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harvey steiman at large

Liquid Rocks

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Mar 16, 2009 12:03pm ET

I noticed it in all the 2006 wines I tasted recently from Cayuse. Scattered through two days of extensive blind tastings of Washington wines, I found a distinctive aroma and taste, lurking in the background in some of the wines, front and center in others. It was a whiff of green olive, a touch of crushed rock, a dollop of something like wet earth, peat and, oh, I don’t know, bone meal? It added a distinct minerality, not to mention class and depth to wines rich with ripe fruit character at their cores.

It was present in the Syrahs, in the Cabernet Franc blend called Flying Pig, even in the Tempranillo called Impulsivo, for crying out loud. It got to be a game. I would muse, “there’s that character, must be Cayuse,” and darned if it wasn’t. Every time. I noticed the same character in the 2005 vintage I tasted last year as well.

On my last visit to Cayuse, vigneron Christophe Baron proudly demonstrated the biodynamic practices he is introducing to the vineyard, and showed me some distinctively egg-shaped oval tanks in the winery. I wondered if maybe it was the tanks that were imparting that flavor.

“No, it’s not the tanks,” he said by telephone when I reached him later. “Only about 5 percent of the wine even sees those tanks. If you tasted it in all of the wines, it wasn’t the tanks.”

So what was it?

“Liquid rock, my friend,” he laughed. “It’s terroir! And you can’t imagine how happy your question makes me.”

Baron believes his vineyards, planted on spare soils riddled with stones, are finally old enough to express their sense of place. Having started in 1996, the vines now approach an average age of 10 years. That’s something of a milestone (no pun intended) for a Frenchman steeped in a tradition that doesn’t even think great wines can come from vines less than 10 to 12 years old.

Truth is, most of Cayuse’s wines have been outstanding by any standard, right from the start. I’ve opened some 2000 and 2001 vintages recently that were nothing short of ethereal. But the appearance of this character suggests the wines might be getting better. At least, more distinctive.

Baseball-sized rocks litter the surface and go down several feet into the light, silty soil in the vineyards, planted on an old river bed. It looks a lot like Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which is why he bought the old apple and cherry orchards to plant Syrah (and a few other varieties) there in the first place. His wines, and others grown on that old riverbed, don’t taste like Syrahs from other parts of Washington. They feel less dense, and often are more refined.

James Laube happened to be in the office while I was tasting through the Washington wines. He thought the Cayuse Syrahs tasted very French, more complex and nuanced than most New World wines made from the grape.

There was always an element of minerality in Baron’s Syrahs, but when I told him that I noticed this character much more strongly and clearly starting with the 2005 vintage, he cautiously credited his biodynamic regime. “That’s about when I started to notice the difference in the vines from the biodynamics,” he said. “You taste it too? Wow.”

If you want to experience a dramatic example of terroir in the New World, get your hands on a Cayuse Syrah from 2005 or 2006. Open it alongside another Walla Walla Syrah. Anything from Seven Hills Vineyard would be perfect, since it’s on a rise just outside the old riverbed. Seven Hills Winery, L'Ecole No. 41 and Rockblock make outstanding ones from Seven Hills. The differences are striking.

That’s terroir.

Andrew Hughes
Toronto, Canada —  March 16, 2009 5:35pm ET
I completely agree. We opened a 2005 Syrah and there was 4 people drinking it and we all thought the same thing...Green Olive. Maybe even some green pepper as well. After letting it sit for a while, we went back to it and our response, Liquid Gold. A great fan of the Cayuse Syrahs but we don't seen them up here in the great white north very often. Grab them when I can.
Jared Wagner
Seattle, WA —  March 16, 2009 8:04pm ET
Harvey, Not surprised at all to see this post from you as anyone who gets a chance to taste through the entire lineup at once during their open house can attest that each wine possesses a certain "je ne sais quoi" that can only be attributed to Cayuse. Christophe is a french maniac and can't wait until his vines are 20 years old!

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