Why That Vineyard?
One question I hear consistently from staff and customers is why I choose to source certain grapes from certain vineyards. There are three criteria that I use for choosing a vineyard:
- How good is the site for the grape variety I am looking for?
- How good is the grower at managing that site?
- Do I enjoy working with the grower? (Life is too short to have people in your life that you do not enjoy.)
In this article I would like to address the first of these questions. It is no secret that certain varieties do much better in some sites than in others. Hey, they don’t grow Pinot Noir in Burgundy and Cabernet in Bordeaux without a reason. Brian Carter Cellars brings in about twenty varieties and buys from about a dozen growers, most of whom I have been working with for as long as Brian Carter Cellars has existed, and many for much longer – dating back thirty years or more. Over that period, I have tried a lot of varieties from a lot of sites and landed on my favorites for each. All of the growers I deal with are great for the last two items above, but not every grower excels with every variety.
For most of the major varieties I use, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Viognier, I use more than one site, often two or three. Why? I may need a different style of wine for each of several different blends I produce with any given variety. For instance, the Cabernet I use for the base wine in Solesce, which often comes from the hot area of Red Moutain, needs to be full flavored, well-structured, and of moderate acidity. The Cabernet that I use as a blending grape for Tuttorosso, which comes from a much cooler part of the Yakima Valley, needs to be much less aggressive, less structured, and higher in acidity. My favorite blending Cabernet for Le Coursier and Trentenaire comes from Stone Tree Vineyard on Wahluke Slope, and in certain vintages it can also make a very positive addition to Solesce. The Stone Tree Cabernet is generally full and ripe but without the structure or tannins that the Red Mountain Cabernet has. So, to summarize, the reason for sourcing from these different sites gives me more diversity when I sit down to blend, or to put it metaphorically, more colors on my painter’s palette.
I cannot always predict which vineyard source is going to work best in each blend until I sit down to make the blend. Each vintage is different; the wines that work in a cool year may not work for the same blend in a hot year. This leads me to the second reason why I diversify my sources: to give me a sort of insurance policy. It is not just the vagaries of the weather during the growing season that determine what happens to the quality of the grapes. It can be a winter freeze or a spring frost that destroys the crop in one area but not in another. It can be the failure of the irrigation system at a particular vineyard. It can be an insect infestation that destroys or limits the crop. I have even seen hailstorms dramatically affect a crop in just a matter of minutes. Diversity helps make better wine and also secures that I will have grapes with which I can make wine.
In deciding if a site will work, soil type is certainly a factor, but in general, soils are not as diverse in Washington as they are in a lot of other grape growing areas. Most of the soils here are relatively loose and shallow, which means they do not have a lot of moisture holding capacity. This is one of the real reasons our grape growing area is so successful, as low moisture holding capacity means we can use deficit irrigation to control the growth of the vine, giving us smaller berries and focusing the energy of the plant into ripening grapes, not growing excess leaves. This smaller berry aspect is particularly important for larger berried varieties such as Grenache, Tempranillo, and Sangiovese, so paying attention to the soil is especially important when selecting a site for those varieties.
While soil is important, heat is probably the most critical variable. Some varieties can do well in more diverse heat sources. As mentioned above, the style of Cabernet Sauvignon can vary greatly depending on its source, and Cabernet could certainly be considered adaptable to a variety of sources. Another variety that falls into this category is Syrah. The one variety that I would say really requires a hot site is Petit Verdot, as it is a very late ripening grape. Varieties, in my opinion, that can do well in medium-warm to quite hot areas are Malbec, Tempranillo, Mourvedre and the Port varieties, including Touriga Nacional and Souzao. Those varieties that require a pretty narrow range of moderate heat – not too cool and not too hot – are Grenache, Counoise, Cinsault, Viognier and Roussanne. These more medium heat areas are probably my favorite and are exemplified by Olsen and Lonesome Springs Vineyards west of Benton City, and also the Dineen Vineyards near Zillah.
Varieties that can be successful in a variety of sites from cooler to warmer (but that I prefer to get from cooler to moderate sites) are Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Riesling. Last, the variety that I think cannot make great wine in anything but the cooler sites is Sangiovese. The central part of the Yakima Valley where the Willard Family and the Boushey Vineyards are located are the best examples of this. Of course, the grape that demands the coolest sites, Pinot Noir, needs sites so cool that they only exist in Washington and Oregon on the west side of the Cascade Range where the marine influence is greater.
What makes one site more suitable for a certain variety than another? It is important to mention that different winemakers prefer different sites for different reasons. I would say that selecting a site for its grapes, along with picking time, may be the biggest determining factors in the style and quality of the wines they make. The biggest effect of that is expression of varietal character. For instance, both Cabernet Franc and Merlot can make good wine in hot sites, but the cooler sites, especially in a warm vintage, bring out that classic cherry character in the Merlot and that bit of herbs in the Cabernet Franc that make these varieties sing. Color is also a big one: varieties with modest color, including Grenache and Sangiovese, seem to do best where the cool temperatures, especially at night, produce the highest amounts of anthocyanins. Then there is acidity, most important in white wines, rosé, and of course Sangiovese. The cooler the site, the higher the acidity. I have tried Grenache on Red Mountain and the Wahluke slope, and they are pale in color in most years.
Well, now you’ve got me started. Better reign me in before I write more pages. Now you all know everything you need to go out, pick a vineyard and make some really great wine. Hmmm, maybe a couple more of these lessons first!