Thursday, April 30, 2015

Old School; Literally

There are few icons in the Washington wine industry as recognizable is that old schoolhouse that you pass on your way into Walla Walla. The list of easily recognizable visual icons of Washington wine is short and I count them at two. Perhaps only the stone chapel at Red Willow vineyard is as synonymous with Washington's wine as the schoolhouse that plays home to L'Ecole 41. This year, that icon turns 100, making it by far the oldest winery in the state, while it didn't start out that way, (technically if you built a schoolhouse to be a winery, it would be a winery that looks like a schoolhouse) it has become synonymous with Walla Walla, Washington wine and of course L'Ecole 41.

In recognition of that centennial L'Ecole is releasing a wine in commemoration. The first settlement in the Walla Walla Valley was a place called Frenchtown, established by French Canadian settlers was founded in the early 1800s. By the 1860s it was a vibrant community and one that even set down roots for what was to become the future of the area, viticulture and winemaking. The Frenchtown Schoolhouse itself was built in 1915 and was actually in use as a school until 1974. In 1977 the Ferguson family took ownership of the building with designs on opening a winery there, which they did in fact do in 1983.

These days a visit to the old schoolhouse gives you a sense of the original building's charm from a lot of the original finishes to re-purposed classrooms now used for tasting wine complete with chalkboards.

The wine the 2013 Frenchtown Red Wine is an evolution of what we're seeing more and more of Cabernet and Syrah blends. For winemaker and owner Marty Clubb it's about delivering a wine that's unique enough to stand on it's own. "There have been more and more wineries exploring blends of Bordeaux and Rhone varieties, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.  We did some early trials ourselves in earlier vintages of what evolved from Schoolhouse Red.  Over time we felt that the mix of 70 to 80% Bordeaux with 20 to 30% Rhone added fruit complexity that made the wine richer, with vibrant fruit yet underlying earth and mineral tones.  This "style" then set this wine apart from the other Columbia Valley varietal focused wines, and also uniquely different from the more traditional Bordeaux blends of our single-vineyard Walla Walla Valley terroir driven wines.  Maybe another way of saying it is that Frenchtown is meant to display a broader array of fruit, whereas the other Columbia Valley wines are more laser focused on each variety."

                              2013 L'Ecole Frenchtown Red Wine
This wine is a blend of blends if you will, a complete Bordeaux blend of Merlot, Cabernet, Malbec and Cabernet Franc, then blended with a traditional Rhone blend of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre. It's Bordeaux heavy though at 75%. What strikes me about this wine is the emphasis on bright red fruits, and the surprising influence of the Grenache given that it only makes up 7% of the wine. Lots of great structure on the palate as you'd expect from a Bordeaux style blend, great tannin and weight to the wine but the Rhone varieites bring an earthiness as well as the prominent fruit character. A great value at $22. 


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