a true vigneron

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A frequent criticism of Washington state wines is that there is often such a gulf between the grower(s) and the winemaker. For decades, many vintners simply trucked grapes over the mountains to wineries in western Washington, making only infrequent visits to the vineyards in the east. This is much less common today.

Many of today’s leading wineries who began this way – Andrew Will, Betz Family, Cadence, DeLille, Quilceda Creek are some examples – now own vineyards and/or manage specific rows and purchase fruit by the acre, not the ton. Most wineries in the Walla Walla valley still purchase a percentage of their fruit, but that is a defensive measure, because so often the valley vineyards are hit by rather severe freezes.

Christophe Baron took a different course from the beginning. “I am a vigneron” he quickly explained the first time we met, almost ten years ago. Vigneron has a particular meaning in French that is not easily duplicated by an English equivalent. Essentially, it refers to someone who owns a patch of land, grows grapes on that land, lives on that land, and makes wine exclusively from those grapes. That is what Baron set out to do from the beginning, and has done since the 2000 vintage.

He planted where few had even considered planting vines before him – now some of the priciest land in the AVA. He buried canes when he couldn’t afford to, because it offered an extra bit of freeze protection. Following the devastating winter of 2004, many in the valley have begun to do the same.

Cayuse was the first winery in the state to receive its biodynamic certification, and since then Baron has expanded his operation to include a fully-functional biodynamic farm, complete with pigs, cows and draft horses, self-made compost, and all the exotic gear needed to make the biodynamic teas and other preparations. Meanwhile his vineyards have reached an age where the grapes are putting out flavors that are more evolved, complex, textural and nuanced.

Continuing with notes from last weekend’s preview of the 2008 Cayuse wines:

Cayuse 2008 En Chamberlin Vineyard Syrah. At first I thought I was smelling the chocolates being passed around the room, but a second glass proved the same – this has a noticeable chocolate/cocoa aroma, delightfully integrated with baking spices and fruit. It’s dusty, with a sort of sweet-edged minerality. In the mouth it’s full, almost fleshy, with wild strawberry and cherry fruit, black tea, jasmine tea, and – you guessed it – chocolate.

Cayuse 2007 Armada Vineyard Syrah. Noticeable pepper in the nose – a marker for both vineyard and grape – with good concentration, but less complexity than the other single vineyard syrahs. Not surprising as these are the youngest vines. Spicy cranberry, raspberry and plum, with light baking spices, clove and espresso.

Cayuse 2008 Bionic Frog Syrah. The Bomb. Quite fruity and tart upon first sip, with whiffs of sea breeze, kelp, and the wine’s characteristic funk. A wonderful umami tasting a few days earlier sharpened my palate to the umami-soaked flavors of this wine, which underscore a certain funky/meaty typicity often found in biodynamically grown Rhône syrahs. Layers of smoke, loam, graphite, rock, mint, bacon, cured meats just keep rolling in. This could honestly turn out to be the best Bionic Frog ever made.

Cayuse 2007 God Only Knows Grenache. This and the Armada were the only 2007s held back an extra year; I meant to ask Christophe why that was but did not get the chance. Neither made my list of favorites, though both were perfectly fine. This seemed lighter, in color and flavor, than previous vintages of GOK. Strawberry, cranberry, raspberry fruit and pretty hints of toast and loam were nicely woven together, but there was a noticeable fall-off in the finish.

Cayuse 2008 Widowmaker Cabernet Sauvignon. Often overlooked, the Widowmaker is one of the most interesting offerings from Cayuse, because it is not syrah. Fragrant, lush, loaded with wild berries, firm acids, and ripe tannins, this compact and concentrated cab has a long life ahead. It’s nicely layered and appropriately herbal, with the structure to age gracefully for decades.

Cayuse 2008 Impulsivo Tempranillo. This was the final wine poured, and indeed it is an immense wine. A deep, deep, black/purple, with massive tannins, it needs additional bottle age more than any wine presented. But in terms of raw ingredients, it’s a brilliant effort, and certainly can vie for best tempranillo in the country. Echoes of cured meat, salami and concrete reverberate through the finish, but mostly it’s all about that monster fruit.

At a private event staged by a group of Cayuse fanatics at jimgermanbar on Saturday night, a wide array of Cayuse and other cultish wines were opened. Having played three music gigs in 24 hours, and sipped dozens of wines, I put my pencil in its cage for the night. But I will mention one extraordinary wine, sent directly from the winery as a generous gift from M. Baron. It arrived in three magnums, unlabeled, but marked with a pen as 2005 CLX (Cailloux) Syrah.

“Vive le ≠ !!!” read an inscription across the bottom of the three bottles if you lined them up. The story I was told is that two barrels of wine from the vineyard were bottled separately in this vintage only – 180 magnums in all – and never released. Due to some wrinkle in the winemaking, these barrels turned out to be more floral and complex than the others, and the wine has achieved legendary status because it will never be sold. Dubbed the “Neutral Barrel Syrah” it was indeed the stuff of legend – extraordinarily dense with flavor, yet delicate as well, with piles of violets over layers of kelp, soy, ham, purple berries, clove…

5 comments:

Andy Plymale said...

Paul, does anyone know what is the ratio of Walla Walla fruit to "other" fruit bottled by wineries within the Walla Walla AVA? In our short tour of Walla Walla on Sunday, I was impressed by the number of wines that were from the Yakima Valley, Red Mt, and the Wahluke. Also, sorry to ask, but is the Cayuse downtown tasting room basically an expensive billboard, or does it serve some other practical purpose? Thanks! -Andy

PaulG said...

The Cayuse tasting room keeps a foot in WA. Christophe pays a double bond (so do others with vineyards/wineries in OR). Don't know about percentages, but WW gets hit pretty hard with freezes so it makes sense to diversify for most folks.

Andy Plymale said...

Paul, thanks, that finally makes sense about the tasting room! I can sleep again! ;) -Andy

Stan Thompsen said...

Very interesting post, thanks. Christophe is a very interesting, accomplished, and generous person.

The Tempranillo sounds quite good. Hope to have a chance to try it someday!

Winemaker Brent Charnley said...

Thanks for featuring and acknowledging some of the State's vignerons, or winegrower as I call myself. 80% of the work is in the vineyard; definitely the blood, sweat and tears. (sorry for the cliche)

Wineries who grow some of their own fruit should have the effort seen. After all, they have the corner on a little bit of their own terrior.

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