Catch the wild horses

By Celia Strong
Well, I guess since we’ve gotten through Memorial Day weekend we are now officially into summer.  Even if the calendar doesn’t say so yet. Let’s face it, tropical storms before June 1? Calendars must be like weather men. Close sometimes. Anyhow, we’re going to look at a nice, easy drinking wine this week. Red. Nice for warm weather. Not too heavy, not too light, but really good.
So off we go to Washington state. Washington is second in the United States for wine production. The early history of wine from this state is traced back to the Cinsault grape, a red variety from the Rhone area of France, and Italian immigrants who brought it to the Walla Walla Valley. The first wineries Washington were founded in the 1950’s and 1960’s. From those beginnings the state’s industry has grown continuously, in size and reputation. I know way back when, one time, we went over the whole history of Washington wines. Traders who worked for the Hudson Bay Company at Fort Vancouver in 1825 planted some vines, although not “vinifera” ones. In the 1950’s, a group of professors from the University of Washington turned their home wine making operation into a commercial business that later became Columbia Winery. The 1990’s and 1980’s brought many more wineries with good wines. And, a big thing, the 1991 episode of “60 Minutes” reported on the benefits of red wine and the Washington Wine Commission jumped in on the Merlot craze in the country. (Washington Merlots have always been considered some of the best.)
Due to soil and climate limitations, the majority of the vineyards in Washington are in the  central and eastern parts of the state. Our wine this week is from an AVA located within the southeastern part of the Columbia Valley AVA. In particular, the Horse Heaven Hills AVA which borders on the Yakima River Valley AVA on the north and the Columbia River on the south. Elevations here range from 200 feet to 1,800 feet at the northern boundary of the AVA. Grapes are planted on the south-facing slopes of the Horse Heaven Hills which gives them several benefits as they ripen — warm afternoon sun and cooling breezes that help avoid rot and vine diseases. The HHH AVA is the home of the largest winemaking facility in the whole state. This is Columbia Crest Winery which is owned by Chateau Ste. Michelle. CCW in HHH AVA is our winery this week. (Say that three times fast. After you drink the wine!)
Columbia Crest Winery has one of the best success stories in the wine business. Its vineyards were first planted in 1978 with the major Bordeaux varieties. It opened to the public in 1983, and since then its premium wines have continuously received great reviews. As its grapevines matured, it become clear that some of their micro-climates made spectacular wines. HHH wines were clearly different than others from the Columbia Valley — high quality with distinct flavors. It was the combination of geography, geology and viniculture that led to the declaration of Horse Heaven Hills as an AVA. (In 2005, it was Washington’s seventh AVA.) Today, Columbia Crest has 2,500 acres of vines planted. Devotees of their wines rave about their wines’ flavors and the consistency, year after year, of their high quality.
So, HHH has been the home to Columbia Crest for several decades. But, let’s call it H3 like they do. Strong wind patterns, which are unique to Horse Heaven Hills, keep the size of the leaf canopy over the grapes smaller and less dense than usual. This allows for better sun exposure of the grapes and helps the clusters to ripen evenly. This alone is a huge benefit when they become wine.  The soil in the vineyards is made up of basalt and bedrock that also helps intensify the grapes’ flavors. Being American and merchandisers, Columbia Crest has named one group of their wines “H3.”  And, yes, the AVA name is the wine name. H3 makes several wines. (Not that it’s our wine this week, but the H3 Pinot Gris is lovely.)  For today, though, we are interested in only one. Ugh!  The Les Chevaux Red Blend, 2009. (Don’t know why I included the vintage. It doesn’t matter since the wines are so good and consistent year after year.)
But, knowing the vintage is the only way to mention how perfect the growing season was that year — dry, warm and lots of sun. A cool spring meant the blooms came a bit late, but warm temperatures came back quickly and stayed through ripening and harvest.  An early freeze on October 10, could have caused problems but most of the grapes were already harvested, mature. The vintage produced wines with good acidity and fruit-forward flavors. Grapes were crushed and fermentation lasted six to ten days. Skins remained in contact with the juice during fermentation to optimize the fruit flavors and enhance the structure of the wine. Malolactic fermentation was done in stainless steel tanks and oak barrels. The blending was done shortly after the malolactic fermentation was done. Finally, the wine was aged in American and French oak barrels, one third of them new, for 18 months.
The blend of Les Chevaux 2009 has more grapes in it than many other years.  Thirty-four percent Merlot, 34 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 18 percent Syrah, 10 percent Malbec and 3 percent Cabernet Franc all come together. Maybe a lot of grapes, but remember that’s part of how the wine stays so good every year. The wine makers who can do this blending well have a real talent! Besides blending grapes, three different strains of yeast are used for fermenting Les Chevaux. Each of them adds its own peculiar characteristics to the wine. According to the wine maker, Juan Munoz Oca, this wine has aromas of fresh blueberries, anise and earth. It is firm with supple tannins in your mouth. There is great depth with layered flavors of candied nuts, licorice and dark chocolate. The finish is mocha with a hint of sweetness. Go Mr. Wine Maker! This is a really good wine!
But where did the name come from?  Les Chevaux?  Well, it means “the horses” in French. Apparently, the land where Columbia Crest Winery is located once had lots of wild horses roaming all over it. So, watch out! Catch the horses and drink before they run you over.  Les Chevaux is cheaper at $12.99 than the repair work. Enjoy.

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