etc. Even most of the smaller regions that earn great respect tend to come on the radar because of their red wines, places like Priorat, Duoro, Walla Walla and the Willamette Valley. Champagne is unique in this context because many of its great wines, which appear white, include at least some red-skinned grapes. Red wine just is held in higher esteem.

Global vineyard acreage underscores this consumer preference, with six of the ten most planted varieties around the world falling into the red category, and some of the world’s best white varieties absent. The most planted white, which falls forth on the list, is Airén and is so overplanted that it rarely finds its way into wines of any real quality that leave its native Spain. Riesling, the only white grape upon which a consensus top wine region is built (Mosel), does not land in the top-10. In 10th spot is trebbiano, a grape that is all-to-often and unfortunately made into unimpressive mass-produced wine. The most popular white wine among wine connoisseurs, chardonnay, comes after Airén and before syrah, the latter a grape that many producers outside Australia and Washington State say is tremendously challenging to sell if varietally labeled. Varieties that could be considered among the best whites, like chenin blanc, gewürztraimer and grüner veltliner, are far from making the list and likely never will.

Nina Buty of Buty Winery, which I’ll get to later in this article, pointed out another headwind for white wine when I talked with her for this article: “the preference to score reds higher than whites is very real [among wine critics], even among great white wine lovers,” she said, adding that “many believe that to be a serious wine appreciator one must be more focused on reds because they’re more serious wines…I see this even in professionals. It’s a salacious belief that the precious realm is red.”

Buty’s winemaker, Chris Dowsett, who also makes wine under his family label Dowsett Family Winery, added that wine critics “sometimes let things slip, like the top 3 or 4 points on their rating scale is reserved for wines that can be aged for 20 years, which leaves 99% of white wines out of contention. I had a professional reviewer tell me the other day that he would never give a pinot gris over 90 points because he doesn’t think the grape is a 90+ point grape.”

For white wine lovers, this reality creates opportunities and challenges. It makes affording the great white wines generally easier than the great reds because demand is less (and professional point ratings may not go as far north). However, because low demand suppresses supply it makes it harder to find the great whites, which are relatively fewer in options at the high-end range, and not always produced in the same quantities as their red counterparts. This in turn means whites generally do not receive the industry investment and attention that reds get, and so the status quo of fewer higher quality whites on the market persists.

One wine region that epitomizes this vicious circle is Washington State. Dominated in the reputation department by its cabernet sauvignon, syrah, and red blends to the point that the state’s white wines never enter a national (let alone international) discussion or achieve national distribution in any real way, Washington’s whites simply do not register in most of the wine world’s reality (unless someone wants to talk about the fact that Washington’s Chateau Ste. Michelle is the largest riesling producer in the world with its ~$9 grocery store price point).

Notable Washington wineries like Cayuse, Quilceda Creek and K Vintners/Charles Smith have produced many 100 point cabernet sauvignons and syrahs, helping to establish the state’s red wines firmly in the global discussion. It may be surprising, then, to learn that ~41% of the state’s vineyards are planted to white grapes, and it may be equally surprisingly to know that many of the state’s high quality producers make at least one or two white wines in the $25-50 range. Yet, one will be hard pressed to find Washington whites on retailer shelves outside of the Northwest that cost more than $20.

As a Washington native who left the state after college fourteen years ago, it was initially very frustrating as I could not find my go-to Washington white wines in Washington, DC, where I landed. After searching in vain up and down the Mid-Atlantic for the first few years I lived there, I gave in and started exploring white wines from elsewhere.

Initially hesitant to branch out, it was a huge blessing in disguise as I’ve come to find numerous white wines that excite me to no end. I found whites from the Loire Valley, Jura, Mosel, Sicily and Abruzzo, Willamette, Anderson Valley and Santa Lucia Highlands and Sta. Rita and Sonoma and Santa Cruz, Republic of Georgia, Austria and more, to be on balance superior in quality, enjoyment and value proposition to Washington’s whites as a category. For thirteen years, with the rare exception, I willingly forgot about my home state’s white wines. The periodic experiences with new Washington whites on trips home to visit family and friends mostly confirmed that I was smarter to look elsewhere for the best white wine, especially in the price range where Washington’s top whites reside.

Last summer I picked up a couple of aged white blends from Washington’s Delille Cellars on Winebid and was reminded that the state made quality white wine – that could also age. As I began to think about the next big exposé that I wanted to write for Good Vitis, it occurred to me that revisiting the white wines from where I grew up would be an interesting and overdue exercise. So, here we are.

In order to write this article, I tasted over thirty high end Washington white wines, representing a good swath of the somewhat limited high end Washington white wine market, and interviewed eight wine makers I greatly respect, all of whom have been making famously good wine in Washington State for years, some for decades. It has been a slog because in the midst of the COVID pandemic and a move from DC to Chicago, I have faced the frustrating experience of wanting more personality from many of these wines than they gave me. While basic quality is high, I wanted Washington’s high end white wines to be, as a body of work, more interesting. There are a variety of reasons for why this might be, much of which seems to be driven by the vicious circle I outlined earlier that is in full effect in Washington. While there are reasons to believe that Washington can up its white wine game, many of the winemakers see no interruption in the status quo any time soon and unfortunately I don’t see any reason to disagree with them.

While specific bottles stood out as great wines that many would argue are worth the price, the state’s whites largely operate on a separate and lower plane of intrigue and uniqueness than its red wines. Though this has not held Washington back from hard-earned and well-deserved praise for its red wines, it means that the incentives continue to line up against the required investments in better (and more purposefully managed) white grape vineyards and more dedication to the best white-specific methods of production that are required to up the state’s white wine game. From an owner’s or investor’s perspective, investing time and money in white wine when you make more money on your reds anyways makes little to no sense. It’s an unfortunate state of affairs confirmed by nearly every winemaker I spoke to about it.

Marty Clubb, one of the Walla Walla legends

Let’s begin our exploration with an instructive anecdote courtesy of Marty Clubb, co-owner and managing winemaker at L’Ecole No. 41, which set up shop in Walla Walla in 1983 and has since appeared on numerous top-100 lists. By way of intimating just how large and diverse the vinicultural footprint of Washington State is, he informed me that the Columbia Valley AVA, the largest of the state’s 14 AVAs, is large and diverse enough terroir-wise to cover portions of Burgundy, Bordeaux and the Rhone Valley. “That’s why you see such a wide array of wine in the state,” he said. It’s telling not only because it helps understand the scale and diversity of wine growing in Washington, but it’s also telling because despite the great white wines of Chablis, Montrachet, Graves and Condrieu, those French regions are known predominantly for their red wines, just like Washington State.

There are reasons for this: the market and the making, and I’ll discuss them in that order. As Clubb explained it, when serious vineyard planting began in Washington in the 1970s, those looking at the state’s historic weather data saw what suggested a relatively cool climate, and planned forward based on this rearward view. At that point, riesling was identified as a white grape with promising prospects and came to dominate the state’s white wine planting and production early on, setting in motion the reputation Washington still has for the grape.

However, it didn’t take long before the state began trending warmer, transitioning into what Marty described as a “high heat unit” area. What was originally a good idea to plant lots of riesling and a handful of other whites has turned into a somewhat unfortunate decision. However by the time the weather change was significant enough to affect vineyard outcomes (while simultaneously America’s wine drinking habits were changing), Washington had already built its winemaking facilities and its reputation on riesling. Because vineyard planting, maturation, production and reputation development are all expensive, front-loaded costs and long-term processes, it can be incredibly costly to quickly reverse planting decisions. As a result, there was never a dramatic shift away from riesling by its largest producer, Chateau Ste. Michelle, whose business decisions have and continue to have extraordinary impact on the rest of the state’s industry. As goes Ste. Michelle, so goes the state’s industry, creating a delicate relationship between it and the rest of the industry that they usually handle pretty well.

Chris Doswett

Chris Dowsett of Buty and Dowsett Winey characterized this evolution from a small producer’s perspective: “early on, you looked for good places to grow grapes. You wanted a good variety [of grapes] so you could make a winery’s worth of wines and not put all your eggs into one basket. Then, we got into the mega growth stage, and people jumped into the industry looking to make what was popular; whatever variety is doing well, goes. That was cabernet. Then the economics hit you: if you do nine acres of cabernet and one of riesling, and get half the price for the riesling, you don’t consider planting more white. And very few people replanted it with another white.”

Those in the industry paying close attention, and who wanted to produce premium wine, were taking note of the state’s shift to a region with higher heat units and moved in parallel to adapt, focusing on Bordeaux and Rhone red varietals, especially as consumer demand for red wine grew. Jason Gorksi of Delille Cellars told me that “early on, the state’s best producers like Quilceda Creek, Leonetti, even Delille, did not make white wine because they did not take premium white wine seriously. A few of us eventually brought on a white wine so we’d have something to pour for winemaker dinners, [but Quilceda and Leonetti still haven’t, and probably won’t].” To Jason’s point, Quilceda hasn’t branched out beyond cabernet and a single Bordeaux-style blend, while Leonetti produces a $75 aglianico (aglianico!) ($75!), but still doesn’t do a white.

Morgan Lee of Two Vintners (and other projects) made the point that with such a red-dominated reputation, it can be hard for a winery in Washington to produce stand-out whites. “Good luck making heads turn with riesling at the top end [as an example], that’s been my philosophy since starting” despite the fact that Morgan and his wife generally prefer to drink white wine at home. Morgan, whose signature white grape pick is grenache blanc, asked himself “how was I going to enter the market with a white wine and have people talk about it? It’s like cabernet sauvignon. There are so many Washington cabs, and frankly a lot of them are so similar, how was I going to stand out? That’s why I’ve done syrahs and blends, zinfandel and even a white zin, and rosés.”

There is also the issue of volume. “If it’s a 200 to 400 case production, depending on the size of the winery, then a winery should be able to sell direct to consumer and sell it out,” Dan Wampfler of Abeja Winery told me. “But, if you’re making more than that and you’re not making chardonnay, or maybe riesling or sauvignon blanc, good luck selling that much Washington State white wine. There are amazing whites coming out of Washington that aren’t [those varieties] but they’re so small production because of the limited acreage,” he continued. One example he pointed to was a picpoul made by Rotie Cellars. “It’s outstanding and they can sell it overnight with an email. But, the amount of effort to boost production by the needed ten times to develop the required national brand recognition to sell it, they can’t do for a variety of reasons.”

Chris Peterson of Avennia, and formerly Delille Cellars, who produces a sauvignon blanc and white Rhone varietal blend, noted another economic headwind for high quality Washington white wine: even if a winery wanted to buy high quality white grapes, the economic incentives for growers aren’t there to farm high quality white grapes. “Growers aren’t willing to do crazy stuff [in terms of planting what isn’t normally planted], that’s the limitation,” he told me. “This could be the reason for [high end] riesling being held back. There could be vineyards [in Washington] like [those] in Germany, but why would you do that? You can’t sell those wines for $50 [like you can red wine].”

Further, Chris added, “in the commercial sense, white wine isn’t important to developing a reputation [in the Washington wine industry]. I have more respect for wineries that do both [types of wine] well, and sometimes it’s nice when I’m pouring out of state to have some of my own white wine to pour. But our industry’s experience with white wine is exemplified by [the author’s] experience: there’s almost no national reputation for them. Do you keep fighting the fight?”

Chis Dowsett, one of the most experienced white wine makers in Washington, made the important observation that “there are more wine growing areas in Washington that are better suited for reds than whites. There are exceptions in small pockets in various areas, but in general if you plant what’s best for the site, it’s likely to be red.” This is crucial to acknowledge because far too many producers in many regions try to plant varieties they like, and end up choosing varieties that aren’t well suited for the area or climate. It’s an easy recipe for underwhelming wine and terrible typicity.

One of Marty Clubb’s more striking observations was that, despite some promising white projects, his “real fear” is that the success of the state’s red wines mean that “there aren’t as many new white plantings except for possible chardonnay, so a lot of what [the industry] is doing is working with old vines that will eventually lose out, and create shortages of good grapes because the economics of planting new white acreage isn’t appealing.” Grounding this fear in reality, Mike Januik, who spent 20 years at Chateau Ste. Michelle prior to starting his own winery, told me that “there was time when I was making 50,000 cases of chenin blanc [at Michelle], but they stopped making chenin altogether before I left.” I don’t know the exact numbers, but I’m pretty sure the entire state’s chenin production today is a small fraction of what Mike alone made at Michelle several decades ago.

In oder to combat this decline in high quality white grape acreage, L’Ecole “makes sure it’s going to be economical for the grower to grow the varieties we want,” Marty said, adding that “we’ll pay extra to make sure the right work gets done to achieve the quality. Investing in quality grapes shows in the wines. We don’t work with sites that aren’t willing to put in the extra work to get the quality.”

Among other wines, Marty is known for his chenin blanc. “All the chenin produced [in Washington] over the last few decades has come from old vines, but they’re slowly being replanted to red varieties. [L’Ecole] is down to under 500 tons of chenin [for the 2019 vintage], and we produce about 15% of the state’s chenin blanc wine. If you’re willing to give a long term contract, you can get some security. I just signed a 10-year contract with Upland [Vineyard] just to secure their chenin site.” Plus, there’s the complication that “whites are trickier because in order to make them economical, you need to up the tonnage, but to keep quality at the valume, you really have to work the canopy, get even ripening, to make quality wine.” Not every vineyard manager is willing to put in that kind of work when the alternative is higher profit red grapes.

“Like many of these winemakers,” Chris Dowsett told me, “I’ve spent, and continue to spend, a lot of time scouting for the best white sites in the state.” The process is becoming less and less fruitful. “Land as expensive as Red Mountain or The Rocks, people are planting reds because the return on investment is better. The new whites you’re seeing, they’re commanding good money because they’re laborious to grow and limited in supply.”

Jason Gorski, who believes that the Rhone varieties grenache blanc and marssane are showing promise (Morgan’s granche blanc is “one of [his] perennial favorites”), made the point that “no one has done a concentrated effort to do a white project really well. We [Delille] have proven sauvignon blanc can be really good, Erica [Orr’s chenin blanc] is mind blowing because she found old vines and makes that style. Gorman’s [chardonnay] project is figuring it out,” though no one has found the winning model or fomula.

In addition to the challenge of finding the right site for white varieties, there is the element of making white wine. Nina calls doing so “a labor of love and a really interesting statement of the winemaker and house style because it’s more challenging to make it in beautiful and compelling and consistent ways than reds…because you don’t have the same tools available.” Morgan was more direct, noting that “making white wine is really hard; it’s much harder to hide your mistakes with white than red. Whites are a pain in the ass. A lot more can go wrong, and they take up a tremendous amount of tank space, you have to keep them stable, filter the shit out of them. And the demand isn’t even there, so why do it?”

White wine cold stabilization

Morgan and I discussed two wines that he has produced for Full Pull Wines under their Block Wines label, a semillon and a chardonnay. “Both are aged in concrete for stylistic choices. The eggs serve no purpose other than for these two whites” because, unlike steel, the porous material cannot be sufficiently cleaned in order to use them for red wines. “It’s just another example of why good white wine requires its own effort.”

Dowsett uses concrete for some of Buty’s white wines as well. “We were one of the early adopters of concrete, we brought cubes in in 2009 and 2010. They were actually intended for red wine from The Rocks but I wanted to test it first on white wine. I loved the results, the character of the wine, and decided to keep the cubes for the whites. We have one that’s designated for our chardonnay and another that’s for our Bordeaux-style blend.” Chris also tends to keep the wines on the lees for as long as possible, and grows his white grapes in a little more shade (“the early counsel I received was to have more shade on the grapes to develop skins more thinly so I’m not battling phenolics. At least one leaf over each cluster.”).

Gilles Nicault, the Director of Winemaking and Viniculture at Long Shadows since 2003, really hammered the point about purpose-making white wine, that in order to make great white wine, you need vineyard practices, equipment, and winemaking practices that are different enough from red wine making that a winemaker does not build the body of knowledge and experience through making red wine needed to produce top-notch white. Because the state’s focus has been on red for the past twenty-plus years, many winemakers and vineyard managers aren’t nearly as comfortable branching out into whites, or pushing the boundaries like they do with their reds.

Gilles’ Poet’s Leap Riesling is a great example of what it takes to make high quality white wine in Washington. Along with Chateau Ste. Michelle’s high end Eroica riesling, Poet’s Leap is Washington’s standard bearer for the variety. Both cost around $20 and in great vintages are a steal at that price. Their modest levels of residual sugar are enough to give them a decade or so of good aging potential, enable them to be quite versatile in the food pairing department and make them competitive on the global market. If there is one high quality Washington State white wine you’ll find outside of the Northwest, it’s likely to be one of these two rieslings.

Poet’s Leap began as a partnership in 2003 between Long Shadows Winery and Armin Diel, one of the most celebrated riesling producers in Germany’s Nahe wine region. For many years, Gilles and Diel would make the wine together, pairing an old world approach with new world fruit. More recently Gilles has taken over completely, but the wine retains some of Diel’s old world sensibilities. The viniculture remains as precise as it ever was, with Gilles and his team putting tremendous work into the vineyards. The canopy is managed with great care by hand to remove leaves, clusters and shoots to make sure the fruit zone is open and clusters do not come into contact with each other. With such a hot climate, these efforts are required to ensure the acid and sugar develop in harmony and reach their desired levels at, or at least around, the same time so harvest can come at the ideal time to create a balanced wine.

Once in the winery, the grapes go through whole cluster pressing, not the most common technique for riesling (or other white grapes). “The cool thing about whole cluster pressing [is that] you can extract more juice at lower pressure because the stem gives more structure and creates channels, so when the stems pop the berries, the juice escapes. Because we get so much juice at such low pressure, we avoid phenolic extraction.” However, to do this whole cluster pressing, Gilles needed to add a second press this winery, which is not something every winery wanting to add something different to its line up can afford or accommodate space-wise in the cellar.

It’s impressive that Poet’s Leap costs only $20 given the amount of human labor and additional equipment that go into producing it, but Long Shadows can price it at that level because it has the reputation to sell at high volume, and is therefore the highest production wine in what has historically otherwise been a profitable line up of $50+ red wines. It takes quite a bit of time to build that reputation, and for Washington wineries that do not already have it in today’s hyper competitive wine market, the return on investment on boosting red wine production is much higher than it would be to introduce a new white wine, let alone overcome the knowledge and experience gaps they may face with white wine production. Plus, it may require more experimentation and risk than simply expanding or improving the red program.

Where people have tried to grow the white wine market in Washington recently has so far largely focused on chardonnay and to a lesser extent sauvignon blanc and white Rhone varieties. “The fact is that chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon are the queen and king of the industry; look anywhere, and that’s what’s consumed the most,” Morgan pointed out. Nina Buty, whose co-founded her winery in 2000, knew at that time that she wanted to take white wine as seriously as red wine, even though red was always going to dominate production. She was one of the few back then to feel this way. “When it came time to start Buty,” Nina said, “we knew we wanted to make our white blend and a chardonnay. In that moment, chardonnay was not the darling despite it being the most sold variety in the US. So a lot [of people] were surprised that we wanted to focus on a chardonnay.”

They launched with a partial malolactic fermented chardonnay that saw a low oak profile and single vineyard focus on Conner Lee, one of the state’s most respected sites for chardonnay. They put a lot of focus on learning the site’s viniculture and enology eccentricities. “It helped cement our style and direction,” Nina said.

Despite Nina’s success with her Conner Lee chardonnay, a number of winemakers interviewed for this piece agreed that it is a grape that many producers in the state haven’t gotten right, an observation that I would confirm by taste. “Producers have to make what they can sell and they’ll do their best, but am I thrilled by a lot of Washington chardonnay? No,” Morgan told me.

Even though I tasted chardonnays from a number of really great producers, I remain uninspired; though the quality is there, the uniqueness, and therefore intrigue, is largely not. The example that stood out to me as worthy of a national or international stage: the 2017 Januik Cold Creek Vineyard chardonnay from Mike Januik, who Marty Clubb called “a chardonnay master” during our conversation.

When speaking to Januik about Washington chardonnay, he called out two mistakes he regularly sees. First, “you have to get the clone selection right,” he explained. “How well Washington chardonnay does is really closely connected to the clones you use. [A lot] of the older blocks were planted before people were thinking about clones – they were just planting what was easily available. It makes a stark difference in quality, more so than clones do with many other varieties.”

Cold Creek Vineyard, which is owned by Chateau Ste. Michelle, is a mixture of Burgundy clones. Michelle was so thankful for Mike’s service at the winery prior to launching Januik/Novelty Hill, that they promised him fruit from whichever vineyards he wanted when he struck out on his own. Prior to that offer, he wasn’t planning on doing any whites, but “I jumped on the opportunity to do a Cold Creek chardonnay. I worked with a lot of vineyards, and it was always my favorite chardonnay. I get my pick of the block and the rows each year.”

“It’s a great, really special place,” Mike described, adding that “it has great aspect and the old vines there are at that point now where the self-regulate in terms of crop size. I always get small clusters of small berries, which gives me the right skin-to-pulp ratio. It’s so critical because most of the flavor comes from the skins.”

Second, barrel selection “is critically important” for Washington chardonnay. “Not all French oak is equal. I pay so much attention to that. I use a selection. There are some French barrels that should never be used fo chadonnay.”

Like a lot of his approach, he learned this while at Michelle. “We would ferment in various barrels, and look at every iteration – cooper, toast level, etc. We’d bottle five cases of each barrel type and taste them year after year. I have a pretty good idea now how a chardonnay is going to change over time purely based on the barrel used.”

Asked about how he detects whether the right barrels are used, he answered that “if I smell oak [on the wine], it was the wrong choice. I want to smell creaminess that gives me the impression of creaminess on the mouth. If the first thing you smell is oak, it’s probably not the right barrel to be using.” Mike uses a combination of new and once-used French oak, ferments in them and does batonage every few weeks. The chardonnay ends up spending between nine and 10 months in barrel depending on the vintage.

Biting at Januik’s ankles is Abeja Winery, whose long-time focus on chardonnay has grounded it as a flagship producer of the variety in Washington with somewhat of a national reputation for that wine. Abeja also makes a small production viognier, about 250 cases, off estate vines that is, in my book, very good and the best example of the variety from Washington State.

Abeja looks at their white program as a concentrated effort focused on chardonnay. “Communication with the grower can be tricky,” winemaker Dan Wampfler said. “Try to get a knowledgeable grower to plant anything of substantial acreage for a variety they’ve never worked with or don’t know much about, and they’re not confident in planting or sustaining it.” Effectively, many wineries are stuck with what’s already planted. In order to have control over their white program so they can develop it as best they can according to their preferences, and as part of “an effort to deepen our commitment to estate wines,” Abeja recently planted 40 acres a mile from the winery, including five clones of chardonnay. This acreage is higher elevation and cooler than the winery’s current estate vineyards as they look to produce an uncommon style among the current batch of Washington chardonnays.

The choice to go higher in elevation is a purposeful one “in part because of the effects of climate change. Traditional ripening patterns are changing. The way to retain the acidity is to slow ripening down through elevation, temperature or crop load, or all three. We’re seeing good outcomes when we do that,” Dan explained. “We’re seeing dramatic differences [from our other vineyards] already even though it’s a young vineyard with different clones. Ripening time and speed are different.” Dan is playing around with the style of the new fruit, figuring out “what it does in different blends” and “trying different aging vessels, press trials, oxidizing early on then hitting it with carbon dioxide and doing it anaerobically. The first vintage from the new vineyard was 2019 and I blended it into the Washington and Walla Walla chardonnays.” When it’s ready for showtime, it will become its own wine.

The winery is best known for its nationally distributed Washington State Chardonnay (a multi-AVA blend) that is quintessentially Washington in style, which Dan describes as “new world fruit, lush palate, partial malolactic fermentation” that he ages in a combination of neutral French oak, “a tiny bit of stainless” and concrete. It is widely respected among the industry as a standard bearer, and very good for those who appreciate a bold, lush chardonnay profile.

Dan has more recently branched out to produce the Chablis-styled Beekeeper White (100% chardonnay despite its non-varietally named label) and a Burgundian-style chardonnay with the Walla Walla AVA designation. Traditionally, Abeja’s whites are whole cluster press and get a combination of new and used oak, concrete and stainless aging vessels. The ultimate blend of aging vessels varies from vineyard to vineyard, block to block, vintage to vintage. “We do what the wine tells us to do,” Dan said.

While Abeja is building out a purposeful chardonnay program, Avennia is dedicating itself to figuring out sauvignon blanc and white Rhone varieties, one of several wineries included in this piece that have branched outside of riesling and chardonnay. Exploration by these small but talented wineries is going to be key to developing a new white wine scene for the state that will merit national interest.

Avennia’s interest in white wine began with sauvignon blanc, coming from winemaker Chris Peterson’s days as head winemaker at Delille where he helped to establish their Bordeaux-style Charleur Estate Blanc blend as the arguably the flagship high end Washington State white wine. “Plus, we started Avennia with a pure visionary focus on Bordeaux and Rhone varieties, so chardonnay and riesling didn’t fit. Though I still have yet to see where Washington can make really great riesling or chardonnay.”

Boushey Vineyard

2011 was the first vintage of Oliane, Avennia’s sauvignon blanc. “It was all Boushey [Vineyard], and the plan was always to do it in a premium way with longer élevage. It’s our highest production wine, 700 cases. We go through it every year with the $28 retail price,” Chris told me. The success of Oliane was a bit of a surprise for Chris and his business partner, Marty Taucher. “When we started it we knew it would be a challenge. We weren’t sure if our serious approach would work.” After a 2012 vintage in which Boushey Vineyard didn’t deliver a full crop, Chris added some fruit from Red Willow, and continues to blend the two vineyards today. “It’s a great match. Boushey has more fruit and weight while Willow has more acidity and minerality.”

Interestingly, Chris said that giving the sauvignon blanc a proprietary name, rather than labeling it according to its variety, helps it sell. “Calling it Oliane and making it in a Bordeaux-style makes it easier to talk about it as a complex, styled wine rather than a straightforward sauvignon blanc that most people in Washington think of as a back porch, stainless steel, drinking it by the pool kind of wine.” Regardless, sales for Avennia’s white wines are “predominantly in-state. One of our top distributors loves our white wine but won’t sell it because it’s too expensive for Washington white wine. In the Northwest, people know Avennia, plus we have a robust wine club that doesn’t opt out of our whites.”

Chris is making chardonnay for Passing Time Winery, a wine he called “interesting and fun, but that’s a different point of view [than Avennia’s] because it’s oaked and goes through malolactic fermentation. We’re going to launch it with the 2018 vintage. It’s going to be $50, and that’s the ceiling [for Washington white wine].” He recently did a Bordeaux tasting with a group, which included Domaine de Chevalier, a producer of (among other things) a ~$80 blend of sauvignon blanc and semillon. “It’s really good. They’re getting a level of extract that we’re not getting [in Washington]. But they know that at that price they can improve the vineyard by that rate as well. Right now, even the best Washington whites are second thoughts to red wine. There’s a pride in them, but they aren’t a core priority.”

Long Shadows’ Gilles takes great pride in his white wine endeavors, which have recently expanded to a chardonnay called Dance, which is a decade-long project that is just now reaching production-level readiness, and an inaugural sauvignon blanc called Cymbal, the latter augmenting the Oliane as a top-shelf sauvignon blanc that suggests the variety has a strong future in the state. “I hadn’t made sauvignon blanc in 18 years,” Gilles told me, “so it was truly an experiment. I fermented in stainless, new French oak barrels, neutral French barrels, and concrete just to see how each played out with the grapes [some of which come from a 1972 planting in Bacchus Vineyard]. I liked how it worked with the 2018 so I’m doing the same with the 2019.”

The 2018 Cymbal and 2017 Avennia Oliane are impressive in their youth but suggest good medium-term aging potential. Shortly after tasting the 2017 Oliane, I purchased a 2014 Oliane at auction. True to the nature of a Bordeaux-style sauvignon blanc, with the winemaking practices that go into producing such a style, it ages quite well. While the current vintage is good, it will get better with age, as the 2014 did. To those professional critics who told Chris Dowsett that they reserve points for wines able to age, I give you the Avennia Oliane to consider, as well as Chris Dowsett’s wines.

Speaking of Dowsett, his personal winery is one of the few that still produces high end riesling. His top of the line riesling comes from an estate vineyard called Aunt Diane that was planted in 1980. “I love the soil, climate and elevation [about 1,300 feet] of it. It retains acidity well and I can pick it late. I make it like a gewürztraminer,” which Chris also makes, even though the latter “is early ripening. If you let it go, the acid falls, sugar rises, and it gets very flowery. If you grow it in an area that cools down, you can hold the acidity. The Gorge [a wine growing area of Washington] is a perfect place for that. If there’s more white wine to be planted, I see more riesling, gewürztraminer, sauvignon blanc and other grapes going into the Gorge in the future. It’s a great area for whites, a place to watch on that front.” Chris’ Celilo Vineyard gewürztraminer, from the Gorge, was the revelation among all the wines tasted for this article.

In my mind, if Washington State has one this-is-what-the-state-can-do, consistently stand-out white wine, it is Delille Cellars’ Chaleur Estate Blanc, a blend of sauvignon blanc and semillon made in the traditional style of Bordeaux white blends like Chevalier (French oak, barrel fermented, with bâtonnage). It tastes great from release all the way through at least a decade of cellaring, showing interesting evolution that is worth following through regular check-ins over multiple bottles. What sets it apart is the structure and texture, a full bodied wine with penetrating acid that evolves to reveal layer after layer of flavor.

It’s a $35 wine that easily competes with its competitors, yet requires periodic hand selling out of state where it has a national distribution because people are unaccustomed to seeing white Washington wine at that price point. “Part of the decision to distribute it nationally is the business side,” Jason explained. “The grapes for it are less expensive [than the winery’s red grapes] and we can make great wine from it, so we can make money going three tier. It’s been around since the late 1990s so there’s a good track record. Even still, it required hand selling it to stores and somms, so the education was big up front. It takes 20 years to prime a market, and we still have to education people when there’s turnover. Not a lot of wineries can afford that kind of effort. You see small and mid-sized wineries marching forward with red because it’s what sells and you can get good prices for it.” Nine years ago, Delille was making about 1000 cases of it. Now, they’re making 5000. It’s a rare national success story for Washington white wine.

A good indication of where the state’s industry is focused is the actions of the Washington State Wine Commission, which is the biggest industry group. Dan Wampfler helped me understand that the Commission has gone through three evolutions in its marketing efforts since he joined it. “At first, the goal was to influence the customer and purchaser by doing tastings around the country. Wineries would send in their best wines for those. Then, it was influence the influencer rather than spend money on tastings in other markers. They invited influencers to come in and amplify the message of Washington wine. Finally, they’ve turned inwards to influence the state and let Seattle know what we’re doing.”

Judging by how the market has responded to this evolution, Washington white wine remains a tough sell. I asked each winemaker for their thoughts on the prospects of white wine, and which white grape they’d focus on if given the choice. The answers were quite mixed. Some said chardonnay, others said they wouldn’t touch it with a very long pole. A few, like Morgan Lee, said they wouldn’t do more than they’re already doing. Some doubled down on their current approach, like Chris Peterson with sauvignon blanc (“the next step is finding the right micro climates that aren’t as hot, work to explore clones, keep the alcohols low”).

There was more consensus on the unlikely prospect of seeing a dramatic uptick in the production of white wines because the various headwinds are just too strong, making the path more difficult than sticking with the tried-and-true-and-profitable reds. As several winemakers explained to me, it is going to take a sizable investment to achieve white wine as spectacularly good as the state’s best reds. Someone needs to fund the decade long projects with differed economic returns needed to develop the right sites with the right varieties, clones and farming practices just to sufficiently boost the supply of high quality white grapes, and no one I spoke with had any idea of who might be walking around with those money bags looking to risk them on Washington white wine.

None of this is to say that some of the state’s white wines aren’t worth taking seriously, nor is that to say that there aren’t winemakers whose white wines won’t continue improving. I’d serve the Delille and Buty white blends to anyone, and I’d put Dowsett’s gewürztraminer against the world’s best. $20 grenache blanc doesn’t get better than Two Vintners’, and I’ll probably buy some of Januik’s Cold Creek chardonnay when distributor Winebow brings it to the Chicago market. Avennia sauvignon blanc is one that will test my wine-aging patience. Long Shadows’ Poet’s Leap will always be a compelling riesling at $20. Further, I trust all of the winemakers interviewed for this piece to continue efforts to improve their white wines. And, I know there are producers I did not connect with for this article, like the aforementioned Rotie Cellars and the about-to-be mentioned Syncline Cellars, that make white wine worth trying.

Putting aside individual producers, it seems evident that the state as a whole is not on the trajectory to elevate its white wine game. It’s not that people who care aren’t trying, nor that there aren’t good terroirs in Washington where it could be done, but Washington is a red wine drinker’s haven in a wine drinking world that, at the premium level, prefers red wine. The incentives to invest in producing unique and interesting expressions of high quality and price competitive white wine in Washington are just not there, running smack into a customer preference for red wine that disincentivizes white wine exploration and investment.

Where there may be some growth, at least in the variety of high end whites department, is from current red-dominate wineries that, as they “get older, they gain experience, and it’s more often the case that they realize they should be making a white wine,” Mike Januik prognosticated. “It’s kind of a drag not to have white wine to pour for customers. People want to taste whites, too.” It was as if Mike was doing his best Marie Antoinette: “let them drink white wine!” This approach explains how many Washington wineries began producing their whites in the first place, though I hate that we may have to rely upon this slow-moving source of natural growth to get more and better white wine, especially when it promotes the kind of approach – or rather lack of a serious investment approach – that has created a high quality but relatively uninteresting category of wine. But if this is the process, this is the process. I’ll itch my Washington white wine scratch from time to time with some of these better wines that are already on the market, and hope to see increasing variety and personality as time goes on.

The Columbia Gorge

Note: Syncline Wine Cellars, a pioneer of both the Columbia Gorge AVA and Rhone varieties in Washington, sent me several samples to review for this article. However, I was unable to secure an interview with them. Many point to Rhone varieties in the Gorge as holding the promise of Washington’s white wine future. Syncline’s first vintage came in 1999, long before the Gorge became a designated AVA. Since then, wineries have been popping up in the area, including some of the state’s most exciting small projects, though Syncline remains a lead drummer. I’ve included reviews of their samples below, and hope to one day feature them more prominently in a Good Vitis piece.

Other wines review for this article include:

2019 Abeja Bee Keeper’s White – The nose includes aromas of fleshy peach, cantaloupe, sweet lemon and honeysuckle. Barely medium in weight on the palate, the flavor profile is framed by a toasty barrel note, which gives way to lemon, tart lime, apricot, tangerine and salty yellow plum. With a greenish profile, lighter body and bright acid, this is probably best with food. 89 points. Value: N/A (mailing list only).

2019 Abeja Viognier – The shy nose gives off aromas of sweet vanilla, banana and lanolin. Medium bodied with bright acidity for the variety, the mouthfeel is light and lifted. It delivers flavors of Meyer lemon, pineapple, banana peel and orange blossom white tea. A clean, very pure viognier. 91 points. Value: N/A (mailing list only).

2018 Abeja Walla Walla Valley Chardonnay – Pours a very pale and clear yellow, and is lighter in color than any chardonnay I can recall. The wine is quite elevated, with delicate aromas of guava, green apple, toasted oak and orange blossom. Medium in body, it takes on lushness and weight with extended air. The minerally-driven acid hits with early juiciness, but towards the finish gets linear and stiff. Flavors are on the slightly tart side, offering green apple, green mango, Meyer lemon, dandelion, Asian pear and white tea. I’d treat this like a high quality Chablis: drink it early for its freshness, or give it five-plus years to develop layers and put on weight. 91 points. Value: N/A (mailing list only).

2017 Avennia Le Perle (roussanne and marsanne) – The delicate nose offers a broad soapiness with pronounced honeysuckle, honeydew, vanilla, orangesicle and lavender. Medium bodied with round, juicy acid and a semi-lush mouthfeel. The flavors have an edge of sweetness, and feature an elegant and floral variety of orange blossom, pineapple cocktail, edible flowers, bitter lemon and tangerine. This is an intriguing rendition of a Rhone-style blend offering precision of flavor and feel. 92 points. Value: B.

2018 Buty Connor Lee Chardonnay – The delicate nose boasts lemon cream, lime zest, dried apricot, white peach and pear. Just short of full bodied, it offers a creamy mouthfeel elevated by broad and slightly juicy acid. Flavors include pear, Key lime, marzipan, peach pie and Opal apple. This is a really nice, subtle expression of chardonnay that’s well made and seamless. 92 points. Value: B-.

2018 Delille Cellars Roussanne – The muted nose offers pure aromas of honeydew, lily, white tea, tangerine pith and lemon icing. The medium body offers an acid profile that is highly pronounced for the variety, slightly corse in a way that contributes towards a nice backbone that completes an otherwise elegant structure. Flavors include sweet lemon, white peach and mild kelp. It’s a high quality wine that lacks an interesting or substantive punch. I’ve had better vintages of this wine. 90 points. Value: C-.

2018 Januik Cold Creek Chardonnay – The reserved, elegant nose wafts aromas of honeydew melon, rich vanilla bean, lemon curd and sweet lime. Full bodied in sensation, the beautiful acid somehow provides both linear tension and mouth-watering juiciness, creating a lively sensation that transitions nicely into gentle creaminess, though never leaves the mouth completely. The flavor profile is built on bright and salty notes of lemon, lime and clementine citrus, while slate minerality, a touch of toasty oak and fenugreek feature in the background. This is a very young wine that would do well with 2-3 years of cellar aging to help it unwind. Drink over the next decade. 92 points. Value: A.

2018 L’Ecole No. 41 Columbia Valley Chardonnay – A traditional chardonnay bouquet of creamy lemon, creme brûlée, apricot and crushed rock. Medium plus in weight, the structure is comprised of a creamy mid palate surrounded by modest but juicy acid that gets zesty and sharp on the finish. Flavors include buttered toast, big lime zest and pith, vanilla custard, slate minerality, white tea leaf and white pepper. 91 points. Value: A.

2018 L’Ecole No. 41 Columbia Valley Sémillon – The nose offers lemon curd, Sprite, marzipan, tangerine peel, dandelion and mango. Medium plus in weight, it balances a creamy mouthfeel with juicy acidity. Flavors include sweet pineapple, yellow peach, apricot, Opal apple, white pepper and flint. 91 points. Value: A.

2017 Long Shadows Dance (chardonnay) – Almost hedonistically sappy on the nose at this early stage, it delivers a core of caramel apple that is surrounded by quince, toasted oak and honeysuckle. Medium bodied but broad-shouldered, the acid is put into a bit of a nose dive early on by a hit of creaminess. More time may allow the two to find better harmony. Flavors include spicy, almost spritzy lemon and lime zests, as well as lean vanilla, white peach and poached pear. Cantaloupe develops on the finish where the acid returns in a big way. A hard wine to pin down, I think it’s unsettled at this stage in its life. Wait to 2022 to open. 91 points. Value: D.

2018 Syncline Boxom Vineyard Grüner Veltliner – This benefited from an hour decant. The nose offers floral-tinged aromas of peach, nectarine and red plum. Barely medium in body, the acid is bright but integrated with smooth edges and just the right amount of grippy texture. The soft flavors include white peach, orchid, white pepper, crushed stone, Gala apple and just a touch of saline. This is a delicate, pretty grüner that is best consumed by itself or with subtly-flavored food. 92 points. Value: A-.

2018 Syncline Boushey Vineyard Picpoul – Aromas of cantaloupe, sweet sea mist, white peach, white tea leaves and lime zest constitute a pretty nose. Barely medium in weight, it’s fleshy in texture with tangy but smooth acid. Flavors include Meyer lemon, under ripe nectarine, lime pith, slate minerality and a big white pepper finish. A really enjoyable and decently substantive wine, it would be easy to go through a case of this over the summer. 91 points. Value: C.

2017 Syncline Scintillation Brut Underwood Mountain Vineyard Grüner Veltliner – Aromas of green and Opal apples, toasted almond, date, dried apricot and clementine. The voluminous mousse pours large bubbles that land more delicately in the mouth, releasing green and Opal apples, lime curd, nectarine, slate, white pepper and unsweetened vanilla. Balanced, linear acid adds cut and extends the finish. This presentation of gruner offers more approachability than many still versions, but doesn’t skimp on complexity. 91 points. Value: C.

You may also be interested in reading on Good Vitis:

Living Legends of Washington Wine: Our hugely popular coverage of the 2017 Auction of Washington Wines Private Barrel Auction, which includes interview anecdotes and barrel tasting notes from over a dozen of Washington State’s best wineries.

A GRAND American Riesling Tasting: An epic blind tasting of over two dozen rieslings from across America, it includes a discussion of the commercial and quality status of American riesling as well as reviews of each wine tasted.

Try this Wine: Skin Contact Wine

Screen Shot 2020-05-05 at 3.19.09 PM

Amber wine in the making at G.Wine in the Republic of Georgia

“Skin contact wine” is all the rage these days, owing in part the significant fan base overlap it shares with “natural wine,” and the coinciding of both “movements” with a wider industry return to winemaking basics motivated by a consumer base that is socially repulsed by the engineering of food and beverage.

Wow, what a sentence, right? It’s like I’m writing a social justice doctoral dissertation on both the past and the present. Though this is no dissertation and I’m not your most fervent social justice warrior, I do hold these judgments. As I’ve said in multiple posts, good wine is good wine regardless of how it is made, and it can be made many different ways. To construct protections for wine based on winemaking approaches is to create artificial borders between wine that is deemed good or bad, real or fake or manipulated. The distinction would be silly if it didn’t have impacts on people’s livelihoods.

Though I love many skin contact wines, the category is regrettably a major driver of this nonsense. The problem starts, as can easily be the case in wine, semantically, but it quickly (d)evolves into an issue of substance. The term “skin contact” refers to wine made by letting the skins and the juice spend time together during fermentation. However, rather than being something new, it is actually a process known as maceration that has been around for as long as wine has been made; it is nothing novel. If we must label skin contact wines in a distinctive way, we can more easily refer to them as “macerated wines,” which make more sense because the term has been around for much longer, is well-defined and more descriptive.

One reason we don’t call them macerated wines is because baked into the term “skin contact wine” is the understanding that the grapes are of a white variety. Though that distinction is often left out because it is used by people in the know, it remains necessary because many people are not in the know and leaving them behind is classic wine douchebaggery.

Though semantic, precision in wine language matters a great deal. I often cannot help myself by responding to people who tell me they like skin contact wine by asking them if they prefer cabernet sauvignon to merlot. Wine gets a bad reputation for being precise in ways people do not comprehend and thus reject, but wine lovers do ourselves an injustice when we are not specific enough. More responsible wine professionals make sure they use the full term, “skin contact white wine,” or some of its acceptable alternatives like “orange” or amber” wine, which reference the color of the final product, or “Ramato” if referring to a skin contact pinot grigio made in the historical winemaking style of Fruili, Italy. Though it often does not, this category of responsible wine pro needs to include the 28-year-old clerk at your favorite hipster wine shop, and the twat bar tender at your favorite hipster wine bar.

In this spirit, I want to suggest some macerated wines for Good Vitis’ readers to try. I should first acknowledge the huge oversight that is the exclusion from the list of an amber wine from the Republic of Georgia, the most famous skin contact white wine-making country these days, and likely the original source of the style. Avid Good Vitis readers will know that I am a huge fan of that country and its wine, and everyone should know that the absence of a Georgian amber wine from this list has everything to do with not having any handy. Nevertheless, the wines listed below are all great wines worth the effort of sourcing, and have the power of demonstration of the points made above. Try these wines because they’re good, fun, and will help you better understand and more accurately describe “skin contact wine.”

IMG_2041

Traditional Skin Contact White Wine #1 : 2017 Yangarra Estate Roux Beaute Roussanne

How to refer to it: Skin contact or macerated white wine, or skin contact or macerated roussane.

Yangarra is a historic estate in Australia’s McLaren Vale wine region focused on producing Rhone varieties off its single estate vineyard, which was first planted in 1946. In 2001, the estate was purchased by Jackson Family Estates. A year prior, it took on then-new winemaker Peter Fraser. I got to meet Peter in 2019 and try a new series of high end Yangarra wines, this one among them, that use techniques different from the rest of the winery’s lineup.

Half of the grapes for the 2017 Roux Beaute Roussanne go through 193 days of maceration (skin contact) in large ceramic eggs, which allows more oxygen to interact with the wine than the traditional stainless steel fermentation vessel used for most white wine. The remaining 50% of the grapes went through fermentation in ceramic egg, though without skin contact. This approach, combined with the use of wild yeast, gives the wine more structural layers than it would otherwise have, and adds flavors and aromas impossible without maceration. Tasting note:

A slightly musty aroma gives way to peach, apple cider, nectarine, petrol and something I can only describe as “dank.” Though medium in body, it floods the mouth with juicy acid and ripe skin tannin, forming a glycerin sensation. Flavors include white peach, apricot, sour tangerine, orchid, white pepper and dandelion. 92 points: Value: C-.

IMG_1881

Traditional Skin Contact White Wine #2: 2018 Two Vintners O.G.

How to refer to it: Skin contact or macerated white wine, skin contact or macerated gewürztraminer.

Two Vintners is a small producer in Washington State owned by winemaker Morgan Lee. Morgan makes wine for a number of labels, and his combined experience covers what I imagine is essentially the entire state’s geography and varietal offering. He is one of my favorite winemakers because his wine is exceptional, the prices overly competitive, he has a ton of fun doing it and his product is entirely bank-able; I don’t need to try his wine to know I’m safe buying it.

An early example of his fun-loving spirit was the creation of the O.G., a macerated gewürztraminer sourced from the Yakima Valley’s esteemed Olson Vineyard and named in a double reference to Orange Gewürztraminer and the Original Gangster. I believe the first vintage was 2012, which puts it on the cutting edge of this more recent skin contact trend. This 2018 vintage spent 55 days on its skins and was then aged in neutral barrel for 9 months. Tasting note:

The nose wafts a beautiful set of aromas including honeysuckle, orange blossom, orchid, gooseberry and raw cranberry. It is medium in weight on the palate with crispy acid and a smooth mouthfeel. The skin contact adds weight to an already structurally complex wine, while simultaneously bolstering the delicacy and florality of a profile that includes a slightly sweet and slightly salty combination of orange peel, vanilla, nectarine, red plum and gooseberry. This is yummy stuff. Give it an hour decant to help it blow off a slightly bitter edge. 92 points. Value: A.

IMG_3985

Wouldn’t Have Put This In the Skin Contact Category Wine: 2019 L’Ecole No. 41 Alder Ridge Vineyard Rosé of Grenache

How to refer to it: rosé

Yes, rosé is skin contact wine. See why I think the moniker is silly? Rosé is what would be a full-blown red wine if the maceration lasted longer. That said, the best rosé starts in the vineyard where the grapes are treated differently than if it were intended for red wine to emphasize bright acid, lighter colored fruit and floral notes. This is intentional rosé. After thought rosé is made with grapes harvested for red wine, but for some reason are made into rosé. That route often produces flabby, out of balance wine that’s big in body and light in acid, which is exactly the opposite of what makes a good rosé. Either way, though, rosé is macerated wine.

L’Ecole No. 41 is one of Washington State’s original modern wineries and remains one of the industry’s standards today. This 2019 rosé is made from grenache harvested from the Alder Ridge Vineyard in the heart of the Horse Heaven Hills AVA, which gives it great pedigree. Alder Ridge is among the very best grenache sites in the state, its fruit finding its way into wines from other esteemed producers like Gramercy Cellars. This newly released 2019 is both substantive and refreshing, and a great one to stock up on for the coming summer. Tasting note:

Pours a beautiful light pink hew. Aromas waft from the glass, featuring strawberry, rose hip, watermelon, guava and lime sorbet. It’s medium bodied for a rosé and coats the mouth with juicy acid and a fair amount of weight. Sweet cherry and strawberry come through immediately, followed by hits of chili flake spice, tangerine and yellow peach. It’s an interesting and entertaining profile that offers a significant presence. 92 points. Value: A.

IMG_4030

The Standard Skin Contact Wine: 2017 Flora Springs Trilogy

The Trilogy is Flora Springs’ top of the line red wine blend, comprised in this vintage of 80% cabernet sauvignon, 17% petit verdot and 3% malbec. It is, by definition, a macerated, or skin contact, wine. In fact, it represents the standard macerated wine: red wine. Unless one says “skin contact white wine,” they can be reasonably assumed to mean the Flora Springs Trilogy.

And what a macerated wine it is. Flora Springs was founded in 1978, but its Napa Valley property was first planted with vineyards in the late 1800s so the terroir is for real (it has been replanted since). I’ve had several vintages of the Trilogy and they all deliver. Although it sells for not-so-cheap $85, it is reasonably priced within the context of its pedigree and competitors, and a good examples of a refined and elegant Napa red blend. Tasting note:

The potent nose offers scorched earth and graphite-infused blackberry, black plum, violet, kirsch and dark chocolate ganache. It is full bodied, balancing lush, smooth and broad tannin with juicy acidity. The balance is really on-point. Flavors include blackberry, coconut, (real) maraschino sauce, black pepper, teriyaki sauce and cigar tobacco. It has a strong core of wet earth minerality. This is nice now with an hour decant, but I imagine it’ll start hitting its stride in five years and drink nicely for the following five to ten. 93 points. Value: B.

IMG_3943

The Reverse Skin Contact Wine: 2018 Maggy Hawk Emeades Vineyard White Pinot Noir

How to refer to it: white pinot noir, or non-skin contact red wine

This is a contrarian wine, the rare example of a wine made from red grapes that escapes maceration. This is pinot noir that comes out of the bottle looking like a completely white wine. Is your mind not blown? If it’s not, a smell and sip will surely get the job done. But like our macerated Flora Springs, let’s not get carried away with this one’s revelatory power: much of the best Champagne in the world includes or is made entirely from pinot noir and/or pinot meunier, but pours white as well. The absurdity of skin contact being considered something new or different continues to grow.

Maggy Hawk’s winemaker is Tony Rynders, whose distinguished career includes Oregon’s Domaine Serene, a winery that sued him after he left alleging he stole the trade secret of making white pinot noir. See supra regarding Champagne to get a sense of the absurdity of the lawsuit. Tony has consulted for Zena Crown, also in Oregon, which is one of Good Vitis’ favorite Willamette Valley wineries. And, he is the owner and winemaker of Tendril Cellars where he makes a white pinot noir as well. I’ve had what I believe to be all of Tony’s white pinot noirs, and they are my favorite wines he produces.

Perhaps counterintuitively, what makes white pinot noir fun is what can make any skin contact white wine fun: a grape you know presented completely differently from what you know. The 2018 Maggy Hawk does exactly that in a very appealing package. Tasting note:

The nose offers plush fruit-forward aromas of cherry juice, guava, passion fruit, slate, orange zest and white pepper. Full bodied with round, juicy acid that creates significant structure and weight, it offers flavors of cherry, pineapple, mango, sea mist and loads of sweet tangerine juice and donut peach. This unusual and high quality wine is very enjoyable and almost too easy to drink; drink too quickly and you’ll miss some of its depth. 93 points. Value: A.

Merlot is Back

grapes-1692548_1280

Picture source: Pixabay

Up until I had that 21st birthday bottle of Delille Harrison Hill 1998, a gift from a family friend, merlot dominates my wine-associated memories. My mother kept a bottle of merlot – the winery, I don’t remember, but I imagine a rotating selection of places like Chateau St. Michelle, J. Lohr, Mondavi and Charles Shaw – in the refrigerator with some frequency. I never took much interest in its presence there. I wasn’t one of those kids who stole pulls from the liquor cabinet, adding a quick stream of facet water to the half-full bottle of vodka in a futile effort to deceive my parents. I didn’t keep a six pack of Busch Light in my closet.

The merlot sitting in the refrigerator never tempted me, either. I just wasn’t into drinking in my youth. I know I tasted it, once in a while, but with my mom’s approval. I remember that it was cold and a little bitter, and not to my liking. It had a mysterious bite that today I can recognize as the alcohol. That’s about it. To my young palate, it wasn’t anything to crave. It was red liquid that my mom liked.

I preferred orange juice. My mother didn’t drink juice, too much sugar. I had to cut mine with water or my mom wouldn’t allow it in the house. Unlike the wine, I cheated with the orange juice when I could get away with it. No watering it down for me. That’s where I went off the reservation. Not the easiest child, I know.

When I was in my middle teens, a couple moved into the neighborhood and began having us over for dinner. The husband was a wine collector and opened wine whenever we came over. My mom enjoyed drinking it, though my dad wasn’t a wine fan (he remains unimpressed). And even though the merlot in the fridge back home never captured me, our friend’s wine did. Over the following several years, I was introduced to what I would find out later was some of the best wine made in the world. Depending on how one looks at it, my palate was either spoiled rotten or ruined for life before I was old enough to purchase any of it from a store.

The bottle of 1998 Delille Harrison Hill was a gift from this neighbor, and it became the first great wine that I associated as my own. Delille is one of Washington’s most respected and awarded wineries known predominantly for Bordeaux-style wines. Harrison Hill is one of its flagship blends, and routinely includes 25% merlot. As one of my early introductions to great wine, it set a personal benchmark for blends that lasted at least a decade. Though I didn’t know it at the time, it helped me form the respect I have today for the role merlot plays as a blending grape.

Fast forward to 2013. I had been unemployed for about five months at this point, having lost a job I didn’t much like and taking my time, albeit stressfully, finding a job I would be excited to start. As money was tight, I made it through this period satiating my wine needs with a small wine collection I had been building for the previous five years (inspirational, I know). I decided that since I had the time, I would find a winery nearby my apartment in Virginia where I could intern and learn firsthand how wine was made.

After scouting a number of wineries, I approached one and made my offer: I would work for free in the cellar a few days a week if they schooled me in winemaking and paid me to work in the tasting room on the weekend. They accepted. I did this for two consecutive harvests, and learned a ton about wine. It remains one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

During my first harvest there, we unexpectedly received a few extra tons of merlot from one of the vineyards where we sourced the grapes we needed beyond what our estate vineyards produced. The truck showed up, the man got out and asked a stupid question: did we want this extra merlot? In a state with a growing wine industry where grape demand far surpasses supply, you say yes. Even if the grapes aren’t great, you make a bad blush out of it because it will sell out once the temperature is high enough for picnicking and stoop-sittin’.

Thankfully, this was good merlot, so our affirmative answer was delivered with extra enthusiasm. As I helped unload the bins off the truck, an idea struck. I asked the winemaker if I could take a small amount of the juice from the extra merlot and make a side batch of my own wine. After consulting with the owner, I was given the green light and three 6-gallon carboys (glass jugs) of merlot juice was mine.

IMG_1303

With the winemaker’s guidance, we made three different merlots. Each carboy was inoculated with a different strain of yeast and given a different wood chip treatment. We went low-ish sulfur (40ppm), only once, and after about 8 months of aging in a dark corner of the cellar with the carboys covered by boxes, I syphoned the contents directly into bottles and hand corked them. I made eight or nine different wines from the three carboys: a case of each carboy was bottled, and then I started blending. We ended up with eighty-something bottles if memory serves.

All but half a dozen bottles were drained within a year of bottling. I was down to just a single bottle remaining until this article; I used the occasion to open it with my wife and in-laws. It is my greatest wine achievement to date because I didn’t screw it up; it’s actually a decent wine. I know this because I threw it into several blind tastings with legitimate wine people and got a range of reviews, none of them bad.

Making my own merlot is the true source of my appreciation of merlot: in the hands of a first time and under-trained “winemaker,” it graciously allowed me to make it into wine. It did its very best with what I gave it, maybe more than its very best, and I am eternally grateful. This article is dedicated to that batch of wine.


IMG_1321

2014 Aaron Menenberg Merlot #6 – The nose offers a compelling combination of floral, funky and crunchy red fruit notes, including aromas of wet saw dust, moist fungal dirt, cherry, raspberry, dehydrated strawberry, baking spice, rose water and spring flowers. The body is barely medium in stature, and the structure is driven by keen acid and scattered fine-grained tannin. The balance is essentially there, but the acid pulls the wine a bit out of its comfort zone. The flavors are similar to the aromas, featuring floral, fruit and funk. Specifics include dry dirt, mirepoix, tart strawberry and raspberry, cinnamon, rose hips and sautéed portabello mushroom. 88 points. Value: N/A.


Beyond my own appreciation of merlot, and certainly in spite of it, the noble grape deserves a good deal more credit and appreciation than it receives for all the hard work it does in wineries across the world. A perpetual performer, it is prized by many winemakers and largely disregarded by consumers. It is a classic example of the consumer doesn’t know best.

I recently published a Try this Wine post on Rutherford Hill’s 2018 Rosé of Merlot, one of the best rosé’s I’ve ever had. A press person from Rutherford’s parent owner sent me this note a few weeks later:

“I was in the Rutherford Hill tasting room the other day and a customer was bragging to his friends that he doesn’t drink “wimpy pink wine” (referring to our rosé of merlot, of course).  Right then, our tasting room manager pulled up your story and had him read it.  Not only did he change his mind, he purchased a few bottles.  So AWESOME!!!!!!!!”


Rose bottle

Best Surprise: 2018 Rutherford Hill Rosé of Merlot

This has a wonderful nose that combines the richness of merlot with the spryness of a rosé. Aromas of strawberry, cherry concentrate, candied fennel, sweet vanilla and Sprite lemon-lime. It’s on the fuller side of the rosé spectrum in terms of body, but it’s balanced brilliantly with bright acid that adds welcomed tension to the mouthfeel. The flavors hit on strawberry nectar, lime mint sorbet, chalk minerality and celery seed. This is among the most complex and complete rosés I’ve had, it’s a stunner equipped to handle a heavy meal. I’d love this with mushroom risotto. 92 points. Value: A.


The case for merlot goes well beyond a great rosé, though that bottle does make a statement as one of the best rosé’s I’ve ever had. Well before the Rutherford rosé, though, I decided that I wanted to take a stab at exploring merlot after hearing an extemporaneous diatribe on merlot from one of the grape’s very best producers earlier this year.

When I decided on doing this profile, my mind naturally went to the movie Sideways, a popular Hollywood movie released in October of 2004 assumed by many to be the death nail of merlot’s profitability and popularity because of a well-acted and entertaining scene demonizing merlot and the timing of it its release coinciding with a period of steep decline in merlot sales. “I am not drinking any fucking merlot!” is the famous line. Miles, the main character played brilliantly by Paul Giamatti, is on a trip to Napa with a friend, both of whom are escaping various aspects of their lives. In a pivotal scene, Miles screams this line.

giphy

Part of what I wanted to get into with this piece was industry views of whether this Sideways correlation was also causation, and so my first element of research was to ask. Over the course of the last six or so months, I’ve had the privilege of speaking to some of America’s, and the world’s, very best merlot producers. The orator of the aforementioned merlot diatribe was Chris Carpenter of Lokoya, Cardinale, Mt. Brave and other great wineries fame.

“[Sideways] wasn’t a bad thing from the perspective of what it ended up doing to merlot in general,” Chris said when I spoke to him on the phone a few months post-diatribe. “Did I go through the history of merlot with you?” He asked, somewhat dauntingly. Merlot has been around for a while, so I wondered how far back he would go. Nevertheless, I opened the door. “No,” I said, and off we went.

Thankfully, his starting point was California: “At one point back in the mid-1990s, the wine industry was looking for the next silver bullet as far as a wine that would be the starter wine for another generation that was coming onto wine. They had had white zinfandel for a while – a lot of people started drinking wine because white zin was on fire and it was tasty and accessible and not too expensive – and it made the industry a lot of money. So, people were looking for what the next white zinfandel was going to be because its popularity was starting to decline and the industry needed something to fill that gap,” he explained.

The industry tried a number of things. “They started planting sangiovese,” one example he told me about, “but that didn’t go over well because they made it too much like cabernet [sauvignon] and sangiovese just doesn’t react that way. They went through a number of iterations like this and eventually hit on merlot.” It had a number of positives going for it: “it’s easy to pronounce, it’s fairly easy to grow from a tonnage perspective, it grows in places across a bandwidth of temperatures and sunlight that are different enough but allow it to get to a certain ripening point. And so you can grow a lot of it.”

The California wine industry ran with it. “They went out and planted merlot every in Napa, particularly in the Carneros region.”  Today, Carneros is dominated by pinot noir and chardonnay, so it’s hard to believe it was once the center of the California merlot scene. “Carneros is on the cooler side and doesn’t get a lot of sunlight,” Chris explained. “Merlot is an early ripener, and so they figured they’d put it down there. It doesn’t get a lot of sunlight, but they thought they could still get it ripe.” Problem was, they couldn’t.

“They forgot that merlot needs a certain amount of light to get past the green flavors. The change in flavor character from vegetative to fruit is driven by light energy, and there just isn’t light energy in Carneros. A lot of how grapes gain weight and develop depth is by heat reaction and it doesn’t get the heat down there.”


fullsizeoutput_e12

Best In Show: 2015 Mt. Brave Merlot

What a killer, earthy and penetrating nose: sour cherry, strawberry, mesquite charcoal, bitter cocoa, sawdust and emulsified dandelion. It’s full bodied in a way that fills the palate, but the acid is juicy and alive and prevents the wine from settling and cloying. The tannins are fine and focused. The fruit is beautifully layered, with muddled cherry, mountain strawberry and boysenberry that go for ages, and are followed by ground espresso and cocoa beans and graphite. The tail end of the flavor profile features tanned leather, tobacco leaf and a small dose of menthol. This does very well with a couple of hours in the decanter, but I imagine it can go through tremendous evolution over a decade or so. 94 points. Value: A.


Renée Ary, winemaker for the esteemed merlot producer Duckhorn Vineyards, noted additional considerations for merlot when I spoke with her. “Merlot is susceptible to heat stress, so water is a big issue. Because of that, it likes to grow in soil with better moisture-holding capabilities. Clay works well, but if you have a good vineyard team that can stay on top of irrigation, you can do it with better draining soils. They wanted to grow merlot like cabernet, but it’s not the same.”

At this point, though, the industry had invested a lot of money in planting merlot vineyards. “So, they pumped out a lot of merlot and put it on the market, and a lot of people drank a lot of bad merlot.” Chris said, adding that “it was lean and green, and it wasn’t very interesting. It didn’t have weight, it didn’t have complexity, it was very unidirectional. And then the movie (Sideways) came out.”

But it wasn’t what you think. This is when Chris turned into a movie critic, and an astute one at that. “The movie wasn’t really speaking to the bad merlot out there. What Miles’ comment was reflecting on was the [troubled] relationship with his wife. His wife drank a lot of merlot. So, when he went into that tasting room and said he wasn’t drinking any merlot, it was because merlot is what his wife would’ve drank. It had nothing to do with the industry. But, it came at a time when people were starting to react to this wine that wasn’t that good.”

When Miles makes his comment, the industry had already spent a solid decade, or more, laying the groundwork for the merlot market to crumble. Chris noted that “when Sideways drops, merlot falls apart as far as a varietal people are taking seriously, and pinot noir rockets. Nobody was drinking pinot noir back then, but suddenly it just took off. And the good thing that happened was that a lot of that merlot that was planted in the wrong places went away, and they replanted it with pinot noir.”

Enter winemaker Adam Lee, a prolific California pinot noir wizard responsible for great wineries like Siduri and Clarice. “I don’t buy [the theory that Sideways ruined merlot]. It’s true that a lot of bad merlot was being made in the 90s, so when Sideways came out there was a lot to hate about merlot already,” he said.

As an aside, in a cruel twist of fate for lovers of traditional pinot noir, the timing of Sideways’ pinot praise was terrible. “When Sideways came out,” Adam pointed out, “the current pinot releases were 2003 and 2004, both bad vintages in my opinion. They were very warm and we had big, ripe wines that were out of character. People who were supposed to like merlot because it was being made big and ripe, and hadn’t had pinot before, went nuts for the 03’s and 04’s, and in the subsequent years many wineries mainstreamed that big, jammy style, and it’s still around.”


IMG_2623

High Performer: 2016 Rutherford Hill Atlas Peak

Poured this through a Venturi into a decanter, and it showed nicely right away. The dark nose offers saturated aromas of mocha, cherry preserve, dark chocolate bark, graphite, black plum and boysenberry that draw your nose deep into the glass. It’s full bodied with thick, polished tannin and bright acid that runs the full length of the wine, forming a really luxurious mouthfeel and structure. Flavor comes by way of plum, cherry, strawberry, dark cocoa, graphite, cassis and nutmeg. If this wine were a person, it’d be a soldier-scholar: broad statured and muscular with a high intellect and high society manners. With another three to five years it will develop some real grace. 93 points. Value: A.


As Carneros transformed in the wine region we know it to be today, those winemakers still in love with merlot had to turn to smaller pockets around Napa Valley. “These little gems of vineyards that were ideal for merlot” became the hot finds, Chris told me. “When I found gems, more often than not, they were high up in the mountains. There are some things about mountain viniculture that go well with merlot.”

Duckhorn’s Ary referenced these gems herself. “[Sideways] ended up being a positive for merlot. The unserious producers threw it to the wayside. It helped us get access to new vineyards [that were great for merlot] that we hadn’t had access to previously.”

One reason merlot does well in the mountains is because as you gain elevation, the volume of what’s called “radiant energy” increases. If you remember back to Chris’ point about Carneros not getting a lot of sunlight, we’re coming full circle here because one of the types of radiant energy is sunshine.

“You’re higher up [in the mountains] so your volume of radiant energy is much greater and you’re going to have, theoretically, more of the light reactions happening,” Chris explained. “You get a very different expression of merlot than what they were getting in the Carneros, which in some days never sees the sun. Heat drives sugar, it drives acid, it drives tannins. It does not affect flavor to the extent that radiant energy does. Radiant energy drives the change in the flavor compounds.”

The portfolio of wineries that Chris covers with his winemaking is focused on mountain fruit. “We have vineyards on Howell, Spring and Veeder [mountains] that have exceptional merlot and I was, for a while, blending it into cabernets because it adds interesting things,” he said. Explaining the evolution to varietally-labeled merlots, he continued, “but I like underdogs, and merlot is an underdog, and I realized I had some outstanding wines that were 100% merlot and I wondered why we were blending them away. Why do the French and the Italians have a monopoly on really expensive bottles of merlot at the quality level that really can carry that price point? Here in the States [we couldn’t do that]. And so a lot of what I’ve tried to do is to reintroduce merlot at that same level as we think about brands like Petrus or Masseto or Cheval Blanc to a certain degree, because we have those kinds of vineyards. If you’re growing it and making it right, you have the kind of quality here [in Napa] that we do with cabernet.”


IMG_2621

Case Buy: 2014 Freemark Abbey Merlot

This really benefited from a 3 hour decant, which allowed the tannins to smooth and integrate nicely. The modest nose features cocoa dusted cherry, light roast ground espresso bean, graphite, blood orange and faint camp fire. This is full bodied on the palate with juicy acidity and tannins that are initially broad and densely grainy, but which smooth around the edges with air. The structure has achieved a uniform feel. The flavors ride the boisterous acid with evident joy as they hit on red currant, plum, cherry, strawberry, graphite and dry dirt, finishing with a small floral flourish. 91 points. Value: A.


Pahlmeyer, a member of this pantheon of benchmark merlot producers in California, is like Carpenter keen on producing merlot that competes with the quality of the great merlots of the world. Cleo Pahlmeyer told me she believes that Sideways wasn’t the catalyst for the merlot market’s collapse, but rather just well-timed with a saturation of bad merlot in the marketplace. Cleo is now the general manager of the winery, which was started by her father.

“Our first vintage at the winery was 1986, and my father’s dream was to make a Bordeaux-style red wine. Back then, Napa wasn’t known as place for cabernet, so this was a relatively novel goal,” she said. “We made our first merlot in 1988 or 1989 after a barrel tasting with our then-winemaker Randy Dunn. He and my father came across a barrel of merlot [that was going to be blended] that blew them away. It was a complete wine.”

“There’s one merlot descriptor that I hate,” Cleo said. “It’s my snobby wine self saying this, but it’s “smooth” and I hate it.” She hates it because “smooth” implies a level of simplicity that merlot can surpass. Benchmark bottles offer more complexity and texture than the simplistic profile that merlot used to carry when “smooth” first became a widespread attribute of the grape.

Pahlmeyer grows their merlot at the higher elevation points in their vineyards, just like Chris’ wineries. “We grow our merlot on the upper part of our estate vineyard,” Cleo explained. “It’s at about 2000 feet of elevation and sits on top of the mountain. You can see it from vantage points along Highway 29. It gets a lot more sunlight and it stays above the fog. The soil has relatively poor natural nutrients and we keep the yields low by dropping fruit. The clusters are small, the berries are small, and so it develops great tannin and body and quality.”

In Washington State, north of California, merlot has held a special place since the early founding of the industry there dating back to the 1800s. “In Washington, they stayed the course on making quality merlot. They didn’t rip out vines, just kept growing and going. What goes into varietally labeled [Washington] merlot is the best of the best.” This is what Constance Savage of Washington’s historic L’Ecole No. 41 told me.

“Washington State is a great producer of Bordeaux varieties. We are actually a more consistent supplier of those wines at better prices than California. We have no coastal weather issues and because we get no rain, we can control the vines’ water intake [through irrigation]. We have great wind, our soil is well-draining. We’re further north so we get more light and our grapes ripen every year. It’s the perfect place for merlot. As merlot comes back, Washington is going to be the leader in quality.”


LEcoleCV

High Value: 2016 L’Ecole No. 41 Merlot Columbia Valley

The reticent nose offers an array of red and blue fruit, baking spice, vanilla and hot cocoa. It’s full bodied on the palate as the tannins are fine grained, dense and mouth coating. The acid is bright and juicy. It boasts an engaging texture. The flavors include blueberry, strawberry, plum, boysenberry, cinnamon, cassis, black currant and graphite. The more serious of the two L’Ecole merlots, it offers some upside with three to five years of aging. 92 points. Value: A.


Those are fighting words, but Washington State has been producing high quality merlot for decades, and L’Ecole as long been recognized as being at the tip of that spear. Washington wine industry people have long praised L’Ecole’s role in the industry but they’ve long been recognized well outside the state as well. Wine & Spirits Magazine put L’Ecole on its list of the top-100 wineries of 2019, the 15th time that L’Ecole has been placed on that list, making it one of 15 wineries to be included in it that many times.

“We’ve been in merlot since 1983 [at L’Ecole]. That was the first vintage at the winery, and we led with merlot and semillon.” Located in the southeast corner of the state in Walla Walla, L’Ecole remains one of the most consistent produces of high quality and reasonably priced wines in the state.

Coming from over two decades in the importing business, Savage feels that “Sideways obliterated the market for merlot. It was really tough until four or five years ago. But it improved the quality of merlot everywhere.” Five years after the movie, she began to realize it was time to start re-ordering merlot again because wineries “were really putting their best wines forward.”

“When I worked with the producers, we would talk about what to do with their merlot vines. [A common discussion was whether they] should they rename their bottles with proprietary names rather than varietally? Yet every year, when I would get my sales team of over 100 people together and get their feedback, in the early 2010s, there was noticeable turn-around for merlot.”

Ary from Duckhorn also noted the five year mark as an important one. “The last couple of years, merlot sales are way up – they are starting to plateau, I think, but the last five years, the number really rose, especially in the luxury merlot tier. Super premium merlot is selling better and better.” In 2017, Wine Spectator made Duckhorn’s 2014 Three Palms merlot it’s wine of the year. “The number one award helped push [sales] along, but it had been trending that way previously. It gave a nice boost.”


IMG_2627

Worthy Cellar Buy: 2015 La Jota Vineyards Merlot W.S. Keyes Vineyard

A nose more reminiscent of Saint-Julien than most of Napa Valley, the fruit is just spectacular. It’s as if an entire farmer’s market fruit section comprised of perfectly ripe fruit has been bottled in this wine. This vision is augmented by kirsch liqueur, cassis, cardamom, pencil lead and light roast coffee. It is full bodied with dense and well-tuned fine-grained tannin. The acid is similarly precise, and the balance stands up to some of the finest of the Old World. The flavors pop in an unusually juicy manner with blackberry, boysenberry, licorice, cherry jam and charcoal. This has two decades of positive evolution ahead of it. I’d wait at least six years to crack this one open. 94 points. Value: C.


An important element of L’Ecole’s business model, especially with merlot, is to “keep the price point low” and the quality high, Constance told me. “We produce 45,000 cases per year, which is pretty big for Washington in terms of family-owned, mid-sized wineries. We want to be able to move and sell our wines so we know the quality-to-price ratio needs to be great.”

Another top tier merlot house is Rutherford Hill, located in Napa Valley, where the grape comprises 75% of wine production. I spoke with their winemaker, Marisa Taylor, who started at Rutherford “right around the time of Sideways” and had come from making pinot noir. “Like pinot drinkers, merlot drinkers are very loyal,” she explained. “They seek you out, they hold you to a standard, and they’re rarely disappointed.”

“Merlot used to be a generic word for red wine, especially in a tasting room, like “Burgundy” or “Bordeaux,”” Taylor observed, noting that it’s still important to dispel this myth. “We try to show the diversity that merlot can develop by farming it in different locations and bottling single vineyard designates. For example, our Atlas Peak is very different from our Oakville. Our tasting room pourers do a lot of education – they actually approach it like a bartender by asking about preferences and choosing wines to pour.”

Cleo Pahlmeyer and I discussed the Napa price points and bang for the buck, and she offered a point of view I consider very on-point. “If you’re looking for a good wine with a budget around $75 and you want to buy a Napa cabernet, don’t buy it. Buy merlot because at that price point you’re going to get so much more quality and better wine with a merlot at the price point.”

Duckhorn’s Ary made a similar argument when I spoke with her. “Merlot has become really polarizing out there [because] there is not good mid-[price] range quality merlot. There is either really good, well-made merlot, or the flip side of that. Sideways was good in a sense that it helped weed out the less serious producers.”

On the topic of sales, Palhmeyer note that “we’ve never had a problem selling out merlot. It has a following that’s remained steady of the years in part because it is regarded as a classic Napa Valley wine.” Giving a nod to the role Duckhorn has played in promoting merlot, she said that because of what Duckhorn has done for the varietal, “Palhmeyer doesn’t have to do much.”

With merlot having rebounded significantly over the last five or so years, I wanted to ask the people I spoke to for this article about the grape’s prospects for the future. It has been well documented that Millennials, now the largest purchasers of wine in the United States, have very different buying habits from their predecessors: they spend less, are more experimental, care less about winery and vineyard prestige, want unusual grapes and seek out wines made using unusual techniques or technology. Merlot is expensive, traditional, found among prestigious producers and anything but unusual. It seemed to me that there is reason for merlot producers to be concerned about the long-term commercial prospects of the grape.


IMG_2618

Classic Example: 2016 Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot

A slight reticence on the nose tells me this needs at least another two to three years in bottle to come out of its shell. So far, it’s giving muddled cherry and blackberry, clove, nutmeg and scorched earth. An elegant medium-plus body, the tannins are nicely refined and line up well with the smooth and integrated acid. This has a serious structure that demands some patience. Serious loam and dry earth mineralilty goes well with cherry, blueberry, blackberry, dried seaweed, tobacco and blood orange zest. Already very tasty, this offers great promise with short to medium-term aging. If drinking in the next two years, decant this for an hour or two if you can. 92 points. Value: A.


Ary was the first to admit that Millennials are “a different market. They are looking for different things.” She explained that Duckhorn is more traditional than trendy, and that is in part because “wines tend to represent their winemakers. I’m more traditional of a person,” even though she knows traditional wine “doesn’t always appeal to Millennials.”

Nevertheless, Ary and Duckhorn are not planning to change the way they make wine in any big ways. “If our tastes didn’t evolve,” Ary noted, “then we would still be drinking sweet wine,” a reference to America’s preference for sweet wine for the better part of its history. “[Tastes] may ebb and flow, but ultimately if it’s a classic wine then it’ll stick around.”

Carpenter had similar thoughts. “Millennials are drinking different, more esoteric wines,” he said, which certainly seems true if you read the wine blogs and visit the hipster somm wine stores and bars popping up across America. “But there are not a lot of people producing these esoteric wines [relative to the size of the industry], and those that are don’t do it in big volumes. You can speculate as to what variety is going to go where and how Millennials will jump on it, but the fact of the matter is there isn’t any one variety or style that has started to dominate the Millennial demographic.”

Chris made an important point about not just what grapes go into these “esoteric” wines, but also how the winemakers approach them. “The wines I produce focus first and foremost on the land. These new wines that appeal to Millennials, however, are more about techniques than terroir. If you start to involve techniques or technology [that go beyond basic winemaking] , what you’re doing is you’re changing that understanding of the land. A lot of natural wines I’ve tasted, they don’t taste like the vineyard; they taste like the winemaker. Some of them are good, but my style is to highlight the land [rather than myself].”

This fundamental difference is key to understanding where merlot is going as a commercial product. If we look at France, where wine has been around much longer as a mainstream consumer product than in the United States, Chris noted that “traditional grapes and winemaking have done well for a couple hundred years. That’s because Bordeaux is the right place to grow cabernet and merlot, and Burgundy is the right place to grow pinot noir and chardonnay.” His larger point: long-term success in wine is about finding the right match of varieties with locations.

Every winemaker consulted for this article shared an appreciation for merlot as a blending grape as well. Carpenter blends it into several hugely successful blends and cabernet sauvignon-designates under various labels. “I use merlot to add complexity and another layer of experience [for the consumer].” One way it’s useful is in the tannin department as a way to smooth out, or “mitigate” to use Chris’ term, the heavy and sometimes grippy sensation of cabernet tannin. “It helps make it a little more texturally silky.”

Ary stated boldly that “it takes a good merlot to make a good cabernet. Merlot is good for midpalate, weight and plushness. It is the go-to for filling out a holey cabernet.”

Carpenter explained that “merlot has different phenolics, and by blending it you’re layering those in. That’s what I use all my blenders for [regardless of grape]. I don’t blend just for fun – though blending is kind of fun – I’m doing it because each one of those [five Bordeaux grapes he uses across his portfolio] adds something unique to the base blend of cabernet. It’s like a spice component in cooking.”

Many cooks have their go-to spices that they are always sure to keep on hand. For producers of Bordeaux (and Bordeaux-style) wines, merlot is certainly one of them. If you start taking a look at how much merlot is in the wines you already drink – especially if you drink varietally-labeled cabernet sauvignon – you may feel a bit remorseful about the last bad thing you said about merlot. It is one of the most important red grapes grown today.


Decoy

Crowd Pleaser: 2017 Decoy Sonoma County

A very fruit and oak-forward nose, giving cherry, black currant, plum, and toasted oak. It’s full-bodied with a smooth combination of tannin and acid, it delivers in the structure department and with just a bit of grip is made for a burger. Flavors hew close to the nose: cherry, black and red currant, black plum, baking spice, black pepper spice and a small hint of sweet mint on the back end. Enjoy this over the next two to three years with some simple red meat or barbecue. 89 points. Value: A.


And if you haven’t had a high quality merlot recently, you might be surprised. The wines I tasted for this article demonstrated compelling varietal typicity, senses of place, layers and complexity, refinement, elegance and, yes, intrigue. Some of them are better than many, if not most, similarly priced cabernet sauvignons. I make this last point because when it comes to food pairings, the Venn Diagram of merlot and cabernet shows a lot of overlap. If you placed the wines reviewed in this article in a blind tasting with cabernets of equal quality, the merlots would do better than many would expect.

So, heading into the winter when temperatures drop and we start reaching for heavier reds, it is the perfect time to give merlot another try. Let go of your previous notions of the grape, open your mind and head for the merlot isle (or section on the website). Take a deep breath, put a few in your cart and share them with your family and friends. And, pay attention to the role merlot places in the red wines you drink; it’s not by accident that talented winemakers everywhere use it in their best wines. Let the final few months of 2019 be the time you reacquaint yourself with merlot.

Other merlot reviews:

2014 Alcance Merlot Gran Reserva (Chile) – The dark nose boasts penetratingly deep sweet oak, maraschino cherry, smoke, black plum, black currant and cassis. It’s full bodied and lush on the palate with fully integrated tannin and surprisingly tart acid, which throws the balance a bit on what is otherwise a nice structure. Flavors are a combination of raspberry, strawberry, tar, tobacco leaf and ground slightly bitter espresso bean. It finishes with a slightly floral note. Were it for less sharp and better integrated acid, this would be a really enjoyable wine. 88 points. Value: C.

2016 Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot Three Palms Vineyard – The exquisite nose offers aromas of lilac, rose petal, crushed Sweetarts, dehydrated strawberry, boysenberry, loam, pink peppercorn and graphite. It has a plush full body with sweet, fine grained Earl Grey tannin that blankets the palate and fine, precise acid that establishes needed tension. The structure is elegant and refined. The flavors are deeply layered and more confrontational than the nose, offering sweet plum, strawberry, tar, bitter cocoa, loam, black pepper and cassis. This is an expertly crafted with great potential to elevate itself over the next 10-20 years. 93 points. Value: C-.

2015 Freemark Abbey Merlot Bosché Vineyard – The aromas carry a sensual air about it, offering sweet cherry, mountain strawberry, crushed gravel, smashed flower petals and potting soil. On the palate, it has a full and svelte body with tightly-woven tannin and well-balanced acid. The structure holds a lot of promise with more age. The flavors check in with bruised cherry and blackberry, mocha, clove and pipe tobacco. While enjoyable now with a few hours in the decanter, I think this will improve demonstrably with at least five more years of bottle age. 92 points. Value: B.

2016 Hickinbotham Merlot The Revivalist (Australia) – A boisterous nose, it wafts sweet hickory smoke, eucalyptus, chewing tobacco, boysenberry, cherry preserves and orange zest. It hits a medium plus stature, the tannins are long, dense and restrained while the acid is slightly elevated. The structure and balance are professional and suggest the making of a wonderful steakhouse wine. The flavors balance nicely between cherry, strawberry, plum, iron, wet dark soil, toasted oak and unsweetened peppermint that collectively produce a deep, penetrating wine. This needs a few hours in the decanter, or better yet, at least five years in the cellar as there’s more there to develop. 92 points. Value: C.

2014 Kendall-Jackson Merlot Grand Reserve – The nose boasts toasted oak, wet gravely soil, strawberry and cherry. Its medium bodied with bright acid and weighty, but fairly imperceptible, tannin. The structure is solid and mouthfeel smooth. The flavors mostly ride the juicy acid and come in slightly sweet: fruit punch, finely ground dark roast coffee bean and cocoa powder. The finish adds sweet orange zest. Easy drinking. 89 points. Value: B.

2016 L’Ecole No. 41 Merlot Estate Walla Walla Valley – The deeply saturated nose wafts dark cherry sauce, black plum, cassis, beef jerky, graphite minerality and smokey black pepper. It’s not quite full-bodied, featuring round and broad tannins that are well integrated and nicely balanced with modest acid. The structure is classic high quality merlot. Flavors are as much savory as sweet due to strong doses of saline and dried tarragon. On the fruit side there’s cherry pit, strawberry, Acai, red plum and dried goji berry. Structurally this wine is ready to go, I say drink over the next five years. 90 points. Value: B.

2015 La Jota Vineyards Merlot – The nose offers really bright red and black currants and plums, red beat juice, graphite and mocha. Just short of full-bodied, this is a flirty wine on the palate due to lip-smackingly juicy acid that feels a few years shy of full integration. The tannins are just slightly chewy and sneak up on you with time in the mouth. The components and stuffing are there to build a top-shelf structure with another 5-10 years of aging. Flavors hit on cherry, plum, currant, bitter cocoa, graphite and wet, dense soil. The finish brings a tangy and incense-driven twist. 93 points. Value: B.

2015 Matanzas Creek Winery Merlot – A very plummy nose that also offers graphite, black tea bag and muddled cherry. Medium bodied with modest, smooth tannin. The acid, unfortunately, is bracingly sharp and seemingly volatile. It’s just off. Fruit flavors are on the darker and purpler sides with blueberry, plum and firm blackberry, while strong doses of cigar tobacco and graphite provide variety. The acid being off doesn’t make for a pleasant experience. 84 points. Value: F.

2014 Matanzas Creek Winery Merlot Jackson Park Bennett Valley – The nose has a nice combination of black plum, boysenberry, muddled and mulberry-spiced blueberry and violet, though it has a slightly alcoholic kick at the very end that I imagine will fade with time. Its medium bodied with slightly thin acid and diffuse, fine-grained tannin. The structure has everything it needs to be complete but isn’t actually cohesive or substantive. Similar to the nose, The fruit flavors are blue, though the blueberry far out plays the boysenberry here. Mocha swirls around the fruit, as does pencil shavings and purple florals. There are attractive elements to this, but it’s hard to get past what feels like a missed opportunity to build a more substantive structure. 90 points. Value: D.

2016 Pahlmeyer Merlot – This is a stiff, tight wine. I ended up decanting it for 24 hours and it’s still very closed. This needs years. At the moment, it has a subdued nose of muddled cherry, loam, graphite, tar, turkey jerky and mountain strawberry. On the palate, it’s full bodied with dense and fine-grained oak tannin that coats the mouth and finishes slightly bitter, all the while overpowering the juicy acid. This has the structure of a wine that can evolve over two decades. Flavors hit on cherry, espresso, black pepper, cinnamon and dark chocolate. I wouldn’t touch this for another seven years (at least). It has tremendous upside. 91 points. Value: D.

2016 Rutherford Hill Merlot Cask Reserve – A potent nose delivers hedonistic aromas maraschino cherry, fruit leather, sweet dark cocoa, wet soil and graphite minerality, black pepper and sweat leather. It’s full bodied with significant fine grained tannin and juicy, sharp acid. The fruit is quite pure, dominated at the moment by red varieties of plum, strawberry, tart cherry and rhubarb. There are shadows of blood orange, cigarette tobacco and espresso grounds. This is showing a lot of promise, it will grow into something really impressive in another five plus years. 92 points. C-.

2015 Rutherford Hill Merlot Napa Valley – The nose features sweet aromas of spiced cherry and blackberry compotes, leather, cola and vanilla. The full body offers refined grainy tannin that is well integrated with modest acid that combine to produce a seamless and velvety mouthfeel. Raspberry, cherry, orange zest, spicy black pepper and bitter cinnamon. It’s a complete if singular merlot. 91 points. A.

2014 Rutherford Hill Oakville Merlot – This does benefit from decanting. The nose is perfumed and elevated, quite beautiful and delicate. It offers red currant, red plum, holiday fruit cake, loam, well-worm leather and violet. The full body is built on a dense and cocoa powder-dusty tannin structure and moderate acid. The flavors include raspberry, strawberry, under ripe boysenberry, dark cocoa, graphite minerality and a blood orange kick on the finish. This is tasty, but it needs 3-5 years to unwind and really express itself, and will then evolve nicely for another 5-10 years. 92 points. Value C.

2013 Rutherford Hill Merlot Atlas Peak – The reserved but elegant nose offers cassis, pipe tobacco, dark chocolate cocoa powder, cherry compote, violet and high toned blood orange. The medium-weighted body offers densely packed fine grain tannin that oozes class. It balances beautifully with broad acid. The flavors are only starting to delineate: ripe strawberry, red plum, red currant, moist dark earth, graphite, unsweetened baking chocolate and a tomato leaf burst on the finish. This needs a few more years to fully unwind. 93 points. B+.

Living Legends of Washington Wine

DSC06683

The term “first ballot hall of famer” is a sports term. I don’t know about professional sports leagues outside the United States, but in America each of the major sports leagues has their own hall of fame, and every year new members are selected by a group of electors. Many hall of famers don’t make the cut the first year they’re eligible, but those who do are called “first ballot hall of famers” and the phrase is often used to refer to active players who will undoubtedly be elected in their first year of eligibility. Last Friday I attended a Washington wine event outside Seattle and the room was stocked with first ballot hall of Washington wine famers. I fanboyed pretty hard.

The occasion was The Auction of Washington Wines. Spread out over several days and several events, it is christened by Wine Spectator as the fourth largest charity auction in the United States. This year was record-setting for the auction, raising over $4.1 million for the Seattle Children’s Hospital and Washington State University’s Viticulture and Enology Program. The event I attended, the Private Barrel Auction, was a trade-only event that a few media types were invited to attend as well.

DSC06751

Twenty wineries each donated a barrel of wine to the auction, but the catch was that each barrel had to be a wine that was made specially for the auction and would not be made available to anyone other than the winning bidder, meaning these were unique barrels. We were treated to samples of each in the lead up to the auction, and clearly many of the winemakers had fun with the project. When an industry-leading winemaker gets to play with a barrel’s worth of world class fruit, the results can be good. When they know they’re putting their wine up against their friends and competitors in an auction where the participants are retailers and restauranteurs who are considering only the sellability of the wine, the motivation to perform skyrockets.

Real quick, because I know some readers are wondering, the following wineries participated: Force Majeure, Delille Cellars, Forgeron Cellars and The Walls (a collaboration), Mark Ryan, Va Piano, Col Solare, Long Shadows, L’Ecole No. 41, Fidelitas, Woodward Canyon, Sleight of Hand, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Quilceda Creek, Owen Roe, Januik, Pepper Bridge, Brian Carter, Leonetti, Dusted Valley and Betz. All of these, in one room at the same time, with the winemaker from each pouring their unique one-off projects. Holy crap, right? Exactly. Januik was our wonderful host for the tasting and lunch, which was prepared at their in-winery restaurant by their very impressive chefs using a range of local ingredients. We later transitioned to Chateau Ste. Michelle for the auction. Kudos to both for providing barrels and such generous hospitality.

DSC06715

I made it through seventeen of the twenty wineries before lunch was served as I enjoyed talking to the winemakers not just about their barrels, but other topics as well, and couldn’t keep pace. The most magical moment came at Sleight of Hands when, after tasting my favorite wine of the day and catching up with one of wine’s most fun-loving personalities, Trey Busch, the legendary champion and producer of Washington wine Bob Betz stopped by to endorse Trey’s talents and have a sip of Busch’s wine with us. I couldn’t pass up that opportunity for a picture with the two of them.

DSC06720

The author with Bob Betz (L) and Trey Busch (R)

The vast majority of the wines came from the 2016 vintage, which Owen Roe’s David O’Reilly told us began early. He has about 10 acres of cherries that he uses as his indicators of when the vitis will kick off, and in his 45 years he’s never seen it start so early. He braced for a really hot growing season, but by summer temperatures had regressed towards the mean. By the end of August, evening temperatures were in the 40s and harvest stalled. This gave the fruit extended hang time, preserving aromatics and flavors. The end result are wines lower in pH than normal with extremely deep colors (this was very evidence in the samples). He described the vintage as “unmistakably ripe, but every element sings at very high levels.” Rick Smalls of Woodward Canyon compared the vintage to those from the days of when he started his winery forty years ago, saying that now, across the industry, consumers are getting real senses of place in Washington wines as winemakers and vineyard managers learn more and more about their sites and fruit.

DSC06748

L-R: Bob Betz, Ted Baseler, Rick Small, David O’Reilly

Ted Baseler, president and CEO of Ste Michelle Wine Estates, attributed this evolution in part to Washington State University’s (WSU) Viticulture and Enology Program, saying that when Michelle brought viticulturists onboard not that long ago, they needed five-plus years of training, whereas now, getting them out of WSU, “they’re turnkey.” Baseler, whose prescience of the Washington wine industry is well respected, predicted that in twenty to twenty-five years, the state would see an increase in planted acreage from the 60,000 it has today to 200,000 (nearing parity with today’s Napa). He also predicted a rise from today’s ~900 Washington wineries to 3,000. These are bold predictions, but given the state’s growth to this point, it’s not impossible if current consumer trends continue.

The vast majority of wines on offer were cabernet sauvignon-dominate, not surprising for Washington, which is best known for the varietal. The outliers included a 100% grenache dubbed “Duex Dames du Vin” produced in partnership by the female winemakers of Forgeron and The Walls, a very impressive 100% petit verdot from Mark Ryan, a Bordeaux blend featuring majority cabernet franc from Brian Carter, and 100% syrahs from Force Majeure, Sleight of Hand and Quilceda Creek.

All of the wines showed like barrel samples, which is to say far from complete integration and with dense, mouth-coating tannins. I’m continually impressed when I see highly descriptive notes from barrel samples as it’s a significant challenge to get into the complexities of young, brutish red wine. From a small but growing amount of first-hand experience, I still take barrel sample scores with a great deal of salt, but that said, there were some real standouts in this bunch.

DSC06705

Enter a caption

On the cabernet front, Long Shadow’s “Winemaker Selection” blend of cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot, malbec and merlot showed a lot of developing complexity and intrigue that, with ten-plus years, is going to be spectacular. Woodward Canyon’s 100% cabernet from 40-year old vines in Champoux Vineyard had a real presence with layers of savory flavors, cassis, blackberry, mocha and spice. Leonetti’s barrel was filled entirely with cabernet from block 7 in the Mill Creek Upland Vineyard. My first scribble is “oh my, good.” It’s dark, dark stuff with smoke, iodine and bacon that could be mistaken for a syrah at this stage, though it had the fruit, mocha, graphite and mineral core that one would expect from Walla Walla loam soils that I imagine will emerge more prominently and eventually dominate with time. Col Solare’s Estate Blend of 70% cabernet sauvignon clone 2 and 30% cabernet franc clone 214 offered refreshing herbaciousness and spice, and I imagine I’d enjoy this quite a bit in the future.

DSC06724

The three standout wines, however, had no cabernet in them. Mark Ryan’s 100% petit verdot was perhaps the most complex varietally bottled PV I’ve had (and it’s still young!). The nose was wild and briary, the tannins lush and already polished. The acid drove this pretty wine, delivering pepper, violets and loads of purple fruit. Quilceda Creek, known for its many 100-point single vineyard cabernet sauvignons, had fun with syrah in an effort that fetched the highest bid at the auction. They delivered what they described to me as “a cabernet lover’s syrah,” evident in its structure and mouth feel. Yet, it offered smoked meat and iron. It was very cool and quite delicious. The wine of the night, though, was Sleight of Hand’s 100% syrah from Lewis Vineyard that was raised entirely in concrete egg. Super funky stuff, it’s my kind of syrah. It’s level of polish and integration was the most impressive aspect of any wine of the day given its youth, and it will develop with time into something truly special.

As if this born-and-bred Washingtonian needed more evidence that Washington wine rocks, this event provided ample amounts. What it did expose me to, though, for the first time at such a high level, is the amount of camaraderie that exists at the pinnacle of the industry. No one in the room believed that Washington wine had reached peak quality, and they’re working together as much as anyone could reasonably expect in what is really a foolish effort to summit that mountain. The reality is that the mountain keeps getting higher.

Many thanks to The Auction of Washington Wines for allowing me to attend, to the wineries and winemakers for putting in great efforts to raise money for worthy causes, and to my friend Jesse for taking some great pictures.