Vineyard Designates (Sans Varietal) Need a Name

An emerging category is missing a moniker
May 16, 2013

Near as I can tell, Ridge Vineyards started the trend. Saxum does it too. Andrew Will pioneered it in Washington, where Cadence followed suit, and Owen Roe is the latest to jump in. These are all first-class wineries, and they independently came to the same conclusion: That for these wines they would rather blend grape varieties from a single vineyard to a site-specific wine than make a series of vineyard-designated varietals.

It struck me, as I removed the bag in yesterday's blind tasting from Owen Roe's Cabernet Sauvignon-dominant blend simply called DuBrul Vineyard, that this is becoming a separate category. And yet, we don't have a name for it. "Vineyard-designate" would be fine, except we use that to describe varietals that come from a single vineyard. Two dozen Oregon wineries make Pinot Noirs from Shea Vineyard, and include a line on their labels identifying the source, but the wine type on each wine is Pinot Noir.

This is something different. The wine type is the vineyard name. That Owen Roe DuBrul, for example, is 46 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 31 percent Merlot and 23 percent Cabernet Franc. It can't be called Cabernet Sauvignon on the label, because U.S. rules require it be at least 75 percent of the blend for that. Most wineries invent a proprietary name—Peter Michael's Les Pavots is a famous example—but these vintners celebrate the real source of the wine's character, the vineyard source. Saxum's legendary James Berry Vineyard bottling, for example, usually consists of about 50 percent Grenache, the rest divided between Syrah and Mourvèdre.

These wineries also have practical reasons for taking this route. I remember talking with Ridge founder and winemaker Paul Draper when he first decided to change the name of his Cabernet Sauvignon from the winery's Monte Bello Vineyard to simply Monte Bello with the 1989 vintage. One prime reason was to create more flexibility in making the best blend with Merlot and other Bordeaux varieties, just as the great châteaus of Bordeaux do. The 2009 Monte Bello, for example, is 72 percent Cabernet, not enough to qualify as a varietal but, Draper believes, a better wine for its 22 percent Merlot and 6 percent Petit Verdot.

Realizing that he was tweaking all of the winery's bottlings with dollops of this and that to create more depth and balance, he extended the idea to all of the wines. Geyserville in most vintages could qualify as a varietal Zinfandel, but the current 2011 benefits from 16 percent Carignane, 4 percent Petite Sirah, 1 percent Alicante Bouschet and 1 percent Mataro (Mourvèdre).

With Ridge as an example, Chris Camarda followed suit in 2000. Instead of bottling a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Merlot from, say, Champoux Vineyard (where he was, and still is, a partner in the vineyard), he decided to make a blend. Aside from a focus on the vineyard characteristics rather than the varietal expression, he wanted to simplify his portfolio. He had too many wines with only a few hundred cases. By making a vineyard wine without a grape type to hem him in, he could not only make better, more balanced wines but have more than a thousand cases of each, making them more available to customers.

Now, quietly and without fanfare, David O'Reilly has followed suit at Owen Roe, focusing on three mainstays of his vineyard sources. Aside from DuBrul, the lineup includes Red Willow (60 percent Merlot) and Union Gap (40 percent Merlot) vineyards.

At Wine Spectator, for purposes of organizing like wines with like wines, we categorize these wines along with proprietary wines according to the dominant grape in the blend. So Monte Bello and DuBrul are listed in our database as Cabernet Sauvignon blends, Geyserville with Zinfandels and Red Willow and Union Gap with Merlot Blends.

So, what do we call these single-vineyard wines that don't flaunt a grape on the front label? Anyone have any bright ideas?

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