is washington pinot noir an oxymoron?

Monday, August 16, 2010


Anyone with an interest in the history and development of the American wine industry should have a copy or two of Leon Adams “The Wines of America.” The book went through many printings and several revised editions in the 1970s and early 1980s, and its author exhaustively chronicled the who, what, when and where of American winemaking from Prohibition onward. Though Washington and Oregon get few pages, the timing of Adams’ research was spot on – he was an eyewitness to the birth of the modern era of wine grape growing and wine production in both states.

I quote liberally from the revised second edition of the book, which came out in 1978. Bear with me a moment and you’ll see where this is going.

Page 470: “In 1966, I visited the Yakima Valley and saw several vineyards of such pedigreed varieties as Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. I was amazed to find the wineries were wasting these costly grapes, mixing them with Concord in nondescript port and burgundy blends.”

At the suggestion of Adams, Beaulieu’s legendary enologist Andre Tchelistcheff was invited to Washington, and tasted some homemade wines that were good enough to bring him back in the fall of 1967 to consult on winemaking at American Wine Growers, a precursor to Ste. Michelle. Page 471: “He returned to Washington that September, selected perfect batches of Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Sémillon, and Grenache, and had them fermented at controlled temperatures. He had the Cabernet stored in American white oak barrels, and the Pinot Noir in new Limousin oak from France.”

Page 472: “In 1961, [the members of Associated Vintners] planted seven vinifera varieties from UC Davis and added Pinot Noir vines from the American Wine Growers’ vineyard. [In 1971] they planted 20 more acres at Sunnyside with Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Sémillon, and Chardonnay.”

As it happens, Columbia winery (originally named Associated Vintners) celebrated a major anniversary some years ago and opened some rare older wines, including an AV Pinot Noir from either 1967 or 1969 (my notes, sadly, have been lost). I recall it being quite faint and delicate, yet drinkable and sound, at perhaps 35 years of age.

More pinot noir was being planted in the region now designated the Columbia Gorge AVA, including vines that went into the ground at Celilo in 1972. Miraculously, those vines are still bearing. Yet despite the head start that pinot noir was given here in Washington, it never quite made the cut, and today has been largely relegated to use in sparkling wines. The general wisdom is that Washington can’t make pinot noir.

This ersatz theory was challenged – let’s make that demolished – by a tasting orchestrated by Syncline’s James Mantone. He has been making small amounts of pinot noir from those very same Celilo vines since 1999, and opened a vertical of eight vintages, including 1999, 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2005 – 2008. All were still in fine form, with a distinctive style that was different from any Oregon pinots I’ve tasted, even those grown just across the river.

From the Syncline website:

“We first became acquainted with Rick Ensminger, the vineyard manager for Celilo, in 1997. We were well aware of the reputation for both Chardonnay and Gewurztraminer produced from this vineyard and were pleasantly surprised to discover the two acre block of Pinot Noir planted there in 1972. Since this discovery, we have given special attention to lower yields and canopy management on this block to create a distinctive and concentrated Pinot Noir. The vineyard sits directly on the crest of the Cascade Mountains on a bluff 1000 feet in elevation overlooking the Columbia River Gorge. This is unique environment where marine, desert and alpine climates intersect to provide weather patterns perfect for distinctive Pinot Noir. Rows are oriented north/south and the vines are trained to a Scott Henry trellis. Clusters are thinned to one per shoot with all shoulders cut off to maintain yields of less than 2 tons per acre. Soils are above volcanic loams and are dry farmed.”

It turns out that those early pioneers had it right, and pinot noir has as much chance to excel here in Washington as any other grape. But it’s a tougher nut to crack, and in many respects, it’s just getting going. More plantings in the Gorge, around Lake Chelan, up in the Okanogan, and in scattered sites in western Washington will hopefully bring a Washington style of pinot into focus in the next decade. Meanwhile, here are the notes on the Syncline tasting.

Syncline 1999 Pinot Noir
Celilo Vineyard – Washington State 13.2%
Fruit is still very good here; color is a brick/plum. Scents show some chicken manure (brett?), but with it comes plenty of pie cherry fruit. Light streaks of dried leaves, forest floor, good acidity and some alcohol burn. These bottles were moved once. All the others have never been moved. As it opens in the glass a sweet brown sugar scent emerges.

Syncline 2001 Pinot Noir
Celilo Vineyard – Washington State 13.2%
In just about perfect shape. Round, smooth, with mature berry and vanilla, hints of dried leaf, drying tannins. Soft and gentle, with a finish that fades gracefully away leaving a dried leaf impression, and a faint hint of cured meat.

Syncline 2002 Pinot Noir
Celilo Vineyard – Washington State 13.7%
More red and less tawny shades, more Bing cherry fruit flavor; a youthful wine. A hint of mint, and pretty, hard cherry candy. It’s softening up and rounding out, drinking very well with plenty of life ahead.

Syncline 2003 Pinot Noir
Celilo Vineyard – Columbia Gorge 13.7%
Color is deep and true, showing a little brick around the rim. Clean, still primary Pinot Noir scents, with the herbal edge common in Oregon. Well-balanced and a bit softer than most vintages, this is entering mid-life with all components in place, but a hard, slightly bitter edge to the finish.

Syncline 2005 Pinot Noir
Celilo Vineyard – Columbia Gorge 13.8%
A warm, fruity-driven vintage, nicely expressed in this fragrant, open, seductive wine. Lovely, spicy cherry/berry fruit, laced together with Provençal herbs, breakfast tea, and a streak of caramel running through a clean, dry finish. Really good right now. Re-tasted two days later, it was still drinking very well.

Syncline 2006 Pinot Noir
Celilo Vineyard – Columbia Gorge 13.8%
The first vintage bottled under glass. It seems noticeably tighter, more firm and muscular and youthful than any previous vintages. Could also be the vintage. Nicely softened but substantial tannins, big cherry fruit, some clove and coffee, excellent depth. Sit on this.

Syncline 2007 Pinot Noir
Celilo Vineyard – Columbia Gorge 13.8%
Firm, muscular, smooth and supple, with blackberry, cherry, peppery spice, dust, detail. A picture-perfect vintage beautifully expressed. Supremely elegant balance and mouthfeel, lingering into a delicate finish with cherry pit and earth. Best of the tasting, with 2006 and 2005 close behind.

Syncline 2008 Pinot Noir
Columbia Gorge 13.8%
275 cases
First vintage with both Underwood Mountain and Celilo grapes. Fragrant and fresh, loaded with an expressive mix of cherry, cassis, chocolate, cranberry, cherry juice, plenty of acid, but without the complexity of ’07. It stops short, leaving acid and tannin to hold down the finish. This will certainly benefit from additional bottle age.

23 comments:

Anonymous said...

Interesting topic, Paul. I agree with your thesis that Washington has the opportunity to create distinctive and first-class pinot noir. What about pinot noir potential in the foothills of the Blue Mountains near Walla Walla and Milton-Freewater? It seems parts of that area could provide perfect growing conditions.

PaulG said...

Anon, I know of at least one Pinot vineyard on the Oregon side that used to supply grapes to Woodward Canyon for a now-disco'ed bottling. But I am not aware of anyone putting in more Pinot anywhere in the WW Valley at the moment. Doesn't mean you couldn't find a spot that would work.

Rich C said...

I have a hard time with the line "Washington Pinot Noir" but it sure works when it comes from the Columbia Gorge. Quality here compares with the best of Willamette Valley. We have had wonderful results with PN from Underwood Mountain Vineyard - literally neighboring Celilo Vineyards - and looks down on the Columbia River and Hood River Valley from 1200'. First vintage was 2005 and 2008 just going to bottle.
I have also made PN for Phelps Creek from Gensler Vineyard (aka WindWalker - previously known as Bingen Wine Cellars/ Mont Elise Vineyard) - which wasplanted by Chuck Henderson (believed to be in 1968) - and is 1825' elevation at its highest. Ripens wonderfully each year though no idea what clones may be. Other notable Columbia Gorge (WA side) Pinot sites include Dampier and Jewett Creek vineyards.

PaulG said...

Rich, thanks for the great info! I had no idea that Chuck Henderson's vineyard was still bearing and had been re-named. Are these still the original vines, or has it been replanted? Dampier and Jewett Creek are new to me - recent additions?

wineeconomist.com said...

Great post, Paul. There certainly was interest in PN in the early days. Do you remember those old Chateau Ste Michelle back labels that showed Washington and France on same latitude? I was looking at one recently and I smiled when I saw that they shaded in the Columbia Valley on the Washington map and Burgundy (PN territory) on the French one!

PaulG said...

Mike, I love those old back labels. They are encyclopedic. One of my favorite Ste. Michelle's lists Benton County – not Columbia Valley, Yakima Valley, Washington state – as if that were the most important name to remember. Prosser and Beaune sister cities? Why not!

Rich C said...

Paul, yes, Henderson's planting is still original vines, now with great trellising - VSP - and managed for 1.5-2 T/A. Really beautiful.
Dampier Vineyard is also known as Huber Vineyard (The Pines and Cathedral Ridge also source fruit here) - I think these vines are around 10 years old. Jewett Creek just N of White Salmon - vines a little younger here.

Paul Zitarelli said...

Paul - It does seem that there are little pockets in Washington that are right for growing Pinot. The Gorge is certainly one. I suspect Lake Chelan is another (I'm day-tripping out there next week in large part due to recently tasting a fascinating, 12%-alc 2004 Pinot Noir from Chelan Estate Vineyards, and hoping to taste a bunch more Chelan Pinot).

I wonder if Evergreen Vineyard Pinot Noir doesn't have a chance to be special, too. My rule of thumb here in Washington is that the micro-regions that make killer aromatic whites can produce compelling Pinot Noir, and Evergreen certainly fits the bill (I believe Kyra Winery is currently the only one sourcing Evergreen Pinot).

Another area that comes to mind is that northern part of the Columbia Valley where the Neffs have Stone's Throw Vineyard planted. I'm hoping to chat with Heather and Dean next week about their thoughts on the potential for Pinot in that area.

1WineDude said...

I guess time will tell if the better examples and locations have producers that are willing to stick with it despite the PMS-style nature of PN.

Oh man, did I actually just write that?

Anonymous said...

I am an amateur on this forum, but I love good Burgundy. I tasted the 2007 Syncline on Paul's recommendation and immediately bought 2 more bottles before it disappeared from the stores. I look forward to comparing it to examples of 2007 Burgundy in a few years.

PaulG said...

Dude - PMS PN - I like that. It would make a nice name for a wine. The PMS Cuvée or better yet, the PMS vineyard (hot one day, cold the next).

Paul - For some reason I think the Evergreen pinot may also be going into Domaine Ste. Michelle wines, but I'm not certain. Give my regards to the Neffs. As for that '04 PN from Chelan Estate, I asked Bob Broderick why I hadn't seen any vintages after that. If memory serves, he's had some trouble and had to replant. Let me know what you find out, ok?

Anonymous said...

Breezy Slope Vineyard in Milton-Freewater has older plantings of pinot noir and until recently sold to Erath. The other Milton-Freewater pinot noir is Couse Creek (the one Woodward Canyon used to work with) and I believe Bergevin Lane is now taking that fruit. Dusted Valley has also done a pinot noir recently but I'm not sure where they are pulling the fruit from.

Anonymous said...

Part of Washington's sullied reputation of Pinot production stems from the clonal material that was made available from the Prosser station and UC Davis in the late 70's through the 80's. It was Martini clone and Gamay sold as Pinot Noir. If Pommard had been provided history would have been drastically changed and all the off vintages from Oregon would have been overtaken by her northern neighbor.

terroirist said...

There is spectacular potential for pinot noir at higher elevations in the Blue Mountains (1800-3000') and rainfall at those elevations is generally sufficient for dry farming. There are at least three vineyards currently producing pinot on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla AVA at elevations between 1400 and 1800 (Couse Creek, Alderbanks, and DeWitt). Some of this fruit goes to Willamette Valley wineries and is blended with those grapes - it's "Oregon pinot" after all. Besides the gorge, other potential WA pinot expansion sites would be the Cascade foothills, Okanogan, and Chelan - and don't forget they're growing (and experimenting with multiple clones and rootstocks) on Bainbridge and other wet side locations.

Anonymous said...

Has anyone tried Ginkgo Forest Pinot? They're saying it's from a small vinyard of Clone 777.

Don Phelps said...

Paul Zitarelli

Make sure to contact us at Hard Row to Hoe to arrange to taste our as yet unreleased Pinot noir made from grapes grown at Lake Chelan

MagnumGourmet said...

Hollywood Hill Vineyard in Woodinville is also growing a bit of Pinot Noir just up the hill from Ste. Michelle.

Anonymous said...

There are several vineyards growing PN in Clarck County (Vancovuer). The oldest one probably is English Estates. I've not had much of their product but I will say it goes better with food than a quaffing wine. (was invited to a 50th birthday party hosted at the winery where the winery selected specific foods to go with their various PN products)
My PN tastes tend to lean toward the CA products from the north central coast area.

Steve Snyder said...

Growers here are starting to craft very nice, but elegant Pinot Noirs from a variety of locations. 2009 was an excellent year and this coming Winter many of them will be hitting the market. New clones, rootstocks, training methods and better locations will all come together for a much superior product in the future. The Pinot Noir precoce clone (aka Fruhburgunder) is going to do wonders for Puget Sound red wine...

Steven Thompson said...

A little late to the conversation here, but wanted to add that it is a pleasure to be tending the old Mont Elise vineyard this year. Being dry farmed for 40+ years, the vines are amazingly healthy, balanced and should be a celebrated part of Wa. State wine history. The Columbia Gorge AVA is home to several of the state's oldest vineyards as well as interesting wine history.

Gail P said...

Sunnyside, WA and Beaune are identical in degree days. There are many areas in the Yakima Valley that can grow great Pinot Noir - especially those that shouldn't be growing Cabernet and other Bordeaux varieties.

The dry climate is ideal for Pinot Noir, a grape with a thin skin and propensity to rot.

Pinot is not easy to vinify like Cabernet. It is particularly susceptible to surface yeast infections. We had to dump our 'O6 because of that. I think the '08 is killer.

With proper clonal selection and vinification, Washington Pinot Noir will blow Oregon out of the water most every year. We don't have to pick because the weather forecast is for rain.

Erika Szymanski said...

It's fascinating to observe the chameleon-like nature of Pinot Noir in different environments. Really, if a total neophyte tasted a 1995 Burgundy and a 2005 Russian River Valley pinot, would they classify them as cousins? Some folks love the first and despise the second, others feel the opposite way, and others still enjoy both. With such variability, why CAN'T Washington develop a unique pinot noir style -- one that respects the character of the grape where it is grown here and doesn't try to mimic the versions produced anywhere else. Why not?

Anonymous said...

Pinot Noir has a home in Western Washington-specifically in Skagit County. We have been growing several early ripening clones with much success and look forward to wineries taking advantage of fruit grown in Western Washington.

Richard Hughes
A Cappella Vineyard

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