Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Cool Vintage, Cool Customer; Saviah Cellars 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon

The 2011 vintage for Washington wine may be nearly as cool as Miles Davis
The year 2011 was a tough one for Washington wine folks. It was a cold vintage, and not just that, it started out bad from the jump, as the kids say. As soon as harvest 2010 wrapped up. A nasty November frost laid waste to lots of vineyard acreage particularly in Walla Walla and the Horse Heaven Hills. Cabernet was hit hardest, likely because it is one of the most commonly planted wine grapes in Washington, King Cabernet dropped nearly 30% in 2011. 

The vintage began with a tough set of circumstances for growers and continued to be one of the coldest on record for Washington, in fact, perhaps the coldest ever for the wine industry. As a late ripening grape Cabernet Sauvignon can prove to be particularly finicky in a cold vintage and by finicky I mean, doesn't always ripen. Bud break began two to three weeks late in 2011 and largely much of the state never caught up to the "normal" years. Harvest began in warmer sites in late September and continued well into November.

In the 2011 bottlings you are seeing just how different, and in some ways difficult the vintage was for both winegrowers and winemakers. Under-ripe Cabernet Sauvignon often exhibits "green" or herbaceous characteristics, the common comparison being bell pepper flavors. This is attributed to a compound called Pyrazine, which is prominent in bell peppers and other vegetables. It's present in Cabernet Sauvignon and as the grape ripens, its exposure to sunlight actually destroys the Pyrazine compounds in the grape. Not a lot of sunlight? A whole lotta bell pepper. With a challenging vintage like 2011 and a  harvest that went late into November, particularly in cool areas, some folks may have picked the grapes too soon resulting in those green characteristics.
this photo of a frozen vineyard was taken in a completely different state, cool though right?
I am a cool vintage fan, almost universally. My favorite vintage in Oregon has been 2007, the 2010 wines in Washington, when well made are some of my favorites, see the Waters Winery 2010 Tremolo. When looking for dialed in Cabernet Sauvignon from Washignton State from it's most challenging vintage, look no further than the 2011 Saviah Cellars Walla Walla Valley Cabernet. A prime example of how elegant and complete a cool vintage wine can be.

The Saviah Cabernet is sourced from five different Walla Walla vineyards, some well known ones of course like Seven Hills and Pepper Bridge as well as lesser known, Ana Marie, McClellan Estate and Summit View. The wines complexity is present in both its aromatics, which exhibit dried rose petals, dried herbs, chicory and its layered palate which exhibits fresh and juicy fruits in currant and berries, hints of mocha and absolutely outstanding acidity and structure that are the hallmarks of well made cool vintage wines.

For Saviah winemaker Rich Funk, it was a memorable vintage. "Cool vintages require strong viticultural focus and a commitment to picking when the fruit is ready. I am usually mostly done harvesting by the end of October. But in both 2010 and 2011 we still had two thirds of our fruit hanging at that time. All my chips were on the table so to speak. We finished harvesting the Cabernet mid-November without being disappointed with any of picking decisions. For many, picking a little early in 2010 and 2011 resulted in angular tannic structure and under ripe phenolics."

The key to colder vintages is timing. It's balancing getting those last ripening days out of the fruit on the vine against the risk of rain, that could lead to mold, or an even more frightening prospect; frost, a real possibility in the Walla Walla Valley in November. A frost that could in fact that leave you without any fruit to make wine with. " Nerve racking to say the least...up checking weather stations every morning at 3:30, hoping for another five days without rain or frost and November cooperated beautifully."

A cold vintage like 2011 though can sometimes play the role of bellwether and really illuminate where the state's most experienced and talented winemakers are found. From the Washington Wine Report's Sean Sullivan "You could say that the cool 2011 vintage separated the men from the boys in the vineyard and in the winery in Washington, and while that was sometimes true, it's also a bit too simplistic. Mother Nature dealt some a tough set of cards and they simply did the best they could with what they had. In other cases, some who were dealt a pretty good hand overplayed it and produced wines that were at odds with the vintage. Others kept their cool, played their hand well, and produced some truly lovely wines."

While Rich's Cabernet shows he was up to the task for the challenging 2011, he's not necessarily looking to relive it any time soon. "While I enjoy a good challenge and the wines turned out well, I prefer the vintages like we have had in 2012 and 2013. The pace is much more comfortable, the risks fewer, the overall experience much more pleasant and the wines are excellent to boot.'


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