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Cayuse: Frenchman in Oregon Crafts Intense, Flavorful Wines Amongst the Cobblestones

2012 June 23

CAYUSE AT 2012 HOSPICE DU RHONE (SEMINAR AND TASTINGS) – Hospice du Rhone, Paso Robles, California (4/27/2012-4/28/2012)

2012 Hospice du Rhone
Christophe Baron and John Alban

For my second report on the 20th anniversary (and last) Hospice du Rhône weekend event in Paso Robles this year, I will cover the seminar I was most looking forward to, and most enjoyed—focused on the wines of Oregon’s Cayuse.

But first, a little background on Hospice du Rhône. The event traces its origins back to a smallish happening, called The Viognier Guild–which was an extensive tasting of Condrieus and American Viogniers at a luncheon in Piedmont, Georgia, organized by Mat Garetson in 1993. John Alban was the only other producer present. Inspired by that event, John proposed that they move it to California the next year and open it to all Rhône varieties. In ’94, the second event, still called The Viognier Guild, was held at Alban Vineyards. That event attracted more producers and future Rhone-variety wine producers, like Manfred Krankl. It continued to be held annually at Alban Vineyards through 1996, but moved to its ultimate home, the County Fairgrounds in Paso Robles, in 1997. The name didn’t change to Hospice du Rhône, however, until 1999. I attended my first HdR in 2003.

The event ultimately grew to be a three-day event, featuring four seminars, held over two days; two grand tastings, Friday and Saturday; a major fundraising auction for charity; and huge lunches and dinners for many of the 1200 or so attendees. In other words, it ultimately became probably the world’s biggest annual tasting, including winemakers and producers from all over the world. The seminars often featured icons of the Rhône world pouring a large quantity of their sought after wines–like Beaucastel’s François and Marc Perrin, Michel Chapoutier, Torbreck’s Dave Powell and John Kongsgaard. It was a fun event, with light hearted speeches and jokes at lunch, and a very congenial spirit throughout. It was also getting quite expensive for attendees who wanted the full HdR experience–the weekend package this year cost $795, and there were a couple of optional and limited seminars and dinners for an extra tariff above that.

I enjoyed this year’s event, which was my third visit to HdR, but I also felt it was just too much for two-and-a-half days and not something I’d come back to for at least another three or four years. I attended all the seminars, two grand tastings, and the associated lunches and Saturday dinner, and my tongue was literally in pain by Saturday evening. I also wondered to myself how the organizers could continue to pull off something that many people would continue to pay that kind of money for, especially since, for the 20th anniversary event, they were basically reprising a couple of the most popular seminars from prior years.

Well the answer to my unspoken questions arrived in my email inbox a month later. The HdR press release I received May 29 indicated that the event’s organizers–John Alban and Vicki Carroll–had decided the prior month’s HdR would be the last three-day event to be held in Paso Robles. Their press release mentioned continuing with a seminar series at Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tennessee, and the possibility of other smaller, “more intimate” gatherings. According to Fred Swan’s reporting on his NorCalWine blog, Vicki Carroll explained the decision was not financially motivated, that they were “going out on a high.” She also told Fred they were looking forward to continuing education efforts on Rhône wines that would reach “new audiences through smaller events in more accessible locations.”

I know a lot of longtime attendees of this event are still in mourning over this seemingly sudden decision, but I think it was a very practical move, recognizing the difficulty both of continuing to find star winemakers for compelling seminars and maintaining attendance for an event that had grown to gargantuan size. For me, the seminars were the most memorable and educational aspect of the event, so I’m glad that’s going to be a continuing focus of whatever HdR now evolves into.

Which takes us back to the most memorable seminar, for me, at HdR 2012: a retrospective of Cayuse wines with winemaker and proprietor Christophe Baron.

I remember first meeting Christophe when I sat beside him in the audience at a seminar at my first HdR in 2003, before Cayuse had garnered the extreme high scores and cult-like following it was to gain by the mid-2000s. I finally had a chance to try a Cayuse Syrah in 2006 or so, was quite impressed, and decided I too needed to get on that mailing list. That didn’t finally happen until late 2008, but I’ve been a regular buyer since, of all the wines I get offered—from Cabernet Sauvignons to Tempranillo, even though most of what Christophe makes, and receives the highest scores for, are his Syrahs. (The wines are sold through the closed mailing list only, on a futures basis, with payment a year in advance of the wines’ delivery.) At any rate, I was a fan going into this seminar, and I very much enjoyed sampling a pretty full spectrum of Christophe’s Rhône-style wines, between this seminar and the additional wines he poured at the two grand tastings.

Christophe grew up in France, among the vineyards and cellars of his family’s Champagne house, Baron Albert, and retains a very strong French accent. Christophe explained that after receiving his education and some practical experience in Burgundy, he came to Walla Walla Valley—an AVA that overlaps southern Washington and northern Oregon–as an intern in 1993, when he was 23 years old. His intention was to spend only a year or so in the U.S. He got bored with Walla Walla in short order, but on a visit back in April 1996 he came across a piece of land on the Oregon side of the Valley, near the town of Milton Freewater, that was littered with cobblestones the size of a fist. He told us he immediately declared to his friend, “This is it! I’m going to stay here and plant a vineyard. I’m going to plant Syrah and Grenache.”

Cayuse now consists of eight vineyards comprising 57 planted acres in the southern part of Walla Walla Valley, near that Oregon town Milton Freewater. What had inspired Christophe about those cobblestones, which are made entirely of basalt, was their resemblance to the famous stones in the great vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. As Christophe pointed out, however, during the PowerPoint portion of his seminar, his vineyards are actually closer in latitude to the Northern Rhône than Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The number of growing days is also quite similar to the Northern Rhône, and the soil, sitting on top of sedimentary layers of sand, loam and loess, lacks the clay found in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

soil profile of the Armada Vineyard (courtesy Cayuse Vineyards)

When Christophe planted the first vineyard in 1997–the 10-acre plot of Syrah (and some Viognier) now known as Cailloux–he followed organic farming practices, although he never took the time to seek organic certification. The vineyard’s spacing is 10 foot by four foot, and the vines are ungrafted. The yield is usually two to two and a half tons per acre.

He next planted a four and a half acre parcel, Coccinelle, in 1998 at an elevation of 880 feet above sea level. It has fewer cobblestones and stays a little cooler than the other vineyards. This is the vineyard from which Christophe’s Bionic Frog Syrah is made.

A third vineyard, En Cerise, was also planted in ’98 on a 10-acre parcel that had previously been a cherry orchard. It’s planted to Syrah, with ungrafted vines, as well as to Bordeaux varieties.

In 2000, 10 more rocky acres were planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo and Syrah. This vineyard, En Chamberlin, is planted on 3309c rootstock. The next year, Christophe planted a 16-acre high density vineyard—the Armada—with six foot by four foot spacing, to Syrah and Grenache. According to Christophe, more vines per acre, “gives more structure, tannins and nerve, for a firmer wine.” This vineyard is planted on 110R rootstock.

In 2002, with the help of Philippe Armenier, a vigneron from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Christophe switched over to biodynamic farming, making Cayuse’s vineyards the first biodynamically farmed grapes in the Walla Walla Valley AVA.

In 2008, Christophe planted an even higher density vineyard, the 3×3 or Horsepower Vineyard, whose two acres are planted 4840 vines to the acre. The same year, Cayuse brought in animals to create a more complete working farm, including two draft horses to help work the high density vineyards and a herd of cows that supply milk, and much needed manure for composting.

A final three-acre vineyard was planted next to En Chamberlin “sur echalas,” or “on the stakes,” with one vine per stake. The spacing there is three and a half feet by three and a half feet, for a total of 3555 vines per acre.

The winemaking varies depending on the variety, the vineyard and the vintage. Christophe told us that he hadn’t used commercial yeast since 2000. The God Only Knows Grenache is blended with 10% of something other than Grenache, “God only knows what?” I’m guessing it’s Cabernet Sauvignon, or a mix of varieties, aimed at giving the Grenache more complexity and structure. The Cailloux Vineyard Syrah is co-fermented with Viognier, the amount varying from six to 10%, depending on the vintage. The En Chamberlin Vineyard Syrah had about 40% stem inclusion in 2008. The 2008 Armada Syrah was aged in mainly neutral puncheons for about 22 months, whereas the 2008 Bionic Frog Syrah had 30% stem inclusion and was aged in Dominique Laurent casks, 15 to 20% of which were new.

Christophe in the vineyard, with his beloved cobblestones

What’s the result of all this biodynamic farming, experimentation with high density plantings and varied winemaking techniques? Pretty impressive wines as a whole, with some vintages, like 2006, being even more amazing.

I’ve grouped my tasting notes below starting with the two Grenaches we tried, from the hot and ripe 2009 vintage and from the more challenging, late ripening 2008 vintage. The 2008 reminded me of a lighter bodied but complex Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Both were as good or better than the best domestic Grenaches I’ve tasted.

We sampled 2008 vintage Syrah from four different vineyards. The Armada Vineyard was the standout of this group, very flavorful and structured, but the Cailloux Vineyard, with its co-fermented Viognier, was also delicious, elegant and complex. The Bionic Frog also had its appeal, with its Northern Rhône-like bacon fat and meaty flavors.

Between the seminar and the grand tastings, I ended up tasting a four vintage vertical of the Bionic Frog and a three vintage vertical of the Cailloux Syrah. The most compelling wine of the whole line up, for me, was the marvelous and evocative 2006 Bionic Frog, which had a long finish, as did the 2009 version. All of the Bionic Frogs were very strong, however. Among the Cailloux Syrahs, the 2005 was easily my favorite, with its Northern Rhône bacon fat and herbs.

For my complete tasting notes, see below. Following the tasting notes from Hospice du Rhone, I’ve also included a few tasting notes from my prior samplings of other wines Christophe makes—the Widowmaker Cabernet Sauvignon and the Impulsivo Tempranillo (my favorite domestic Tempranillo to date).

Grenache

  • 2009 Cayuse Grenache God Only Knows – USA, Washington, Columbia Valley, Walla Walla Valley (4/27/2012)
    Medium dark purple red violet color; complex, exotic, ripe plum, floral, hibiscus, roast plum, lifted nose; tasty, poised, fresh, light herbs, tart cherry, tart raspberry, mineral palate; needs 2 years; medium-plus finish 92+ points (vineyard planted in ’01; ’09 was a very hot year, the alcohol is 14.5%) (92 pts.)
  • 2008 Cayuse Grenache God Only Knows – USA, Washington, Columbia Valley, Walla Walla Valley (4/27/2012)
    Medium dark purple red violet color; lifted, appealing, tart plum, floral, tart berry, hibiscus, tart strawberry nose; tasty, medium bodied, tart plum, hibiscus, mineral, roasted plum palate, like a lighter bodied but complex Chateauneuf-du-Pape; medium-plus finish (w/10% God Only Knows) (93 pts.)

2008 Syrahs

  • 2008 Cayuse Syrah Cailloux Vineyard – USA, Washington, Columbia Valley, Walla Walla Valley (4/27/2012)
    Medium dark purple red violet color; lovely, redolent and poised, light tart plum, herbs, mineral, roasted plum nose with a light smoky quality; delicious, poised, elegant, complex, roasted plum, roasted berry, mineral, light lavender, smoke infused palate; good now but would benefit from 2-plus years; medium-plus finish (co-fermented with 6 to 10% Viognier; vineyard planted 1997; 18 mos. in oak) (95 pts.)
  • 2008 Cayuse Syrah En Cerise Vineyard – USA, Washington, Columbia Valley, Walla Walla Valley (4/27/2012)
    Dark red violet color; redolent, dried berry, mineral, charcoal, dried lavender, light smoke, roasted plum nose; tasty, elegant, tart roasted plum, mineral, charcoal, tart black fruit, dried berry, Asian spice palate; a little chunky at this point, needs 3-4 years; medium-plus finish (94 pts.)
  • 2008 Cayuse Syrah Armada Vineyard – USA, Washington, Columbia Valley, Walla Walla Valley (4/27/2012)
    Very dark black red violet color; elegant, tart black fruit, tar, blackberry jam, fine roast coffee nose with a sense of lavender; tight, lush, tart plum, tart black fruit, light black pepper palate; needs 3-plus years; medium-plus finish 95+ points (vineyard planted in ’01; aged in mainly neutral puncheons for about 22 mos.) (95 pts.)

Bionic Frog vertical

  • 2008 Cayuse Syrah Bionic Frog – USA, Washington, Columbia Valley, Walla Walla Valley (4/27/2012)
    Very dark black red violet color; very aromatic, bacon fat, roasted plum, dried berry, cardamom, lavender nose; tight, complex, rich, tart black fruit, herbs, lavender, ashtray, cured meat palate; needs 3-4 years; medium-plus finish (30% stems; 15-20% new Dominique Laurent casks) (94 pts.)
  • 2007 Cayuse Syrah Bionic Frog – USA, Washington, Columbia Valley, Walla Walla Valley (4/27/2012)
    Very dark purple red violet color; green herbs, tart plum, asphalt nose; tasty, tight, asphalt, green herbs, tart black fruit, roasted plum palate; needs 2-3 years; medium-plus finish 94+ points (94 pts.)
  • 2006 Cayuse Syrah Bionic Frog – USA, Washington, Columbia Valley, Walla Walla Valley (4/27/2012)
    Very dark purple red violet color; entrancing, complex, evocative, tart plum, cardamom, asphalt, anise, lavender, gunpowder nose; delicious, tart black fruit, gunpowder, dried berry, light pepper, mineral, tart blueberry, lavender palate; needs 2-plus years; long finish (98 pts.)
  • 2009 Cayuse Syrah Bionic Frog – USA, Washington, Columbia Valley, Walla Walla Valley (4/28/2012)
    Very dark red violet color; floral, black raspberry, tar, tart black fruit nose; complex, tasty, tar, tart black fruit palate; long finish 94+ points (94 pts.)

Cailloux vertical

  • 2009 Cayuse Syrah Cailloux Vineyard – USA, Washington, Columbia Valley, Walla Walla Valley (4/28/2012)
    Very dark red violet color; lovely, roasted black fruit, tart plum, lavender nose; tasty, roasted black fruit, tart plum, lavender, smoke palate; medium-plus finish 93+ points (93 pts.)
  • 2005 Cayuse Syrah Cailloux Vineyard – USA, Washington, Columbia Valley, Walla Walla Valley (4/27/2012)
    From magnum – dark red violet color; lifted, tart roasted plum, herbs, bacon fat, charcoal nose; tart roasted plum, herbs, bacon fat, charcoal palate; reminiscent of a ripe Northern Rhone; medium-plus finish (94 pts.)
  • 2002 Cayuse Syrah Cailloux Vineyard – USA, Washington, Columbia Valley, Walla Walla Valley (4/27/2012)
    From magnum – very dark red violet color; lifted, aromatic, tart black fruit, roasted meat nose; tasty, tight yet, tart black fruit, tart berry palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish 92+ points (92 pts.)

Cabernet and Tempranillo

3 Responses leave one →
  1. June 24, 2012

    Hi Richard,

    Thanks for another great post. I was wondering if you knew why Christophe Baron stopped making a single variety viognier? I think the last vintage was the 2007? Robert Parker singled out the 2006 Cayuse Viognier Cailloux Vineyard as one of the greatest expressions of viognier in the world, so I imagine he must have had a good reason for suspending production? Thanks. Regards, Merrill

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