The remarkable success of Washington wine is by no means an accident. The State's wine regions are endowed with several key elements that provide a basis for potential greatness. Many of these are not found in any grape growing region globally.
The high northern latitude gives the vines an extra hour or more of daily sunlight. The State's vines are "own-rooted," contributing to the great fruit intensity found in Washington wine. The desert climate's warm days and cool nights nurture excellent balance in the wines, supporting good acidity and reasonable pH. With only a few inches of rain annually, the vines can be irrigated precisely, controlling vigor and applying water at the most appropriate times during the growing season. Finally, the volcanic soils are rich with minerals that bring subtle, yet great complexity to the wines.
There are many locations in Washington that offer excellent potential for vinifera. However, understanding the role of mesoclimates (of a vineyard) and microclimates (of a vine or row) is essential in making distinctive, world-class wines. Locating and developing a particular site for Rhône grapes is challenging. Many parameters are involved, but primarily, due to the State's northern latitude, the role of weather is crucial. Foremost is the growing season's cumulative heat units, providing the sunlight needed to ripen all the varietals. Air drainage, or the movement of air due to slope, is essential to avoid frost damage and to temper the severe winter freezes that occasionally occur in a desert climate at roughly 47 degrees northern latitude.
Syrah is capable of adapting to a fairly wide range of conditions, but the reds of the Southern Rhône, such as Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Counoise require substantial heat and a longer growing season. We spent fifteen years making critical choices, arriving at a handful of appropriate sites that nurture these grapes. This resulted in outstanding examples of Rhône varietal wines. Each site offered distinctive qualities, giving us wonderful complexity and fruit depth. Our twenty-year quest contributed greatly towards the understanding of Rhône varietal viticulture in Washington State.
Syrah, Cinsault, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Picpoul, & Roussanne
Dick Boushey was among the first of Washington's growers to plant Syrah at a time when the grape was relatively unknown and certainly untested.
Today, his contribution to the establishment of Syrah is receiving great acclaim.
The locations of our two vineyards, at essentially the center of the Yakima Valley, are not recognized for exceptional heat, unlike those of Red Mountain or the Waluke Slope.
In retrospect, we now know that the more moderate climate supports a Syrah of penetrating focus and complexity,
due partially to the long fall hang-time. But primarily, Dick's innate talent to sense and control the vines' inherently vigorous growth has resulted in berries of remarkably small size, and wines exhibiting great concentration.
Overlooking the Yakima Valley at about 800 feet, this planting is entirely Syrah. We established the site in 1994 with Dick, transforming it from an abandoned apple orchard into a rather steep, south-facing vineyard. The slope provides excellent air drainage, primarily a deterrent to late spring frost damage and severe winterkill.
Below the shallow, firm loam lies an outcropping of vesicular basalt (pumice) fused with calcite, providing a unique minirality in the root zone. Plantings of vinifera are rarely found on this unique geological condition in Washington. The resulting Grande Côte Syrah is without peer, having very complex aromas of smokey, gamey meat, huckleberry and violets.
'Lower County Line Road'
Cinsault, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Picpoul, & Roussanne
Named after the road dividing Yakima County from Benton County, this vineyard is on the same ridgeline as the 'Grande Côte' but with a gentle slope and soils that are predominantly sandy loam. In 2004, we planted small parcels of Marsanne, Grenache Blanc Roussanne, and Picpoul (whites), and Cinsault, a red offering deep color and aromas of violets. All the vines were sourced from cuttings taken from the legendary vineyard of Chateau Beaucastle, Chateauneuf-du-Pope. The whites were used in our vineyard-designated 'Sirocco Blanc.' It was the Northwest's first example of a Côte du Rhône-style white blend.
Ciel du Cheval
Syrah, Mourvèdre, Counoise, Viognier, Grenache & Roussanne
Red Mountain is one of Washington's smallest appellation, yet it is the State's gem. There's nothing small about the wines, however, as this appellation is renowned for it's powerful, "larger than life" bottlings. It is one of the hottest AVA's in Washington.
For more than fifty years Ciel du Cheval Vineyard has withstood the test of time. Owners Jim and Pat Holmes have achieved considerable acclaim with this vineyard, and in so doing, have made a significant contribution to Washington's viticultural heritage. Jim was among the first growers in Washington to express an interest in Rhône varietals, planting what is now one of the oldest blocks of Syrah and Viognier in the spring of 1994. Soils are quite shallow with alluvial gravel throughout due to the great, violent, Missoula floods 13 to 17 thousand years ago. The Syrah vines yield powerful, deep wines, partially due to the thicker skins resulting from the cumulative seasonal heat, similar to that of the upper Napa Valley. Viognier thrives as well, expressing the classic aromas of peach, lychee, pear and melon, and a subtle floral aroma.
Following these successes, we were rewarded with a second planting in 2000, including Mourvèdre, Counoise and Roussanne, and another clone of Syrah. The final planting was Grenache in 2003. What is particularly impressive about the Ciel du Cheval vineyard is that each of these varietals has adapted very well, accurately reflecting the aromas and flavors of their Rhône Valley lineage.
Jim's enthusiasm for these sun-lovers is unsurpassed. He literally led the way with Southern Rhône varietals in Washington and significantly contributed to the establishment of Syrah.
Perched high above the Valley floor at 1600 feet, the Elephant Mountain Vineyard is positioned at the western extreme of the Yakima Valley, near the city of Yakima. In a sense, Elephant Mountain and Ciel du Cheval are the Valley's "bookends," with a driving distance of about one hour. Both vineyards have similar heat units and fairly common soils: fine to heavier silt loam and alluvial gravel that resulted from the great Missoula floods. But strewn throughout Elephant one can find agates, a translucent quartzite pebble common to igneous rock or silica, and a byproduct of volcanic activity.
The vineyard was established in 1998 by Joe and Tom Hattrup with an initial planting of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Their background as orchardists was the foundation for their transition to grape growers, establishing what today is considered one of Yakima Valley's finest younger vineyards.
Elephant Mountain's high elevation provides excellent protection from frost damage, helping to extend the growing season late into the fall. From its lofty location one looks down into the Valley floor for many miles and out to two of the State's great volcanoes, Mt. Adams and Mt. Rainier. A large basalt rock-pile outcropping in the center of the vineyard has become a dramatic visitor's attraction, often featured in tours by wine journalists, trade and media. A large firepit, benches, tables, and a grape arbor make it a great place to take in the expansiveness of Eastern Washington, or imagine the pioneers who first settled the Pacific Northwest. The Oregon Trail is evidenced by deep ruts running right through the vineyard.
The Elephant Mountain Syrah is a classic with very good structure and flavors of dark black cherry, currents, black raspberry and a touch of roasted coffee bean. The higher elevation contributes to greater hang-time while the summer heat increases skin thickness, yielding good tannic structure.
Syrah, Mourvèdre & Grenache
In 2008 we harvested the first Grenache, Mourvèdre, and three clones of Syrah from the new Sugarloaf Vineyard, located at the far western end of the Yakima Valley. Situated in a unique zone known as Parker Heights, the area is known for its capacity to ripen soft tree fruit such as peaches and nectarines. Like its near-neighbor Elephant Mountain, degree days are some of the warmest in the Yakima Valley, affording the opportunity to ripen these late season grapes. A very steep south-facing inclination provides good air drainage, a protection from frost damage in the early spring and late fall. The soils vary considerably yet are appropriately suited to each variety, with Mourvèdre growing on calcareous, sandy clay and the Grenache on a more rocky, sandy-loam footing.
Despite the youth of the vines, the SugarLoaf wines showed good structure and intense flavors. We believe that this vineyard will yield some of the best expressions of Rhône varietals in Washington.