Way back when Merlot was in the doghouse following the release of the film ‘Sideways’ (Jack: “If they want to drink Merlot, we’re drinking Merlot” Miles: “No, if anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am NOT drinking any f-ing Merlot!”) it was already known to a handful of producers that Walla Walla was a special place to make this particular Bordeaux red. The Northstar winery was established specifically to specialize in Merlot, and at L’Ecole it was the first wine to be awarded important medals following the release of the premiere 1983 vintage.
Forty years later, in a stellar lineup of spring releases, it’s still the Merlot that shines brightest. No slight intended; as you can see in my notes, I thoroughly enjoyed all five estate wines from the current vintage, along with the extraordinary Semillon from the Stillwater Creek vineyard. But it was the Merlot that kept me enraptured day after day.
In 2010, when the second edition of “Washington Wines & Wineries” was published, my profile of L’Ecole included this quote from owner/winemaker Marty Clubb: “Merlot is still king at L’Ecole. The key to Washington doing Merlot right is that it’s the thinner skin varietal, and like Sémillon it tends to plump up with rain at harvest. We don’t have that problem with Merlot. In my mind that is a key reason why we can make such extracted, aromatic, spicy, nicely-balanced Merlots. We control the water.”
Now as then L’Ecole’s Merlots (both the Columbia Valley and estate grown versions) are blends. Marcus Rafanelli, who took over as lead winemaker about four years ago, continues the winery’s dominance following a seamless transition. The now mature estate vineyards are a tremendous asset, as Rafanelli explained in a conversation (via email) a few days ago when I asked for his thoughts on this 2020 release.
MR: “It doesn’t really matter which vintage it is because the goal is always the same. We want to make a balanced, ageworthy Merlot that is approachable on release.”
PG: Fair enough in general terms. How do you zero in on a specific style?
MR: “We don’t really have a target flavor, but look more for balance and structure, and we do this mostly in vineyard. We work with our growers to make sure that the crop is distributed evenly, that clusters are spaced properly and of the same size. This helps with maintaining balance and consistency from year to year. It also means that we can wait a bit longer for flavors to develop while holding onto some of the natural acidity. We are lucky to work with vines that are middle aged, 25-30 years old, and those vines don’t show the extremes of climatic events like young vines.”
PG: So call those vines middle-aged or simply mature (not old!) they bring a wealth of advantages, not least of which is adaptability to climate change. How does this fruit behave in the winery?
MR: “When the Merlot is cropped and grown correctly, it makes our job at the winery ‘easier’. We mostly monitor temperature during fermentation as hot temps can lead to more tannin extraction and can send the wine into an unbalanced state. We are gentle with our twice daily punch downs and don’t use pump overs to mix the wines as that can also lead to over extraction. We don’t fine our red wines after fermentation so all of our tannin management must be done in the few crucial weeks of the ferment.”
PG: I imagine that blending trials are the last piece of the puzzle, and probably a lot of fun.
MR: “We taste the wines as a team twice, first knowing the variety and block, the blind to make sure our initial impressions are holding true. I also put some thought into what oak to use, and lean on cooperages that make barrels for the Right Bank wineries in Bordeaux (Millet, Quintessence, Boutes, Maury). I find that the barrels we use for the Merlots are mostly medium toast. That lets the fruit shine through without adding excessive toasty notes to the wine. We want the vineyard/place to shine first and foremost!”
PG: As it certainly does. Here are my notes. All of these current releases are available online.
L’Ecole 2021 Stillwater Creek Vineyard Semillon
A Washington specialist in Semillon, L’Ecole has rarely if ever made one better than this. The aromatics alone are world class, with white flowers, lemon custard and vanilla. The flavors follow, layering in green pineapple, lime, chamomile and a thin streak of butter. Clearly this vineyard is a prime site for the grape, and no one does it better than the team at L’Ecole. Note that there is a less expensive Columbia Valley bottling, good but not this good. 570 cases; 13.5%; $25 (Royal Slope) 94/100
L’Ecole 2020 Estate Grown Merlot
A textbook Walla Walla Merlot, this is both satin smooth and flecked with savory highlights. Sourced evenly from the winery’s Ferguson and Seven Hills vineyards, the Merlot is blended with 14% Cabernet Franc and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s richly scented, structured and detailed with stacked black fruits, coffee grounds, baker’s chocolate and green tobacco. Optimal drinking – 2025 to 2035. 1000 cases; 14.5%; $42 (Walla Walla Valley) 95/100
L’Ecole 2020 Estate Grown Cabernet Franc-Merlot
This 50/50 Right Bank-style blend has a sturdy, muscular core of black currant fruit, framed with green tea tannins. It’s bold and compact, requiring considerable breathing time to unpack. The overall balance suggests medium to long term ageability, with the best years for this wine probably in the 2030s. 325 cases; 14.5%; $42 (Walla Walla Valley) 93/100
L’Ecole 2020 Walla Walla Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
For classic Walla Walla Cabernet with both elegance and power look no farther than this pure varietal expression. Sculpted flavors of cassis, bramble, espresso, black olive and a touch of charred wood combine in a compact Cabernet showcase. After considerable (24 hours) aeration the wine comes into full focus, graceful, long and complete. 1950 cases; 14.5%; $44 (Walla Walla Valley) 94/100
L’Ecole 2020 40th Anniversary Red
This special blend of estate-grown Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc celebrates the winery’s four decades in business with a one-time return to the original school kid’s label drawing. It seems to give a nod to the style of the earlier wines also, with a tilt toward greenish flavors and a tannic finish. This is not meant as a criticism; such Bordeaux-influenced blends had a major impact during the early decades of this state’s wine industry. 1200 cases; 14.5%; $50 (Walla Walla Valley) 92/100
L’Ecole 2020 Estate Grown Ferguson Vineyard Red
A five-grape Bordeaux-style blend, this is three fifths Cabernet Sauvignon. The unique, high elevation Ferguson vineyard, named to honor the winery founders, Baker and Jean Ferguson, is exceptional in every way, and as it enters full maturity the flavors it delivers continue to deepen and extend. Classic cassis, lead pencil, basalt-driven minerality, toasted walnuts and coffee grounds are the prime strengths, though as it rolls through a chewy, meaty, lingering finish more and more layers pile on. A steak lovers red, this has the power and tannin to take on any red meat you put on the grill. 1300 cases; 14.5%; $70 (Walla Walla Valley) 94/100
L’Ecole 2020 Seven Hills Vineyard Syrah
Grown above (but not in) the Rocks District AVA, this potent Syrah puts the emphasis on brambly blackberries, red and black licorice, chicory, coffee, dark chocolate and subtle baking spices. The spicy character resonates across and through the finish, giving the wine a delicious vibrancy. Given the quality it’s a fine value in estate-grown Walla Walla Syrah. 1050 cases; 15%; $40 (Walla Walla Valley) 92/100