In a previous column we related some of the climate and geology of Walla Walla Valley in Southeastern Washington. As the valley celebrates 30 years as a recognized AVA (American Viticultural Area), the number of wineries has grown from just four in 1984 to over 100 today. The quaint downtown of Walla Walla boasts a couple of dozen tasting rooms from the surrounding area wineries and a nice collection of restaurants and tourist-oriented shopping opportunities. Walla Walla Valley is anticipating the Fall 2014 announcement of a new AVA — The Rocks of Milton-Freewater on the Oregon side of Walla Walla Valley — to bring further attention to this under-appreciated wine producing area.
“The Rocks” is an area with soil, if you can call it that defies logic as an agricultural area. The flat fields are covered with rounded basalt rocks ranging in size from pebbles to 12 inches or more. A light layer of thin powdery loess surrounds some of the stones. At some point farmers determined that fruit trees could grow in this environment, although more and more vineyards are replacing the orchards.
We recently visited The Rocks and its most famous winery, Cayuse Vineyards, founded in 1997 by Frenchman Christophe Baron. Baron was inspired to plant his vineyards by the resemblance of the area to the stone-covered vineyards of Chateauneuf-du-Pape in the Southern Rhone Valley in France.
Trevor Dorland, president-directeur general of Cayuse, explained the culture and philosophy of their operation. The vineyards are all farmed biodynamically and some of the vineyards are designed for cultivation by horse-drawn plows. Dorland explained that “the rocks brought Christophe here” and referred to the winery as a “wine studio.”
Cayuse uses 12 unlined concrete tanks for most of the fermentations. Dorland said that the heavy walls of concrete keeps the temperatures cool at the beginning of fermentation and also holds the heat during fermentation which he believes contributes to the quality of their wines. Unfortunately all of Cayuse wines are only available directly from the winery’s mailing list, and a few restaurants and wine shops around the country. Following are our impressions of our favorites. You may get lucky and find a friend on their mailing list or discover them at a high-end restaurant, or wine shop.
• Cayuse God Only Knows Walla Walla Valley Grenache 2011 ($130). Named for the murky mix of grapes that accompany the predominantly grenache mix. Aromatic, berry fruit and a nice mineral earth streak, delicious.
• Cayuse Syrah Cailloux Vineyard Walla Walla Valley 2011 ($150), Very much in the Northern Rhone style, great meaty blackberry fruit, and hints of mocha.
• Cayuse No Girls Grenache/Syrah 2010 ($N/A). Very floral nose beautiful berry mocha flavors, impressive.
We also enjoyed many other Walla Walla wines, most of which are much more reasonably priced, but can be difficult to find outside Washington state. A 2012 Isenhower Road Less Travelled Cabernet Franc Yakima Valley ($34), herbal, classic cabernet franc profile was memorable at lunch one day. We also enjoyed a 2010 Tre Nova Ripasso Red Wine ($30). Although made from sangiovese and barbera this provided a credible ripasso experience.
At a tasting where older Walla Walla Valley wines were served — some over 15 years — we were impressed with a 2006 Dusted Valley Reserve Syrah Walla Walla Valley which still exhibited fresh fruit and classic Northern Rhone syrah complexity. Dusted Valley wines are available in Maryland. Ask your local retailer about availability.