Walla Walla is located at the base of the Blue Mountains in the Southeast Corner of Washington. This has become a leading wine region, especially for Bordeaux varieties. Settlers first began growing grapes in this region in the 1850s, but it was not until 1977 that the first commercial winery would be established. The Walla Walla AVA, which encompasses the valley and spans into Oregon was established in 1984 with just 4 wineries.
One of those early wineries was L’Ecole No. 41. Baker and Jean Ferguson founded L’Ecole No. 41 in 1983. Today the winery is a 3rd generation family-owned winery. Baker and Jean’s daughter Megan and her husband Marty manage this winery, which is one of the most well-known in the region.
The tasting room, winery, and offices are located in the historic Frenchtown School, which gives the winery its name.
Disclosure – We have been working with L’Ecole No. 41 this year, tasting samples sent to us and covering the winery. This visit was free of charge, to see the vineyards first hand. All opinions remain our own.
Tour of the Vineyard – Seven Hills – Ferguson
We visited Walla Walla and Constance Savage, the General Manager, and COO of L’Ecole No. 41 took us on a tour of the estate vineyards.
Located on the Oregon side of the state line, their estate vineyards are part of the Sevein Vineyard complex.
The Seven Hills Vineyard is planted in wind-blown loess soils. These soils are mineral-rich and were brought in by the Missoula Floods.
Constance drove us to the gazebo in the middle of the vineyard that has a beautiful view of the property. Sitting at an elevation of 9 hundred to 11 hundred feet, the vineyard is certified sustainable and is high-tech! Sap monitors dot the vineyard, monitoring sap flow, which allows them to monitor the vines’ need for water in real-time.
At the Gazebo we tasted the 2020 Luminesce.
This wine is their White Bordeaux Style blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc from the Seven Hills Estate Vineyard.
This blend goes fast, so if you want to taste it plan to order a bottle when they release it each year in early summer.
We drove on to the Ferguson Vineyard planted in 2008. Sitting above the Seven Hills vineyard with elevations from 1350 -1450 feet this vineyard has shallow topsoil and the vines burrow deep below it into fractured basalt.
On our way to the vineyard, we stopped to visit the Ferguson Wall. This was a quarry that was used to mine the basalts soils that were used for roads within the Sevein Vineyards. This wall rises 50 feet at some points, and you can see the layers of lava from 50 million years ago.
Sitting at the top of this ridge the vineyard is windy so the vines here are stressed and the skins on the grapes are thicker. The vines here reflect the minerals in the soils beneath them. You can taste this in the wine with dark fruit, coffee, tobacco, and amazing structure.
After spending a year working with L’Ecole No. 41, tasting and pairing their wines, we had the opportunity to do a component tasting which included several of the varieties that are blended into their Perigee.
Their Perigee wine is a blend of varieties grown on their Seven Hills Vineyard. The blend includes Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. All varieties are often used in Bordeaux-style blends.
So why blend a wine? Why not just have a Cabernet Sauvignon or a Merlot?
While single-variety wines can be delicious, the reason wines are blended is to add complexity. We tasted each of the components, and each was delicious in its own way.
The Cabernet Sauvignon has notes of fresh berries, baking spice, mocha, cedar, graphite, and olive. The tannins were soft and gentle.
The Merlot was bigger in structure with harsher tannins. There was black cherry, cedar, a bit of chocolate, and spice.
The Cabernet Franc has pretty notes of rose petal, raspberry, strawberry, and pink peppercorns with notes of earth, coffee, and crushed gravel. It has big tannins but is elegant and bright.
The Malbec is juicy with boysenberry juice, strawberries, dried violets, and cigar box. There is also a bit of minerality, as well as notes of mocha, cocoa, and vanilla.
The Petit Verdot…you don’t often find a single variety Petit Verdot and this wine was surprisingly bright, think blackberry pie, cassis, spice, sage, and thyme. This wine also brings great acidity.
At the end we tasted the Perigee, the blended wine. After all the oohs and ahhs on the components, we were blown away. The sum was so much better than the parts.
Remember all those different aromas and flavors we spoke of in each of the varieties? Now imagine them layered into a single wine. Each time you return to the glass you get something new.
When they are blending this wine, they are looking to balance the acid and the body. Also, the different varieties will hit your palate differently. Marty said the Malbec brings the mid-palate to the blend. While you might have enjoyed the blend without the Malbec, the weight that it brings to the mid-palate fills out the wine and rounds it out in your mouth. The Cabernet Franc adds those beautiful floral notes, the Petit Verdot adds acidity… you see where we are going here.
Michael and I went back to taste the Perigee and components again.
When we tasted the Perigee, the aromas felt as if they overwhelmingly came from the Cabernet Franc and the Malbec, the nose was full of the juicy fruit of the Malbec, and the elegant nose I find to be floral, and Michael finds to be like a sweet gherkin pickle.
So, we did a blend with just those two. It smelled wonderful and tasted delicious, but it was lacking structure and tannins. Michael added a bit of Petit Verdot, which increased the body of the blend, making it fuller and weightier in my mouth, but a bit flat. These components were lacking the structure and tannins that the Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon brought to the blend. I also found that the Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot increased the acidity of the blend. Without those two the wine, while rich, was a bit flabby.
We were tasting this wine in its youth, (this was only released in October of 2021,) and this wine does have aging potential, thanks to the tannins and acids the Cab Sav and Merlot bring.
While I understood the blending process, doing this firsthand was enlightening. If you ever have an opportunity to do a blending seminar at a winery, do it! It will give you a new appreciation for that bit of art in your glass.
A Year of pairings with L’Ecole No. 41
Over this past year, we worked with a group of writers and L’Ecole No. 41 to taste and pair much of the wineries portfolio of wines. We thought we would share some of these pairings with you. This is a breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert journey that I hope you will enjoy.
Chenin Blanc with Breakfast for Dinner
This past May we were doing an online tasting of the L’Ecole No. 41 2020 Old Vine Chenin Blanc with Marcus Rafanelli the L’Ecole No. 41 winemaker. When asked about his favorite pairing with this wine, Marcus told us “French toast, it’s really good with French toast”. So we chose to pair this wine with Breakfast for dinner.
This Chenin Blanc comes from old vines in the Yakima Valley. With these old vines, you find less variation year to year, as the roots are deep in the soil and less affected by the weather. This wine had notes of nectarine, honeysuckle, citrus zest, yellow apple, elderflower, and chalk on the nose. As you swirl it in your mouth you find additional tropical notes, like kiwi.
We made French toast with a dollop of ricotta, honey, and thyme, topped with raspberries, kiwi, white peach, and nectarine. This was a delicious pairing, the wine brought out the richness in the French toast, and the notes in the wine melded with the fresh fruit.
We also wanted something savory, so we did cheesy grits topped with shrimp cooked in bacon fat. Here the wine contrasted the dish, the acidity in the wine cutting through the rich fats in the dish, and the wine brought out the sweetness in the shrimp.
Catch the full article here.
Luminesce with Temaki hand Roll
In July we paired another of the rare white wines from L’Ecole No. 41. Luminesce is an estate white wine from the Seven Hills Vineyard. This is a traditional Bordeaux-style white wine made from Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon aged sur lie. Sur lie means it spent time on the dead yeast cells, which give the wine body, texture, and complexity.
Put the glass to your nose and you get blossoms, soft Meyer lemon, apple, pear, lilikoi…
The wine is dry but has beautiful fruit, bright acid, and body.
We decided to create a handroll to pair with this wine, with flavors specific to the wine.
We filled our handroll with smoked salmon with fresh dill, a spread of cream cheese, and goat cheese, to pull out the notes in the Sauvignon blanc, cucumber, carrot, microgreens, salmon roe, and flying fish roe.
The weight of this wine paired beautifully with the salmon and the Sav Blanc did indeed cause the goat cheese to pop!
Want to see the details on how we put this together? You’ll find it here.
Cabernet Sauvignon with Steak and Chocolate
Early on one of our first pairings in January of 2021 was with a Cabernet Sauvignon from L’Ecole No 41.
I’ll be honest when I think of Cabernet Sauvignon, my go-to pairings are steak and chocolate.
This cabernet had notes of coffee, cinnamon, tobacco, forest floor, cocoa powder, baking spices, and bruised mint.
We paired this with a Filet Mignon with an arugula salsa verde and finished our meal with homemade chocolate truffles.
The truffles were made with dark chocolate, half and half, and wine. To half of the mixture, we added espresso powder, and to the other half chopped dried cranberries. The espresso truffles were rolled in cocoa powder, the cranberry in ground pistachios.
The espresso truffles pulled out the dark chocolate and brooding notes in the wine, the cranberry paired with the brighter fruit notes in the wine.
You know you want to make these truffles! Get the recipe here.
Cabernet Franc/ Merlot with Beef Roulade
L’Ecole No. 41 refers to their Cab Franc/ Merlot blend as their Estate Right Bank as it mimics the blends that you find on the right bank of Bordeaux. It has notes of red fruits, like currant, cherry, and plum with bits of licorice and eucalyptus. Then you find herbal notes like fresh rosemary and thyme, spice notes, and cedar. It is really beautiful. They don’t make very much of this wine and it sells out quickly.
We paired this with a Beef Roulade filled with spinach, shallots and mushrooms, and Melting Potatoes, and you can find the whole recipe here.
Cabernet Sauvignon with Valentine’s Day
We return to Cabernet Sauvignon. For Valentine’s Day, we found multiple ways to pair this wine, from Burgers and corn chips with bacon jam, to our vegetarian stuffed portabella with grilled purple cabbage with balsamic marinade to our Steak with gorgonzola sauce and cheesy polenta and an arugula berry salad.
We finished this off with a chocolate tart with forest berries. This is an easy beautiful and delicious recipe that you can find on our website.
While this ends our current exploration of the Walla Walla Valley, there are many more wineries to explore here. You will find more information on Crushed Grape Chronicles.
And don’t forget to check out our L’Ecole extras on YouTube. You will find extras on … (what will be our extras)
Next, we are on to California to explore the Napa and Sonoma regions!
As always, thanks for joining us on “The Scenic Route”
Checkout our other episodes of “The Scenic Route”
Robin Renken is a wine writer and Certified Specialist of Wine and WSET 3 Certified. She and her husband Michael travel to wine regions interviewing vineyard owners and winemakers and learning the stories behind the glass.
When not traveling they indulge in cooking and pairing wines with food at home in Las Vegas.