Counoise grapes, from Tablas Creek Vineyard
Every profession has its rebels, and grape growers are no exception. Look at Dean Morrison, for example. He and his wife, Verdie, operate Morrison Lane, the family-owned vineyard and winery in Walla Walla, Washington, where deep, dark red Cabernets and Merlots are the mainstay of many vintners. But the Morrisons don’t follow the traditional path trod by most Walla Walla wineries. They concentrate instead on varieties that are rarely named on a label, growing and bottling notable, albeit unusual, vintages like Counoise and Cinsault.
Morrison Lane’s offbeat wines stand out from the crowd, but it isn’t the only winery working with some of the more obscure grapes originating from Bordeaux, the Rhone region, or even Spain. In the United States, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot still reign, but Washington and California both report increasing acreage planted to grapes like Grenache, Mourvedre, Viognier, and Malbec.
So, is the wine industry readying itself for a readjustment like that experienced between 1996 and 2000, when Syrah plantings in Washington State leaped from 382 to 2,203 acres? Will Cabernet Sauvignon lose its crown to its cousin, Cabernet Franc? Is Viognier the new Riesling?
Probably not, according to Washington growers and winemakers who are investing in some of the less famous wine grapes. Plantings of the more obscure varieties have always thrived in Washington. For the most part, these grapes are blended with more well-known varieties to produce classic Bordeaux-style wines or Rhone-style blends. Trends like the growing love affair with Syrah can alter the face of a marketplace, but more often an experiment with a new product remains an interesting diversion for consumers looking for a new experience, and for winemakers seeking a unique product.
At Morrison Lane, Dean Morrison takes a gleefully contrarian approach to viticulture. He planted four acres of Syrah in 1994, preceding the rush to grow the Rhone grape that surged across Washington from 1996 to 2000. Today, the vineyard covers 23 acres, and Morrison continues to experiment with relatively obscure varieties like Dolcetto, Barbera, and Nebbiolo, all native to Italy’s Piedmont region, as well as Viognier, Cinsault, and Sangiovese.
Morrison, in 1999, was the first in the state to plant Counoise, and is also one of only a few producers of Carmenere, the so-called lost grape from Bordeaux. The grape had apparently become extinct after the phylloxera virus spread across France’s Bordeaux region in the late nineteenth century. It was later rediscovered in Chile, where DNA tests revealed that grapes thought to be Merlot, imported from France before the epidemic wiped out the crop there, were actually Carmenere.
"I was attracted to it because of its rarity," Morrison said. "It was made for a guy like me."
The Morrison Lane vineyard was initially planted to supply other winemakers, including Rusty Figgins of Glen Fiona, one of Morrison’s earliest clients. Other wineries buying Morrison’s unusual crop include Seven Hills, Walla Walla Vintners, Syzygy, and K Vintners. In 2004 the Morrison family began selling their own wines, crafted by Dean and Verdie’s son Dan, with notable results. The 2003, vintages of Counoise and Barbera received 90 points from Wine Enthusiast, along with the 2003 33-1/3, a blend of Syrah, Counoise and Viognier.
Often referred to as "sport varieties," these lesser-known grapes fill several niches, both from a winemaking and a marketing stance. A winery’s supply of unusual varieties frequently is reserved for wine club members, providing a unique experience to loyal customers, or to consumers who purchase wine from a tasting room. "It’s kind of a come-on, if it’s only available through the wine club or at the winery," explains Butch Milbrandt, who, with his brother Jerry, grows 1,146 acres of wine grapes on the Wahluke Slope and in the Columbia Valley, as well as bottling their own label.
The Milbrandts supply a wide array of Washington wineries with 27 different varieties of grapes, with a heavy emphasis on Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah, but also including the sport varieties, like Petit Verdot, Viognier, Grenache, and Malbec. Most are planted at the request of his customers, and are usually intended for blending—their traditional purpose.
But the allure of offering a unique bottle of wine can change all that. "It happened five years ago with Viognier," Milbrandt said. That wine was originally sourced by Washington winemakers to co-ferment with Syrah. But when boutique wineries started focusing on it as a varietal, he says, it gained a large following and an elevated demand that eventually attracted the attention of big producers like Chateau Ste. Michelle. That in turn drove up the acreage. In 1999, a mere 60 acres in Washington were planted to Viognier, but that jumped to 230 acres by 2002, according to data compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Statistics Service.
Other varieties gaining ground across the state include Pinot Gris (141 acres planted since 2001), Malbec (73 acres planted since 2001), Mourvèdre (86 acres since 2001—all but 10 acres of its entire statewide production), and Petite Verdot (98 acres planted since 2001).
As one of the largest wine producers in Washington, Chateau Ste. Michelle works with at least a percentage of just about every variety grown in the state, according to winemaker Bob Bertheau, including Grenache, Mourvèdre, Malbec, Cinsault, and Petite Verdot. He bottles all of them as varietals for Chateau Ste. Michelle’s wine club members in order to display the character of the grapes. But the "sport varieties" for the most part are headed for a blend in one of CSM’s mainstream bottles. The remainder goes into a wine called Orphellin. The name refers to the orphaned nature of these small-lot wines, Bertheau said, even though the blend itself creates a home for them. "With the blend, we’re looking for perfect balance."
Many of the grapes that appear to American eyes like rare gems are standard vineyard fare in France and other wine-producing countries around the world, although those markets don’t embrace the varietal nature of wines as Americans do. That New World fascination with varietals casts these wines in a different light. Charlie Hoppes, owner of Fidélitas Winery, produces a popular Malbec at his winery at Red Mountain. The first vintage of 190 cases, released two years ago, was sold out within six weeks, he says, all in sales from the tasting room.
Hoppes wasn’t surprised by the wine’s success. Typically used as a blending wine in Bordeaux, Malbec is nonetheless the primary wine produced and bottled in Argentina. Hoppes decided to work with it in Washington on the recommendation of Argentine academics who were impressed with the quality of the Malbec grapes they sampled at Washington State University’s field –station in Prosser.
Winemaker Holly Turner has had similar success at Three Rivers Winery in the Walla Walla Valley. Her entire production of 2005 Malbec—120 cases—sold out in three months, she said. "I decided to bottle it as a varietal for the wine club, something special to offer at the winery."
Turner also offers Grenache at the Three Rivers tasting room. She first acquired that variety to blend with Syrah, but said the quality of the grapes, from Milbrandt’s Clifton Vineyard, led her to try it as a varietal. "I think people will appreciate a medium-bodied red wine. It’s really quite pleasing for people who don’t like the big tannins."
She is also working with small quantities of Petit Verdot, and of Tempranillo, a Spanish grape making more appearances in American bottles. Like Malbec, it’s widely sold as a varietal in Argentina, where Turner spent several years learning winemaking. She’ll bottle her first vintage—about 90 cases—in February, and says she bought more of it this year.
Milbrandt emphasizes the power of boutique wineries. "If large producers see more of these boutique bottles on the shelf, they’re going to get the idea," he says. "When a sales guy sees 15 bottles on the shelf and they’re all –selling and he doesn’t have any, he’s going to ask for it."
Still, he says, the demand continues to be partially driven by a sense of exclusivity. "Nobody is bottling 2,000 cases of Malbec," he points out.
Turner’s small production of the sport varieties, like Bertheau’s at Chateau Ste. Michelle, reflects a growing knowledge base among both wine producers and consumers. "I think we’re doing a better job growing the grapes, and we’re always improving in the winery," she says. "For me, it’s about reaching the grapes’ potential, to showcase the variety."