A Washington Winery Worth Watching


Most press trips are dominated by wall to wall tastings and seminars run at an unforgiving pace topped with long days, little sleep and no down time to reflect or gather thought. Inevitably the result is a fuzzy memory of the wines and more frustratingly, a journey home searching for that all important sense and feeling of place. Whilst organisers believe ‘more is more’, the journos. know that ‘less is more’ for better press. As I’ve always said, on a demanding trip the clever winemaker greets you with those magical words. “fancy a beer?”

My recent trip to Washington and Oregon inevitably fell into the ‘more is more’ category, especially the Oregon leg, but whilst Christophe Baron didn’t offer us a beer on arrival he did give us a clear vision of his wines and a meaningful sense of place at Cayuse, not to mention a one man show full of passion, gesture and emotion that wouldn’t have been out of place on the London stage.
Amazingly many visits on the trip did not include vineyards but Christophe knew that his vines - and his famous cobblestones - were the soul of Cayuse and the starting point to give weary visitors a better understanding of his wines and domaine, not to mention sunshine and a breath of fresh air.

Christophe, brought up in the family’s Champagne House, trained in Avize and then Beaune before buying Cayuse in 1997, “as soon as I saw the cobblestones my thoughts went to Chateauneuf du Pape, planting Syrah and creating a world class ‘Rhone’ wine”, he recalled as he opened the show. His stage was a metre high mound of cobblestones, “Cayuse means stones”, he explained. Syrah has the leading role with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Grenache, Merlot, Tempranillo and Viognier in the chorus line.

Today, Cayuse comprises 5 vineyards, namely Cailloux (10 acres), Coccinelle (4.5), En Cerise (10), En Chamberlin (10) and Armada (7), producing 14 labels totalling about 4500 cases. All are planted in the stony soil, resulting in “highly stressed vineyards with an average yield of only two tons per acre”. The winery is located in the vineyards, “which means that we can taste the grapes as opposed to relying on analysis from 100 miles away”, he smiled.

From the very beginning Cayuse vineyards were farmed organically and in 2002 Cayuse became the first domaine in Walla Walla (great name for Christophe’s one man London debut) to implement biodynamic viticulture. Cayuse crushed its first biodynamic fruit for the 2005 vintage, “using the inter-relationship of earth, plants, and animals in a closed, self-nourishing ecosystem and an astronomical sowing and planting calendar”, Christophe explained.

Cayuse’s first plantings were on a 10 feet x 4 feet grid (1089 vines/acre), the second plantings were 6 feet x 4 feet (1815 vines/acre) followed by 3.5 feet x 3.5 feet (3555 vines/acre) with the latest vineyard boasting a tight 3 feet x 3 feet (4840 vines/acre) layout. The latter is planted with Syrah and worked by horses, “it preserves the old ways but is also efficient for such a tight grid”.  

The tasting was held in the winery with Christophe and his assistant vigneronne Elizabeth Bourcier holding centre stage with a cast of 12 wines;

God Only Knows Grenache 2012, Cailloux Vineyard Syrah 2013, Bionic Frog 2010, 2006 Armada Vineyard Syrah, 1999 Cailloux Vineyard Syrah, 2003 The Widowmaker (100% Cabernet Sauvignon), 2008 Impulsivo (100% Tempranillo), No Girls 2009 Syrah, Horsepower Vineyards 2013 Sur Echalas Vineyard Grenache, Horsepower Vineyards 2013 Sur Echalas Vineyard Syrah, Horsepower Vineyards 2011 The Tribe Vineyard Syrah and Hors Categorie Vineyard Syrah 2014.

To compliment biodynamic farming and hand harvesting, in the winery Christophe and Elizabeth favour “native yeast primary fermentation and native MLB, concrete fermentation, punchdowns and pumpovers, cuvaison of 2-3 weeks, partial whole cluster, ageing in French demi-muid and foudre” for the majority of the wines. The exceptions were the 2008 Impulsivo and the 2003 The Widowmaker which were destemmed.

When it came to the wines, as with most visits the opinions of the group were healthily varied. I liked them … my notes included “similar wine style over the varieties - good intensity of juicy red and black fruits, liquorice overtones, friendly tannins, balanced oak, wines aged well - hellishly moreish … a bottle would disappear very quickly”. That said, these biodynamic beauties come at a price, ranging from $75 (No Girls 2009 Syrah) through $120 (Horsepower Vineyards 2013 Sur Echalas Vineyard Grenache) to the 2014 Hors Categorie Vineyard Syrah which sports a $250 price tag.  

Christophe Baron and Cayuse were one of my highlights of the trip; his enthusiasm in both vineyard and winery was infectious and ensured that we didn’t leave with a fuzzy memory of the wines or without an understanding, sense or feeling of the estate … just the opposite, when I close my eyes I can still ‘taste’ the wines and I’m back amongst the cobblestones and horses.

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