Last spring I had the pleasure of visiting the team at Cayuse Vineyards to taste through the 2016 vintage releases. While the Cayuse wines are always of exceptionally high quality, the 2016 lineup reaches even higher heights.
A number of aspects distinguish the estate’s wines from this vintage. First, there is a bit more overt funkiness than seen in recent years – what was once called the ‘Cayuse funk’ but is now more broadly referred to as the ‘Rocks funk’ after the area where the grapes are grown (The Rocks District) that Baron pioneered. There are also generous black pepper aromas and flavors throughout the wines, something more typically seen in Syrah in Washington in cooler vintages (2016 was warm with a cool finish).
The second is that the red wines are almost all in the mid-13% alcohol level, which has been a post-2010 trend at the estate. Sometimes wines from Washington at lower alcohol levels (for us) can lose a bit of intensity and/or aromatic complexity. However, these wines don’t sacrifice one iota of either (yes, they are on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley, so not truly Washington). These are palate shaking wines with outrageous complexity. To have this type of intensity at those alcohol levels is an accomplishment.
The final thing that separates the 2016 wines is length of finish. For each wine, I would sample it and then spend a few minutes writing a tasting note. I would realize at the end of doing so that I was still tasting the wine. The finishes are near endless.
Now, when tasting these wines last spring at Cayuse, I held my cards closely. We all know wine can taste one way at a winery and then taste a little less impressive at home (the winery effect). Based on my formally reviewing wines only in blind tastings where information about the producer and vintage is obscured, I also know that removing this knowledge can result in a substantially different impression (the producer effect). So I waited to form a final opinion on the wines until I tasted them in my blind tastings for Wine Enthusiast. When I did, I felt just as strongly if not more so about them.
Typically when I taste the Cayuse wines each year, they are all exceptionally high quality, but there is some spread, with some wines rating a bit higher or lower. Side-by-side tasting can reveal differences in quality. You think both wines are, say, 94 points, but tasting them directly next to each other, there’s a clear difference, so either one needs to go up or the other needs to go down. This is one of the values of comparative tasting.
That did not happen with the 2016s. The wines were qualitatively all tightly clustered. Every single one of the Rhône-style wines achieved stratospheric quality. The Bordeaux-style releases were also in most cases as good or better than any I’ve had from the estate. I should add that if the Rocks District weren’t such an incredibly special Syrah and Grenache, we’d all be talking about how distinctive the Bordeaux varieties are from this location.
A few other notes on the 2016 releases. These include the first Horsepower Vineyards offering from High Contrast Vineyard. This site is right at the edge of the Rocks District, where the basalt cobblestones transition to loess (windblown silt and sand). This wine is another bullseye in the quiver.
We talk a lot about Syrah from the Rocks District and deservedly so. These can be some of the highest quality wines in the world. But we should talk more about Grenache from the Rocks. To me, it is every bit as good as the Syrah, and in some vintages better.
In terms of Wine Enthusiast ratings, I can tell you who in the world has made the highest rated Grenache. It is Christophe Baron at Cayuse. The scores for the 2016 Horsepower Sur Echalas Vineyard Grenache as well as the 2016 Hors Categorie Syrah and 2016 Horsepower The Tribe Vineyard Syrah are also the highest scores I have given any wine during my nearly seven years reviewing at Wine Enthusiast.
Grenache is a challenging variety to grow in the Rocks District. Baron typically crops his at less than one ton per acre to get it ripe. By contrast, Syrah can be cropped more than two times that amount and produce top quality wine. Grenache is also cold tender, and frosts and freezes are no doubt the biggest challenge to wine growing in this area beyond working around all those stones. So, one has to work really, really hard to make top quality Grenache here. But the results can be nothing short of profound.
Finally, 2016 marks the third (released) vintage from Hors Catégorie Vineyard. This is a unique site, located at the confluence of the North Fork and Walla Walla River – one of the most picturesque locations in Northwest wine country (see image above). Baron was the first to successfully plant in this region, establishing a two and a half acre vineyard in 2011.
The vines are planted on a steep slope – up to 60 degrees – on fractured basalt soils. The vines are planted on stakes at 3,555 vines to the acre, extremely high density. Cultivating them requires using a winch attached to a truck at the top of the hill (see picture at left). Grapes come off at about a ton per acre. The Syrah from this site is truly sublime – one of the best wines in the world – and shows a new facet to the variety in the Northwest or in the world for that matter.
Will this area, commonly referred to as the North Fork, come to be as distinctive and as able to produce top quality wines as the Rocks? The answer from the 2016 offering from Hors Catégorie is a resounding, “Yes.” Stay tuned.
Bottom line on the 2016 wines from Christophe Baron and team, end to end, this was the highest quality lineup I have ever tasted from a single producer by a long shot. Beg, borrow, or steal to get these wines. Well, don’t steal. That would be wrong. But walk the earth to taste them if you have to.
The reviews, published in the October issue of Wine Enthusiast, are below.
Picture 1: From right to left, Christophe Baron, vigneron; Elizabeth Bourcier, assistant vigneronne; Will Thompson, enologist
Picture 2: Cailloux Vineyard
Picture 3: Hors Catégorie Vineyard
Picture 4: Vineyard worker ploughing Hors Categorie Vineyard. Note winch line in the middle of the row.
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Cayuse 2016 God Only Knows Armada Vineyard Walla Walla Valley (OR) $100 98 points
Insanely aromatic notes of potpourri, raspberry, white pepper, soot, funk and earth are followed by bright, fresh, focused, uber-rich fruit and savory flavors. It shows a sense of delicacy and intensity with unparalleled balance. There is no end to the finish. What makes this Grenache-driven wine so extraordinary? God only knows. Best from 2023 to 2027. Cellar Selection
Cayuse 2016 En Cerise Vineyard Syrah Walla Walla Valley (OR) $90 97 points
This wine displays an overt sense of funkiness out of the gate, with the rest of the aromas not entirely ready to reveal their charms. Charcuterie board, green peppercorn, asparagus, fresh tobacco, ashtray and soot notes emerge over time. Full, dense-feeling black olive and other savory flavors follow. The intensity on the finish is commanding, and it lasts for a solid minute. It’s an exclamation point. Editor’s Choice
Cayuse 2016 En Chamberlain Vineyard Syrah Walla Walla Valley (OR) $90 97 points
The aromas are exuberant, with a seemingly endless list of savory notes that include mineral, funk, potpourri, freshly ground black pepper, firepit, black olive and smoked ham, revealing more on each swirl. Intensely rich but still elegant, graceful savory and floral flavors follow. The savory and potpourri-filled finish goes on for 60-plus seconds. It’s an accomplishment. It’s irresistible now but will be best after 2025 with a long life in front of it. Cellar Selection
Cayuse 2016 Bionic Frog Syrah Walla Walla Valley (OR) $115 96 points
The aromas fascinate, with notes of funk, earth, savory green olive, herb, soot, umami, black pepper, black olive brine, smoked meat and caper. It shows a profound sense of intensity, balance and layering to the savory and floral flavors that continue through the long, richly flavored finish of firepit and flowers.
Cayuse 2016 Armada Vineyard Syrah Walla Walla Valley (OR) $100 96 points
Aromas of potpourri, smoked meat, earth, cracked pepper and lily lead to a dense, rich palate with intense fruit, savory and floral flavors. The palate shows more overt density than the other wines from this vintage, while remaining lively, energetic and exquisitely balanced. Potpourri and smoked meat linger on and on. Best after 2024. Cellar Selection
Cayuse 2016 Wallah Wallah Special Syrah #10 Syrah Walla Walla Valley (OR) $175 96 points
Made in magnum, this is the only wine in the portfolio to blend across vineyards. The aromas are arresting, with notes of firepit, funk, green herb, potpourri, chimney and black and green olive. Rich, intense but still lithe savory flavors follow. The intensity and length of the finish is captivating. Best after 2026. Cellar Selection
Cayuse 2016 Cailloux Vineyard Syrah Walla Walla Valley (OR) $90 95 points
Aromas of peeled orange, fresh flower, ground black pepper, bacon fat, potpourri, funk, truffle, sea salt, soot and crushed rock are at the fore. The flavors are intensely rich—grabbing you and shaking you around—while still retaining a compelling sense of elegance that ups the interest. An extended, flower-filled finish follows. Best after 2024. Cellar Selection
Cayuse 2016 Impulsivo En Chamberlain Vineyard Tempranillo Walla Walla Valley (OR) $100 93 points
The chimney, funk, earth, mineral, fresh tobacco, peat and spice aromas draw you into the glass. The fruit and savory notes are elegant but flavorful, with a long finish capping it off. The balance is impressive.
Cayuse 2017 Cailloux Vineyard Viognier Walla Walla Valley (OR) $75 93 points
Outrageous aromas of freshly cut white peach, nectarine, wet stone and honeysuckle lead to intensely flavorful peach and apricot notes that retain a sense of deftness. The finish persists an easy 30 seconds. It brings impressive energy, balance and intensity. To those who don’t believe minerality exists, this wine serves as a counterpoint to the argument.
Cayuse 2016 The Widowmaker Cabernet Sauvignon Walla Walla Valley (OR) $100 93 points
There’s no question that this wine brings the funk. Cassis bud, freshly tilled soil, chimney and ember aromas are followed by flavorful cherry notes on a deft palate. It shows a surprising amount of structure for the Rocks District. There’s also a mouthwatering sense to it that ups the interest along with a long finish. Cabernet from this area is unique and hasn’t gotten as much attention as other varieties.
Cayuse 2016 Flying Pig Walla Walla Valley (OR) $100 93 points
This wine is a blend of 49% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Franc and 11% Cabernet Sauvignon. Aromas of green pepper, savory herb, cherry, peat and earth are at the fore. The palate is more fruitful than this area often is and also brings a considerable amount of tannic structure for the region. A fruit and savory finish ends it.
Cayuse 2016 The Lovers Cabernet Sauvignon-Syrah Walla Walla Valley (OR) $100 92 points
Cabernet Sauvignon comprises 85% of this wine, with the balance Syrah. The aromas of black pepper, fresh herb, firepit, mineral and currant are more fruit- than savory-driven for the Rocks District. Palate-coating green pepper, currant and plum flavors follow. A lingering finish caps it off.
Cayuse 2016 Camaspelo Walla Walla Valley (OR) $90 91 points
The aromas are subdued out of the gate, with notes of earth, tobacco, fresh herb, funk, cassis bud and spice. The palate brings a sense of layering and detail.
Cayuse 2017 Edith Grenache Armada Vineyard Rosé Walla Walla Valley (OR) $50 91 points
Aromas of wet stone, raspberry, strawberry and herb lead to minerally, weighty savory flavors. It’s a unique offering from this appellation with no comparison, bringing a sense of seriousness.
Hors Categorie 2016 Syrah Walla Walla Valley (OR) $260 98 points
This project from Christophe Baron comes from a newly planted area of the valley on the north fork of the Walla Walla River. Brooding, tightly wound aromas of firepit, black pepper, black olive and ham hock are followed by an action-packed and layered palate. Despite this power, there’s a sense of elegance that provides a fascinating contrast. Lingering floral and saline notes captivate on the long finish. Best after 2025. Cellar Selection
Horsepower 2016 The Tribe Vineyard Syrah Walla Walla Valley (OR) $121 98 points
Aromas of ash, black pepper, rock salt, black olive, wet stone, potpourri and fresh tobacco lead to outrageously expressive, savory flavors on the palate. There is intensity to the flavors, but still a profound sense of elegance and balance. The finish lingers on accents of potpourri and smoked meat. Hold until at least 2025. Cellar Selection
Horsepower 2016 Sur Echalas Vineyard Grenache Walla Walla Valley (OR) $121 98 points
The aromas are like putting your nose into a pepper grinder. Through that same grinder come aromas of charcuterie plate, funk, olive, wet stone, herb, flower and tobacco. The palate is arresting from the moment it hits your lips, intensely rich while remaining energetic and showing an incredible sense of balance to the fruit and savory flavors. There is a sense of seamlessness, where it’s impossible to say where the finish starts or ends, and then the finish never stops. Best after 2023. Cellar Selection
Horsepower 2016 Sur Echalas Vineyard Syrah Walla Walla Valley (OR) $121 98 points
The outrageously expressive aromas include notes of peat, firepit, black and green olive, potpourri, black pepper, crushed rock, funk, ham hock, fresh flower and tobacco. The savory flavors are palate shaking in their intensity, but still sleek and balanced, tapering toward an extremely long potpourri- and smoked meat-filled finish. It’s a complete stunner that assaults the senses. A knockout now, it should only get better with time. Best after 2025. Cellar Selection
Horsepower 2016 High Contrast Vineyard Syrah Walla Walla Valley (OR) $121 97 points
This is a new addition to the lineup, with the vineyard located at the edge of this area’s cobblestone soils. The aromas are locked up out of the gate, with notes of soot, potpourri, smoked meat, black pepper, green olive and funk. The palate is intense and layered, while retaining an ethereal sense of lightness and balance, with a texture that sets it apart from its littermates from this vintage. A rich savory and flower-filled finish that you can taste literally minutes later is the capstone. It’s a knockout, and not a TKO. Not bad for fourth leaf fruit. Best after 2025, with a good life beyond that. Cellar Selection
No Girls 2016 La Paciencia Vineyard Grenache Walla Walla Valley (OR) $76 97 points
Aromas of potpourri, white pepper, charcuterie, crushed flowers, soot and raspberry captivate on the nose. Exuberant and outrageously flavorful on the palate, intense accents of smoked meat and earth arise alongside the fruit. An extremely long finish of earth and flowers completes it. Editor’s Choice
No Girls 2016 La Paciencia Vineyard Syrah Walla Walla Valley (OR) $76 95 points
Complex aromas with heaping amounts of black pepper, potpourri, earth, funk, nori, black olive brine, peat and wet stone are followed by an elegant, yet rich, flavorful palate. It shows a compelling sense of deftness along with a hyperextended finish, filled with savory and floral notes. There is a mouthwatering sense to it that heightens the appeal. A knee buckler. Editor’s Choice
No Girls 2016 Tempranillo Walla Walla Valley (OR) $76 92 points
The aromas are expressive, with notes of firepit, dried tobacco, cherry, plum and funk. The fruit and savory flavors are rich and layered, showing an exquisite sense of balance. A long fruit, savory and firepit-filled finish follows.