Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Avennia: Poetry for the Palate

Perhaps one of the most interesting effects of Washington’s still-expanding wine industry as it relates to the last few years of a sluggish economy is the phenomena of the warehouse districts in Woodinville. The fact that we can visit these nondescript, utilitarian - and let’s be honest, usually pretty ugly - rows of storage units and warehouses and find everything from fun, in-your-face, spunky and rebellious wines - rock and roll, so to speak - like Sparkman Cellars, and refined, graceful wines - like Obelisco Estate - in the same nondescript cluster of wineries and tasting rooms, is remarkable.

Avennia, one of Washington’s newest wineries, falls into the latter category. In an unremarkable peach concrete box building the brainchild of former Delille assistant winemaker Chris Peterson and Microsoft retiree Marty Taucher has come to life.

Avennia’s brand and fanciful names evoke Old World Europe, having been inspired by the owner and winemaker’s shared vision: honoring ancient winemaking techniques and applying them to Washington’s ‘New World’ grapes. Winemaker Chris Peterson said it nicely: “Preserving the purity of that fruit so it can express itself in the bottle.”

At the winery’s first barrel tasting on May 5 I got a chance to try all five wines in Avennia’s 2010 vintage. What Chris and Marty got right, above all else, was staying true to their founding principles and letting some of Washington’s most exquisite fruit take its time.

We started with Oliane, “the only white wine we’ll make for a while,” Marty added. He said that Chris wanted to make, “a 100% Sauvignon Blanc and he really wanted to make it out of Dick Boushey’s grapes.” The result, starting at only $25, is crisp and refreshing, drinkable and elegant.

Next I sampled Avennia’s two Syrahs. Parapine, named after a ghost in Chris’ house (more on that in this article from Washington Wine Report) was round and warm. It immediately made me crave a medium-rare burger - it’s a great wine in the $35 range that will only get better in a few years.

However, it was Arnaut ($45), named after a 12th century Troubadour - their flagship Syrah - that stole my heart. (Must be all those Sestinas he sang...) Arnaut didn’t make me crave meat so much, but the nose and dense, dark color pulled me in immediately - wines like this are why I’m a Syrah girl at heart.

“This is 100% single vineyard Dick Boushey fruit. A lot of it comes off of his old block, which is a great, great vineyard,” said Marty. They used 15% whole cluster fermentation in it: “We left the stems in there to give it a little more character, a little more structure to it,” Marty told me. Structured - like the poems Arnaut used to write, apparently (more on that later).

Next up was Gravura, Chris’ interpretation of a Bordeaux blend from the Graves region, where they tend to balance Cabernet and Merlot more equally than they do on the right or left banks. Unlike the Syrahs, Gravura hasn’t been bottled yet.

“We wanted to build a representative blend because we use neutral oak and we use different kinds of barrels,” said Marty. So they pulled samples from all 13 barrels, blended them, and bottled them to pour at the event. Gravura is 35% Red Willow Cab, planted in 1985, and Marty credits Chris’ strong relationships with many Washington vineyards for their access to some of the state’s finest grapes. Bacchus and Klipsun, including some of Washington’s oldest vines, round out the blend - and it's a value at only $35.

Sestina was the last wine on the list. Chris explained that a Sestina is a structured poem put to song: six stanzas, six lines each, “and each line has to be in a specific order.” The Sestina was developed by Arnaut Daniel, the troubadour for whom they named their Syrah. Chris’ vision for all of Avennia’s wines is to use an ancient form and put modern ideas into it. “In this case, the bordeaux blend with modern Washington fruit.” Sestina ($50) accomplishes just that, with complexity and poise.

I asked Chris to expand on his approach to the ‘ancient form’ of winemaking. “The aging process, I’m trying to slow it down, basically. The wine...I kind of think of it as a lifeforce. Everything you do can move that window forward to where the wine tastes better younger, but you’re taking a little of the long term ageability of the wine.” He noted that they don’t rack often and only after malolactic fermentation. Because Chris is making wines he wants to give longevity to, these will only get better with time.

And of course, barrels are at the crux of the winemaking process. “I choose the barrels kind of the same way I choose the fruit. Just like you have fruit, big fruit with big tannins, you have some with more mid-palate and some with more aroma and hopefully it all comes together. Same thing with the barrels. You have some barrels that have heavy toast flavor which is really delicious but if you use just those it would be overbearing.” For his wines, Chris looks for barrels that don’t have a lot of overt wood and lower percentage of new wood.

The last two years, Chris and Marty have made their wine at Efeste, but their own equipment has been ordered and is on its way, so all the production will take place in their Woodinville winery moving forward. Already, barrels are stacked and waiting for the June 15 bottling.
Chris Peterson and Marty Taucher of Avennia

“Over the years that’s what I’ve been learning...everything is in flux,” admitted Chris. The wine has its time spent in barrels, then bottled, then cellared - the balance will be completely different depending on when you open it. In other words, as structured a wine - or a poem - may be, its ending isn’t always performed quite the same way. I guess it isn’t over until the troubadour sings.

Avennia will be open for release and barrel tasting events only. Visit their website to learn more.


I didn't always think that wineries would look like Perth storage services. I must admit this one looks fantastic, though.

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