Monday, March 25, 2013

Unknown Washington Syrah tastes better than 100-point wines

Chris Peterson
Chris Peterson's first vintage of Avennia Syrah sat beside a $250 wine from Chapoutier, two 100-point wines from Parker and Spectator, and 4 other wines with better credentials than it Saturday at a panel tasting in Seattle called "Washington vs. the world."

All the Avennia Syrah had going for it was it was the best wine on the table.

Peterson, formerly co-winemaker at DeLille, was lucky to get the grapes for his inaugural vintage from one of Yakima Valley's best growers, Dick Boushey. "I like Chris. He's very serious, and he's very low-key," Boushey says.

That's true. I was one of the presenters, I sat next to Peterson, and he said the least of anyone on stage.

Me, I talked about ratings and value. 2000 Leoville Las Cases got 100 points from Spectator, 98 points from Parker, costs $350 online, and it was a simple dark fruit wine with a short finish. I'm not sure I could pick it out of a lineup of $15 Bordeaux Superieur. One woman in the audience pointed out that the wine was tight and might be delicious in 20 years. OK, but is that what one expects from a 100-point wine: hopes and excuses? I asked for a show of hands from people who thought it was worthy of 100 points: zero.

Why is this bottle empty? Because it was great
We had extra bottles of 2005 Cos d'Estournel, which got 98 from both Parker and Spectator and costs $250 online. The wine was unimpressive when we opened it; 2005 Leonetti Cellars Reserve kicked its overpriced ass. The reason we had extra bottles is that panelists like me were sneaking an extra glass of the Leonetti, which was lively and delightfully fruit-forward, yet elegant. So we ran out of that, and we were stuck with the 98-point Cos d'Estournel, which nobody would drink later at dinner. We had two tables full of sommeliers, wine buyers, winemakers and a few writers, and we drained more than 20 bottles and ordered more from the list. We drank Prosecco, we drank Sonoma County Riesling, we drank the heck out of some older Spanish wines, we fought over Barolo and Corton, and the 98-point Cos d'Estournel sat nearly full until we piled into taxicabs to go home. Hopefully a dishwasher chugged it out of the bottle.

Sorry, I digress, like I did on stage. Back to the great Avennia Syrah, the find of the day.

Avennia "Arnaut" Bouchey Vineyard Yakima Valley Syrah ($45) has strong spiciness in the aroma, thick yet smooth tannins, a graceful mouthfeel, pretty floral notes and plenty of red plum fruit. It was strange at first to see Peterson on the panel with three of the longtime superstars of Washington wine -- Bob Betz, Alex Golitzin of Quilceda Creek, Rick Small of Woodward Canyon. But the wine belonged.

Peterson left DeLille in 2011 after 8 years to found Avennia. He sources his grapes from the cooler parts of Yakima Valley because, he says, "I'm trying to de-emphasize fruit and emphasize mineral flavors. I want to show what Washington has in the Earth."

His flagship wine, "Sestina," ($50) is a Cabernet Sauvignon-dominant Bordeaux blend with great length and freshness, bright fruit and the characteristic fresh herbs of Cabernet that most winemakers in Napa Valley spend thousands of dollars to avoid. I liked the 2010 a lot, much more than the same vintage of his 2nd wine "Gravura" ($35), a Bordeaux blend that had good freshness and well-managed tannins but was a little too herbal for me. Both wines are 14.5% alcohol.

I said to Peterson, "You're not afraid of herbaceousness." He said, "No. The Red Willow (region fruit) brings that out. After eight years at DeLille with Red Mountain (fruit) and 100% new oak, I was ready for some subtlety."

My favorite of DeLille's wines is the Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon blend called "Chaleur Estate blanc," which does give plenty of French oak flavor, but nicely balances intensity and refinement. Peterson is buying some of the same Sauvignon Blanc and making it without the Semillon for Avennia, and I miss the Semillon: it's almost too intense, with strong green fruit and none of the moderating richness of mouthfeel Semillon brings. It's interesting: with his red wines, it's as if he frees their character from restraint, and they are fully realized at last, but with the white, I want the restraints clamped back on. Peterson says the 2011 Sauvignon Blanc ($25, 12.5% alcohol) might just need more time to blossom.

"I love the potential of Sauvignon Blanc in Washington," he says. "But we're going to have to train people that Sauvignon Blanc can be serious."

Avennia, which made 2250 cases of wine in 2012, has no distribution currently and is sold only by mailing list. That sounded like a bad situation to me, until Peterson told me they have 1400 people on the mailing list, all of it from word of mouth, as they have no tasting room. I'm sorry to say that the Syrah that blew away the 100-point wines is already sold out, but the Sestina is well worth trying, and the 2011 vintage of Syrah is due in the next few months. After his impressive first vintage, I can't wait to taste what he does next. You can have the 100-point wines; I'll take the wines that taste better.

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  1. So much for 45$ a bottle in future......

  2. "Le Chasseur" by DeLille? Do they have a wine I've never had, or should this be the "Chaleur Estate" white?

  3. I was in that session with you and liked the overall message of the tasting—which is to say Washington's wines hold their own at the top of the quality scale with some other world class wines.

    While I'd have to disagree with you that the Avennia was the best wine on the table, it was a very good wine and showed well in the lineup of 4 Syrah/Shiraz'. Betz' Syrah was just a notch better IMO, but I'd have to say the best overall wine on the table was Rick Small's 1999 Woodward Canyon.

    The Aussie Shiraz from Barossa was not the best representation of the region, it was an exaggerated example of Barossa's old perception (ie.. Parker Points). I was just in the Barossa 72 hours before this session and tasted many Barossa Shiraz' none of which tasted or smelled like that one.

    Perhaps a better name for the tasting would've been Washington vs. Parker.

    Either way, the point was made that Washington wines are very well made, age wonderfully and are very affordable.

  4. They may not have distribution, but this wine can be found in several Seattle wine shops (Esquin, Wine World, Pete's) - it isn't a mailing list only bottle.

  5. I obviously was not there and the wines you were tasting are out of my price range but my opinion as to why Parker would rates wine as 90 and change is that he has an idea of how it will develop in X years. The Leonetti probably kicked its backside now but maybe not in 15 years. I think that most wines of high quality are crafted to be drunk sooner. This does not means that they will develop into a bottle of deliciousness later. I envy you and the great wines you get to experience.

  6. Rick: Actually, the conventional wisdom on Parker's highest-rated wines is that they are in a low acid style and will not age well. I simply do not have the bandwidth to personally comment on that tonight.

  7. Perhaps that other post of your's about the next Great Wine Critic in which you mentioned Jancis would have to change to the 100 point rating scale should be revisited.

    Leonetti Reserve is such a great wine, but only looks inexpensive in certain company.

  8. I was the moderator for this panel and have to agree fully with Blake on how the Washington wines fared. the debate about the 'fairness' of tasting 'young' Bordeaux against 'mature' Washington wines can be made for eternity without an end. I actually did a pairing of the Woodward Canyon and the Leoville Las Cases the week before, so I would have an idea of what to expect. On day 2, the Woodward was just getting going and the Bordeaux was dead. At this event, the Chapoutier should have been just coming into stride, but again, it seemed tired. I am not convinced that the old rules of Bordeaux and the Rhone are as true today as in the past. Yes, they historically have been built more for ageing than domestic wines, but they have also changed over the decades to the point that the ph and fruit, tannin and ph are not the same as in the past. I think the 'new world', at least in terms of Washington State, has caught the 'old world' in many ways and this tasting certainly confirmed it in my book. I will get off my soap box now.

  9. I was also at the seminar Blake, and I agree with you that the Avennia Arnaut was the best Syrah on the table. Woodward Canyon knocked it out of the park for me in the cab lineup which it does pretty much every year. This is the second or third seminar I've attended with you as a panelist and I'd just like to say "keep it coming". Your sense of humor deflates the stuffiest of situations and it's refreshing. Chris Peterson's presence on the panel was really my lure this year though. He's a very humble guy producing elegant, ageworthy wines and a nice addition to the old guard.