Calgary Wine Life: Gramercy Cellars Master Class @ Divino

26 05 2017
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Greg Harrington, Gramercy Cellars

A month ago I had never been out to visit my all-time favourite winery, and they had not yet had the opportunity to come to Calgary for a tasting event.  Three weeks ago I finally made it out to Walla Walla for the first time, and among other amazing wine memories made, I paid a couple visits to my wine pinnacle, Gramercy Cellars, attending their Spring Release party on my birthday.  Almost immediately after I got off the plane in Washington State, I got an email inviting me to Gramercy’s first ever tasting Master Class back in Calgary, led by the winery’s founder and winemaker Greg Harrington.  That tasting was held this week at the marvellous Divino restaurant, and I left thinking that my next trip to Walla Walla couldn’t come fast enough.  It would be an understatement to say that this month has ticked a lot of boxes.

FullSizeRender-612Washington State has both the sun to grow big red grapes and the soil and climate to make them interesting.  The main wine areas are all in the southeastern part of the state, separated from lush, drizzly Seattle by the Cascade Mountain range, whose rain shadow blocks most of the coastal precipitation and creates a warm, dry canvas for grapevines to thrive.  The Walla Walla Valley, straddling the Washington/Oregon border, is bounded on the east side by another mountain range, the Blue Mountains, gaining both altitude and cool nightly winds off the slopes as a result.  Over millennia, the historically recurring Missoula floods have laid fine sandy soil, massive rocks and other alluvial deposits over an already-impressive volcanic basalt soil base.  Put all that together and you end up with an area that sees heat and sunlight during the day but features significant diurnal temperature drops at night, ideal for prolonging ripening and retaining acid in grapes; fine soils with intriguing mineral content that drain well and in which (thanks also to the cold winters) the vine scourge phylloxera cannot survive, allowing all vines to be planted on their own rootstocks; and a remarkable array of slopes, aspects, exposures and microclimates in a relatively concentrated area, letting farmers and producers match specific varietals with specific sites to maximize their potential.  In short, it screams winemaking opportunity.

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The Gramercy winery and tasting room, Walla Walla.

And it screamed loud enough to bring Greg Harrington there.  Harrington, a Master Sommelier holding a prestigious position for a group of New York City restaurants, had a chance tasting of Walla Walla Syrah lead him to a trip to Washington State and then to a life-altering decision to change careers and time zones, all in the span of a couple years in the early 2000s.  After a crash course in winemaking and some assistance with grape sourcing from Washington wine pioneer Norm McKibben of Pepper Bridge in 2004, Gramercy Cellars came into existence and released its first vintage in 2005.  It has been honing its style and its craft since, continually looking for ways to sharpen its approach.  While Gramercy has always aimed for lower ripeness and alcohols and higher acid and longevity in their wines, as of 2014 it strove for further complexity by switching over to all native-yeast fermentation and introducing large square concrete tanks to its winemaking armada.  Future plans include going fully organic with its growers in the vineyard and gaining additional control on the farming side of the process, as evidenced by its recent acquisition of the well-regarded Forgotten Hills vineyard just south of Walla Walla.

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Concrete.  Badass.

Greg Harrington spoke of these things and more across two riveting and information-packed hours with the Calgary wine trade, and at some point while we were at it we also found the time to taste through the bulk of Gramercy Cellars’ portfolio, starting off with the ultra-small production 2016 Picpoul (electric limes! on fire!) as we came in the door and not stopping until we had gone through FOUR consecutive groundbreaking Syrahs that firmly established Washington State’s place as a New World powerhouse.  Buckle up.

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2016 Gramercy Cellars Antoine Creek Viognier

This (I believe) is Gramercy’s only wine sourced from the near-unknown Lake Chelan AVA, which is the northernmost AVA in Washington, straddling the eastern edge of the Cascades and almost due east from Seattle.  Lake Chelan does not make many waves on the Washington wine scene, but if this bottle is any indication, it may soon be known for knife’s-edge Viognier.  Picked early and fermented 80% in stainless steel and 20% in neutral oak, this is not your borderline overblown, languid, sensuous Viognier but is taut and racy and mineral, stretched out tight on acidic lines.  Salty orange rind, rock salt and crystallized pineapple frame a sleek wine that seems frozen in time.

88-89 points

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2016 Gramercy Cellars Olsen Vineyard Rose

Some wines are flavour experiences, while others are textural experiences.  For me this rose has always been the latter.  Sourced from a single vineyard farmed by Rhone varietal wizard Leif Olsen and located in the Yakima Valley, just west of Red Mountain and north of Horse Heaven Hills, this is a co-fermented blend of 52% Cinsault, 24% Grenache and 24% Syrah.  It is the first time in the history of this rose that all three varietals were harvested closely enough together to allow for all of them to be co-fermented at once, allowing for a better (and easier) blend of colour and flavour.  Its pale salmon colour leads into sweet-but-not aromas of fresh tulips, grape Rockets and strawberry leaf, and then into this incredible round yet lithe mouthfeel, covering all the surfaces of the tongue and then lingering, delicate but dense, a palate conundrum.  Beautiful and refreshing, and truly a must every spring.

90-91+ points

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2014 Gramercy Cellars L’Idiot du Village Mourvedre

The Olsen Vineyard returns here, with Leif Olsen’s Mourvedre grapes bolstered by plantings from Horse Heaven Hills.  This is the first concrete-fermented (and natural-yeast-fermented) version of this wine, which seems to have made it all the more expansive.  For a known (and feared) brawny Rhone grape, this is surprisingly translucent in the glass and epically red on the nose, combining dusty cherry and strawberry fruit with roses and leather — pretty Mourvedre?  It’s currently juicy and light on its feet, but occasionally shows flashes of the baritone that lurks underneath:  dank pot-scrapings, pavement and smoke on a back end with decidedly grippy tannins and a long life ahead. I love this wine and always have, but this might be the best version of it I’ve tried.

93-94 points

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2014 Gramercy Cellars The Third Man Grenache

While the label says Grenache, the 2014 edition of The Third Man contains only the legal minimum 75% of the grape required for varietal labelling, filling the remaining void with 15% Syrah, 5% Mourvedre and, for the first time, 5% Carignan.  (Incidentally, when I was at Gramercy I got to try some of the Carignan by itself out of barrel – crazy fun stuff.  Hope to see more of it in these kinds of blends.)  “The Third Man” is a climbing term, referencing that inner voice of survival that you hear in your head once you’ve gotten too high, telling you to get down even before your body recognizes the danger.  This is another concrete baby and is an utterly transparent ruby to the core, definitely related aromatically to the Mourvedre but more pristine, cleaner, with no darkness to impede the light. Pure beams of cherry and raspberry, tinged by sage, carry a bright, crisp yet full body, elevated and controlled by surprising structure.

91-92 points

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2013 Gramercy Cellars Columbia Valley Syrah

As Greg Harrington put it, about an hour into the tasting:  “All right!  Syrah – the reason we all came here.”  It is certainly the reason I first became a Gramercy Cellars devotee (the 2009 Walla Walla Valley Syrah, to be exact, which I have had many, many times), and is my favourite red grape, although Harrington and other Washington winemakers have told me that it remains a marketing and sales challenge, a fact I have yet to wrap my adherent mind around.  (Because Syrah is amazing.  You should try some.  Seriously.)  Thankfully that obstacle did not stop Gramercy from making SIX different Syrahs the core of its lineup, nor did it stop us from downing four of them back-to-back-to-back-to-back.  The first one stood out by being the only 2013 in the bunch, which meant that it was both the only Syrah tasted that was fermented in steel as opposed to concrete and that it had the luxury of an additional year of bottle age, which is always a welcome development for any Gramercy red.

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Although the Columbia Valley Syrah features the broader appellation name on the bottle, do not be misled into thinking that speaks ill of the quality inside:  a large component of the wine is Syrah from the elite Rocks district, one of the top Syrah spots in North America, while still more of it is from Gramercy’s own Forgotten Hills Vineyard (which we’ll get to below).  Rocks fruit is almost absurdly umami and savoury, particularly aromatically, and it’s higher in pH and lower in acid, which leads to silky smooth wines that are often remarkably developed and complex early on in their life.  This Syrah was already starting to develop cola tertiary notes interlaced through its blackberry, black olive, flowers and candle smoke flavours, and it seemed much more relaxed and spread out on the palate than any of the other Gramercy offerings.  It’s intended to be approachable earlier and it is; it is almost laughably more ready to go than any of the next three wines, which are all long-haul beasts.

91-92+ points

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Les Collines Vineyard

2014 Gramercy Cellars The Deuce Syrah

The Deuce stands for the double Ws forming the initials of the Walla Walla Valley.  It could also stand for the dual vineyards that sourced this powerhouse:  Les Collines, one of Washington State’s most famous and most meticulously farmed vineyards, forms the base, while Forgotten Hills adds the accents.  It holds a special place in any Gramercy fan’s heart because, as Harrington put it, the Walla Walla Syrah is the wine that brought him to Washington.  This is the first wine of the lineup that noticeably coats the glass and flirts with opaqueness, and it’s the one that unleashes the broadest spectrum of aromas, even as its reticence in youth makes itself clear:  there’s smoke and ash, violets, cured meat and tapenade floating half-formed around a core of deep black fruit, straining but not yet fully escaping its clutches.  It locks down when you taste it, closed and linear, flavours replaced by hot rocks, anise, rhubarb and sweat, but check back in a couple years and it will reveal itself again.  A signature wine.

92-93 points

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Forgotten Hills Vineyard

2014 Gramercy Cellars Forgotten Hills Syrah

Finally, Forgotten Hills gets its own show.  Gramercy’s new vineyard purchase has a Syrah expression all its own thanks to distinctive soils and a sloped geographical position a few minutes south of Walla Walla that for whatever reason stays a bit cooler than its surroundings.  I went to visit it when I was in Washington, long and laned like a bowling alley, oddly positioned just behind the backyards of an acreage suburb (where large menacing dogs barked at me incessantly until I left).  Not all great vineyards are in walled clos; this one is undoubtedly great.

It also makes Syrah that is unapologetically almost painfully tight and austere, making a tasting of the most recent release almost seem like a disservice.  The 2014 Forgotten Hills is much paler than The Deuce, more ruby in hue, and shy but still piercing aromatically, with a prominent citrus note floating above grape, blackberry, asphalt and char.  It springs to life structurally when you taste it, lashing out with grapefruit acidity and barricading itself behind a wall of tannic structure.  There is going to be so much going on with this wine in 10 years, but at the moment it is angry at being disturbed.  I cannot think of another Washington Syrah that acts like this or tastes like this.  There is magic here.

93-94+ points

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2014 Gramercy Cellars Lagniappe Syrah

We end, as we should, with Lagniappe.  When I met Greg Harrington for the first time a few years ago, I asked him what Gramercy wine best exemplifies what he’s trying to do with the winery, and he said “Lagniappe” before I could even finish the question.  It has always been based around grapes out of the Red Willow vineyard in the Yakima Valley, an epic Syrah site, and it is named after a Native American term signifying something extra or bonus given as a gift, like a surprise course in a restaurant.  Like the Forgotten Hills above, this is a wine meant to be savoured and considered in a decade or two, but unlike the Forgotten Hills, it is all red fruit as opposed to black, cranberry and raspberry encircled by quartz and iron.  It’s shut down but humming with subliminal energy, its floating weightless texture lined with ironclad invisible structure.  It is not yet even a sliver of what it will be, and as such it echoes the potential of the entire region.  I have birth years of this wine for my kids because I know it will be an impeccable gift when I drink it with them 15 years from now, and I’ll be able to say I met the man behind it.

95-96 points

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