This week’s Deep Dive is focused on two wineries that in very different ways are blazing new winemaking trails. Rocky Pond has single-handedly created and verified an entirely new AVA – Rocky Reach – here in Washington state. These are among the very finest wines I’ve tasted in the past year.
Authentique is the project of Nicholas Keeler, located on a lush and beautiful estate near the town of Amity, Oregon. Keeler works his magic via an impressive knowledge of varied fermentation vehicles and blending practices, which he explains in the essay below.
When I discovered this new winery and AVA last spring I was instantly transported by the feeling that here was indeed a very special place to grow grapes.
As I wrote on this website last June: More than a few winemakers have told me over the years that the best places to grow grapes in Washington are yet to be discovered. That’s not completely true – some great places have already been found. But with climate change impacting virtually all West Coast vintners, the qualities that define “best places” are evolving. And the winemaking is evolving with them. Wines are getting more subtle, more aromatic, less obviously fruity and more complex. These early releases from Rocky Pond express all of those characteristics.
Rocky Pond President John Ware spent two decades at Quilceda Creek before joining Rocky Pond. I was curious to find out what had attracted him to this new, unproven winery and vineyard. His answer:
“The Rocky Reach AVA has a geological story dating back 100,000,000-70,000,00 years when islands in the Pacific were thrust under Washington and thrust up into this 32,333 acres called Rocky Reach. Then 18,500-16,000 years ago, two glaciers carved out the Columbia River, depositing sandy soils and the prolific cobblestones. We do not have any basalt like most of Washington, and in fact, are higher in silica and quartz minerals. So what does that all mean for wine drinkers? We have a distinct minerality that is fused with ripe fruit that expresses itself in the wines. Double D and Rocky Reach Estate are warm sites. The stony surfaces and cobblestones quickly warm and heat the vines and promote faster and more complete ripening. The coarser soils are more efficient in transmitting water [meaning they hold less] which encourages the vines to establish deeper roots than vines planted in silty soils.”
PG: Of course the proof is in the pudding and my initial enthusiasm has been amplified and confirmed by subsequent tastings and a visit to the winery last summer. The newest releases are stunning wines from a more difficult vintage. Shane Collins, who made these new releases, now manages the estate vineyards in his current role as Director of Viticulture and Vineyard Relations. He’s found that a lot of the vines, especially the older plantings going back to 2013, are very hard to get good vigor on. “Very sandy and cobblestone soils provide little water holding in the soil,” he explains, “so we have learned a lot about proper balance for these vines. They will naturally hold less crop load than other locations that have previously had apples, pears, and cherries.
“What I thought we could accomplish for crop load and quality is certainly different than what I thought in 2017 when I came on board with Rocky Pond. We have changed our thinking on strategy for water management down to individual lines and sub-sections of the blocks by adding additional emitters and being able to turn the water on and off in very specific areas.
“I want to maximize the expression of the tannins and the tension of the wine while not having them express too lean or rigid. We focus on getting the plant to shut down as early as we can for any new growth on try to focus all the energy on fruit ripeness and phenolic development as the daylight becomes shorter later in the year, especially late September and October.”
PG: The winemaking reins have been handed over to Liz Keyser, who moved up from Napa a year ago. I asked her to comment on her experiences in a new wine region this first year.
LK: “This growing season was a lesson in patience. The slow and cool start to the growing season set us on a path of being 1-2 weeks behind historic phenology data and meant most of our fruit was going to be harvested in a very tight window. There were many sleepless nights in early-October spent poring over weather reports and debating early picks, but ultimately I trusted that we could push hang time and the grapes would be able to bounce back from light rain, or even a frost event. We started harvesting red fruit on October 19th and were all in by November 9th (90+ tons in approx. 3-weeks). We have an incredible vineyard and cellar team who worked at a grueling pace to accomplish this harvest.
“A major strength of the Rocky Reach AVA made apparent to me this growing season is the ability to achieve even ripening across the spectrum of varieties grown at Double D and Rocky Reach Estate vineyards, even in a challenging vintage. I attribute the balanced and even ripening to the low elevation and sandy-rocky soils that radiate heat into the canopy. Being able to hold onto heat into the evening hours really helped to push ripening along. I am continually impressed by the wines produced from our vineyards in the Rocky Reach AVA. For young vines the fruit exudes so much character and sense of place.
“Overall, downsizing from the 150k+ case production [in Napa] has allowed me to reconnect with the entire winemaking process and it’s been a challenging, inspiring, and gratifying year. The first wines of the 2022 vintage will be released in Spring 2023, featuring the 2022 Stratastone Rosé and 2022 Double D Sauvignon Blanc. The 2022 vintage will be labeled with Rocky Reach AVA designation (where applicable) and Sustainable WA certification.”
As Liz notes these current releases still carry the broad Columbia Valley AVA designation rather than the newly-minted Rocky Reach AVA because TTB approval came just after these wines had already been bottled. “In subsequent vintages” President John Ware confirms, “you will see the Rocky Reach AVA designation from wines produced from the Double D and Rocky Reach vineyard sites, as well as the new ‘Sustainable WA’ certification.”
Purchase Rocky Pond wines here
Rocky Pond 2021 Tumbled Granite White
This Viognier/Roussanne blend saw 45% new French oak prior to bottling. It’s racy and focused, still rather tight with prickly citrus skin, cucumber and cactus flavors. The freshness is appealing and leads me to suggest that this be enjoyed over the next couple of years. One minor quibble – the front labels on the two Tumbled Granite wines are identical, and the dark glass makes it difficult to tell white from red. 150 cases; 14.1%; $60 (Columbia Valley)
Rocky Pond 2020 Double D Vineyard Malbec
This is pure Malbec and a textbook example of this done as a varietal wine. Blueberries galore in the nose, accented with pretty barrel toast (44% new for 22 months). Malbec initially plays out across the palate horizontally and then sets up with precision, lighter in mouthfeel than most Washington Merlots and less tannically potent than Cabernets. Nonetheless it’s got length and strength and its own pleasures, a mix of berry and coffee, chicory and grain. 300 cases; 15%; $60 (Columbia Valley)
Rocky Pond 2020 Double D Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon
This is 77% Cabernet; also in the blend are Merlot (18% and Syrah (5%), all from the flagship estate vineyard. This is dark and supple, toasty and firm, with taut black fruits, polished but chewy tannins and a frame of new French oak. Hints of gravel and graphite penetrate the finish and amplify the astringency of the tannins. Clearly at the start of a long life, it’s structured like many of Washington’s finest Cabernets from Red Mountain and the Horse Heaven Hills. 256 cases; 14.8%; $75 (Columbia Valley)
Rocky Pond 2020 Tumbled Granite Red
This is 75% Cabernet, 20% Merlot and 5% Syrah, all from the flagship estate vineyard. Compare with the 2020 Cabernet Sauvignon and the stats are almost identical, so this must be a reserve-level selection from all new barrels. With all that new oak it’s loaded with baking spices, thus giving it immediate appeal despite its long term aging potential. The dark fruits are typical from the Double D vineyard, and line up taut and polished alongside sharp, polished and balancing tannins. This is a beautifully made wine which should be cellared for at least a few more years and could go into the mid-2030s. Very limited. 90 cases; 15%; $120 (Columbia Valley)
Rocky Pond 2020 Double D Vineyard Stratastone Red
This popular Rhône-style blend is 46% Grenache, 28% Syrah and 26% Mourvèdre (almost doubled from the previous vintage). Gorgeously scented with a plush mix of brambly red and purple berries, lavender and white chocolate, it’s fresh, forward and fruit-driven; in other words absolutely irresistible. Those who purchased the previous vintage will be pleased to know the price is virtually unchanged. As this vineyard continues to grow and mature we can only expect more magnificent wines will follow. 436 cases; 14.8%; $46 (Columbia Valley)
Rocky Pond 2020 Double D Vineyard 11 Dams Red
One of a pair of outstanding entry-level blends from Rocky Pond, this is 54% Merlot, 29% Cabernet Sauvignon and 17% Malbec sourced from the estate vineyard. It’s all Rocky Reach AVA but the winery is going with the more generic Columbia Valley designation. An unusual blend, this deftly amps up the power of the principal Merlot component while keeping the strength and detail of the other two grapes in focus. It’s a fruit showcase loaded with black cherries and cassis, backed with the AVA’s underlying minerality. The generous use of new French oak (50%) is kept in check while framing the wine perfectly. Given its youth this absolutely must be decanted for near term drinking, or cellared for another couple of years. Still drinking very well on the 4th day. 550 cases; 14.8%; $46 (Columbia Valley)
The winery’s Keeler estate vineyard (just outside of Amity) is a Demeter-certified biodynamic site on a southwest facing hillside. The shallow and diverse sedimentary soils were once part of an ancient ocean bed.
Winemaker Nicholas Keeler employs a fascinating array of fermentation vessels including rotary large format, upright oak; stainless steel tanks; Italian amphorae and concrete eggs, sometimes mixing multiple styles in a single bottling. He has represented Allary barrels in the U.S. and along the way acquired a great deal of knowledge of French forests, barrel production and the impact of specific barrel choices on finished wines.
“My aim is to make unique wines with layers of nuance and detail” he says. “Wines fermented in different vessels are barreled down separately. This gives me a wider range of color, texture and flavor for the alchemy at the blending table. For example in my Pinot Noir oak is used for texture and color; concrete ovals for an anaerobic environment, texture and longer time on the skins; stainless for precise temperature control, respect for the vineyard/fruit character and a brighter mouthfeel. My hope is to get more detail in the wines, and for the wines to be ageworthy and captivate interest as they evolve in cellar and glass.
“I also enjoy the gentle extraction texture and carbonic aspect of the rotary 500 and 600 liter barrels. In my experience the Italian amphorae lends a unique color, highlights mineral/ceramic elements and produces a round texture during fermentation and aging. Lately I’ve been fermenting a personal favorite 115 clone block from Keeler estate to get orange peel , cherry and white pepper characters in amphorae; then aging in our medium+ all fire toast Allary Diamant Fontainebleau. It’s a wonderfully complex wine that’s normally blended in the Authentique Keeler estate designate Pinot Noir.”
PG: Authentique wines are released a year or two after most Oregon Pinots, which is very helpful given the somewhat reductive winemaking. As with all the wines I taste, these Authentique releases have been re-examined over several days.
Purchase all Authentique wines here
Authentique 2020 Bremen Town Riesling
Fermented in concrete egg and then aged in neutral oak, this shows the sort of experimentation happening with Riesling among its advocates in Oregon. It’s aromatic and dry – in fact for some palates it will taste sour – like a squirt of fresh lemon juice. The time in concrete egg adds texture and a baseline minerality, extending the finish. This would be an ideal match for shellfish, crustaceans or poultry in a lemon sauce. 75 cases; 12%; $50 (Eola-Amity Hills)
Authentique 2019 Bois Joli Chardonnay
Sappy and seductive, this layers tart lemony acids under crisp apple, Asian pear, grapefruit and a thin seam of banana cream. The complexity and clever melding of disparate components is impressive. This should be decanted or aged another 2-5 years. Nicholas Keeler notes these are Dijon clones that were fermented spontaneously in 30% new extra tight Vosges oak barrels, then aged sur lie for 16 months. 75 cases; 13%; $60 (Eola-Amity Hills)
Authentique 2019 Fond Marin Chardonnay
This barrel selection includes grapes from Bois Joli and Keeler vineyards. At first it is sharp, almost severe, and drinks younger than its vintage. It’s steely and tight, with close-wound, mineral-drenched flavors of lemon rind, lemongrass, apple skin and dried Italian herbs. If past is preview (I thought when first tasting it) this will respond well to aeration and further bottle age. Sure enough this opened up and drank far better on day three than on day one. 200 cases; 13%; $60 (Eola-Amity Hills)
Authentique 2019 The Corridor Pinot Noir
The Corridor bottling gets essentially the same care as the more expensive Pinots from Authentique. Spontaneous (wild yeast) fermentation of whole berries with a small percentage of whole clusters amps up the details and textures of this wine. Savory overtones complement the brambly berry fruit. The new oak is subtle and effective. Intended to be more approachable early than its companions, it’s pleasingly full and nicely textured. Should drink well through the rest of the decade. 200 cases; 13%; $42 (Eola-Amity Hills)
Authentique 2019 Keeler Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir
As noted above the regimen includes spontaneous fermentation in rotary oak puncheons, demi-muid, upright oak, amphorae and stainless tanks. This is followed by 16 months in 40% new oak with light bâtonnage. The payoff is a wine with varied textures, layered like sedimentary rock, and somewhat muted flavors of berries, mint, sage, soil and seashell. I strongly recommend decanting this wine in order to help the flavors unpack. Best drinking should be after 2026. 300 cases; 13%; $60 (Eola-Amity Hills)
Authentique 2019 Wind Ridge Vineyard Pinot Noir
The fruit comes from Harry and Wynne Peterson-Nedry’s vineyard atop Ribbon Ridge. It has that AVA’s typical seashell aromatic highlights, which continue through the palate, adding elegant textures and flavor dimensions. All the 2019s from Authentique are done in a style that keeps the alcohol down and emphasizes texture, balance and ageability. This is built to age and should appeal to those who favor the mix of steely fruit, acid and mineral over a more effusive berry-driven style. 150 cases; 13.2%; $75 (Ribbon Ridge)
Authentique 2019 Murto Vineyard Pinot Noir
Own-rooted Pommard from old vines is the story here. Fermented in stainless to emphasize aromatics and precision, this was aged in 30% new oak with a slightly higher toast level than its companion Pinots. The toast is subtle but a bit more apparent than in the others and adds a layer of chocolatey nougat to the tight, tart berry fruit. This borders on being reductive and needs aeration; if possible give it another couple years of bottle age. My second and third day tastings confirm that with time a truly complex and detailed wine will emerge. Drink 2025 – 2035. 150 cases; 13.1%; $75 (Dundee Hills)