Friday, July 2, 2010

Rotie: Another Walla Walla Wine Epiphany

It's not as if there wasn't a sufficiency of wine at the Wine Bloggers Conference already.  Plenty of stuff around.  But when Ken Payton, the madman....er, mastermind... behind the Reign of Terroir blog, grabs you by the elbow, pulls you aside, and whispers urgently, "Hey, something special; come with me and a couple of other guys.  We're gonna take a little walk."...well, you just gotta go, right?

With a short hike, all of two blocks, over to the main downtown drag of Walla Walla---which is seriously jumping at mid-day, by the way; this has become one lively town---and up the stairs, we're in the cool, quiet sanctum of the Rotie Cellars tasting room.

Unfortunately, Sean Boyd, the owner/winemaker, wasn't available, since he was on his way to France at the time.  Fortunately, his wines were available, so we were invited to taste all three.

Boyd is fiercely dedicated to making his own favorite style of wines, the wines that most inspire him, the kind he most likes to drink: the whites and reds of the Rhone Valley in France.  He dedicated himself to exploring the Rhone-style varieties grown in the AVAs of Horse Heaven Hills, Walla Walla, and the Columbia Valley.

Boyd isn't all that interested in high volume or landfall profits (which is rarer than people think in the wine biz anyway).  Instead, he's focused on small, artisanal production from the best grapes in the best locations, blended in the style of the wines of the Rhone.

Rotie Southern White 2008 is a blend of 50/50 Viognier and Roussanne, and it is reminiscent of those soft, lightly perfumed, silky textured whites throughout the Cotes-du-Rhone Villages area.  Fruit dominates, but the wine avoids any over-ripeness or excessive heat from high alcohol.  It's restrained, without the gushy perfuminess of much west coast Viognier, or the slightly bitter onion-peel that this variety can have; I can only assume it's the deft balancing of the Roussanne that tones it down and gives it a little heft and grip.

The Rotie Southern Red Blend 2008 is a supple and charming GSM---a blend of 70% Grenache, 15% Syrah, and 15% Mourvedre.  Again, it's faithful to its avatar, with copious amounts of ripe strawberry fruit from the Grenache, blueberry from the Syrah, and a tasty, deep, black fruit and spice from the Mourvedre.  Fortunately, it's also restrained in alcohol and has plenty of acidity and just the right amount of tannin to bring everything into a lovely balance.

The final red, Rotie Northern Blend 2008, is an altogether different creature.  It is resolutely Syrah, and tightly wrapped at this point in its development, with intense, tart, red and black fruits.  The aromatics are shy at first, but slowly emerge as a floral perfume of dried violets.  The tightly bound fruit opens on the palate to show a leathery, almost tarry taste underneath.  With even better acid structure than the Southern Blend, and with significantly more aging potential, this remarkably fine and balanced wine is quite an achievement, and would do honor to the wines for which it is a tribute---although I would call it a bit closer to the wines of Hermitage than the Cote Rotie, at least, at this point.  We'll just have to see how it develops.

Easily the most fascinating aspect of this tasting is the ability to consider, side by side, the Southern Blend and Northern Blend, and compare the two.  Boyd definitely gets the tone right with both.  The only thing more fascinating might be to mix these two up with some ringers from the Southern and Northern Rhone...blind, of course...and see what happens.

My 'Gold Standard' for west coast "Rhone Ranger" wines is, and always has been, the wines of Steve Edmunds at Edmunds St. John.  His Syrahs and red blends are, quite simply, the best there is  (although the wines of Tablas Creek are pretty damned expressive too.)

Tough competition there.  But even against those lauded producers, Boyd's Rotie Cellars holds its own.  And that is quite an accomplishment.  This is one Rhone-style winemaker I'll be watching very closely in the future.

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