Thursday, September 26, 2019

Going a Distance for Grapes

As a general rule, wineries and their vineyards are contiguous, or at most a few miles apart. Not so in Washington, where wineries in the western part of the state are separated by hundreds of miles from their grapes in the eastern part of the state. 

This long-distance reality came home to me in August when I spent two days traveling with my son, Sean, visiting four vineyards where he gets grapes from in the Columbia Valley of eastern Washington.  Sean is the co-owner and winemaker of Sightglass Cellars, in Woodinville. He and his wife Kristin jokingly say that Sean is the President of Sightglass Cellars and Kristin is the Chief Financial Officer. 

Each year, as harvest nears in Autumn, winemakers like to personally check the health and ripeness of the grapes they are going to get. For winemakers operating out of western Washington that means driving up to 300 miles, east across the Cascade Mountain Range and into the Columbia Valley where the state's numerous American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) are spread over a vast area. 

Our four-vineyard trip would cover hundreds of miles, which meant we had to get on the road by 5:30 am to beat the commuter traffic that crawled up and down the east side of the Puget Sound. In recent years, I had become used to sleeping in, so five-thirty seemed like the middle of the night to me. 

The morning was overcast, but by 7 am we were heading down the east side of the Cascades on I-90. As the sky began to clear, the sun was well above the horizon and the heavy dark clouds were now behind us. But we were still 35 miles to Ellensburg and a welcome pit stop and a cup of coffee.

About 30 miles past Ellensburg, we turned onto Highway 243, heading south to the town of Matawa, along the Columbia River. Last year, Sean got a couple of tons of Syrah from Stonetree Vineyard on the Wahluke Slope, outside Matawa. This year his Syrah will come from a vineyard in the Rocks, a sub-appellation of the Walla Walla AVA, in southeastern Washington. 

But, anxious to stretch our legs, we stopped briefly at Stonetree and then headed for Red Mountain and Artz Vineyard, owned by Kiona Vineyards and Winery.

Artz Sauvignon Blanc
It was mid-morning when Sean and I pulled into Artz Vineyard and we were ready to finally sample some Sauvignon Blanc. It was still cool, the reason perhaps why the grapes were still a little tart. Sean likes Artz Sauvignon Blanc because, as he says, "The canopy (leafy tendrils that shade the grape clusters) at Artz allows good shading of the fruit, helping to reduce sunburn and over ripeness." Sean estimated that harvest was still 10 days away. (He wasn't far off. The grapes were picked on Sept 3.)


Red Mountain has a reputation for red wine, but while we were at Kiona Vineyards, Scott Williams, his father John and sons J.J. and Tyler, set out a tasting of white wines for us that included: 2018 Sightglass Cellars Sauvignon Blanc, 2018 Fidelitas Semillon, 2016 L'Ecole No. 431 Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc blend, 2018 Kiona Chenin Blanc and 2016 Kiona Gewurztraminer.  

Except for the Gewurtz that was all soft and sweet lychee fruit and the floral Chenin Blanc with pineapple overtones, the other white wines provided a good contrast. Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon are often paired in dry and sweet blends, such as in Bordeaux blanc and Sauternes. The l'Ecole Sauvignon/Semillon was a seamless blend with good texture. Bracketing the l'Ecole was a deep gold figgy Fidelitas Semillon and a bright Sightglass Sauvignon Blanc showing hints of grapefruit rind. 

It had been a long day and while we would have liked to linger longer at the tasting, we headed to our hotel in Richland and a very nice Thai restaurant down by the river. 

The following day we were scheduled to check the grapes at Stillwater Creek Vineyard,  outside Royal City. But, as we headed out of Richland, Sean suggested a stop at the impressive Washington State University Wine Science Center. Opened in 2015, the center has a student winery, classrooms, laboratories and an extensive wine library. The Wine Science Center is a valuable resource for the growers and winemakers in eastern Washington as well as a learning center for those students entering the Washington wine industry. 

Next stop was the Conner Lee Vineyard, near the town of Othello. Conner Lee is a sprawling vineyard on a flatland, surrounded by acres of blueberries. The Chardonnay that Sean was getting from Conner Lee looked and tasted like it was ready to pick by mid-September.  Cabernet Franc, on the other hand, had not fully gone through veraison (the stage when grapes begin to change color and soften) and probably would not be ready for harvest until the middle of October. As we climbed back in to the car, I was tempted by the ripe plump blueberries, almost within reach, but they belonged to another grower. 

Our last stop was Stillwater Creek Vineyard, stretched along the Royal Slope, in the Frenchman Hills.  We were met there by vineyard manager Ed Kelly and his active Border Collie Sage, who stood by with a large grape vine in her mouth, eagerly waiting for someone to play toss-the-stick.  Sean couldn't resist.

Stillwater Creek Cabernet Franc
 Stillwater Creek is an important source of grapes for Sightglass Cellars. The vines are planted on a mix of fractured basalt and sand, an ideal medium for Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon. At the Release Party held recently at Sightglass Cellars in Woodinville, I found the 2017 Stillwater Cabernet Franc packed with  bright blueberry-like flavors, nicely integrated acidity and tannins and good length. 


The two-day tour of the vineyards was a good opportunity for me to connect the vineyards with the wines. For Sean it was another pre-harvest look at the grapes, one that would be repeated again next week.

                                                             -O-

Please contact me at boydvino707@gmail.com for my policy on submitting wine samples. Unsolicited samples will be returned to sender. 

Next Blog: Pinot Noir Two Ways 


                                                     




Monday, September 16, 2019

Enjoying the Pleasures of Syrah

Is there a red wine that bridges the divide between Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon?  Consider Syrah, a versatile red  with the soft luscious fruit of Pinot Noir and the firm structure and tannins of Cabernet Sauvignon. 

Syrah is the sixth most widely planted wine grape in the world, yet it struggles for recognition in this country, despite the fact that Syrah is planted up and down the west coast of North America. The attraction behind Syrah's popularity for wine drinkers in France and Australia, is its big ripe berry flavors, often with a savory back note. 

Although Syrah is grown along the Mediterranean in the south of France, the key spot is the Rhone Valley. Syrah is also a major red grape in Australia, where it (and the wine) is known as Shiraz. And Shiraz is preferred by many wineries in such far flung places as South America and South Africa.

So, it would seem that Syrah is not a Euro-centric grape, and a pair of long-held origin theories seem to support that position. Lore has it that the origin of Syrah places it in ancient Persia (present day Iran) near the city of Shiraz. Another account ties Syrah to Syracuse in Sicily.  But in 1998, DNA analysis blew away both theories, placing Syrah in southeast France, likely Provence.

(A Personal Remembrance: Facing down scores of Shiraz.  A number of years ago, I was invited as the international judge at the Sydney Wine Show, a week-long wine competition that required stamina and the understanding that at the end of the day, your mouth would feel like a war zone after a fierce battle.

I had previous experience judging at a number of U.S. wine competitions, mainly in California, so it wasn't like the Aussie organizers had pulled me in off the street.  Most U.S. wine competitions are organized by panels that taste 10 or 12 wines at a time until that class, which could be a couple of hundred wines, is finished. The Aussies give you all of the wines in a class at one whack.

The panel I was assigned to was led by Brian Walsh, then lead winemaker at Yalumba in South Australia. Brian was patient and generous, helping me to quickly learn the Aussie judging system. With my instructions and a clipboard loaded with tasting sheets, I faced my tasting bench with curiosity. A shallow plastic tub lined with sawdust, to absorb all of the wine I would spit out, was resting on the floor beside the bench. 

(Remembering a Champion Spitter!  Aussies are proficient and accurate spitters. On a previous visit to Sydney, I had visited the late Len Evans, a transplanted Welshman who became an Australian wine legend, in his office. Among the many things that bolstered Len's standing as a consummate wine man, was his reputation as a prodigious spitter. He who could hurl wine across impressive distances with great accuracy. During a lull in the conversation, one of Len's associates urged him to demonstrate his spitting prowess. Len was fond of collecting de-commissioned church items and had a holy water font on the wall near his desk. As we watched, he took a small sip of wine, sloshed it around in his mouth, turned his head sideways and let loose with a tight envelope of wine that sailed toward the font, landing square in it, without a drop falling on the floor.)

Clearly, with that memory fresh in my mind, I had to up my game as a wine spitter.

The bench was a high narrow table, with a white painted top on which were two sets of grids running the length of the bench on each side. Each grid consisted of fifty squares in three parallel rows, with the space inside the squares large enough to accommodate the base of a wine glass.  

This practical design allowed up to 100 glasses of wine to be placed in the center row of each grid. If a judge rejected a wine, the glass could be moved up or down one square. If the judge wasn't sure about the wine and wanted to come back to it for a second look, the glass was moved in the opposite direction.

Throughout the days of the competition, my panel tasted a range of white and red wines, but the class of 95 Shiraz from throughout Australia was my biggest challenge. Our panel had adjourned to decide medals for a previous class, then returned to our tasting benches. The sight of 95 glasses of red wine was indeed daunting.

The Australian philosophy is first look is usually the most accurate assessment, so there is rarely anything to be gained by re-tasting a wine more than once or twice. I began tasting, moving down one side of the bench, jotting my notes and moving the glasses, while kicking the spit tub with my foot. The exercise didn't take quite the coordination of riding a bike and chewing gum at the same time, but it was close.

Once all members of my panel had tasted all 95 Shiraz, we gathered at the panel table and discussed each wine, deciding by majority vote, to award a bronze, silver or gold medal, or drop the wine. All of the golds were then re-tasted by the chief judge, who that year was Brian Crozer, owner-winemaker of Petaluma Wines.  Most often Crozer agreed with our decisions, but occasionally he would over-rule and down grade a wine to silver.

On the flight back to California, I thought about the tasting and decided that while I had never put my palate through such a rigorous exercise, the knowledge I had gained of Australian wines and the fellowship I encountered there were immeasurable.) 

Fermenting Syrah
Back to Syrah...For lovers of Syrah, the best expression of the wine comes from the northern Rhone Valley in France, specifically Hermitage and Cote Rotie (roasted slope).  Hermitage has been a legendary wine for years and once was used to prop up weaker Bordeaux vintages. Today, although Syrah is grown in other parts of France, notably in the southern Mediterranean regions of Provence and Languedoc, Hermitage rightfully lays claim to the grape's origin. 

One enduring account of how Hermitage got its name comes from the word ermite, French for hermit. The story goes that a knight returning from the Crusades decided to build a hermitage on the steep bank overlooking the Rhone River. More puzzling than the origin theory is how the name ermite acquired an "h" to become Hermitage.  A stone chapel sits on the hermit site today, owned by Paul Jaboulet Aine, and its emblematic Syrah, Hermitage la Chapelle. There are other Hermitage wines, including Chave and Chapoutier.

The key to the distinctive character of Hermitage lies in the thin sandy-clay soils over a base of granite. The best vineyards are west facing and absorb the maximum sun reflecting off the river below, giving the wines a rich, deep flavor with a roasted overtone. It is this complex structure and flavor that Syrah producers elsewhere in the world look for in their wines. Of course, growers, lucky enough to have the right terroir, can make a great Syrah, but no matter how close the conditions are, it will never be Hermitage.

One place where Syrah does well is Australia. Shiraz, as Syrah is known there, works well in the warmer parts of South Australia, like the Barossa Valley where Penfolds Grange and Henschke Hill of Grace are iconic Shiraz. The wines are big and robust with ripe berry flavors and sometimes a trace of mint. Cooler climate Shiraz from Victoria and Margaret River in Western Australia, and even Tasmania.  Microclimate exploration and clonal experimentation are encouraging growers  to find new places to plant Shiraz. 

The history of Syrah in California goes back to the early 1970s, when, some say, the first Syrah was marketed by Joseph Phelps.  More recently, California Syrahs, with their ripe plummy flavors, are coming from the warmer parts of Santa Barbara County, Mendocino County, Sierra Foothills and Sonoma Valley. Cool climate Syrahs can be found from coastal vineyards in Santa Barbara, Monterey and Sonoma counties.  The stylistic distinction of cool climate Syrah is a sharper focus on acidity and less fleshy fruit flavors. 

Washington Syrahs have attracted a lot of attention in recent years for their well defined fruit and lack of the jammy character that often marks Syrahs from warmer areas.
 
A frequently heard criticism of Syrah is that it is often big and fruity, but lacking the definition of either Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon. Warranted or not, a lot of the Syrah in the market today is pleasant red wine, but nothing to shout about. Perhaps that's why U.S. Syrah sales are weak.  

If you like robust expressive red wines and have been avoiding Syrah, now is the time to give Syrah a try. Whatever your wine budget, there is a Syrah for you.

                                                                -O-

Please contact me at boydvino707@gmail with comments or questions and for my policy on submitting samples.  Unsolicited samples will be returned to sender. 

Next Blog: Going a Distance for Grapes