south shore chelan

Friday, June 19, 2009

Washington’s 11th and newest AVA – the Lake Chelan viticultural area – was officially approved just three weeks ago. Occupying the far northwest corner of the sprawling Columbia valley AVA, Lake Chelan currently includes just 15 wineries and 265 acres of vineyard. The first modern-day vineyard plantings went into the ground in 1998, and a number of growers recall that as recently as 2001 they were advised by a U.S. government official that they were “wasting their money” on wine grapes – the vines would never survive the winters.

Oops. Yes, it’s early in the game, but still, long-time growers (of apples and pears and cherries) confirm that searingly hot summer days and severe Arctic blasts are few and far between, and virtually always less intense than in other parts of eastern Washington. Wine grapes, it seems, can do quite well.

Bob Jankelson, a retired researcher in neurophysiology, founded Tsillan Cellars (http://tsillancellars.com) with the goal of trying to steward and save the agricultural legacy of the region, at a time (ten years ago) when orchards were failing and “there was literally a bankruptcy a day. They were being picked up by developers,” Jankelson told me in an interview last November, “subdivided, and the south shore was an absolute blank canvas. There were only about six owners on the whole south shore (other than waterfront) due to large orchard holdings.”

He bought quickly and well, removed over 130 acres of apple trees (what were judged to be the number one red delicious apple producing orchards in the world based on color, sweetness, acid and pressure). “They were too far gone to save, so I removed the orchards and started planting vineyards,” he explained. The first 22 acres of grapes went into the ground in May, 2001; planted to pinot noir, that vineyard now belongs to the Karma winery. Tsillan currently has 40 acres in production, 135 acres total, and an imposing, Tuscan villa-style operation with music concerts and an on-site restaurant.

Jankelson agrees that his north facing vineyard slope is best suited for aromatic white wines, but he grows syrah also, along with experimental blocks of malbec, merlot, sangiovese, barbera and nebbiolo. He likens Chelan to “Mendoza [Argentina] with a big lake. It’s at 1100 feet. Stormy mountain six miles west is 8000 feet high. Syrah and malbec are the only two reds I want to deal with.” As of 2008, all Tsillan Cellars wines will be 100% estate-grown.

There is little doubt that for all these new wineries, their biggest asset by far is tourism. “The Wine, The Lake, The Life” boasts the Lake Chelan Wine Valley brochure (http://lakechelanwinevalley.com). True, real estate activity has slowed down, but not that much – it is still the cost of land, more than anything, that may put the brakes on winery/vineyard growth.

After spending a day touring the north shore, visitors can easily take in the other half of the wineries on day two. Clustered a bit closer together (the south shore runs out of viable vineyard land much more quickly), there are five stops in all. Just past Tsillan is Tunnel Hill (http://www.tunnelhillwinery.com), a stone building constructed of materials left after road construction blasting; Nefarious Cellars (http://www.nefariouscellars.com -- profiled in this blog on June 5th); Chelan Estate (http://www.chelanestatewinery.com -- the region’s remaining pinot noir specialist); and Karma Vineyards (http://www.goodkarmawines.com) and Cave (http://www.sagecliffe.com/Cave_B_Winery.htm). Those wines are being made by Ray Sandidge over at Lake Chelan Winery, but I did not have a chance to taste them (or to tour the cave, as the owner was quite busy selling t-shirts at the time).

To sum up: though the vineyards are young, the experimentation is just beginning, and the winemaking varies from polished and professional to, shall we say, unpredictable, the purity of fruit flavor that comes through in many wines proves already that the AVA’s climate and soils can deliver the terroir goods. The region’s apple, pear and cherry orchards give a clue – this is a place that can really ripen fruit. Vintners seem to appreciate that, and they prioritize the elegance that a cooler climate and slightly longer ripening curve can bring to wines; they rarely over-oak them. Except for an occasional oaky chardonnay, what I found throughout my terroir tasting were wines with lovely perfumed aromas, steely acids, bright and clean fruit flavors, and plenty of food appeal.

Final note: it’s heavy tourist season in Chelan now through the Labor Day weekend. A great time to go, but don’t just drop in, have your reservations in hand. Golfers – be sure to check out the gorgeous course on Bear Mountain. More information on lodging, dining and recreational activities can be found online at http://lakechelan.com or http://cometothelake.com, or by phoning the Lake Chelan Chamber of Commerce at 1-800-4-CHELAN.

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