Terroir on a Big Scale

Millbrandt winemaker explores what it means in Washington
Sep 9, 2014

There are those who say only steely, lean wines can express terroir, but the style of Millbrandt's Chardonnay The Estates 2013 ($20) runs counter to that. This is a rich, plush Washington white, but the spicy aromatics and creamy texture play against vibrant acidity, a core of peach and melon finishing with length and a sense of elegance.

Millbrandt, a big vineyard owner in eastern Washington, sells grapes to a roster of A-list wineries, and makes its own wines as well. The Estates Chardonnay comes from its Evergreen Vineyard in the cool-climate Ancient Lakes AVA. It lies on shallow soils littered with chalk and limestone that are earning a reputation for crisp, minerally white wines. You can taste it in this wine.

"It's a process of seeing what the vineyard has to say," said Josh Maloney, the winemaker at Millbrandt. "And this vineyard speaks peach and melon. Even in a warm vintage like 2013, you get this plushness and opulence, I can still get that focus and harmony."

Evergreen Vineyard, also the source of Charles Smith's riotously successful Kung Fu Girl Riesling, grew the grapes for Millbrandt's own Riesling 2013 ($15). Lively, sleek and vibrant, it layers pear, green pineapple and clotted cream flavors on a supple, lightly sweet background, with plenty of acidity to make it sing. "If the guys who own the vineyard can't do it, then no one should," Maloney laughed.

Of Evergreen's 1,000 acres, 600 are under Riesling, 300 planted to Chardonnay plus a few acres each of Pinot Gris, Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc. A few miles farther south its sites in the Wahluke Slope AVA's warm climate and gently sloping, sandy soils tend to make rich, ripe, styles.

A set of small-production Wahluke Slope Syrahs (120 to 330 cases made) speaks to the unique personality of individual sites. The Clifton Vineyard bottling ($42) used whole clusters and stems and native-yeast fermentation to produce a beguiling balance of savory and fruit flavors in a tight style. Katherine Leone Vineyard ($28) shows a more open texture, menthol aromatics adding to cherry finishing on a coffee note, a bit hot on the finish. Northridge Vineyard ($42) weaves black olive into sweet plum and currant fruit in a smooth, round style.

Blending wines from these sites into a larger cuvée would not have produced better complexity, Maloney believes. "In 2012 these individual lots were so specific I thought they needed different winemaking," he said. "They would have made a less interesting wine if I blended them."

There's no question about it. The wines had dramatically distinct profiles, sharing the general characteristics of Wahluke Slope but displaying particular attributes, proving once again that the French idea of terroir—the geology, soil, climate and sun exposure on a specific grape variety—can apply on a regional or individual scale. And make some pretty darn good wines.

United States Washington

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