Although I returned from Washington a few weeks ago, I am still thinking about my visit with the Golitzin family at their Quilceda Creek winery. This has always ranked among the best Washington wines, but no winery's style has evolved quite so dramatically.
Quilceda Creek specializes in Cabernet Sauvignon, and it's a doozy. I have been reviewing it since the initial 1979 vintage. It consistently rates in the "outstanding" range (90-plus on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale). The core of the wine, with its gorgeous expressions of fruit and other nuances, fills the mouth with such intensity that it is irresistible.
In the past, I have rated it highly despite some nagging doubts about an iron grip of fierce tannins. Another Washington winemaker told me: "It was like seeing a great work of art through barbed wire." I wish I had said that.
Those days are over. Recent vintages are much more polished and supple in texture without losing an iota of that trademark fruit intensity. Much of the credit goes to Paul Golitzin, who has taken over the winemaking in recent years. His father, Alex, a cousin of the famed California winemaker André Tchelistcheff, remains involved, but he proudly defers to Paul on winemaking innovations. The new winery, which opened its doors in January 2004, is full of them.
The winery is basically two big open spaces. All the tanks, barrel racks and equipment move around freely on forklifts. A great hall converts from a dining space to a fermentation room in hours. And there's more.
As we taste through the recently released 2003 and about-to-be-bottled 2004 wines, I ask Paul and Alex why the wines have become so supple. "What you're tasting is simply equipment change," he says. "We got some larger tanks, and I'm using air pulses instead of punching down to turn the cap (during fermentation)."
Air pulses? Winemakers have several options for dealing with the cap, a layer of grape skins and seeds that rises to the top of the tank during fermentation. They can punch down the cap, literally pushing the solids down into the wine with a broad-ended stick. They can pump over, draining the liquid from the bottom of the tank and directing it over the surface of the cap. Among other options are rotating horizontal tanks. To varying degrees, these all extract tannins from the seeds and skins.
Paul Golitzin's idea, which he implemented with the 2004 vintage, pulses air into the tank underneath the cap. This gently lifts the cap and lets the wine flow around it. He beleives it extracts less tannin, and the air dissipates so it does not oxidize the wine. Tasting the 2004 Cabernet next to the 2003, I was struck by how much silkier the '04 was, despite its relative youth. The fruit pops dramatically. It is, by any measure, a better wine than the '03 (95 points, $85), which is glorious.
For several vintages now, Quilceda Creek has been using less Red Mountain fruit, a move that has also softened the texture. For years, Red Mountain had accounted for as much as 40 percent of the blend, coming from Ciel du Cheval, Klipsun and Taptiel vineyards. Red Mountain produces dramatic reds, but they tend to have fierce tannins. The '03 and '04 are down to 20 percent, putting more emphasis on Champoux Vineyard, in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA.
Over the years, Quilceda has used various sources. In the early days Kiona (also Red Mountain) and Otis (in the cooler Yakima Valley) were prime components. The Golitzins started using Mercer Ranch in 1986, which later became Champoux Vineyard. They eventually became partners with Paul Champoux and several other wineries (Powers, Andrew Will and Woodward Canyon) in the vineyard, which has some of the oldest Cabernet vines in the state.
"It's moving toward more Champoux," says Alex. "It has more perfume and silky, suave tannins. A little bit of Red Mountain in the blend makes the Champoux fruit flavors pop, but we learned that if we used too much that suave character disappears."
The Goilitzins no longer buy grapes from independent growers on Red Mountain, but they aren't giving up on the area. They planted their own vineyard next to Ciel du Cheval. It's all Cabernet Sauvignon. "Cabernet has the fruit density to carry the tannins," says Paul.
Starting with the 2004 vintage, the Red Mountain grapes not used in the main Cabernet bottling go into a separate wine called Galitzine (the spelling honors their Russian ancestry). Tasted at the winery, I found more boysenberry and plum character than the red berry of the Washington Cabernet. It has firm tannins, but it also feels supple. There is a smoky cast to the berry flavors, but it doesn't have quite the depth of the wine from older vines.
There is also a small bottling of 2003 Syrah, available only at the winery for now. Made from Champoux fruit, it's a supple, elegant style, very similar to the Cabernet only with a different fruit profile, with classic Syrah plum and spice.
The Golitzins also poured samples of the 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon, rated last year at 93 points. It has lost some of its firmness, evolving into a silky, spicy red with elegance and style, tremendous length and a touch of licorice at the very end. The 1999 showed a gamy note at the center, velvety texture and good length. Good as these are, I can just imagine how much better these wines would be with silkier textures. That's what's coming.
Chris Lavin — Long Beach, CA — May 2, 2006 9:04pm ET
William Landreth — Irving, TX — May 3, 2006 10:15am ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — May 3, 2006 12:15pm ET
Craig Gulbransen — May 3, 2006 2:27pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — May 3, 2006 3:37pm ET
Charles P Daniels — May 3, 2006 3:47pm ET
Shane Runyon — Florida — May 3, 2006 8:24pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — May 4, 2006 11:21am ET
David A Zajac — May 4, 2006 2:22pm ET
Robert Caruana Jr — East Islip, NY — May 11, 2006 4:22pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — May 11, 2006 6:28pm ET
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