Saturday, July 6, 2013

Silverback Vineyards, Columbia Valley, Washington State

Silverback Vineyards, Walla Walla Washington

The Columbia Valley AVA in Washington State ( is a sprawling 11,000,000 acres of land - making it almost 5 times the size of the largest wine producing region of France: Bordeaux. A comparison of the two areas may seem far-fetched, but follow me on a little exploration...

Bordeaux is a "master artist" if you will; the wines of this region have been inspiring winemakers and wine-drinkers alike for decades piled upon centuries. The cousin-across-the-water Bordeaux has actually 3 times the amount of acres planted with vines, and I'm stunned by the vast difference in the number of wineries (Bordeaux has over 8,500 producers). In 1981, all of Washington State put together only had 19 wineries. Today they can claim over 750 wineries within State boundaries, exporting to over 40 countries, with a production level second in the USA behind "The Great State of" California.

Still- a dwarf beside mighty Bordeaux.

And yet, might one day young David topple the seemingly invincible Goliath?
Columbia Valley AVA
The Grande Dame of the wine-world, Jancis Robinson, has rated several Washington State wines as being truly world-class, and the man who (arguably) started the Bordeaux craze in the '80's (Robert Parker) has scored several Washington wines as worthy of the prestigious 100-point perfect score. These items alone bode well for Washington's future as a producer of serious wines.

But there's the human element, the part of the French equation of terroir which can never be predicted; for good or for bad. And here's where I enter the story~!

At the recent 2013 Wine Bloggers Conference in Penticton, BC (  I had the great pleasure of organizing and moderating a panel-led discussion on BC terroir and how one uses that sense in judging/scoring wines. The lecture went incredibly well, the week was a blur, and on the final night I thought to myself "Enough work Kristof - time to relax and enjoy a few too many glasses of wine with friends!" And so I put my ear to the ground, found out where the coolest after-parties were, and prepared my liver for a bit of a long night.

Little did I know what I was in for; because when I got the VIP suite in question I was greeted at the door, shady-late-nite-club-style, by a big man in casual clothes demanding to know why I was there.

"To drink wine." I responded innocently.

... a moment passed uncomfortably...

"Ok. Come on in." he waved with a grin starting to emerge. "Hey Monique!" he bellowed into the suite, "this guy's here to drink wine!"

I tried my best to squeeze past the unexpected bouncer (who brings a bouncer to a Wine Conference?) and scanned the room for a familiar face. No luck. Instead, a decidedly curvy and unnervingly beautiful short blond slid up to me in high heels.

"You wanted to try some wine?"

I decided to play this situation cool - - real cool. "Um. Yeah. Wine."

She was totally enthralled by my masterful command of the English language and brought me a splash of Chardonnay in a Riedel glass. Riedel? These cats knew how to party! I prepared myself for some god-awful-liquid-oak-infused-over-cropped-crap-from-the-bottom-of-the-cellar. But then I smelled it...


Double-damn, but this was real wine. I swirled, I sipped. I couldn't have spit that wine if I wanted to - it was too good. I had to smell that wine again, but something was buzzing

"I asked if you liked it?" she murmured.

"Shhh... I'm smelling the wine."

I almost heard, like from a dream, the bouncer ask the blonde "Well does he like it?"

I couldn't stop smelling the wine, and the only thing better then smelling it was tasting it - in small sips so that I could savor it forever. I was tired of the distractions though.

"This... this is so good. Would I - could I have a bit more?" I felt like I was facing Fagan and it was the proverbial bowl-of-gruel, but Oliver Twist never had it this good.

"This is Charles. He's the owner and the winemaker." I heard that cat-like murmur again at my side. What? I thought to myself; The bouncer is the owner? I'm too tired, this isn't making sense!

You see my friends, if ever there was a wine introduced to me under poor circumstances, this would be that occasion. It turns out that Charles Herrold, the owner/winemaker, is a fantastically friendly and chatty fellow - we ended up sipping wine and talking long, long into that night. And the curvy blonde with the velvet voice? A certified sommelier no-less, who showed me with grace that she knew a thing or three about wine. A genuine lady and fellow wine-lover.

And the Chardonnay? They sent me with some wines to take home and make notes on;

2011 Chardonnay
Wallula Vineyard, Horse Heaven Hills AVA
91+ Points
Barrel fermented in Burgundy Barrique and Puncheons 8.5 months, aged sur-lie
185 cases
  • visual:   clear; light gold core with watery rim, silver highlights
  • nose:   clean; medium+ to fully intense youthful bouquet reminiscent of Mersault; ultra-precise and defined minerality, warm hay, young golden apples, little white summer flowers, off-set by a hint of wild-thyme and a light finish of spicy pepper. Oak is a presence.
  • palate:   clean; dry, full golden apple acid, medium body, medium+ alcohol (13% ABV), medium+ concentration of flavors much in-line with the nose; crisp young apples are off-set by a hint of wild herbs and summer flowers, but it is the precise minerality which enthralls the palate, holding it captive as the flavors evolve. Very good balance, excellent structure and long length. 
  • conclusion:   this is a wine worth watching!If I could have scored just on bouquet alone this would have earned 93/94 points! This caliber of craftsmanship will yield truly world-class Chardonnay in the future and already should be on the "must-taste" list for anyone who appreciates Burgundian style. Enjoy 2013-2018+
  • FOOD PAIRING:   Washington wine with Washington food; consider poached Pacific salmon with fresh tarragon remoulade, steamed nugget potatoes/sweet corn/edamame salad... the salmon's natural fat will balance the active acid, the fresh tarragon will enhance the light herb-notes, the sweet corn will play off the savory characteristics
after a Chardonnay like this, I couldn't wait to try the Syrah and so planned a decadent Summer bbq at home with glazed meats, steamed and grilled veggies, and my new creation; balsamic-truffle grilled Crimini mushrooms... they're almost too much of a good thing. Almost.
Ribeye steaks and fresh rosemary from the garden

2010 Syrah
89 Points
Sara Lee and Shiraz #7 clones
blended and aged for 25 months in second fill French oak
149 cases
  • visual:   clear;   fully intense garnet core with ruby/garnet rim
  • nose:   clean; fully intense youthful yet developing aromas of white pepper, savory underbrush, wild thyme, stewing dark berries such as blackberry/black raspberry, currant undertones
  • palate:   clean; dry, full+ red currant acid, full chewy tannin, full body, medium+ alcohol (14.8% ABV), medium intense youthful flavors speaking of young vines; tart red berry flavors abound, but there is little in the way of dimension. The palate is disappointing after the highly expressive nose. Good balance, decent structure, medium+ length
  • conclusion:   I would like to think that this wine is suffering from young vines and a difficult year (2010 was not great for the Pacific NorthWest). That being said, the nose and palate aren't in unison and to me that is a basic challenge. This wine will not develop appreciably with time and with such mediocre concentration on the palate - is best consumed sooner rather then later
  • FOOD PAIRING:   high acid, rich aromatics, low concentration on the palate... consider this for the cheese course 

2011 Syrah Reserve
91 Points
Sara Lee clone
100% free run juice used in a single 500 litre puncheon and left on the lees for fifteen months
55 cases
  • visual:   clear; fully intense garnet core with cherry/ruby rim, light sediment
  • nose:   clean; fully intense youthful bouquet of blackberry/blueberry/saskatoon, wild thyme/sage, old leather, wood tones/ sandalwood, black and red Tellicherry peppercorns
  • palate:   clean; dry, full+ red currant acid, medium+ to full soft/chewy/meaty tannin, full body, full alcohol (15% ABV), fully intense youthful flavors much in-line with the aromas; opening with eager red fruit flavors, the palate has depth and dimension carried by wild herbs, leather and wood tones. Good balance, very good to excellent structure and medium+ length
  • conclusion:   this is a wine with definite cellaring potential. If you must drink it now, I advise double-decanting/double-aeration. Enjoy 2015-2019+
  • FOOD PAIRING:   play off of the wines' strengths~! The rich berry tones and wild herbs will cosy up to wild meats/venison but the full acids must be balanced with some fat. Consider venison cassoulet to be a natural in this instance
And so the Syrah, whilst good, were not on the same level as the wines I had tried that magical night in Penticton. Did I dream it all? Was the blond an enchantress? A siren luring men to their doom on the rocky shoals of wine? Or was I just that tired?? I went back to the second wine I tried in the VIP suite; a sexy little Sangiovese

2010 Sangiovese
92+ points
Aged in American oak puncheons for 24 months with 9% Cabernet Sauvignon and 4% Syrah added 
185 cases
  • visual:   clear; full garnet core with ruby rim and the barest hint of bricking, light sediment
  • nose:   clean; fully intense youthful bouquet like a world-class Brunello; warm spicy earth is carried by buttery oak tones, layers of savory herbs and tomato leaves drying in the Summer sun, dark cocoa background mingling with a playful peppercorn finish
  • palate:    clean; dry, fully intense red currant/raspberry acid, medium+ intense chewy/grippy tannin, medium+ body, medium alcohol (highly integrated 14.2% ABV), fully intense youthful flavors much in-line with the nose; bright red fruit dominate this young wine and are chased by wild herbs, old leather, buttery oak. Great balance and structure with medium+ length (long finish but a tad mono-dimensional after the mid-palate)
  • conclusion: still a baby! This wine was still tight after a 24-hour decant; this will live for years so, if you must drink it now, run it three times through an aerator. Enjoy 2015-2020+
  • FOOD PAIRING:    big wine? Big food~! Consider this for a traditional dish served in multiple formats all over Italy; grilled sausage, bell pepper and fresh basil baked with tagliatelle pasta, garden-fresh tomato sauce, Fontina and Asiago cheese... don't forget, a wine with acid like this wants some fat - so give it fat~! But it has depth and dimension to allow for a greater expanse of flavors on your plate to match it and enjoy discovering the multiple layers

I saved the best (?) for last of course; the Bordeaux-styled blend they call .... I'm going to be doing my Bordeaux-Master program late this year and, as such, have a great passion for those blends. I don't care where they come from, or what the price is - I care about the quality. I care about balance, I care about expression, I care about integration... let's see how Silverback Vineyards and the vast expanse of the Columbia Valley measured up (in my eyes):

2010 Reference (Bordeaux-styled blend)
Wallula Vineyard, Horse Heaven Hills AVA
90 points
Cabernet Sauvignon (43%), Merlot (31%), Petit Verdot (12%), Cabernet Franc (9%), and Malbec (5%) were blended after thirteen months and re-barreled into 500 litre French puncheons for an additional year to amalgamate into our complex, flagship wine. 85% free-run juice was used 
270 cases
  • visual:   clear; medium garnet core with cherry rim
  • nose:   clean; medium+ youthful aromas of candied cherries, cherry blossoms, roses, red and black currants, old leather, wild thyme
  • palate:   clean; dry, full red currant acids, medium+ chalky tannin, med+ body, full alcohol (13.9%), medium+ intense and youthful flavors much in-line with the aromas; a generous burst of red berries is followed by earthy/woodsy notes against a backdrop of wild herbs and fresh flowers. Good balance, great structure and medium+ length
  • conclusion:   richly concentrated, this wine just needs the vines to mature. The acid will soften over time, bringing it more into balance and so I advise enjoying 2015-2018+
  • FOOD PAIRING:   this wine has decent concentration and depth (though slightly off-balance at present)... I would take one note from it and make the food accentuate; ancho-honey slow braised beef shortribs on rosemary infused gnocchi, strawberry-cucumber salad ... ancho or chipotle will enhance this wines' intense red berry notes but beware of pairing spice with high alcohol wines as the alcohol intensifies the sensation of alcohol (hence the honey for balance)

And so a decidedly excellent showing from the first vintage of a new winery. It's obvious that Charles Herrold knows what he's doing, and as these vines mature - scores in the 90's will become the standard for this winery. 

Perhaps a comparison of Bordeaux and the Columbia Valley was foolish; Bordeaux-the-Master obviously has more wineries, more awards, more prestige, more presence in the International Arena then Young-Columbia-Valley. The only area where Bordeaux does not surpass Columbia Valley is in passion; focused passion from the current generation of winemakers that are striving day-in and day-out to allow the fullest expression of their vineyards. In this, the two regions are equals.

And no perhaps about it.

As always, I look forward to your comments here or on Twitter @AStudentofWine

CINCIN~!!!     SLAINTE~!!!     CHEERS~!!!

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