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Focus - Col Solare

Thursday, August 27, 2009

What follows is a Focus report on Col Solare. Special thanks to Gracie Doyle at Chateau Ste. Michelle for her assistance with materials included in this report. Photos courtesy of Kevin Cruff. This report is available as a .pdf here.



– Italian for “shining hill” - is a partnership between Washington’s Chateau Ste. Michelle and Italy’s Piero Antinori. Antinori is one of Italy’s largest wine producers with extensive estate properties in Tuscany and Umbria. The Antinori family’s winemaking history dates to 1385, spanning an astonishing 26 generations. The winery is perhaps most closely associated with the advent of the Super Tuscan, a Sangiovese-Cabernet blend that took root in the 1970s.

The idea for the Col Solare project began in the early nineties when Antinori met Stimson Lane CEO Allen Shoup. The idea was to produce one wine each year that reflected a combination of Tuscan and Washington styles – Old World and New. Indeed, one can see in Col Solare the seeds of Shoup’s current Long Shadows project germinating. Under the direction of winemaker Michael Januik, now owner of Januik Winery, Col Solare released its first wine in 1995, producing about 1,000 cases of a blend comprised of Cabernet, Merlot, and Syrah. Since that first vintage Col Solare has received critical acclaim and has been the flagship winery in Ste. Michelle Estates’ extensive holdings - holdings that President and CEO Ted Baseler refers to as a “string of pearls.”

In 2007 Col Solare opened a dedicated facility on Red Mountain. This facility represented a significant investment in the future of the winery for both Ste. Michelle and Antinori, costing an estimated $6,000,000 to $8,000,000. When he first approached Antinori about designs for the building, Baseler told Antinori he envisioned a “Tuscan villa.” Antinori, ironically, envisioned something “west coast.” The final result Baseler describes as a “fusion winery” based on these two concepts.

The new Col Solare facility was designed by Seattle-based architecture firm Boxwood. Boxwood has been involved in a number of recent projects in the Washington wine industry, including Waters Winery, Nicholas Cole Cellars’ new downtown Walla Walla tasting room, Stillwater Creek Vineyard’s visitor’s center, and Hedges' Altura Vineyard. The Col Solare building has three conceptual parts. The first, intended as a call-out to the Old World, is a 300 foot long, 25 foot high stone and concrete wall. The wall is also meant to mirror the surrounding valley’s basalt cliffs. The second is a modern tasting room and reception area. Finally, a bell tower rises from the building, intended to visually connect the Old World with the New. Not just built to impress from the ground, the facility was designed to appear from the air as a graphic image of the sun.

The partnership’s choice of location is a strong statement of the high regard in the industry for Red Mountain. Grapes from Red Mountain, Washington’s smallest American Viticutural Area (AVA), have served as the backbone for some of the state’s finest wines, including Andrew Will, Quilceda Creek, and DeLille Cellars. Antinori and Chateau Ste. Michelle not only decided to build a production facility at this location, they also planted a 30 acre estate vineyard. The winery has worked with renowned viticulturist Dick Boushey to establish the site. The vineyard is planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, and Syrah. The paths through the vineyard were designed to radiate from the building, giving the appearance from above of sunbeams.

Stylistically, Col Solare’s wines are notable for their elegance. Whereas many wines in Washington focus on big fruit with moderately high alcohol levels, Col Solare’s wines are restrained and gracefully textured. The wines are approachable upon release but clearly built to age (see my notes on the 1999 Col Solare here). Marcus Notaro, the resident winemaker, says he is trying to produce “a cabernet based wine that has a lot of structure, a lot of complexity, but is very refined and balanced as well.” Baseler puts it more boldly stating that Col Solare’s goal is to produce “the greatest wine in Washington state.”

Earlier this month Col Solare hosted a pre-release party in Seattle for the 2006 vintage which will be released in September. The event, which also featured food from famed Seattle chef Tom Douglas, was part release party, part educational event. In addition to the 2006, the winery poured the 2005 vintage, the recently bottled 2007, and the still-in-barrel 2008. The winery also poured a 2007 Klipsun Vineyard Cabernet in three different oak programs, a unique opportunity to see the varied effects of different types of wood on wine. Rounding out the event was a tasting of the first fruit from Col Solare’s estate vineyard.

Of particular significance, the 2006 vintage marks Col Solare’s first release produced at the new Red Mountain location. With state-of-the-art sorting tables, basket presses, and fermentation tanks, Notaro states that he had much greater flexibility in creating the 2006 wine than in previous vintages. The 2006 wine is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Syrah. On the nose and taste, the 2006 release shows Chukar cherries laced with chocolate. The wine is thick and rich on the palate without being overpowering. By comparison, the 2005 shows considerably more fruit and a light floral bouquet. The 2007 wine was bottled several weeks prior to this event, and Notaro swears it is the “final final” blend. It is comprised of Cabernet, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. While still young and quiet on the nose, this wine looks to be the best of the recent vintages. It is already an exceptional wine that opens and expands, hangs and lingers.

The 2008 wine, still in its preliminary blending phases, is a mixture of Cabernet, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Syrah. Given its young age, this wine is currently showing lots of oak influence on the nose and taste with abundant vanilla notes and gripping tannins. Evaluating these wines, Baseler says “When you taste the 2006, 07, and 08 blends, you will see a progression of intensity and wines with structure...These wines will be collectable.”

For cooperage, Col Solare uses a mixture of French and American oak, with the 2006 vintage 75% new French and 25% new American (new meaning the barrel had not been used to age wine previously). Oak programs can affect every aspect of a wine, from color to flavor, tannin profile, and texture. It also significantly affects the price, with French oak often costing $1,000 or more per barrel. My first experience with the effects of cooperage was many years ago visiting Hightower Cellars on Red Mountain. The winery offered barrel samples of the same wine barreled in French and Hungarian oak. I still recall my astonishment at how the wines differed in smell, taste, and texture, with the wine in Hungarian oak showing a distinct spice component that the French oak lacked.

For the release event, Col Solare provided the opportunity to sample the 2007 Klipsun Cabernet aged in three different types of French oak barrels – Saury, Boutes Grand Reserve, and Fouquet Margaux – all aged twenty-one months. Notaro refers to the wine from the Saury barrels as his “base” for the Col Solare wine. The Boutes is the “fruit” barrel whose goal is to preserve aromatics as well as add texture (Boutes designs these barrels to minimize wood aromas and flavors). Notaro uses Alain Fouquet’s Margaux-style barrel for “accent” to add toasty characteristics and structure to the palate. In the end, wine from each of these barrels was blended together to produce part of Cabernet component for the 2007 vintage with the remainder coming from other vineyards in the Columbia Valley and Red Mountain.

Comparing these wines, the Saury wine exhibits light spices and vanilla. On the taste, it is a powerhouse with big, rich fruit, and lots of structure. The Boutes Grand Reserve wine offers a completely different mouth feel than the Saury and is considerably more fruit-forward. The tannins are silky in contrast to Saury’s more intense, austere profile. The Fouquet sample was deep, intense, and extracted with puckering cranberry notes and light graphite hints.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this event was a look toward the future – the bottling of the first fruit from Col Solare’s estate vineyard. The vineyard is currently in its second year and Cabernet, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc were poured at the event. Although it can take a decade or more for vines to express their full character, wineries typically starting using fruit from a vineyard’s third year for production. Col Solare has yet to decide what it will do with this 2008 estate wine – bottle it for the winery’s library for historical purposes; blend small amounts of it in the 2008 Col Solare wine – perhaps some of the exceptional Petit Verdot; or something different entirely. Considering the age of these vines and the way the fruit is showing, there is much to look forward to.

With the upcoming release of the 2006 vintage, Ted Baseler says he believes the opening of the new facility in 2007 will be regarded as a “milestone moment for Washington.” He believes in ten to twenty years, Col Solare will be regarded both as a special place and as a special wine. Based on the wines sampled at this event, the future looks bright for the winery on the shining hill.

Wines:

Score

Name

Notes

$


**

Col Solare Columbia Valley 2006

On the nose a layer of dust over Chukar cherries laced with chocolate. Thick and rich on the palate with silky tannins and abundant tart cherry flavors. An excellent mix of power and elegance. 72% Cabernet; 19% Merlot; 4% Cabernet Franc; 3% Petit Verdot; 2% Syrah. 14.5% alcohol. Red Mountain (27%); Columbia Valley (35%); Wahluke Slope (19%); and Horse Heaven Hills (14%) AVAs.


$75

*

Col Solare Columbia Valley 2005

A very different wine than the 2006 with more fruit aromas and tastes, including blueberry and blackberry, along with pencil shavings, a touch of vanilla, and a light floral bouquet. An elegant wine that is still built to last. 71% Cabernet; 25% Merlot; 4% Cabernet Franc. 14.5% alcohol. 7,000 cases produced.


$70

**

Col Solare Columbia Valley 2007

A quiet nose with a fair amount of vanilla and some banana notes along with other aromas of a young wine that still needs to settle down. On the taste, opens and expands, hangs and lingers. The best of the vintages sampled. 75% Cabernet; 20% Merlot; 5% Cabernet Franc.


BS

NR

Col Solare Columbia Valley 2008

Lots of vanilla and other oak aromas along with light blueberry on a quiet nose. Tannins are quite gripping at present. 68% Cabernet; 20% Merlot; 10% Cabernet Franc; 2% Syrah.

BS




Event attended courtesy of Col Solare.

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