froggie goes a’courtin’

Monday, November 09, 2009

It’s commonly referred to as Cayuse Weekend – the first weekend in November, when dozens of Walla Walla wineries offer their new wines. The town fills with tourists, restaurants are overbooked, and some late-comers find that the closest lodging is in Prosser – over an hour away.

Christophe Baron, AKA the Bionic Frog, the founder/vigneron of Cayuse winery, opens his doors for just these two days each year. Those fortunately enough to be on his mailing list are invited to visit ‘The Box’ – his name for his starkly industrial winery – to pick up their wines, and taste thru the wines that will be released a year from now.

It’s a remarkably festive occasion. Baron’s fermentation room is packed with people, all engaged in animated conversation. Volunteers man barrel table-tops, each with two wines to sample – roughly a dozen in all. Big, colorful buttons are designed and handed out each year – this time celebrating the Frog’s 13th birthday. A giant pig hangs overhead, appetizers are passed around, and hundreds of bright orange boxes – 3-paks of Cayuse wines – are carted out into the crowded parking lot.

This year was made even more festive by the remarkable ratings received in the latest Wine Advocate. Cayuse got the most high scores of any winery in Washington – and certainly among the highest of any winery in the world. Of 11 wines rated, the lowest score was a 94, given to the 2007 Viognier. (Perhaps it’s pure coincidence, but Baron has reportedly dumped out all his viognier from later vintages and will no longer make the wine.)

The other 10 wines reviewed, all reds from 2006 (last year’s release), received scores from 95 to 99. This seems certain to generate some pricey resale values, even in this down market. Though I have been tasting Cayuse and following Baron’s progress for the past decade, even I was taken aback by such scoring largesse. So it was with a heightened sense of anticipation – and a certain amount of trepidation – that I approached the tasting of the unreleased wines – two from 2007; most from 2008.

I can honestly say that some of these wines are the best that Baron has ever made. As a general observation, they were more seamlessly integrated, more perfectly balanced, more honed and polished, and showed less of the funky raggedness of some past vintages. As per M. Baron’s request, I will not officially review or rate them until they are released, but here are first impressions, in the order they were served.

Cayuse 2008 Edith Rosé. 100% grenache, “eye of the partridge” in color, a lively glass of pink grapefruity freshness. Though it was poured as the starter wine, I finished up the day with it, and clinked glasses with the proprietor (who was also enjoying it) on my way out the door.

Cayuse 2008 Flying Pig. 60% cab franc/40% merlot. Unabashedly herbal, loaded with cab franc flavors of wild blackberry and briary, earthy herbs. This showed more seed and stem tannins – ripe to be sure, but needing more time to soften up. Good length and balance.

Cayuse 2008 Camaspelo. 80% cabernet sauvignon/20% merlot. Another herbal-scented offering, this one dusty and hinting at black pepper, with pinpoint focus, tapering into sharp flavors of black cherry and pomegranate.

Cayuse 2008 Cailloux Vineyard Syrah. The original vineyard, now entering its second bearing decade, and showing more density and detail than ever. This was one of my top two or three wines – textural and lush, a stunning mix of wild fruits, pepper, sweet herb, kirsch, muted earth, lead pencil, and umami-infused “funk.” A showstopper.

Cayuse 2008 En Cerise Vineyard Syrah. The vineyard’s black cherry signature was immediately apparent, laced with coffee liqueur, and a bone dry minerality – a bit like sucking on concrete (really, really good concrete I should add). Balanced and showing an elegant frame, this exemplified my earlier comments about restraint and control, as the soy/seaweed components were done with finesse.

Tomorrow: my notes on the second half of the tasting, and further comments on the mystery wine of the day – an unreleased, neutral barrel 2005 syrah, tasted from magnum.

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