inside the head of... christophe baron

Friday, September 06, 2013

My most recent visit to Cayuse, to taste the next round of wines to be released, began, as usual, with a stroll through the vineyards that are directly adjacent to the winery. The property has been expanding, and now includes the 16-acre Armada vineyard, the La Paciencia vineyard (dedicated exclusively to the No Girls wines), and the recently (2008) planted, 2-acre Sur Echalas vineyard, the highest density planting in the Walla Walla Valley with 3' x 3' spacing equaling 4840 vines per acre. The first Sur Echalas grapes – Syrah and Grenache – were harvested in 2011 and will be released under the Horsepower label in the spring of 2014.

Along with the immaculate rows of manicured vines are large areas devoted to fruit trees, produce, chicken coops, and the care of other farm animals, all part of the Biodynamic bio-system that is the core of vigneron Christophe Baron’s winemaking philosophy. New to the whole enterprise is a huge hole in the ground, dug to a depth of roughly 15 feet, that will become the winery’s cave. Here, at ground level, the fermentation tanks will be installed, in time for the 2014 harvest. Below ground will be where the wines are aged. The existing winery space will become case storage.

Baron is nearing the end of his second decade making wine in Walla Walla, and it is no exaggeration that what he has accomplished is remarkable in every way. Yet he brims with plans for more.

The upcoming 2010 releases include a new Cayuse cuvée, The Lovers, with a Tarot card label and a beguiling blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. There will also be a 2011 Cayuse Viognier, the first to be bottled in several years. That vintage also marks the debut of the new Horsepower wines. The No Girls label will add a Tempranillo to the existing Syrah and Grenache. And still more interesting are plans to make Champagne and possibly Meursault.

Cayuse wines are sold out long before they are released. In fact, the current offering, for mailing list members only, is for the 2012 wines, which won’t be previewed until next Spring, and released in 2016. Our tasting included all of the 2010 wines, most of which had been previewed in the spring of 2011 and 2012. It’s a head-scratcher to wrangle notes from several previews, compare those early impressions with current notes from still-unreleased wines, then re-taste and re-taste as the wines jump through hoops after being opened.

With confidence I can say that, as always, Baron’s wines are fascinating, utterly distinctive, richly aromatic, supremely complex and completely engaging. They deserve high praise and high scores, although picking favorites is almost impossible as they constantly re-shuffle themselves. As we tasted, we chatted about a number of topics of interest. I’ll post my reviews on the blog on Monday; meanwhile, here’s a look inside the head of M. Baron.

PG: Why 3x3 spacing? You can barely fit a horse in there!

CB: That density – 4840 vines per acre – is to ensure later ripening and full physiological ripening of the grapes.

PG: Can you talk about the two new labels you are introducing?

CB: The No Girls wines are a shared project with several Cayuse employees. Assistant Vigneronne Elizabeth Bourcier will now be making the decisions for those wines. I am stepping away from the decision-making; it's fun to see what's going on without taking all the responsibilities of when to pick, etc. The vision of Christophe Baron is in Cayuse; No Girls is not about me. Horsepower is a new project using high-density planting. Cayuse is done growing. We’ll make 4000 to 4500 cases a year; that’s all. The Lovers is the last cuvée I will add to the portfolio.

PG: You continue to move away from using new oak, and have eliminated small cooperage entirely in favor of puncheons. Why is that?

CB: We fine-tuned the viticulture, we fine-tuned the creation of wine, now we are getting something very special. The oak is there, present, not over done. The French say it has a lot of mache - to chew - grip. There's a lot that comes from using native yeast. If you have ever inoculated a wine with commercial yeast, it's there forever. Commercial yeasts take over in your cellar, and you cannot talk about a real native yeast fermentation. But here we are truly using native yeasts. We’ve been ETS tested and they found at least one yeast they’d never seen before. The last time I inoculated with commercial yeast was in 2000 when I made the wines at Pepper Bridge. When we moved into this building in 2005 it took seven days for the primary fermentation to start. Let's talk about risk-taking here! It's a very different profile.

PG: Some critics have claimed that your wines have such high pH that they are inherently unstable and won’t age. Yet history has clearly proven that these wines do age, and age beautifully. In fact, I have never once had a Cayuse wine that had gone over the hill, or even lost its freshness. How do you account for that?

CB: We are Biodynamic! Some of the best vintages in the Côte Rôtie are quite often 4+ pH. When you have raw material that is alive, everything bonds. Acidity is not the only requirement for the wine to age. Minerality is also a factor for ageability. Healthy soil with fungus and bacteria is how you get minerality, through the micro-rhizomes into the plant and into the fruit. We believe in that and it's obvious. Hands off. Freshness. Stop using forces of Death. Go and learn how to farm with forces of Life, that transpire through the vine and into the fruit and you bring that into your cellar, then nothing wrong can happen.

PG: You’ve done some consulting locally, but are in the process of starting new projects overseas. How will that play out?

CB: I wanted to see what it was like to be a consultant. I didn't want to fly. But at some point you only have 24 hours in a day. I need to focus in my vineyards in Champagne. You will have a Pinot Meunier Champagne from Christophe Baron. It's going to take five years to get there. But it will be sold to members of the Cayuse mailing list.”

On Monday – a comprehensive look at the 2010 Cayuse and No Girls wines.


Kevin Pogue said...

Hey! Where'd you get my photo of Louis Barruol's daughter in Gigondas!

PaulG said...

Louis and I went to college together.

PaulG said...

Note - a few minor corrections to the original post have been made to fix a date and to clarify any possibly misunderstandings. The original vintage for Sur Echalat was 2011; it was planted in 2008. No Girls is a shared project with several Cayuse employees. And acidity, of course, is an important factor in the ageability of a wine; just not the only factor. i apologize for the errors, which were entirely my own.

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