Have you heard of Double Canyon, the Washington State winery in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA (American Viticultural Area)? I hadn't either. A visit to town by Will Beightol, their general manager, on the occasion of the winery's first national release, was a chance for me to find out more about this small boutique winery and taste their wines.
Washington State has proven itself a prodigious producer of Bordeaux-style grapes. Cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, malbec, and petit verdot have all succeeded in making good wines there. The state is also deadly serious about quality — actively seeking AVA designation for distinctive areas and incorporating the wine country into the state’s tourist portfolio to boost sales. Small wineries are springing up in all the wine regions of the state, indicating a vibrancy in the industry.
The Horse Heaven Hills AVA is a 50-by-20-mile patch in the the southeastern corner of the state. It is north of the Columbia River and Oregon border, and south of the Yakima Valley. For many people, this wino included, it has been just a point on the interesting drive from SEA-TAC to Walla Walla. What the drive conceals is some serious grape growing ability. Steady winds keep humidity low and reduce disease. Cool nights allow the grapes to reach ripen fully. And it is one of the last remaining places where vines can grow on their native rootstock, safe from the phylloxera louse, thanks to sandy loam soils, low rainfall, and cold winters.
Horse Heaven Hills already has some prominent achievements to its name. It was one of the sources for a 100-point wine (2003 Quilceda Creek Vintners Cabernet Sauvignon) from the most influential critical wine publication, The Wine Advocate. One of only 12 American wines to have achieved this.
In this area, about a decade ago, in 2005, Double Canyon Vineyard was planted. It was purchased in 2007 by The Crimson Wine Group, a portfolio of estate-based wineries. (Crimson is currently building a new, 47,000-square-foot Double Canyon facility in West Richland, also in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA, due to open in August 2017.) Will Beightol, a man who had grown up over the road from the vineyard, was their first hire. Today, he is essentially viticulturalist, general manager, and head of sales all rolled into one. Beightol, enologist Stephanie Pao, and consulting winemaker Craig Williams are the winemaking team.
It was as viticulturalist that Beightol made a crucial early decision during the planting of the vineyard: he would go 1,850 vines per acre, twice the density common in Washington. The thinking was to achieve less, but higher quality, fruit set per plant.
Two wines are made by Horse Heaven Hills today, an AVA level offering and an estate wine. Both are mainly sourced from the Double Canyon Vineyard, but the AVA wine also sources from two adjacent vineyards: Phinny Hill Vineyard, owned by Beightol, and Champoux Vineyard. Both wines are vinified similarly but the estate sees longer oak aging and a higher level of new French oak (40 percent vs. 30 percent). Both feature trace amounts of estate syrah and malbec. We tasted the AVA-level 2013 Horse Heaven Hills Cabernet Sauvignon ($25) and the 2013 ’Double Canyon Vineyard’ Cabernet Sauvignon, Horse Heaven Hills AVA ($65).
Tasting these wines side by side is an instructive process in the subtleties of winemaking. Viticulturally and enologically they have so much in common that it is intensity of fruit and facets of subtle flavor that distinguish them.
Comparing the aromas and bouquet: The AVA wine is clearly cabernet sauvignon, because of the greenness of cabernet pyrazines. The Estate muted this quality for a perfumy nose redolent of blueberries. The AVA has an aroma of tomato leaf. The same note in the Estate is more embedded with other aromas.
In the mouth, the AVA exhibits pronounced (medium-plus) acidity and an open weave structure that readily releases raspberry fruit character. The estate shows slightly less overt acid, more effects of wood, and light bread crust and darker fruit (blueberry, blackcurrant) character that is more complex but more restrained. Both wines are distinctively New World in their fruit-forward character.
Wine Spectator gave the AVA wine 90/100 points, the Estate 94/100. Which you choose depends on how much you value the extra refinement. However, Double Canyon is certainly making first class Washington State Cabernet Sauvignon. Both wines are available online and in stores nationally.