It has been several years since I visited with Gary Figgins and his winemaker son Chris at Leonetti in Walla Walla. I have always liked their wines. They are graceful wines; their rich textures and complex flavors find a balance with sufficient acidity and moderate alcohol levels. In the early days, they stood out as beacons of what Washington could be. Today, they're still consistently outstanding, even if many of the state's best wineries have caught up with them in terms of sheer quality.
In recent years, the winery has stopped buying grapes from Columbia Valley, using exclusively Walla Walla fruit. The reserve wines always were Walla Walla, but Leonetti made their standard-bearing Merlot out of purchased grapes from Columbia Valley growers until 2006, and the Cabernet until 1999.
Leonetti owns the Mill Creek Upland Vineyard and a share of Seven Hills Vineyard in Walla Walla. They always had 2 1/2 acres adjacent to the winery, and in 2002 they started planting a much larger vineyard on an adjacent hillside just east of the winery. That vineyard is now called Loess (after its soil type), and now that it has reached a level of maturity it's starting to find its way into the wines, replacing the Columbia Valley fruit.
In my blind tastings, I sensed a bit of this transition. As the Merlots and Cabernets still score in the 90s routinely, the style seems to be morphing into something different. Maybe it's the changing grape sources. Chris says he wants to focus more on the character of the grapes. The wines seem less dependent on the spice and complexity from oak. Chris and Gary confirm that they are backing off on the percentage of oak, and using almost exclusively French oak. Earlier vintages used more new American oak.
"As we put more and more work into the vineyard," Chris says, "we want the wines to be more terroir-driven." Adds Gary, "When you increase the density of fruit in your wines, the oak doesn't show as much."
Tasting the 2006 and 2007 vintages from barrel, I was struck by the silky textures and sense of elegance. These are two very good vintages in Washington, and I am encouraged by the depth of fruit flavor in these wines without their being too big or brawny.
The Leonetti Sangiovese has been one of America's more successful attempts at capturing the magic of this Tuscan grape variety. My ratings of this wine typically have topped out at 89 points (with the exception of the 1995 at 90 points), which is darned good. I think it's often been short of outstanding because it's always had a percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon blended into it. While we tasted the un-bottled vintages, the father-and-son team revealed that they have stopped using Cabernet in the Sangiovese. The 2005 vintage (which I rated 89) is the last to use it. A percentage of Syrah, grown next door to the winery, seems more complementary than Cabernet.
The 2006 Sangiovese, aged in puncheons and in large Italian ovals, is very open and pure, with great fruit, a polished finish and impressive length. It also showed a distinctive floral character, which in the past seemed to have gotten lost against the Cabernet component. The 2007 showed similar proclivities.
Leonetti also bottled five cases of its 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon using the Vino-Lok glass stopper in place of corks. Like other winemakers, Gary is getting frustrated with the inevitable percentage of cork-tainted bottles, and he and Chris find the glass classier than screw caps. So far the results are encouraging. We tasted one of each. Even after 10 months in bottle, the one under cork was more advanced (read: older-tasting), the one under the inert closure showing purer, more concentrated fruit.
A new underground bottle storage room, built in the space that the old, tightly packed barrel storage room occupied, has been fitted out with nifty-looking sandstone bins. I'm betting that the bins of future vintages will have those glass stoppers in them, another sign of progress at one of Washington's most venerable wineries.