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

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

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

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

Lowden Hills Merlot 2003

Having spent four years of my life in Washington state – and three months of that getting a Wine Trade Professional certificate at Central Washington University – I believe that I was finally able to get a sense of what Washington wines are like.Although the terroir of the place is dodgy – the Missoula floods pretty much guaranteed that there isn’t very much of interest going on there, at least in terms of soils – there’s something about the climate that seems to determine a very specific style. Washington is a far bigger state than Seattle and the Puget Sound; yes, Seattle is cold and rainy much of the time (heck, even Dan Savage is starting to complain about the lack of a summer so far this year), but once you cross the Cascades towards Yakima, Red Mountain, and Walla Walla, things change dramatically. Although the winters are cold enough to cause serious damage to grapevines every decade or so, the summers are plenty warm – and balanced out by some seriously cool nighttime temperatures.There’s a certain treble-ness to a lot of Washington wines; the cool nights seem to imbue them with a nervy, electric energy that is a wonderful complement to the dark, ripe character of the fruit. Thanks to the economic boom of the 1990s – and, in Washington at least, the continued good times of the early 2000s (due in large part to corporations such as Starbucks,, and Microsoft), there’s been a massive explosion in the number of wineries up there, many of them family farms trying to cash in on the huge upturn in Washington’s wine quality by making their own wine instead of selling to huge corporations such as Chateau Ste. Michelle.I ventured out to Walla Walla for their annual barrel tasting weekend twice: both times, I marveled at ad hoc helicopter landing pads set up for wealthy tourists from the Puget Sound, just-opened wineries done up in a fake Tuscan style, complete with $75 syrah from two-year old vines. I also basked in the hospitality of some old-time Walla Wallans (thanks again, Brian!) who took pride in the simple fact that some of the local wineries had been there for some time and didn’t charge ridiculous sums of money for some very impressive wines (the Glen Fiona syrahs from the late 1990s come to mind).Anyhow: the first thing that sprang to mind upon smelling this wine was whoa, this couldn’t be from anywhere other than Washington – and it smells like a small family operation on one of their first vintages. There’s a certain smell here that gives it away – it smells like immaculately grown fruit combined with good quality barrels and perhaps a certain amount of what, for a lack of a better word, I’ll call manipulation. Mind you, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s just that some wines smell as if they were effortlessly made directly from the soil of the vineyard (cf. Clonakilla, Ridge, Vieux-Telegraphe, others). This doesn’t.Instead, it’s got a kind of bacon bits aroma to it, combined with sweet oak of some kind; it also has the same, high-toned note to it you’d expect from a quality Washington wine. It also has a very ripe, jammy, Red Vines-esque heft to it that is rather more appealing than I’m describing it, I assure you.It’s agreeably balanced in the mouth, with steely acidity, good, ripe fruit, and a surprising hint of mintiness or eucalyptus there as well. Oddly enough, it seems like it could also work as a chewing gum flavor for adults – something in the clove gum mold of the 1940s. Tannins are moderate and unintrusive, the finish is pleasant if a touch short, and overall it’s, alas, nothing special, really. Still, that isn’t to say it’s a bad bottle of wine – far from it. What you’re getting here is – in my opinion at least – typicité, Walla Walla style, and at a much fairer price than most of ’em.Lowden HillsPrice: US $24Closure: CorkDate tasted: June 2008