Red and Fresh: Tasting the 2020 Gimblett Gravels Vintage Selection

Gravel is a word used in conjunction with some of wine’s most hallowed ground. The gravelly clays of Bordeaux’s Left Bank produce bottles bearing vaunted names such as Haut-Brion, Latour, Lafite, Mouton, and Margaux.

After the example set by Bordeaux, alluvial soils are prized the world over for winegrowing, though only a few regions have used them to such great advantage. One of the other areas that has exploited its alluvium for fame and fortune can be found on the eastern side of New Zealand’s North Island.

There, where Heretaunga Plains back up against the foothills of the Kaweka mountains, the vineyards sprawl in wide swaths, interrupted by small streams and hillocks buffeted by breezes off of Hawke’s Bay, in a region that has been dubbed the Gimblett Gravels.

Don’t Call it an Appellation

It might surprise many to know it, but the New Zealand government only formally developed and legalized its geographical indications, or wine appellations, in 2016. This despite more than 100 years of winegrowing history and a modern wine industry that has grown steadily since the 1960s.

When the government did define the country’s wine regions, they chose to do so only with a broad brush, defining a mere 18 GIs, and ignoring the many sub-regional designations that had been in place for decades prior.

In fact, winegrowers in New Zealand have long been frustrated with the lack of clearly defined appellations in the country, which is why in 2001 a bunch of growers got together and defined the Gimblett Gravels Winegrowers Association.

Like other sub-regions of the area, such as Havelock and Esk Valley, people have been referring to the Gimblett Gravels as a distinct winegrowing area for decades. Without the benefit of a governmental designation, the folks at the GGWA did the next best thing. They went ahead and defined it themselves, exactly the same way that the government might have done.

The growers in the area sat down, argued for a long time about what should truly define the region, and then forged a consensus about the boundaries and definition of their place. Interestingly, they settled on defining the boundaries of the Gimblett Gravels strictly based on soil geology.

While Gimblett Gravels® is a registered commercial trademark managed by its winegrowers association, it is managed with the same (or more) rigor as many standard appellations around the world. If you want to have the words Gimblett Gravels on your wine label, you have to have a vineyard within the boundaries of the designated region, with 95% of the vineyard area having any of three defined soil types, and 95% of the fruit needs to have come from within the district.

Red and Fresh: Tasting the 2020 Gimblett Gravels Vintage Selection

The “map” of the district has been drawn to only include the three types of gravelly silt and loam laid down by the Ngaruroro River and observes no other political, geographical, or property ownership distinctions, a point that the Gimblett Gravels Association likes to suggest lends something of a simple purity to their efforts. If you’ve got the soils, you’re in (provided you want to pay membership dues). If you don’t, you’re out.

There are around 1975 acres of vineyards that fall within the Gimblett Gravels zone, the vast majority of those (close to 90%) planted to red grapes, with Syrah and the Bordeaux varieties dominant.

While moderated by the nearby ocean, Hawke’s Bay is the warmest of all New Zealand’s wine regions, and the Gimblett Gravels might easily be described as the warmest bits of Hawke’s Bay.

This shorthand, however, somewhat obscures the fact that “warm” for New Zealand is fairly temperate for most other wine regions. Compared to Paso Robles or the Douro, Hawke’s Bay still comes across as pretty cool, and you can easily find corresponding flavor signatures in the wines, especially the Syrahs.

Red and Fresh: Tasting the 2020 Gimblett Gravels Vintage Selection

An Idyllic Vintage

In a world where it seems like every year we’re hearing of some vintage disaster in one place or another, a normal growing year feels like a blessing. In fact, 2020 in the Hawke’s Bay region was near perfect, if only just slightly warmer than usual. No adverse weather events affected the growing season or harvest, allowing winemakers the rare luxury of making the wines they wanted to make.

That is, once they were allowed to make it.

Despite avoiding the fate of much of the world when it came to the COVID-19 pandemic, New Zealand was unable to keep the virus out of the country entirely, and when it did rear its head, the government dealt with it swiftly and severely.

This meant total lockdowns when cases appeared, which they did right around the time of harvest in 2020. Thankfully, special dispensation was given to winemakers, allowing them to harvest and process their fruit, saving a perfect vintage from a near-perfect disaster.

This meant total lockdowns when cases appeared, which they did right around the time of harvest in 2020. Thankfully, special dispensation was given to winemakers, allowing them to harvest and process their fruit, saving a perfect vintage from a near-perfect disaster.

Red and Fresh: Tasting the 2020 Gimblett Gravels Vintage Selection

The Ideal Case

For the past 12 years, the winemakers in the Gimblett Gravels Association have been putting together a case of wines (selected via blind tasting by the Australian Master of Wine Andrew Caillard), to send out to journalists and critics around the world as an example of what the vintage was like in the region.

This is now the second year I’ve been receiving this vintage selection from the region and I remain impressed with the idea, and with the wines, which are uniformly delicious. More regions around the world should consider offering such snapshots to journalists who don’t have the chance to visit as often as they’d like.

So here’s what 2020 tastes like in the Gimblett Gravels.

Tasting Notes

Be aware that some of these wines are made in such small quantities that they don’t end up in the United States. In other cases, the 2020 vintage of these wines has not made the journey to these shores. The purchase links below will therefore take you to any and all vintages of the wine that are for sale, including the 2020s when they become available.

2020 Church Road “1 – Single Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and hints of cola. In the mouth, exuberant and bright cherry flavors mix with a hint of floral perfume and tangy sour cherry notes that accompany boisterous acidity. This is just a cherry party in your mouth. Light, suede soft tannins and some dried herb and sweet oak notes make sure this isn’t all fruit all the time, but this slot machine is definitely coming up all cherries. 14% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $75.

2020 Church Road “1 – Single Vineyard” Malbec, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Very dark garnet in the glass with purple highlights, this wine smells of blueberries and blackberries. In the mouth, juicy blueberry and blackberry fruit is shot through with powdery, stony tannins and topped off with floral and dried herb notes. Excellent acidity and wonderful length, this wine soars across the palate. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $75.

2020 Esk Valley “Artisanal Collection” Bordeaux Blend, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of plum, blueberry, and black cherry. In the mouth, wonderfully vibrant black cherry, black tea, and dark plum flavors have a meaty-umami kick to them as well as a bright citrus peel acidity that lingers through a long finish. Fleecy tannins offer a light touch, leaving a faint sensation of muddy river water in the aromatic finish. A blend of 44% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 26% Malbec. 14% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $??

2020 Elephant Hill Winery “Stone” Bordeaux Blend, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
An inky, opaque garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry and earth. In the mouth, rich black cherry, cola, and black plum notes mix with hints of dried herbs and potting soil. Dark and rich but without feeling heavy. The tannins are very fine and tight, but not aggressive. I suspect this wine will blossom nicely over the next 10 years. A blend of 50% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Franc, and 25% Cabernet Sauvignon. 14.5% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap Score: around 9. Cost: $50.

2020 Elephant Hill Winery “Heironymous” Bordeaux Blend, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry, a touch of oiled leather, and meat. In the mouth, savory notes of black cherry and blackberry mix with a more bloody, meaty character that resolves to something faintly saline. This salinity, combined with the very good acidity makes for a mouthwatering package. Faint tannins. A blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Malbec, and 20% Merlot. 14% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: around 9. Cost: $80.

2020 Babich “Single Vineyard – Winemaker’s Reserve” Merlot, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black plum and cola. In the mouth, plum, cola, and cherry flavors are bright with juicy acidity as faint, fleecy tannins caress the palate. Excellent acidity and length, leaving hints of citrus peel and dried herbs in the finish. 14% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $??.

2020 Trinity Hill “The Gimblett” Bordeaux Blend, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dried flowers, black cherry, black plum, and blackberry. In the mouth, extremely juicy flack cherry and blackberry flavors are shot through with excellent citrus peel acidity as wispy tannins caress the palate. Dried herbs and bright citrus oil mark the finish. Excellent. A blend of 50% Cabernet Franc, 33% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 17% Merlot. 14% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $25. click to buy.

2020 Squawking Magpie “The Stoned Crow” Syrah, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of blackberries and dried flowers. In the mouth, the wine proves almost explosively juicy, with ripe and under-ripe blackberries offering a tangy, juicy, mouthwatering dance across the palate. Hints of dried herbs and flowers linger in the finish as the salivary glands kick into overdrive. Impressive. 14% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $35.

2020 Stonecroft “Reserve” Syrah, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of blueberry and black cherry. In the mouth, juicy blueberry and blackberry fruit have an astonishing minty freshness to them and a wonderful powdered stone tannic texture that fills the mouth. Excellent acidity keeps everything juicy and bright. Excellent. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $35.

2020 Craggy Range “Le Sol” Syrah, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of blackberries, blueberries, and fried pancetta. In the mouth, faintly saline flavors of blackberry and dashi mix with blueberries and dried herbs. Fleecy, muscular tannins squeeze the palate slightly, as excellent acidity carries the wine through a long finish. 14% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: around 9. Cost: $90. click to buy.

2020 Trinity Hill “Homage” Syrah, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of blackberries and blueberries. In the mouth, cool, stony flavors of blackberry and blueberry are backed by a fine-grained, powdered stone tannic spinal column that remains quite supple. Excellent acidity brings notes of citrus peel and dried herbs into the finish, and keeps the wine quite fresh and juicy. Regal and poised. Excellent. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $95. click to buy.

2020 Mission Estate Winery Jewelstone Bordeaux Blend, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cedar and cigar box, with dark red fruit underneath. In the mouth, pipe tobacco, black cherry, and plum mix with espresso and a touch of leather. Muscular, fine-grained tannins are slightly drying in the mouth. This wine needs a little time to integrate. Good acidity, with hints of green herbs lingering in the finish. A blend of 75% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 5% Cabernet Franc. 14% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $??

Images courtesy of the Gimblett Gravels Winegrowing Association.

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Vinography Images: Serious Syrah

Few places are better known in California for Syrah than Stolpman Vineyard in Santa Barbara County’s Ballard Canyon, shown here under stormy autumn skies. One of the few places on the Santa Barbara Coast with truly calcareous soils, Stolpman has been a benchmark Syrah producer for decades.

INSTRUCTIONS:
Download this image by right-clicking on the image and selecting “save link as” or “save target as” and then select the desired location on your computer to save the image. Mac users can also just click the image to open the full-size view and drag that to their desktops.

To set the image as your desktop wallpaper, Mac users should follow these instructions, while PC users should follow these.

PRINTS:
Fine art prints of this image and others are available at George Rose’s website.

EDITORIAL USE:
To purchase copies of George’s photos for editorial, web, or advertising use, please contact Getty Images.

ABOUT VINOGRAPHY IMAGES:
Vinography regularly features images by photographer George Rose for readers’ personal use as desktop backgrounds or screen savers. We hope you enjoy them. Please respect the copyright on these images. These images are not to be reposted on any website or blog without the express permission of the photographer.

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Carved From the Mountain: The Wines of WeatherEye Vineyard

Mark my words: the greatest wines Washington State has ever produced will come from one of the most ambitious vineyard projects I have ever seen in the United States. And when I say “will come,” what I mean is now is the time to get on the mailing lists for these wines (or go find them at your local specialty retailer) because they’re about to become some of the most sought-after wines made in Washington State, and perhaps the country.

Red Summit

Last November, I paid a visit to the Red Mountain AVA, where I spent some time exploring (for the first time) a place that I had written about several times previously. Most notably, I did a rather comprehensive, 2-part writeup on the region and its wines for Jancis Robinson’s website about 2 years ago.

While I was doing research for those articles, I got wind (pun intended) of a vineyard under development high up on the ridge of Red Mountain, and so when I finally made it to the region in person, I made sure to spend an afternoon exploring a vineyard project called WeatherEye.

But before I get to this project and its wines, let’s do a quick overview of the Red Mountain AVA.

Looking west-southwest across the Red Mountain AVA from the top of the mountain.

Red Mountain sits in the Yakima Valley region of Washington State which is itself within the greater Columbia Valley. This region of eastern Washington falls in the rain shadow of the Cascade Mountains, giving it a warm high-desert climate—one that gets one inch less rain each year on average than the Gobi Desert.

The geology of the region has been shaped by two incredibly dynamic and important forces. The first was the creation, 15 million years ago, of the entire Columbia Basin, which occurred when lava flows covered more than 210,000 square kilometers so deeply (up to 4 km deep in some places) that their combined weight created a massive, basalt-filled depression in the earth.

The second was the cataclysmic series of events from about 15,000 years ago, known as the Missoula Floods, in which ice-age glacial dams gave way, sending 900-foot-high walls of water and glacial sediments (and icebergs and car-sized boulders) rushing at 60 miles per hour across the northwest part of the United States. In the Yakima Valley region, these floodwaters were dammed up by a mountainous ridge with only a narrow opening (known as the Wallula Gap) creating a wide lake in which much of the sediment carried by these waters would settle.

Carved From the Mountain: The Wines of WeatherEye Vineyard
Looking up at Red Mountain, with the Col Solare winery and vineyards in the foreground.

The Red Mountain AVA then is 4040 acres of southwest-facing hillside descending from a ridge of Columbia Basin basalt, surrounded and covered with fine silt soils leftover from the Missoula Floods.

These soils have a very high calcium content, which over time has led to thin, calcareous encrustations known as caliche that coat most of the rocks in the area. The farther away from the ridge, the deeper the silty soils get, and the farther up you go on the ridge, the more you’re dealing with pure, volcanic, fractured basalt, as well as the fierce winds that whip across this desert landscape.

Carved From the Mountain: The Wines of WeatherEye Vineyard
Chunks of basalt covered in caliche at the summit of Red Mountain.

The Quieter Brother

The last name Myhrvold tends to mean something to anyone in the technology world and to anyone who considers themselves a really serious foodie. Both of those groups know Nathan Myhrvold, who was Chief Technology Officer for Microsoft between 1996 and 2000, after Bill Gates bought his software company for $1.5 million in Microsoft stock (you can do the math on present value).

Nathan was one of the most visionary thinkers of his time when it came to information technology, but would also go on to get a culinary degree and create a famous and groundbreaking set of books entitled Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, which instantly became the bible of the molecular gastronomy movement.

But fewer of those who know Myhrvold’s name and fame would register the name of his brother. Cameron Myhrvold helped his brother found the company that Microsoft purchased, and would go on to found several others (including the well-known venture capital firm Ignition Partners) after his tenure at Microsoft. But he has kept a much lower profile (notably, he has no Wikipedia page), despite being as savvy and successful as his brother.

Cameron Myhrvold does seem to share his brother’s interest in flavor, however, and specifically in wine. As long-time fan of Washington state wines, Myhrvold jumped at the chance to buy 360 acres of land high up on Red Mountain in 2004 when it came onto the market.

There was only one problem. The vast majority of the acreage was far above what most people considered the ideal plantable zone for grapevines, and part of the property even fell outside the boundaries of the Red Mountain AVA.

So for 10 years, nothing happened.

The Eye of the Storm

Eventually, Myhrvold connected with viticulturist Ryan Johnson, whose previous pedigree included the famed Ciel du Cheval Vineyard, Cadence Winery, and Force Majeure.

In 2014, Myhrvold hired Johnson as a consultant and sent him up on the hill to answer one simple question: how much of the property is actually plantable?

“After six months I put a report together,” says Johnson, “saying that if you were really ambitious maybe 25 acres could go under vine, but the thing to do would be to start with just a few fantastic acres and get a sense of what works, and what doesn’t.”

Carved From the Mountain: The Wines of WeatherEye Vineyard
Viticulturist and WeatherEye partner, Ryan Johnson

Johnson presented his report to Myhrvold in a meeting along with geologist Dr. Alan Busacca, whom he had brought in to help with soil analysis. Myhrvold listened to the presentation, said he liked Johnson’s approach and said he wanted to do it, but he just needed to find someone to manage the project.

“Then Busacca chimed in,” laughs Johnson, “and told Cam, ‘there’s only one guy in the state who can pull this off, and he’s sitting right there,’ and he pointed at me.”

And WeatherEye was born.

For a full year, Johnson wandered the hillside by himself, mapping out sites and making plans for what he increasingly believed would be a very special site, and one that might, with the right approach, allow for more plantings than he or anyone else might have thought possible.

Starting in 2016, Johnson began calling the most competent, dedicated, and daring folks he had worked with over the course of his career, asking them if they wouldn’t mind coming for a tour up a steep hillside of cheatgrass, yarrow, and sagebrush to the crest of a hill strewn with chunks of basalt.

Along the way, Johnson would paint a vision of what he wanted to achieve, and those who didn’t run screaming from the sheer insanity of the project saw a chance to create something magical.

Carved From the Mountain: The Wines of WeatherEye Vineyard
WeatherEye Vineyard blocks on the north side of the Red Mountain ridge, outside the boundaries of the Red Mountain AVA

With their help and a through a staggering amount of work, Johnson has now planted a total of 33 acres of vines on the hill across several locations, each with a different exposure, geology, and varietal mix, most on parts of the mountain everyone would have said was unplantable.

Changing the Planting Game

A significant amount of the acreage is planted to Rhône grape varieties, many of which, especially the Syrah and Grenache, are head-trained vertically along a stake in the en echalas style, and planted with meter-by-meter density, resulting in roughly 4000 vines per acre. Others are planted as head-trained bush vines.

Johnson meticulously oriented the vine rows based on the most accurate solar radiation data he could get his hands on.

“These echalas plantings are honestly a game changer up here,” says Johnson. “The vines shade themselves, preserve humidity, manage crop load, make better cluster placement, and manage the heat extremely well.”

Carved From the Mountain: The Wines of WeatherEye Vineyard

Johnson has left open corridors running through the vines that remain populated with the native high-desert scrub, wildflowers, and grasses, with sagebrush in, around, and between everything (as seen in the image at top).

“Sage is one of the most beneficial homes for good insects, and its volatile oils also help protect against some disease pressure,” says Johnson, who is taking a very holistic approach to managing vineyard health. He has additionally planted 3000 lavender bushes on the property and expects to plant more.

Carved From the Mountain: The Wines of WeatherEye Vineyard
Lavender and vines planted on the western side of the road leading up the property.

Across the 33 acres, Johnson has planted Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier, Grenache Noir, Syrah, Cabernet, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Graciano, Tempranillo, and Mourvédre.

“Our clonal diversity is our house secret,” says Johnson with a smile. “We’re using all the best clones and we don’t have a single monoclonal block on the property.”

Battling the Elements

Of all the plantings that Johnson has done thus far, nothing comes close to matching what he calls the “mountain monster” of his Mourvedre.

At the very crest of Red Mountain, taking a page from the otherworldly vineyards in the Azores and Canary Islands, Johnson has broken up the solid volcanic rock into cobbles varying from softball-sized to basketball-sized and scraped them up (with what little soil exists on the ridge) into hundreds of windbreaks, each sheltering an individual grapevine.

Carved From the Mountain: The Wines of WeatherEye Vineyard
The basalt rock windbreaks at the crest of WeatherEye Vineyard.

This was a preposterous amount of work for just a few hundred vines.

But there’s no doubt that such an extreme approach would be required to grow grapes on the crest of the mountain, where fierce winds rip across the ridge throughout the year.

The wind joins frosts, winter freezes, scorching heat, and various natural pests to make for what by any measure might be described as extreme viticulture.

“Great terroir should put up a fight,” says Johnson, when I ask him to sum up his feelings about farming in these conditions. Johnson’s farming regimen doesn’t necessarily fit any common label in terms of its approach.

“Cam calls it ‘Ryannic,'” jokes Johnson. “We incorporate many aspects of organic farming, but don’t limit ourselves to one set of tools. Our farming decisions must always consider the safety and well-being of our vineyard team as well as the long-term health and performance of the vineyard. Common sense (combined with experience) is key.”

The Fruits of Creativity

Exploring WeatherEye with Johnson is like touring a treehouse with the 10-year-old that built it. He can’t hide the passion, conviction, and pride in what he and his team of believers have created over the past 5 years.

“Things that were thought impossible, are now possible,” says Johhson. “Cam has allowed me to exercise my creativity with this project. This is 90% art, 10% science, and some experimentation thrown in there too.”

Not only has the team proven that grapes can be grown in places no one thought possible on Red Mountain, they have demonstrated that they can do so with spectacular results.

“Cam had enough confidence to keep pushing me along,” says Johnson, “with the belief that Field of Dreams-style, we’d be able to sell the fruit if we got it planted. My marching orders were simply to grow the best grapes in the world.”

Johnson seems well on the way to succeeding at that goal, according to my palate. Some of the first wines made from WeatherEye Vineyard are easily among the best wines I’ve ever tasted from Washington State. They possess a vibrancy of fruit, an intensity of perfume, a stony, volcanic depth that is frankly, breathtaking.

My first taste of these wines came after a day of tasting wines from some of the top producers on Red Mountain. My palate was properly calibrated to the wonderful qualities that this hillside can coax out of Cabernet, Merlot, and Syrah.

But then I put some WeatherEye wines in my mouth, and they knocked me back in my chair with their power, finesse, and depth. No one can have a handle yet on what this site might be capable of from a winemaking perspective—it’s too soon. But if the wines below are what this place is producing in its youth, I shudder to think what might be possible in 5 or 10 years, as both the vines and the winemakers more deeply express the mountain.

And who knows what Johnson might plant next? He now laughs at his original estimate of only 25 plantable acres for the site.

“In my defense, that estimate was made when the conventional wisdom was that it was impossible to plant the top of Red Mountain. Based on what we’ve learned (hard-fought, of course), we feel we could now develop double that acreage or more at WeatherEye. But I would need to take a very long vacation first!”

If he can manage to tear himself away from his magnum opus, Johnson certainly deserves it. But it’s pretty hard to improve on the local views:

Tasting Notes

In addition to the wines and wineries represented by the tasting notes below, WeatherEye Vineyards sells fruit to Devium Wines, Dillon Cellars, Sleight of Hand, Kevin White Winery, and Upside Down Wines. A number of these wineries have not yet released their inaugural wines from WeatherEye and weren’t able to provide me with samples. In addition, Johnson and Myhrvold have launched a WeatherEye Vineyards estate brand, with the wines made by Todd Alexander (of Force Majeure fame). They have recently released their first two wines.

Betz Family Winery
Carved From the Mountain: The Wines of WeatherEye Vineyard

Bob Betz MW is a well-known figure in the Washington wine scene. He spent 28 years at Chateau St. Michelle in various winemaking and executive capacities, helping to steer Washington’s largest and most important wine producer. In 1997 Betz and his wife Cathy started Betz Family Winery, which has been a standard-bearer for Washington State wines ever since. Bob and Cathy sold the winery in 2011 to Steve and Bridgit Griessel, but Bob remains the consulting winemaker for with full-time winemaker Louis Skinner. The Betz Family Winery has been a long-time supporter of the Red Mountain AVA, and has made a vineyard-designated wine from the region for many vintages.


2019 Betz Family Winery “La Côte Rousse – WeatherEye Vineyard” Syrah, Red Mountain, Columbia Valley, Washington
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of wet earth, green herbs, and blackberries. In the mouth, powdery, stony tannins wrap around a core of blackberry and black cherry fruit that is shot through with pulverized stones even as floral notes drift across the palate. Excellent acidity, outstanding minerality. Fantastic. 14.1% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $ . click to buy.

Valdemar Estates

The Bujanda Family has been growing and making wine in the Rioja region of Spain for five generations at their family estate known as Bodegas Valdemar. In 2019, the family opened Valdemar Estates, what they say is “the first internationally owned winery in Washington State.” The Walla Walla-based winery produces a number of different bottlings from around the state, including some single-vineyard wines from some of the state’s most legendary vineyards.


2020 Valdemar Estates “WeatherEye Vineyard Barrel Sample Trial 020-A” Grenache, Columbia Valley, Washington
Light to medium garnet in color, this barrel sample smells of strawberries, crushed stones, and dried herbs. In the mouth, bright strawberry and herbal notes are shot through with a lovely pulverized stone quality. Excellent acidity and basically imperceptible tannins round out the package. Notes of dried herbs emerge in the finish. Excellent. 14.3% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Note that this sample does NOT represent the final wine that will be released, but it was quite encouraging.

Latta Wines

Andrew Latta got his start in wine as a sommelier working in Thailand. His passion for wine drove him to Washington State where he worked as a harvest intern and cellar hand, confirming that what he really wanted to do for the rest of his life was make wine. For the next 15 years, he worked his way up to the position of winemaker at Charles Smith Wines. In 2011 he started his own label, Latta Wines, where he makes small batches of wines from vineyard sites around the state.


I tasted two barrel samples of Syrah from Latta Wines that the winery later decided didn’t represent what they were planning to release to the public, so I’m not going to offer tasting notes for these barrel samples, but I certainly can characterize them as wonderfully deep and powerful but without being too sweet or rich. They offered what I’ve now come to expect from WeatherEye fruit: namely a combination of stony power, richness, but also elegance. Look out for Latta’s interpretation of this site whenever he decides he’s ready to release something.

Two Vintners

In 2007 young winemaker Morgan Lee teamed up with David and Cindy Lawson, the owners of Covington Cellars to form a new wine label that they called Two Vintners. Their initial wines were the (at the time) horribly unfashionable varieties of Merlot and Syrah, but their efforts converted many skeptics to these varieties. These days the brand has a heavy focus on Rhône varieties (with a little White Zinfandel thrown in!?) sourced from around Washington State.


Carved From the Mountain: The Wines of WeatherEye Vineyard

2019 Two Vintners “Oliver” Red Blend, Columbia Valley, Washington
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of struck match, bacon fat, and a hint of black ad blue fruit. In the mouth, faint tannins wrap wispily around a core of blackberry, black cherry, and strawberry that have a slightly smoky aspect. A distinctly stony quality emerges in the finish. A blend of 70% Weather Eye Grenache, 20% Syrah, 5% Petite Sirah, and 5% Cinsault all from the Olsen Vineyard. 14.7% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $ . click to buy.

2019 Two Vintners “Weather Eye” Grenache Blanc, Columbia Valley, Washington
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon rind, Asian pear, chamomile, and a touch of summer squash. In the mouth, intensely bright and vibrant lemon, golden apple, and yellow herb flavors are juicy with fantastic acidity. Stony notes linger underneath the citrusy lean fruit that has a touch of bee pollen to it. Excellent. 14.4% alcohol. 100 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $ . click to buy.

2020 Two Vintners “Weather Eye” Grenache Blanc, Columbia Valley, Washington
Pale gold in color, this wine smells of white flowers, melon, golden apple, and citrus peel. In the mouth, intense apple and lemon peel flavors are bright with excellent acidity. There’s a faint salinity to the wine which makes it quite mouthwatering. A hint of herbal bitterness emerges on the finish. 14.4% alcohol. 110 cases made. Score: around 9. Cost: $ . click to buy.

Kobayashi Winery

Young winemaker Travis Allen and his wife Mario Kobayashi have been making tiny amounts of wine under their own label since 2014, all while he holds down a day job in the medical industry to pay the bills and help finance his passion for his “night job.” At Kobayashi Wines, Allen takes a decidedly non-interventionalist approach to winemaking, one which he says was heavily influenced by the late Sean Thackrey. He is highly focused on making individualistic, unique wines that stand apart from what he sees as the conventional approach to wine in Washington State. With input and advice from Rhône master winemaker Yves Gangloff, Allen’s micro-production, artisan wines have become something of an insider secret amongst the Washington wine industry.


2020 Kobayashi Winery “WeatherEye Vineyard” Viognier, Columbia Valley, Washington
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of white flowers, peaches and apricots. In the mouth, wonderful peach and white floral notes mix with lemon curd and grapefruit for a mouthwatering package, juicy and bright. Quite delicious. 14% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $65. click to buy.

2019 Kobayashi Winery “WeatherEye Vineyard” Syrah, Columbia Valley, Washington
Inky garnet in color, this wine smells of blueberries and blackberries. In the mouth, powerful flavors of blackberry, cassis and woodsmoke mix with tangy sour cherry and tight, muscular, fine-grained tannins. Excellent acidity and length. But young and needs some time to relax. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $85. click to buy.

2019 Kobayashi Winery “Sans Soufre – WeatherEye Vineyard” Syrah, Columbia Valley, Washington
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dried flowers, cassis, and black cherry. In the mouth, powdery tannins coat the mouth and surround a core of black cherry, sour cherry, and blackcurrant that is vibrant with excellent acidity and deeply stony in quality. The tannins flex their muscles as the wine finishes, with bright juiciness. 100% whole cluster fermented with native yeasts and aged in an old puncheon. 14% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $85. click to buy.

Liminal Wines

Some of my favorite Washington State wines have long been made by Chris Peterson at his brand Avennia Wines, which is a partnership between himself and Marty Taucher, a former Microsoft executive who teamed up with Peterson in 2009 to launch Avennia. With their brand well established and highly celebrated, Peterson and Taucher were beginning to explore the question “what’s next?” when they got an invitation to come take a look at a new vineyard site high on Red Mountain.

What started as the possibility of a new fruit source immediately turned into an obsession.

“We talked about it the whole three-hour drive back to Seattle,” recalls Peterson. “There was immediately this sense that it had to be its own project. It was unproven, of course, but we had a feeling that it would be worth it.”

Liminal Wines immediately became WeatherEye’s first and largest customer, establishing a joint venture that reunited Taucher and Myhrvold, who knew each other from the Microsoft days, and combining the prodigious talents of Peterson and Johnson, who are working together for the first time, having crossed paths for more than two decades in the upper echelons of the Washington wine scene.


2019 Liminal Wines “Weathereye Vineyard – High Canyon Series” Viognier, Red Mountain, Yakima Valley, Washington
Pale straw in color, this wine smells of apricots and unripe peaches. In the mouth, the wine has remarkable acidity for a Viognier, with lean and bright flavors of unripe peaches, golden apple and citrus pith. Juicy, and mouthwatering. With a hint of a savory note on the finish. One of my favorite new world Viognier interpretations to date. Native yeast fermentation in neutral barrels. Aged for about 9 months before bottling. 14% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $50. click to buy.

Carved From the Mountain: The Wines of WeatherEye Vineyard

2018 Liminal Wines “Weathereye Vineyard – Vineyard Series – GSM” Red Blend, Columbia Valley, Washington
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of boysenberries and cherries with a hint of road dust and dried herbs. In the mouth, boysenberry, cherry, and herbal/floral notes are swirling with bright acidity under a very faint gauze of tannins. Fantastically savory, dusty road and sagebrush flavors mix with the slight brambly character that lingers in the finish. A blend of 42% Grenache, 20% Syrah, and 38% Mourvèdre. Fantastic. 14.9% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $60. click to buy.

2018 Liminal Wines “Weathereye Vineyard – High Canyon Series” Grenache, Red Mountain, Yakima Valley, Washington
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of bright strawberry and boysenberry fruit. In the mouth, silky, bright, and juicy strawberry and boysenberry flavors have a faint dusty tannin to them and lovely dried herb characteristics that linger in a long finish. Outstanding acidity and just the faintest bit of heat hinting at that 15% alcohol. Totally delicious with floral notes in the finish. Native yeast fermentation, about 15% whole cluster, both fermented and aged in a neutral puncheon. Outstanding. 15% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $80. click to buy.

2018 Liminal Wines “Weathereye Vineyard – Block 16” Syrah, Columbia Valley, Washington
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of incredibly floral cassis and blackberry fruit. In the mouth, deep blackberry and cassis flavors are bursting with acidity and shot through with dried herbs and just the faintest touch of white pepper. Faint, cotton-ball tannins buff the edges of the palate. Sumptuous, dark, and gorgeous, with a hint of iodine in the finish. Fantastic and compelling. Comes from the highest planting on Red Mountain, but it is just outside the boundary of the AVA, so it gets labeled as Columbia Valley. A small north-facing block, densely planted, with en echalas training, picked on September 18th. Fermented in steel with native yeasts, and then put into an old puncheon, a new barrique, and a used barrique, yielding about 20% new wood. Includes about 15% whole cluster. 14.8% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $60. click to buy.

2019 Liminal Wines “Weathereye Vineyard – Block 10” Cabernet Franc, Columbia Valley, Washington
Inky garnet in color, this wine smells of black plum and black cherry with a hint of Nutella. In the mouth, juicy bright black plum and black cherry fruit have incredible acidity that almost gives some structure to the wine along with fine tannins. The tiniest hint of dried herbs dances around the dense dark fruit with some crushed hazelnut in the finish. Sees about 65% new oak. 14.8% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $90. click to buy.

2019 Liminal Wines “Weathereye Vineyard – Block 47” Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley, Washington
Inky opaque purple in the glass, this wine smells of incredibly floral black cherry and cassis. In the mouth, deep and powerful flavors of black cherry, cassis, cola, and dried flowers are grasped firmly in a suede fist of supple tannins. Excellent acidity and depth, this is a monster of a wine that can compete with the absolute top tier of Napa’s cult projects. This has some structure to it, to be sure, so give it 3 or 4 years for prime experience, but honestly, it’s delicious now if you’re into big-boned Cabernet. Fermented in upright barrels and then aged in 100% new French oak. “All the fanciest shit we can throw at it,” says winemaker Chris Peterson. Phenomenal. 14.8% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $125. click to buy.

Carved From the Mountain: The Wines of WeatherEye Vineyard

2019 Liminal Wines “Weathereye Vineyard – High Canyon Series” Syrah, Red Mountain, Yakima Valley, Washington
Dark purple in the glass, this wine smells of cassis and flowers. In the mouth, incredibly juicy flavors of blackberry, cassis, candied violets, and white flowers soar on and on. Faint herbal notes creep into the finish along with the texture of faint, powdery tannins that just barely tighten at the edges of the mouth. Contains 3% Viognier and the whole package is co-fermented in concrete. Stunning in its depth and profound aromatics. A showstopper of a wine. 14.9% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $80. click to buy.

2019 Liminal Wines “Weathereye Vineyard – Vineyard Series – GSM” Red Blend, Red Mountain, Columbia Valley, Washington
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of boysenberry and blueberries, and strawberries. In the mouth, stunningly juicy flavors of boysenberry and strawberry fruit mix with dusty roads and dried herbs including a dollop of sage. Incredibly fresh, bright, and juicy with fantastic dried herbs lingering in the finish. A stunning wine that I defy anyone to dislike. A blend of 38% Grenache, 36% Syrah, 26% Mourvèdre. A mix of concrete and steel fermentation. Native yeasts. 15% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $60. click to buy.

In addition to the above wines, I was also able to taste two of the 2020 barrel samples, both of which were outstanding.

2020 Liminal Wines “Weathereye Vineyard – Barrel Sample – Block 47 ” Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain, Yakima Valley, Washington
Inky, opaque purple in the glass, this barrel sample smells deeply of boysenberry and cassis fruit, with intense, supple tannins. Quite floral and bright, and powerful. Still has 9 months or so left in the barrel. Excellent acidity. Truly outstanding. Score: around 9.5.

2020 Liminal Wines “Weathereye Vineyard – Barrel Sample – High Canyon Series” Syrah, Red Mountain, Yakima Valley, Washington
Very dark purple in the glass, this barrel sample smells of cassis and blackberries. Excellent acidity, thicker, putty-like tannins. A faint smoky violet note lingers on the finish. Intense, complex, and delicious. Score: around 9.5.

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Vinography Images: The Change

After spending the whole spring and early summer growing leaves, vine shoots, flowers, and the beginnings of clusters, grapevines are beginning to shift gears and start producing sugar. Veraison, shown here on a cluster of Syrah in Santa Barbara County, is just beginning in Northern California vineyards, marking the beginning of a race to the harvest.

INSTRUCTIONS:
Download this image by right-clicking on the image and selecting “save link as” or “save target as” and then select the desired location on your computer to save the image. Mac users can also just click the image to open the full-size view and drag that to their desktops.

To set the image as your desktop wallpaper, Mac users should follow these instructions, while PC users should follow these.

PRINTS:
Fine art prints of this image and others are available at George Rose’s website.

EDITORIAL USE:
To purchase copies of George’s photos for editorial, web, or advertising use, please contact Getty Images.

ABOUT VINOGRAPHY IMAGES:
Vinography regularly features images by photographer George Rose for readers’ personal use as desktop backgrounds or screen savers. We hope you enjoy them. Please respect the copyright on these images. These images are not to be reposted on any website or blog without the express permission of the photographer.

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Vinography Images: Seeking Tendrils

Green tendrils of new growth on a Syrah vine make fractal shapes against a gray spring sky in Santa Barbara County. Recent frosts and hailstorms notwithstanding, California’s vines are growing their way through their vegetative stage, towards the point of flowering which usually occurs in early June.

INSTRUCTIONS:
Download this image by right-clicking on the image and selecting “save link as” or “save target as” and then select the desired location on your computer to save the image. Mac users can also just click the image to open the full-size view and drag that to their desktops.

To set the image as your desktop wallpaper, Mac users should follow these instructions, while PC users should follow these.

PRINTS:
Fine art prints of this image and others are available at George Rose’s website.

EDITORIAL USE:
To purchase copies of George’s photos for editorial, web, or advertising use, please contact Getty Images.

ABOUT VINOGRAPHY IMAGES:
Vinography regularly features images by photographer George Rose for readers’ personal use as desktop backgrounds or screen savers. We hope you enjoy them. Please respect the copyright on these images. These images are not to be reposted on any website or blog without the express permission of the photographer.

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Stony South: Tasting the 2019 Gimblett Gravels Vintage Selection

In a country filled with utterly spectacular wine regions, the Gimblett Gravels district of Hawke’s Bay can’t compete for the most picturesque. But this little patchwork of vineyards laid over the alluvium of an old stony riverbed has clearly established itself as one of New Zealand’s most distinctive terroirs.

That’s not to say, of course, that the Gimblett Gravels aren’t beautiful. The Heretaunga Plains back up against the foothills of the Kaweka mountains, and the green vineyards spread here and there, interrupted by small streams and hillocks. Like almost everywhere in New Zealand, it’s damn pretty.

But the real magic of the Gravels manifests in the wines: the spectacular Syrahs and other red wines that grow there, with their refined balance of energy, power, and freshness.

Don’t Call it an Appellation

While the Gimblett Gravels is commonly recognized as a sub-region of Hawke’s Bay, along with several other areas, such as Havelock and Esk Valley, like those other sub-regions, the Gimblett Gravels is not a legally defined geographical indication of New Zealand established by the government. It’s not an appellation, or rather, it’s only a commercial one.

Gimblett Gravels® a registered commercial trademark managed by the Gimblett Gravels Winegrowers Association. If you want to have the words Gimblett Gravels on your wine label, you have to have a vineyard within the boundaries of the designated region, with 95% of the vineyard area having any of three defined soil types, and 95% of the fruit needs to have come from within the district.

Interestingly, the boundaries of the Gimblett Gravels district have been defined strictly based on soil geology and no other factors. While the region’s name and qualifications have been defined by private enterprise, so to speak, the district itself has been defined purely from a geologic standpoint.

Stony South: Tasting the 2019 Gimblett Gravels Vintage Selection

Specifically, the Gimblett Gravels are three types of gravelly silt and loam laid down by the Ngaruroro River, and not the Taupo pumice sands which are the other dominant soil type nearby.

The “map” of the district has been drawn to only include these gravelly soils, and observes no other political, geographical, or property ownership distinctions, a point that the Gimblett Gravels Association likes to suggest lends something of a simple purity to their efforts. If you’ve got the soils, you’re in (provided you want to pay membership dues). If you don’t, you’re out.

There are around 1975 acres of vineyards that fall within the Gimblett Gravels zone, the vast majority of those (close to 90%) planted to red grapes, with Syrah and the Bordeaux varieties dominant.

Between the gravelly soils and the maritime climate (the region is less than 10 miles from the ocean) comparisons with Bordeaux are often made, though generally Hawke’s Bay sees milder weather than Bordeaux.

In fact, Hawke’s Bay is the warmest of all New Zealand’s wine regions, and the Gimblett Gravels might easily be described as the warmest bits of Hawke’s Bay. This shorthand, however, somewhat obscures the fact that “warm” for New Zealand is fairly temperate for most other wine regions. Compared to Paso Robles or the Douro, Hawke’s Bay still comes across as pretty cool, and you can easily find corresponding flavor signatures in the wines, especially the Syrahs.

Stony South: Tasting the 2019 Gimblett Gravels Vintage Selection

I Could Drink a Case of You

Apparently, for the past 11 years, the winemakers in the Gimblett Gravels Association have been putting together a case of wines, selected by an independent third party (this year, it was Australian Master of Wine Andrew Caillard), to send out to journalists and critics around the world as an example of what the vintage was like in the region.

I’ve been receiving wine samples for nearly 18 years now, and this is the first time I’ve gotten a box of wine quite like this. I’ve certainly received a case of this, or a case of that, over the years. Sometimes a producer wants to send me all their wines. Sometimes a regional marketing body wants to send me a bunch of samples. Sometimes I’ve asked for a example set of wines from a particular place or of a certain style. But all those 12-bottle boxes, even when from different producers, are usually dictated by by an importer’s portfolio, or what an associations inventory of samples is at the moment. I can’t recall ever getting a collection of wines deliberately selected to be standard-bearers for an entire region and vintage where quality was the sole selection criteria.

It’s frankly a brilliant idea, especially for smaller, farther-flung wine regions that don’t necessarily get regular annual visits from a large number of journalists around the world. I’ve only managed to visit the Hawke’s Bay region twice in the last 15 years or so, and while I get an occasional sample of this or that from the region, I don’t have the opportunity to taste widely on a regular basis.

This box of 12 wines from the 2019 vintage was, therefore, a particularly appealing prospect when it arrived on my doorstep.

The 2019 vintage was pretty good, say the folks from the region. The year was mostly without incident, despite being overall warmer and wetter than average.

The growing season started with a fairly wet and warm spring, which resulted in some shatter during flowering, which reduced yields for the year by an estimated 15-20%. Summer lacked any of the damaging hail that can sometimes plague the region, though thunderstorms brought more moisture and some disease pressure as a result as temperatures warmed towards fall. As autumn progressed, things dried out nicely and the weather stayed quite temperate, allowing an unhurried harvest and excellent maturation time.

I found the wines generally to be well-balanced, with the refined tannins and good acid levels that can be achieved when winemakers get to work a harvest without much pressure.

Tasting through these bottles was frankly a delight, and made me miss New Zealand terribly. I hope to return before too long, though exactly how long that will be may be more up to COVID than it is up to me.

Stony South: Tasting the 2019 Gimblett Gravels Vintage Selection

Tasting Notes:

Be aware that in many cases, the 2019 vintage of these wines have not yet made it to America’s shores. The purchase links below, will therefore take you to any and all vintages of the wine that are for sale, including the 2019s when they become available.

Stony South: Tasting the 2019 Gimblett Gravels Vintage Selection

2019 Elephant Hill “Heironymus” Red Blend, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Very dark garnet in color, this wine smells of smoked meats and a touch of barnyard. In the mouth, black cherry, plum, and dusty earth flavors have a touch of leather and dashi that seem to me to be a little bit of the Brettanomyces yeast, albeit an amount that adds a grace note rather than being a dominant flaw. Nice acidity and length, and I enjoy the saline quality of the wine. A blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 29% Cabernet Franc, and 11% Merlot. Aged 25 months in 67% new French oak. 13.5% alcohol. 435 cases made. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $70. click to buy.

2019 Pask “Declaration” Merlot, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of plum, plum skin, and cocoa powder. In the mouth, bright plum and cherry flavors are shot through with cedar and oak along with touches of cocoa powder and cola. Good acidity and length. Spends 16 months in 50% new French oak. 13% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $30. click to buy.

2019 Trinity Hill “The Gimblett” Red Blend, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of wet earth, black cherry, and forest floor. In the mouth, savory notes of earth and black cherry mix with cola and licorice as faint, powdery tannins add texture and muscle. Excellent acidity. A darker brooding flavor profile, but with elegance thanks to the acidity and faint tannins. Lovely dried herbal notes linger in the finish. A blend of 54% Cabernet Sauvignon and 43% Cabernet Franc and 3% Tempranillo that spends 20 months in 53% new French Oak. 13.5% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $25. click to buy.

2019 Squawking Magpie “Stoned Crow” Syrah, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of blackberry, black pepper, and white pepper. In the mouth, juicy and bright blackberry and blueberry fruit mix with dried herbs and a touch of white pepper for a classic cool-climate profile. Excellent acidity and barely perceptible tannins. Elegant and lovely. Aged for 18 months in 30% new French oak. 13.7% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: around 9. Cost: $30. click to buy.

Stony South: Tasting the 2019 Gimblett Gravels Vintage Selection

2019 Squawking Magpie “The Nest” Red Blend, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and plum with hints of cola nut. In the mouth, cherry and tobacco notes mix with cola and a touch of plum skin amidst bright acidity and the faint grip of powdery tannins. Bright and tasty. A blend of 58% Merlot,17% Cabernet Franc, and 25% Cabernet Sauvignon aged in 30% new French oak for 18 months. 13.9% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: around 9. Cost: $30. click to buy.

2019 Mission “Jewelstone” Syrah, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of blackberry and dried herbs with a touch of white pepper. In the mouth, silky-textured flavors of blackberry and white pepper mix with dried herbs and a touch of licorice root. Excellent acidity and the finest, powdery tannins that can barely be felt round out the package. Elegant, with the white pepper and herbs dominating the finish. Spends 12 months in 23% new French oak. 14% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $40. click to buy.

2019 Esk Valley Red Blend, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of cherry, plum, and crushed stones. In the mouth, wonderfully stony flavors of cherry, plum, and a touch of earth are wrapped in a faint fleecy blanket of tannins. Wonderfully stony, with bright acidity keeping the fruit fresh and snappy. A blend of 47% Merlot, 38% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 15% Malbec fermented in concrete and aged in 10% new French Oak for 12 months. 14% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: around 9. Cost: $20. click to buy.

2019 Esk Valley “Great Dirt River Gravels” Red Blend, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of black plum and black cherry. In the mouth, cherry, blueberry, and cola flavors are wrapped in a light suede blanket of tannins as excellent acidity brings a nice citrus peel note to the wine. Faint herbal notes linger in the finish with a beautiful roasted and candied nut quality. A blend of 39% Merlot, 31% Malbec, and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon aged for 19 months in 45% new French oak. 14% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $40. click to buy.

2019 Mission “Jewelstone – Antoine” Red Blend, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry, chopped green herbs, and tobacco leaf. In the mouth, juicy flavors of cherry and plum have a faintly salty savory note as chopped green herbs and tobacco leaf come into the picture. Exceedingly fine tannins coat the mouth and have an athletic musculature. Lovely aromatic finish. Very regal wine. A blend of 74% Cabernet Sauvignon and 26% Merlot that spends 12 months in 40% new French oak. 14% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $33. click to buy.

Stony South: Tasting the 2019 Gimblett Gravels Vintage Selection

2019 Smith & Sheth “Cru Heretaunga” Syrah, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black fruits and white pepper. In the mouth, wonderfully saline flavors of blackberry bramble mix with white pepper and chopped green herbs amidst boisterous acidity that keeps the whole package crunchy and lean. Woody green notes that suggest some whole-cluster fermentation linger in the finish. Barely perceptible tannins. Lovely. Spends 14 months in 35% new French oak. 13.5% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $54. click to buy.

2019 Craggy Range “Gimblett Gravels Vineyard” Syrah, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Dark purple in the glass, this wine smells of blueberries and white pepper. In the mouth. Juicy and bright blueberry, blackberry, and white pepper flavors have fantastic acidity and a stony minerality that is really very pretty. Faint, powdery tannins have a wispy quality, hanging back and letting the fruit do the talking. 100% Syrah aged for 14 months in 25% new French oak. 13.3% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $30. click to buy.

2019 Craggy Range “Le Sol” Syrah, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Very dark purple in color, this wine smells of blueberries, smoked meats, wet stone, and a hint of white pepper. In the mouth, deeply stony flavors of blueberry and blackberry are juicy and bright with excellent acidity and a touch of the sourness of unripe blackberries. Faint, powdery tannins hang in a haze through the mouth as blackberry and a touch of sour cherry linger in the finish. 100% Syrah that spends 17 months in 38% new French oak. Excellent. 13.5% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap and in a heavier bottle than it needs to be, weighing 1.6 kg when full (as opposed to their normal bottle, which weighs 1.3 kg full). Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $90. click to buy.

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A Voice From the Fog: Current Releases From Peay Vineyards

There aren’t many wineries in California about whom I can confidently say that I’ve tasted pretty much every wine they’ve ever made. Even those wineries I claim to know very well, I may have missed a bottle here and there over the years. But among the few wineries for whom I could make such a claim, Peay Vineyards certainly would fit the bill. I’ve been tasting their wines made on the hills overlooking the Sonoma Coast for about 17 years.

Because I’ve written about the winery frequently over the years, I don’t feel the need to retell their story at the moment. If you’re unfamiliar with the winery, I’d direct you to my previous summary of their efforts, made when I tasted the 2014 vintage.

Nick, Vanessa, and Andy are still at it, working their same organically farmed 48 acres with their full-time crew of 8 vineyard hands, all with a view of the craggy Pacific coastline near Annapolis. This year marks the 20th year since their vines were planted in the remains of an old sheep ranch and apple orchard.

The wines continue to be some of the most nuanced and beautiful cold-climate wines made in California, thanks to Vanessa Wong, a winemaker who quietly cranks out deliciousness every year. While other winemakers of her talent have many consulting projects with various brands, Vanessa seems content to focus on the quality of what her plot of land can produce. And those of us lucky enough to enjoy the wines know, that is enough.

The 2018 vintage was nothing short of spectacular out on the Sonoma Coast. No real heat spikes or other major weather events compromised any part of the growing cycle. Yields were healthy after a very wet winter, and little stood in the way of the vines doing what they do best. It’s no wonder then, that these 2018 wines are tremendous, including both the wines from their “second label” Cep (which features non-estate fruit) and their entry-level wines as well.

Tasting Notes

2020 Cep Vineyards “Hopkins Ranch” Sauvignon Blanc, Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California
Palest greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of green apple, lemon cucumber and wet stones. In the mouth, crisp green apple, cut grass and unripe melon flavors have a nice zip thanks to fantastic acidity. Lean, mean and green, this wine is flirting with the austere, but manages to lean, finally to mouthwatering. 12.6% alcohol. Score: between 8.5-9 . Cost: $20. click to buy.

2020 Cep Vineyards “Hopkins Ranch” Rosé of Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California
Pale baby pink in color, this wine smells of watermelon and strawberry fruit. In the mouth, tart hibiscus, watermelon, chopped herbs, and citrus peel all have a fantasically bright snap to them thanks to excellent acidity. Citrus pith and pomelo linger in the finish. 12% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $20. click to buy.

2018 Peay Vineyards “Estate” Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, California
Palest greenish-gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon curd, white flowers, and just the barest hint of melted butter. In the mouth, exceedingly silky flavors of lemon curd, lemon juice, grapefruit, and a whiff of butterscotch all have an electric brightness thanks to very good acidity. Lovely, long finish. Delicious. 13.2% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $56. click to buy.

2018 Peay Vineyards “Estate” Viognier, Sonoma Coast, California
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of apricots and a touch of malted milk and banana. In the mouth, lean apricot and citrus flavors have mouthwatering acidity and a zesty, pithy quality that is quite delicious especially with the saline kick that enters in the end. Phenomenal acids, here, really. In my experience, this wine will blossom for years in the bottle. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $48. click to buy.

2018 Peay Vineyards Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of raspberry and earth and cranberry fruit. In the mouth, wonderfully juicy raspberry and cranberry flavors are shot through with a deep herbal earthiness that is quite compelling, even as juicy and bright citrus-peel acidity makes the mouth water. Faint, powdery tannins hang in a haze through the back of the mouth as the salivary glands go into overdrive thanks to the acidity. Delicious. 13.4% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $45. click to buy.

A Voice From the Fog: Current Releases From Peay Vineyards

2018 Peay Vineyards “Pomarium” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of earth, cherry, and raspberry with a hint of cedar. In the mouth, gorgeous flavors of forest floor, raspberry, and cherry fruit are backed by supple, muscular tannins that linger with hints of citrus peel and dark earth in the finish. Slightly brooding, but give this a few years in the bottle and watch it shine. Easily drinkable today, however, and quite pleasurable. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $61. click to buy.

2018 Peay Vineyards “Ama” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of cherry and raspberry fruit. In the mouth, bright cherry and cranberry fruit flavors mix with raspberry and redcurrant. Wonderfully stony on the palate, with fine-grained but muscular tannins that definitely make their presence known. There’s a wonderful purity to this wine, with whispers of dried flowers in the finish. 13% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $61. click to buy.  

2018 Peay Vineyards “Savoy Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley, Mendocino, California
Light to medium garnet in color, this wine smells of raspberry and sour cherry and a hint of resinous herb. In the mouth, juicy raspberry, sour cherry, and redcurrant flavors mix with citrus peel and a touch of herbs. Excellent acidity keeps the saliva flowing as does a faint salinity. Delicious. 13.3% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $61. click to buy.

2018 Peay Vineyards “Scallop Shelf” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dried flowers, herbs, raspberry and redcurrant fruit. In the mouth, lean raspberry and redcurrant fruit is positively bursting with acidity. Gorgeous citrus peel and chopped herb flavors join the tart, expressive fruit in an impressively long finish. Fantastic, and just beginning its journey towards greatness. 13% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $64. click to buy.  

2018 Peay Vineyards “La Bruma” Syrah, Sonoma Coast, California
Dark purple in the glass, this wine smells of blackberry and white pepper. In the mouth, unripe blackberry and black cherry flavors are shot through with white pepper and chopped herbs, as dried flowers and a citrus peel brightness linger in the finish. Mouthcoating, dusty tannins fill every nook and cranny of the mouth, lingering through the finish with hints of black currant and earth. Gorgeous, and likely to blossom into something even greater with time. 13% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $56. click to buy.

A Voice From the Fog: Current Releases From Peay Vineyards

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Vinography Unboxed: Week of 1/10/21

Hello, and welcome to my periodic dig through the samples pile. I’m pleased to bring you the latest installment of Vinography Unboxed, where I highlight some of the better bottles that have crossed my doorstep recently.

This past week included a couple of interesting Chardonnays. The first is the Oro de Plata Chardonnay from Keller Estate, which is prevented from going through malolactic conversion, and is aged in old oak barrels, but nonetheless has a nice creaminess along with its brisk citrus brightness. The other is one of the better canned wines I’ve come across, a limited edition Chardonnay from Iron Horse Vineyards, which revives the estate’s old Tin Pony brand name. Unfortunately this particular offering is sold out, but you can bet there will be more canned wines from Iron Horse in the future, so consider this fair warning to keep your eye out.

Moving on to Pinot, I’ve got a couple of them from Yamhill Valley Vineyards in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Of the two, my favorite was the “Tall Poppy” bottling, which possessed a lovely finesse and very pretty forest floor quality. Both Keller Estate and Flowers Vineyards also had Pinots in this week’s tasting, each distinctive and pretty, both highlighting the cherry and cranberry qualities that Sonoma Pinot Noir can deliver.

Keller has also been making a Syrah co-fermented with a couple rows of Viognier for a few years under the name “Rotie,” and their 2017 vintage showed some lovely stony blackberry and black cherry qualities and the promise of improvement with age.

Sticking with Syrah for a moment, I felt obliged to point readers towards the Louis Bernard Côtes du Rhône, if only because it is a remarkable steal at $12 a bottle. It’s not going to blow any minds, but at that price, it’s a great deal.

Lastly, I’ve got two wines from the biodynamically-farmed boutique winery Troon Vineyards in Oregon’s Applegate Valley. The newly released Cuvee Pyrénées, a blend of Tannat and Malbec, is almost shockingly savory, reminding me of the deeply earthy and herbal qualities of Cahors. The 2018 Tannat is slightly more generous in its fruit, and wonderfully mineral-driven, suggesting a long life ahead of it.

Notes on all these and more below.

Tasting Notes

2019 Keller Estate “Oro de Plata” Chardonnay, Petaluma Gap, Sonoma, California
Pale greenish-gold in color, this wine smells of lemon pith and pink grapefruit. In the mouth, bright lemony and grapefruit flavors mix with a touch of cream and a faint grassiness. Nicely silky, despite the fact that malolactic was avoided in this wine. Good acidity and length. Fermented in stainless and aged in neutral oak. 14.1% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $30. click to buy.    

2019 Iron Horse “Tin Pony” Chardonnay, Green Valley, Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells a little of struck-match (which blows off over time) and butterscotch and grapefruit. In the mouth, lemon juice, pink grapefruit, butterscotch, and a touch of toasted brioche combine with a hint of salinity and excellent acidity. 13.8% alcohol. Packaged in 250ml cans and sold in sets of four. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $48 per four pack – sold out.

2016 Yamhill Valley Vineyards “Tall Poppy” Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of forest floor and raspberries. In the mouth, beautifully silky flavors of raspberry and redcurrant have a wonderful lift and brightness thanks to excellent acidity. The faintest wisp of tannins lingers in the finish along with notes of dried herbs and pine duff. 14.2% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: around 9. Cost: $75. click to buy.

2016 Yamhill Valley Vineyards “Estate Reserve” Pinot Noir, McMinnville, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of earth and raspberries shot through with a touch of green herbs. In the mouth, raspberry and cranberry fruit flavors mix with green herbs and a hint of peeled willow bark. A touch of toasty oak lingers in the finish with a hint of astringency. Good acidity. 14.2% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $45. click to buy.

Vinography Unboxed: Week of 1/10/21

2018 Keller Estate “El Coro” Pinot Noir, Petaluma Gap, Sonoma, California
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and cranberry fruit. In the mouth, cherry and cranberry fruit have a nice lift thanks to excellent acidity and a faint herbal backdrop as barely perceptible tannins dust the edges of the mouth. A touch of citrus peel lingers in the finish. 14.2% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $67. click to buy.

2018 Flowers Vineyards Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, Sonoma, California
Light to medium garnet in color, this wine smells of cherry and cranberry fruit. In the mouth, silky notes of cherry and raspberry are shot through with cedar and citrus peel. Faint notes of oak linger in the finish along with the faintest of tannins. Excellent acidity. 14.1% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $45. click to buy.

2018 Troon Vineyard “Cuvée Pyrénées – White Family Selection” Red Blend, Applegate Valley, Southern Oregon
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of freshly turned potting soil, molasses, leather and a touch of blackberries. In the mouth, leathery tannins wrap around a decidedly savory core of dark black fruits that are less present than the herbal, earthy notes of camphor wood, sage, and freshly dug earth. Good acidity. Tasted blind I could imagine confidently pegging this as a wine from the Cahors region of France. 14.3% alcohol. A blend of 70% Tannat and 30% Malbec. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $65. click to buy.

2018 Troon Vineyard “White Family Selection” Tannat, Applegate Valley, Southern Oregon, Oregon
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of blackberry and black cherry. In the mouth, dark and juicy flavors of blackberry and boysenberry mix with a wet chalkboard or wet pavement minerality that is quite stark. Gorgeous acidity makes the wine quite refreshing, and fine-grained tannins flex in the background. Everything suggests this wine will age beautifully. 14.1% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $45. click to buy.

2017 Louis Bernard Côtes du Rhône Villages, Rhône Valley, France
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of a bit of struck match layered over cassis and black cherry. In the mouth, slightly leathery tannins surround flavors of black cherry and cassis with a touch of meaty, black olive savoriness. Notes of dusty earth linger in the finish. 13.5% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $12. click to buy.

2017 Keller Estate “Rotie” Syrah, Sonoma County, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of blackberry pie. In the mouth, blackberry and black cherry flavors have a nice briskness to them thanks to excellent acidity. The fine-grained tannins are muscular and supple, if a bit tight. There’s a lift to the dark fruit that presumably comes from the co-fermented Viognier, but this is nevertheless a slightly brooding wine. It will likely improve in the bottle for several years. 14.3% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $60. click to buy.

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Vinography Unboxed: Week of 11/22/20

Hello, and welcome to my periodic dig through the samples pile. I’m pleased to bring you the latest installment of Vinography Unboxed, where I highlight some of the better bottles that have crossed my doorstep recently.

This past week included wines from all over the place. But let’s start quite close to home, at least for me. Urban Legend Cellars is a small operation working out of the “wine ghetto” on the island of Alameda, near Oakland. Run by the husband-and-wife team of Steve & Marilee Shaffer, who are “recovering” engineers from Silicon Valley who decided they wanted to make wine. They purchase grapes from a wide range of sources, and make a number of wines, including this Vermentino, from the Clements Hills sub-AVA in Lodi. It’s quite fresh and tasty, and might easily convert anyone to Vermentino’s charms.

A little farther afield I’ve got a cracking Chardonnay from J. Christopher Winery in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, which illustrates perfectly why people are so excited about Oregon Chardonnay. It’s crisp and citrusy, and gorgeous.

You could say the same thing about the Dr. Loosen Riesling from the famed “spice garden” vineyard, Ürziger Würtzgarten, in Germany’s Mosel River Valley. One of Germany’s more famous sites for Riesling, made by one of Germany’s more famous names makes for a scintillating example of the form.

Let’s move on to reds.

Before I dive deep into a pool of Syrah, I’ve got a Pinot from J. Christopher winery that will be of interest to anyone who likes their Pinot Noirs more on the savory, earthy side.

I was recently sent a number of Côtes-du-Rhônes, which were a lovely reminder of how I really should be drinking more of them. All were compelling, from the lean dark fruit flavors of Stephane Ogier’s rendition, to the more savory, brooding qualities of Delas Frere’s interpretation.

But my favorite example of Côtes-du-Rhône comes from Clos Bellane, a small organic producer that sits at more than 1200 feet of elevation on steep, limestone slopes outside the village of Valréas, which sits in the northern part of the southern Rhone wine region.

Vigneron Stephane Vedeau purchased the Clos Bellane estate in 2007 and is making really remarkable wines there, as this, his entry-level wine, demonstrates. It’s wonderfully aromatic, incredibly fresh and bright, and just a delight to drink. And at between $16 and $20, it’s a shockingly great value.

Back on this continent, I was really delighted to see just how fresh the Owen Roe “Ex Umbris” Columbia Valley Syrah was in its expression of boisterous blackberry fruit. A bit father south in Oregon’s Applegate Valley, Troon Vineyard is making whole-cluster fermented Syrah where you can really taste the influence of the stems, making for a savory interpretation of the grape.

Lastly, I’ve got one of the regal wines of Taurasi, the Piano di Montevergine from venerable producer Feudi di San Gregorio. This wine comes from the estate’s oldest plantings of Aglianico at an elevation of around 1300 feet above sea level in the Irpina region of Campania, not far from Mount Vesuvius. Even at 8 years of age, this wine is still a bit of a monster when it comes to tannins, and needs some air to mellow, as well as perhaps some more time in the bottle. In my personal experience it is a wine that rewards significant aging, especially if you appreciate the leather and dried flowers scents that Aglianico can offer with some time in the bottle. Now, however, the Piano is a bit forte, if that’s your speed.

Tasting Notes

2019 Urban Legend Cellars “Gill Creek Ranch” Vermentino, Clements Hills, Lodi, Central Coast, California
Palest greenish-gold in color, this wine smells of poached pear in sweet cream. In the mouth, bright pear and pastry cream flavors have a slight tinge of lemongrass and chamomile. Silky textured, this wine has a very nice acid balance and crisp finish with a hint of orange peel. 13.1% alcohol. 168 cases made. Closed with a screwcap. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $24.

2018 J. Christopher “Olenik Vineyard” Chardonnay, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of citrus pith and white flowers. In the mouth, the wine is quite floral, with a gorgeous quartz-like crystalline quality and juicy lemon and lemon pith flavors, and a touch of green apple. Very elegant and poised with just a hint of salinity in the finish. . 13% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $45. click to buy.

2018 Dr. Loosen “Ürziger Würtzgarten Spätlese” Riesling, Mosel, Germany
Palest greenish-gold in color, this wine smells of tangerine zest and white flowers with a hint of lemon cucumber. In the mouth, gorgeous exotic citrus flavors mix with honeysuckle and rainwater minerality, all sizzling with excellent acidity. Lightly to moderately sweet, but definitely in my sweet spot. 8.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $35. click to buy.

2016 J. Christopher “JJ” Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and raspberry fruit shot through with a hint of barnyard funkiness. In the mouth, pure bright cherry and raspberry fruit has a nice zing thanks to excellent acidity. There’s some bitter cedar and herb notes lingering in the finish along with that faint hint of manure. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $32. click to buy.

2018 Clos Bellane Côtes-du-Rhône Villages Valréas, Rhône Valley, France
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of rich cherry fruit. In the mouth, wonderfully juicy flavors of cherry mix with incredibly aromatic herbs like wild thyme and lavender even as a crystalline stony quality makes the whole red and black fruit concoction glint and shimmer on the palate. Barely perceptible tannins. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $18. click to buy.

2017 Stephane Ogier “Le Temps Est Venu” Côtes-du-Rhône, Rhône Valley, France
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dark cherry fruit and a touch of forest floor. In the mouth, juicy black cherry flavors are shot through with dried sage and other dried herbs making for quite a savory impression. Very faint powdery tannins creep about the edges of the mouth, while a faint bitter herb and orange-peel note lingers in the finish. 14% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $24. click to buy.

2018 Delas Freres “Saint-Esprit” Côtes-du-Rhône, Rhône Valley, France
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry, cassis, and potting soil. In the mouth, flavors of black cherry, cassis, and wet earth have a wonderful freshness to them thanks to excellent acidity and a faint green herbal kick that meshes with a definite stony quality. Dark and brooding, yet without feeling heavy, and quite delicious. 14% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $15. click to buy.

2018 Owen Roe “Ex Umbris” Syrah, Yakima Valley, Washington
Medium to dark purple in color, this wine smells of rich blackberry fruit with a hint of woodsmoke. In the mouth, wonderfully juicy blackberry and cassis flavors are positively electric on the palate thanks to fantastic acidity. Faint, powdery tannins dust the palate while notes of licorice emerge on the finish. Excellent. 14.1% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $24. click to buy.

2018 Troon Vineyard “White Family Selection” Syrah, Applegate Valley, Southern Oregon, Oregon
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of wet earth and chopped herbs. In the mouth, juicy black cherry and cassis flavors are shot through with a cedary, incense quality, thanks no doubt to the whole cluster fermentation, which seems to have imparted a sort of woody note from the stems. Excellent acidity and freshness, with tightly wound, muscular tannins that flex through the finish. 14.8% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $30. click to buy.

2012 Feudi di San Gregorio “Piano di Montevergine – Riserva” Aglianico, Taurasi, Campania, Italy
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of leather, dried flowers, and licorice. In the mouth, massive, billowy tannins envelop a core of black cherry, licorice root, and dried flowers, even as earthier, darker notes rumble about in the basement. Good acidity, but still massive even with 8 years of age. Give it some air, or better yet, another 5 years in the bottle. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $65. click to buy.

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America’s Other Cabernet: The Wines of Red Mountain, WA

Admittedly, it sounds like the set-up for a joke: what do two nuclear engineers to for a good time outside of work? In the case of Jim Holmes and John Williams, the punchline goes something like this: after a less-than-successful experience trading stocks, their idea of fun was trying their hand at planting wine grapes in a godforsaken part of Washington state where land was cheap and sunlight was plentiful.

Every New World appellation that isn’t the subdivision of an existing growing area needs a pioneer, someone willing to gamble the time and money required to establish a vineyard and prove their intuition for its suitability when it comes to wine was justified. Sometimes those pioneers are keenly prepared treasure hunters, methodically searching for a specific set of conditions that match their vision of soil, climate and aspect. Often it seems, though, that many New World wine regions are as much the product of luck and happenstance as they are well-considered calculations.

The Red Mountain American Viticultural Area in eastern Washington owes its existence as much to the fact that Williams’ father-in-law had cheap land to sell as it does to the intuition and strategy of these two engineers looking for an interesting way to make some money on the side and do something with their hands on the weekend.

* * *

Thus begins a lengthy profile I wrote on the Red Mountain AVA for Jancis Robinson’s website this week. You can read the profile, along with tasting notes and scores for more than 100 Red Mountain wines at JancisRobinson.Com.

If you’re not familiar with JancisRobinson.Com, I urge you to give it a try. It’s only £8.50 a month or £85 per year ($11/mo or $111 a year for you Americans) and well worth the cost, especially considering you basically get free, searchable access to the Oxford Companion to Wine ($65) and maps from the World Atlas of Wine ($50) as part of the subscription costs. Click here to sign up.

Above image © Richard Duval Images, courtesy of Red Mountain AVA Association.

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