Cayuse Armada Vineyard Syrah 2009

A true sense of discovery is one of the most exciting and, for we jaded drinkers, rarest pleasures in wine, especially when it concerns an object of some familiarity like Shiraz. There are any number of sound, delicious expressions of this variety around the world, some more distinctive than others. But to stumble across a region that seems capable of something truly new is rare. With this Cayuse wine, I feel confident that Walla Walla, in Washington state, is one such region.

This isn’t the first Cayuse wine I’ve tried. Several years ago, Chris shared the Cailloux Syrah with me and, looking back on my notes, I was quite blown away by it. Since being in the States again, I’ve tasted two further Cayuse wines, of which this is the second (and best). They are unified by an entirely peculiar flavour profile, filled with savouriness and angularity, spiced but not warm, full but not plush. Winemaking seems consistently clever, with oak and reduction used delicately to season cores of distinctive fruit flavour.

This particular wine, though showing a consistency of regional and house style, blows the roof off in terms of layered complexity. It’s terrifically vibrant, with aromas of dark berries, meat, spice and reduction, each well balanced with respect to the whole. It’s both sinewy and muscular, bouncing between an almost floral dimension to the depths of savouriness and back again, like a fragrance no-one would dare make. So pure, so elegant.

The palate maintains form, a certain heft being offset by the wine’s fundamentally angular set of flavours. This is a big wine, but it’s not a blockbuster, and this balance between body and delicacy is a key pleasure. There’s real definition here, each group of flavours shooting down the line with clarity and freshness. Palate structure is firm without undue assertiveness; the focus here is very much on a kaleidoscopic flavour profile, moving from sweet to savoury, almost-plush to linear. It’s quite a performance.

Tasting this wine was an invigorating experience, like immersing one’s self in a novel that yields a new pleasure with each page. I will be watching Walla Walla Syrah.

Cayuse Vineyards
Price: $NA
Closure: Cork
Source: Gift

Eroica Riesling 2002

After patiently waiting seven years, I now have an answer to a simple question: Is this wine any better with age on it?


What was a beautiful, moderately complex, refreshing Washington state riesling in its youth is now a moderately complex aged riesling with notes of tarry white peaches, white flowers, slate, stone, and nowhere near enough acidity to balance the wine, alas. If less successful Clare riesling tends to be not quite sweet enough when it ages, then this wine is a different side of a similar coin: although there’s just enough residual sugar here to work with aged riesling notes, there isn’t enough acidity to balance it out (event though I do detect some acidity here). It’s just too soft, somewhat flabby, and a disappointment (although better than a Chehalem riesling from Oregon that I tried earlier in the week; that one only had six years on it, but it had sadly become flabbier than your average Outback Steakhouse patron).

Thanks to Terroir wine bar in New York, I now know that New York riesling can age. So: where are the Left Coast rieslings that can survive a decade?

Chateau Ste Michelle

Price: $20
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

Milbrandt Vineyards Traditions Riesling 2007

I know I’m biased because I lived there for a few years, but honestly: is there any better state than Washington when it comes to producing excellent quality wine at reasonable prices? Take this wine: it’s not expensive, but it gives you pretty much everything you’d want from a glass of riesling. Beautifully pale, a straw-gold yellow, it smells of white sage, orange-blossom honey, and wet stones. It’s got just enough residual sugar to please anyone who likes wine, not just wine nerds, and yet there’s enough acidity there to balance it out, resulting in a lovely, lush, yet not yet over the top summer’s drink. This is one of those rieslings that I’d be proud to server at Thanksgiving dinner: complex enough to provide interest to anyone paying attention, and yet straightforward enough to be liked be everyone at the table.

In short: good job.

Postscript: Judging by the winery’s Web site, this is the last vintage finished with cork. I’m glad to see that.

Milbrandt Vineyards
Price: $12
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

Dusted Valley Stained Tooth Syrah 2009

Damn it, some wines just smell good. I came home from work, cracked a bottle of the 2002 Clonakilla Hilltops syrah, and wound up with a huge snootful of Brett and mousy band-aid aromas. Yuck. Poured that one down the sink, grabbed the other bottle sitting next to the coffeemaker, twisted off the cap, and boom: vinuous Nirvana.If you like your shiraz, er, syrah cofermented wtih some viognier for that patented Côte-Rôtie effect, this stuff will do you just fine. Wonderful notes of roasted nuts, bacon fat slide on up out of the glass and say hello; gentle floral aromas of iris root suffus it all in a gauzy Brian de Palma glow; the effect is of a beautiful young woman drinking Russian tea in the springtime.OK, that was ridiculously over-the-top, even for me. All I can really say is this: Damn, that’s beautiful, and a tough act to follow: somewhat disappointingly, the wine doesn’t taste anywhere as good as it smells. The entry onto the palate is clumsy, the body doesn’t seem quite as rich and filling as the nose would promise, it could use a little bit more acidity perhaps, and yet the finish is just fine, flavors fanning out into a truly lovely array of mostly fresh, grape-y flavors.The difference between a good wine and a great wine? Try a bottle of this, then a bottle of the Clonakilla shiraz viognier, the Columbia Crest reserve syrah, or something properly French and see for yourself. Full marks to the winemakers here for producing such a wonderful nose, but the rest of it just doesn’t live up to the promises that the glass offers up. Shame.Dusted Valley
Price: $25
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Retail

O'Shea Scarborough "Desolation" Champoux Vineyard Chardonnay 2007

I bought this wine without knowing that it would come in a bizarrely shaped bottle with a fancypants smudge of black wax atop the cork – oh, and the label itself looks like it was printed (or is that prynted?) at a Renaissance Fayre. Ugh. I guess twee is really in these days, but I digress…Anyhow: on to the wine. The color is a dead ringer for pear cider or clarified pear juice (at least the kind found in Eastern European markets here in San Diego). Again – I don’t know why I feel compelled to mention this, but here goes – it’s super bright, buffed to an otherworldly sheen. You know, would it hurt anyone to release a white wine that has a little bit of optic heft to it?The nose has what I personally find to be that smell you get when you buy wines from new, boutique wineries that are trying to make a mark on the wine market by releasing things in ridiculously small numbers, most of which are from lieux-dits and feature ecology-be-damned murder-weapon-heavy glass bottles, hand-printed labels, wax, serial numbers, and everything else you’d expect in an expensive wine – or, rather, a wine that looks expensive regardless of whether or not it is. These bottles often seem to go hand in hand with a certain vapid nose that smells of amateur winemaking, low yields, high sugars, and a certain amount of indifference. For me, this is a dead ringer for Marie Callender’s lemon chiffon pie: it’s lemony, kind of chemical, and not especially attractive. If you are however into gobs of fruit, gobs of hedonistic fruit, or gobs of jammy, hedonistic fruit, then this just might be your thing. There’s also a hint of a matchstick note that isn’t altogether integrated into the rest of it; letting down my guard and being less of a jerk about it (I know, one should never be swayed by packaging alone, but there you go) there’s also a subtle nuttiness here, sometimes reminiscent of boiled peanuts from a Georgia roadside stand, sometimes more elegant than that.Wildly zingy and acidic at first, the acid drains off to reveal a strangely flat midpalate that is remarkably similar to lemon curd; there’s an interesting texture here that reminds me of partially cooked noodles – if you’ve ever bought fresh noodles and eaten one, you get an almost mealy effect which this wine suggests, at least to me. The finish ticks upwards and once again shows the sprightly acidity to great effect, and the length is quite good – which is kind of a shame as it tastes mostly of that same cheap lemon pie that I described earlier. Strangest of all, the acidity seems to die down very quickly and then the wine seems to sit back, undo its belt, and really allow its girth to overflow its Sansabelt: it turns kind of broad, flabby, messy, and still that acidity keeps jumping out at you like a Juggalo at Wal-Mart. It’s not entirely unexpected but decidedly unwelcome.Come to think of it, it’s possible that U2 may well have been thinking of this wine when they wrote ‘Lemon’:These are the days
When our work has come asunder
These are the days
when we look for something other
I, too, wish that I had looked for something other. Although I love Washington wines and know that wines from the Champoux Vineyard show enormous potential, I really do feel that something’s gone wrong along the way here. My guess is that the winemakers wanted to make a Chablis – but forgot that Washington is a relatively warm climate for grapes and as a result is probably better suited to making something like a Kistler. My recommendation: don’t fear new oak, lees stirring, and malolactic fermentation. Let love in. Your grapes are too good and too ripe to pretend to be Chablis.O’Shea Scarborough
Price: $25
Closure: Cork

Foundry Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2003

Such beautiful packaging, and such a shame to unwrap the bottle from its stylish red paper, but my cat just got back from the vet and deserved something to help him overcome the trauma, so there you go. This has been languishing in my cellar for years, picked up in Walla Walla during their spring tasting weekend; that time, I had stayed in the Bridal Suite at the Howard Johnson’s – don’t laugh, it was only $5 more, and turned out to have fewer amenities than their usual rooms, but I digress.I was shocked to smell this at first; the first impression is of, well, shit. Ewww. However, once you get past the shock, it does improve, but the bad smell seems to be on an endless, faulty merry-go-round with the other smells of Walla Walla fruit and Kalamata olive. I… am not a fan, admittedly; this smelled quite a bit different when I tasted the wine on site.Thankfully, when you get it past your nose and into your mouth, what you get is a lovely, elegant, supple Washington cabernet that is everything that good wines from that state are: brightly/subtly acidic in the background, with rich, lush, ripe red fruits in the front, all set off nicely against a lumbering backdrop of quality French oak. There is also a very distinctive, very hard for me to describe of something like green olives, salt water, and stale fruitcake hovering around the midpalate; I have a feeling that this wine may be a bit de trop for your average American red wine drinker, but honestly? Try to see beyond the oddness and you may be richly rewarded.Bonus: Jim Dine did the label, which is quite handsome. This wine really does look and feel like a $100 cult Cabernet from California; it’s insanely good value.Foundry Vineyards
Price: $30
Closure: Cork

Bunchgrass Winery Founder's Blend 2003

This is a friendly wine. Immediately appealing, the somewhat confected nose offers up straightforward red licorice characters as well as an intensely Walla Walla character: bright, forward fruit with just a twinge of brambly dust. Over time, some other flavors arise; these remind me somewhat of baked blackberry jam and old leather-bound books.Tannins sneak up immediately upon tasting the wine, however, and come to dominate the finish entirely, setting up an odd dynamic between the fruity plushness and the somewhat inert tannins. Then, suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere, nervy acidity rears up to finish it all off, leaving you with a still-puckery mouthful of tannin, harsh acid at the back of the mouth, and yet that same delicious fruitiness sailing on at the front of it all. It’s disjointed as hell, but I have to admit that I like it quite a bit for what it is.After a long weekend in Walla Walla a couple of years back tasting any number of perfectly decent, flawless, boring, expensive wines, this one really stood out for having a sense of character. Is it a great wine? No. But is it itself? Yes, and I’m grateful for that.Sadly, it looks like the winery is no more these days. Roger & Cheryl – thank you for a wonderfully idiosyncratic bottle of wine, and I hope you’re doing well.Bunchgrass Winery
Price: $30
Closure: Cork

Bonny Doon Vineyard Critique of Pure Riesling 2004

This is presumably the last riesling produced under the Bonny Doon label, and the only reason I’m drinking it now is because the hock bottle it comes in is so absurdly tall that it wouldn’t fit in my storage cabinet after I reorganized it to make room for a couple of Magnums Julian sent over for Christmas (thanks again Julian!)

Anyhow, on to the wine. It’s a few years old at this point, and the nose has taken a turn for the diesel station down the block – but only just. Honeyed peaches are there in full force as well, so it’s not overwhelming. Overall, the effect is of ethereal clover honey and springtime blossoms – it’s lovely.

Surprisingly rich and full in the mouth, the flavors are closer to Ethiopian honey wine than to a classic German riesling; there’s a subtle steely minerality behind it all, but at first taste what you’ll get is largely sweet honey (rocks come later). It doesn’t feel like there’s much in the way of sugar here, but it’s decidedly nowhere as austere as a typical Clare riesling, so I’m guessing there is; acidity is perceptible on the finish, but only just. The texturality of the wine is highly unusual; it’s got heft to it that isn’t apparently based on sugar or alcohol. Instead, it’s reminiscent of Japanese gel candy somehow: it’s tangibly there, but only there to carry the flavors.

Over time, a sort of hazy woodsmoke enters into the picture, taking it all to kind of a martime conclusion; strangely, I imagine that ordrinary oysters might be improved by serving this wine with them, lending them texture and taste that they might otherwise be lacking. The finish is fairly long, lazily shifting between honey, honeycomb, lavender water, and wet stone. Pretty amazing stuff for the money, to be sure.

Bonny Doon Vineyard
Price: $20
Closure: Stelvin

Cayuse Syrah 'En Cerise' 2005

At first smell, all I could think was “hey, this doesn’t smell American at all!” Unlike every other Washington syrah I’ve smelled, this wine gives me flashbacks to the Red Baron wine bar in Paris where I spent two lovely evenings drinking my way through obscure French wine regions just a few months ago.

Surprisingly, the nose is brutally thin, very mineral, with a very faint hint of the warmer Washingtonian climate almost totally obscured by what I can only imagine is old world winemaking: instead of plush, Australian raspberry jam, what you get is cold, austere, frankly barnyardy (but not Brett-y) funk edged with dirt. It’s quite a shock, especially as I had expected something quite different: Cayuse are a tiny, boutique, mailing-list-only producer, and even if the winemaker is French, I had just assumed that this would be a big, lush syrah something like the (amazingly delicious) John Duval-produced Sequel syrah, which is apparently from Walla Walla as well, just as this wine is – and yet this Cayus wine is utterly different from Duval’s.

It’s when you finally treat yourself to a sip of this that the New World components become apparently: there’s a fullness, a thickness that I wouldn’t associate with traditional Rhône wine that’s a thrilling counterpart to the austerity of the nose. Flavors are mostly in the realm of cured tobacco, black fruits, dried cherries, and just a hint of sourness to keep it all in check; there’s also a kind of burnt sugar sweetness that isn’t sugar, just sweetness that’s delightful as well. The finish does stay around for a while, reminding me somehow of Victorian toiletries (and I mean that in a good way: it’s like a once-popular floral scent that went out of fashion shortly before your grandparents got married), with a wonderful wood-coffee smoothness that leaves you very, very happy that you got to drink some of this wine.

Price: $45
Closure: Cork
Date tasted: December 2008

Sagelands Pepperbridge Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2002

Frankly, the nose on this puppy is generic. It smells like, well, a standard issue Washington state red wine – that is, tending towards mentholated cassis, fairly bright, fairly rich, and inviting. It’s almost as if the ghost of the now-pulled Welch’s grape juice vineyards are hiding on the periphery; it’s unchallenging but delicious.

In the mouth, it’s more interesting than you’d expect. Typically Washingtonian high and tight acidity predominates at first, falling away to reveal a rich, plummy core of bright black olives and blackcurrant fruitiness. The supporting oak is tastefully done, giving a solid, unexceptional tannic base that sets the wine off nicely; it’s all somehow reminiscent of a McVitie’s dark chocolate covered digestive biscuit. As Borat would say: I LIKE!!!

Serve this wine with something huge and meaty – venison stew would work wonders. It’s also probably fantastic with Stilton or pecan pie.

Price: I’m guessing about US$20 (I can’t remember)
Closure: Synthetic cork
Date tasted: November 2008