Chardonnay: Nuances in expressing site – an example from the Yakima Valley

Chardonnay on Roskamp Vineyard

Chardonnay is one of the world’s most popular grapes.  A noble grape, its parents are Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc. We first see mention of it in the 16th century in Burgundy.

You can find it grown all over the globe.  From its home in Burgundy to Australia’s Hunter Valley.  You find it in Italy, South Africa, Spain, Chile, Argentina, California, Oregon, Washington…Yes, Washington.  We will get to that later.

The Different Styles of Chardonnay

These different regions bring in some of the differences in the wines.  With wine grapes, flavors and aromas come from the variety, the location where it is grown (climate and soil) and then the winemaking. Chardonnay is incredibly adaptable.

Chardonnay can have aromas and flavors of yellow apple, citrus, tropical fruit, butter, vanilla, chalk, lime, white flowers, or stone fruit.  Warm climates give you tropical notes, cool climates more citrus and pear. 

The wine makers hand…

Here there are many variables.  It can be as simple as when the winemaker chooses to pick, what the sugar levels are at.  Then you can ferment in stainless or in wood.  You can allow the wine to go through malolactic fermentation or not, you can age on the lees, you can filter or not filter….so many options that will affect the taste of the wine. 

A tale of two Chardonnays

With all these variables that can affect the outcome of a bottle of Chardonnay, what if you eliminate a few.  Would the wines then taste the same?  We had a chance to investigate the nuances of Chardonnay with two vineyards in Yakima Valley.  These vineyards sit in 2 different AVAs within the larger Yakima Valley AVA.  DuBrul Vineyard in the Rattlesnake Hills AVA and Roskamp Vineyard in the Snipes Mountain AVA.  While they are in two separate AVAs, if you were a crow you would have a 6 to 7-mile flight to get between the two vineyards. Standing in one vineyard, on a clear day, you can easily see the other.

Last year we visited with two winemakers we had met there before.  Co Dinn of Co Dinn Cellars and Kerry Shiels of Cote Bonneville.  The two both make Chardonnay from these vineyards that look across the Yakima Valley at each other.

Map Yakima Valley 2019 courtesy of WineYakimaValley.org
Map Yakima Valley 2019 courtesy of WineYakimaValley.org

Co Dinn Chardonnay Roskamp Vineyard Snipes Mountain AVA

Co pointing out DuBrul vineyard to the North

Co Dinn makes his Chardonnay from the Roskamp Vineyard on the Snipes Mountain AVA. Snipes Mountain sits in the middle of the Yakima Valley, an anticline in the Yakima fold belt. The north side is a gentle slope, while the south side is steep, with basement rock exposed.

His Chardonnay sits on the north slope.  While that might be odd in most regions, you have much longer days in the growing season here and they rarely have trouble getting fruit to ripen.  Keeping the Chardonnay on the north slope gives it the morning sun and keeps it protected from the afternoon heat. They have 3 blocks of Chardonnay here at Roskamp, the one Co pulls from is the most protected.  It is planted to the Dijon clones 76 & 96 in a field blend. 

These grapes, thanks to the sandy soil in Washington are own rooted. They keep the west side shaded and expose the east side.  The vines need more protection from the southwest heat and wind. Soils here on the gentler north slope are deeper, you can see the difference in vigor between these vines and the syrah vines growing closer to the south side.

Co makes his wines in a very traditional way.  His chardonnay is barrel fermented with full malolactic fermentation and ages 17 months on the lees.  His goal?  To really showcase the site.

“I believe that the ultimate expression of a wine is to capture the character of the site.  You can make beautiful wines by blending but you lose specificity.  I’ve decided to find these special places and to express them.  For example, this place is very unique and so are the wines.”

Co Dinn, July 2019
The view of Rattlesnack Hills and DuBrul Vineyard from Roskamp Vineyard

Co points out DuBrul Vineyard across the valley to the North.  The vineyard there is southwest facing.  Theirs is the older clone. 

Kerry Shiels, DuBrul Vineyard, Rattlesnake Hills AVA

Dubrul Vineyard with Kerry Shiels
Talking with Kerry Shiels of Côte Bonneville in her DuBrul Vineyard in Yakima

A few days later, we spent the morning with Kerry Shiels at DuBrul Vineyard. This site sits on a basalt upthrust.  They have a south facing slope with a cutout that allows for southwest and southeast aspects. They sit high in the foothills of the Rattlesnake Mountains.  This unique vineyard with its aspects grows quite a range, from Cabernet Sauvignon to Chardonnay to Riesling!

Mount Adams, West of the Yakima Valley

The morning we visited the Mountains were out. When you looked to the West you could see Mount Adams to the south and further north in the distance Mt. Rainier.

We spent some time in the cool chardonnay vineyard.  This was early July, and they would not pick the Chard until the beginning of September. 

Kerry also does her Chardonnay in a classic style with a barrel ferment, full secondary, full malolactic.  They keep it on the lees, and it spends about a year and a half in barrel.

“I have a friend who doesn’t like Chardonnay, she says “your chardonnay is good, I recognize the quality, it’s not my favorite grape. Which is fine, but it’s good enough that she says “If I’m going to drink Chardonnay, I’ll drink yours. But I’d rather drink coke”.  If you like Burgundian styled classical age-worthy complex balanced Chardonnay, then you are going to like our Chardonnay.”

Kerry Shiels, July 2019

We look across to the South to Snipes Mountain and Roskamp vineyard.  

“I think it’s really interesting how different that Chard taste from this Chard.

I mean they are different clones, but also the soil is different.  Snipes is its own, geologically it’s totally distinct from this.  It’s fun to see that sense of place.

Kerry Shiels, July 2019

Similarities and Differences

So how did our side by side tasting go?  It was interesting.  Let’s run down the similarities and differences again.

Cote Bonneville 2015 DuBrul Vineyard Chardonnay and Co Dinn 2015 Roskamp Vineyard Chardonnay

Both were barrel fermented, with 17 to 18 months on the lees.  They were both unfined and unfiltered and from the same 2015 vintage. Both come from the Yakima Valley, from vineyards just 6 to 7 miles apart.  They were both made by winemakers with similar styles, both wanting to showcase the site.

They were Chardonnays from different clones, from 2 different AVAs (regardless of how near they are), the aspects were different with the Roskamp Chardonnay on the gentle North slope and the DuBrul on a South west facing slope. The soils and the microclimates (most definitely the microclimates) are different.  Lastly, quite honestly, I don’t know what yeast they each used.

Tasting & Comparing

The Co Dinn Roskamp Chardonnay was plush and creamy with baking spice, whereas the Cote Bonneville was leaner and more elegant with not quite ripe pear notes and a lovely mineral note.

How much of this was the soil, the different aspect, perhaps the picking date?  I don’t know, I just find it wonderful and amazing that two wines made from grapes in vineyards that look out on to each other, can be so subtly different.

I’m going to also mention that these are probably two of the finer Chardonnay’s that you will find in the Yakima Valley and they don’t come cheap.  In fact, the Cote Bonneville may no longer be available. Pick up the latest vintage.  They pride themselves on consistency and it is bound to be good.

The Wines and where to find them

Both of these wineries can be found in Sunnyside Washington, at about the mid point of the Yakima Valley. Both has beautiful historic buildings for tasting rooms and are well worth the trip. But, in these days, when travel is not so easy…you can order them online.

2015 Chardonnay Cote Bonneville SRP $50

Cote Bonneville, Tasting Room Sunnyside Washington
Cote Bonneville, Tasting Room Sunnyside Washington

https://www.cotebonneville.com

2015 Co Dinn Chardonnay Roskamp Vineyard SRP $45

Co dinn Cellars Tasting Room
Co dinn Cellars Tasting Room

https://codinncellars.com/

Other resources on Chardonnay and the Yakima Valley

More on this region from Crushed Grape Chronicles

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Robin Renken CSW (photo credit RuBen Permel)

Robin Renken is a wine writer and Certified Specialist of Wine. 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.

The Scenic Route Flash Tour 2019 Part 5 – One day 3 Washington AVAs

Grapes at Hedges Family Estate in Washington's Red Mountain AVA

Roskamp Vineyard in the Snipes Mountain AVA

Vines on the top of Snipes Mountain at Roskamp Vineyard in Washington's Yakima Valley
Vines on the top of Snipes Mountain at Roskamp Vineyard in Washington’s Yakima Valley

After a good nights sleep, we were up early, but not too early, (not pre-dawn like the day before!) to meet Co Dinn up at Roskamp Vineyard on Snipes Mountain.

Map Yakima Valley 2019 courtesy of WineYakimaValley.org
Map Yakima Valley 2019 courtesy of WineYakimaValley.org

As you are driving through the Yakima Valley, Snipes Mountain is hard to miss. It bubbles up in the middle of the Valley on the south side of the highway. Snipes Mountain, named for Ben Snipes who had a cattle ranch here in the 1850’s, is it’s own AVA.

Map Yakima Valley 2019 courtesy of WineYakimaValley.org

Meeting Co Dinn on Snipes Mountain

The View from Roskamp Vineyard on Snipes Mountain Yakima Valley Washington
Roskamp Vineyard View on Snipes Mountain Yakima Valley Washington

We were scheduled to meet Co Dinn of Co Dinn Cellars here early in the day. There was plenty of time, as we headed out early and followed the GPS. But the %/&*#$* &% GPS led us astray, trying to take us in the back way, where there are locked gates and dirt roads. We called Co and got back on track and eventually met him off the mountain, which gave him an opportunity to stop and show us some of the soil strata on our way up.

Syrah with a view.  Co Dinn's block at Roskamp Vineyard on Snipes Mountain in Washington's Yakima Valley
Syrah with a view!

At the top of the mountain we visited a beautiful block of Co’s Syrah, while he filled us in on the soil and we took in the expansive views. He got pretty detailed on the soils and geology, so we will save that for our in depth interview with him later.

Chardonnay vines on Roskamp vineyard Snipes Mountain AVA Yakima Valley Washington
Chardonnay vines on Roskamp vineyard

We also visited his Chardonnay block that looks north toward Sunnyside and across to DuBrul Vineyard. We look forward to doing a comparitive tasting of these two Chardonnays later this year.

After a great morning we looked at the clock and realized it was time to get moving. Luckily would be back this way so we scheduled to join him at his tasting room in a couple days. Now it was back on the road, we had to continue our journey east to Red Mountain.

Hedges Family Estate in the Red Mountain AVA

Vines at Hedges Family Estate in Yakima Valley's Red Mountain AVA
Vines at Hedges Family Estate in Yakima Valley’s Red Mountain AVA

We drove east and passed Red Mountain to the North of the highway. The entrance to the area is on the east side of the mountain. As we were running just a bit early, we headed toward Richland to find some coffee. We found a great quaint coffee shop, with a friendly staff, good coffee and bags of cherries for sale on the counter. After a cup of joe we were back on the road to Red Mountain and to Hedges Family Estate.

Map Yakima Valley 2019 courtesy of WineYakimaValley.org

The Red Mountain AVA has been getting quite a bit of press lately. The AVA is not actually the whole mountain, but the South facing slope. This is (currently) the smallest AVA in the state at 4040 acres. The Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah here are bold and powerful and are thought to be some of the finest examples of these varieties in the state.

Sarah Hedges Goedhart – Hedges Family Estate Winemaker

When we were deciding on a winery to visit in this region, we were drawn to the fact that Hedges Family Estate is biodynamic on their vineyard. (You know biodynamics is my jam!). We reached out and Sarah Hedges Goedhart, the winemaker for Hedges Family Estate was able to meet with us.

Hedges Family Estate in the Red Mountain AVA of Washington's Yakima Valley
Hedges Family Estate in the Red Mountain AVA of Washington’s Yakima Valley

The property is stunning. You drive up the the beautifully landscaped French Chateau and enter another world. Sarah’s mother is French and had a great influence on the design. I could have happily spent the day reclining in the garden.

Sarah was in a meeting when we arrived, but soon joined us on the patio under the trees, next to the fountain, overlooking the vineyard. It was a pretty enchanting spot. She shared with us her story and her family’s. We dove into their going biodynamic, moving to native ferment, the old world philosophies in the vineyard and winery as well as about slowing down. Sarah has been known to play meditation and yoga music in the winery to assist fermentation. The staff looked at her skeptically at first, but they couldn’t deny the results.

Into the Tasting Room

After our interview we moved into the tasting room for a tasting with Sophia. This winery has multiple labels and the selection we tasted through was vast and included some barrel samples that Sarah brought in for us. We look forward to sharing all those details with you later.

We headed out to grab some vineyard shots and then jumped back in the car to make our way east to Walla Walla.

Walla Walla “The city so nice they named it twice”

We spent time in Walla Walla last year for WBC18, so we knew a little of the lay of the land coming in. We stopped for a really delicious lunch at the Walla Walla Bread Company. I will throw out a high recommendation here, for if you ever find yourself in this town.

Walla Walla AVA

Walla Walla AVA
Walla Walla AVA courtesy of WashingtonWine.org

While we spent time in Walla Walla on our last trip, we really have yet to “dig into” this AVA. The area has the highest concentration of wineries in the state. Rainfall in the valley varies, but some vineyards on the east side have the ability to dry farm, which is rare in Washington. The eastern side also gets into the foothills of the beautiful Blue Mountains.

The region is known for reds with Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon dominating the plantings.

Valley Grove Vineyard in the Walla Walla AVA

We had time to check into the hotel, before heading north of the city to visit Tim & Jennifer Armstrong of Armstrong Family Winery at their Valley Grove Vineyard. The drive took us through vast wheat fields, rolling as far as the eye could see. The hills rolled and sometimes you were engulfed in nothing but wheat. Eventually we came to a green patch near a creek and turned into the vineyard. The old red barn is an iconic landmark.

View from the patio at Armstrong

Tim and Jennifer met with us at a picnic table on the back patio overlooking the vineyard. We talked about their journey into wine, their Seattle winery and then walked the vineyards talking about their plans for this place.

Off to the Walla Walla Tasting Room

All too soon it was time for us to leave. They were packing up to fly out on a well needed vacation to the East Coast in the morning. We determined we had not had enough and headed downtown to their tasting room. It was jazz night, so they were open late with live music. Carl runs the tasting room and it also happened to be his birthday. We arrived early and grabbed a table in the back and watched as every table filled up. Carl did an amazing job of keeping up with the busy room.

Time to rest for the next great day

We were a little tired, so we looked for a pizza spot nearby and grabbed a pizza to go. I’ll send a shout out to Sweet Basil Pizzaria for great service and a great pie!

Off to bed to rest up. Our morning stop would be the beautiful Valdemar, followed by some time in Walla Walla and dinner at the Gas station.

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