BY ANNE SAMPSON
PHOTO BY BARBARA BEITO
In every industry, business owners look for a way to stand out from the crowd. In the tech world, you develop the hottest new app – or the gadget to run it. Think Apple Watch. But if you grow wine grapes, you might have better luck with something old, maybe a little obscure. Something like Carmenere.
That’s the path Dean Morrison followed at his Walla Walla vineyard, Morrison Lane. A bit of a contrarian, Morrison dedicated his vineyard to lesser-known grapes, like Counoise, Cinsault, and Barbera. He was one of the first in the Northwest to plant Syrah, in 1994, on four acres of his family’s farm. At the time, that grape was considered experimental in the Northwest, although its success has made it fairly ubiquitous now. Today, the vineyard has grown to more than 23 acres, and Dean’s three acres of Carmenere, most planted in 1999, are some of the oldest vines in the state.
Carmenere is often referred to as the lost grape of Bordeaux. When the phylloxera epidemic in the mid-19th century wiped out vineyards across France, Carmenere was thought to have become extinct. It was later rediscovered in Chile, where DNA tests revealed that grapes identified as Merlot, imported from France before the epidemic destroyed the crop there, were actually Carmenere. Voila! The lost grape was found. Today, it’s grown in small lots in the United States, primarily in California (about 59 acres) and Washington (about 25 acres).
“It’s one of the rarest Bordeaux grapes you can find,” says Casey McClellan, owner and winemaker at Seven Hills Winery in Walla Walla. Malbec and Petit Verdot get a lot more attention — and acreage — from growers. McClellan produces vineyard-designated Bordeaux red wines and has been working with Morrison’s Carmenere, as well as fruit
from Minnick Hills Vineyard, for upwards of 10 years. “It’s always a favorite,” he says. “It has a unique flavor profile, without the phenolic tannins typical in a Cabernet or a Merlot. The flavors center around red fruits. It has a raspberry-jamminess to it in warm years, with pepper notes and dried herbes de Provence.”
Morrison’s vineyard lies south of Walla Walla, on soil of silt, loess, and some cobble. It’s one of the cooler sites in the valley, with a long growing season. Sean Morrison, Dean’s son and the winemaker at Morrison Lane Winery, has learned to handle it gently.
“You have to kind of wait on the flavors,” he says. “It’s one of the first to start with shoots in the spring, and the last to bear mature fruit in the fall.” The vegetal flavors common in Bordeaux grapes are particularly prominent in Carmenere. Sean balances those by blending with small amounts of Malbec and Petit Verdot. It also has higher acidity than most grapes. “I’ve co-fermented it with Barbera to balance the acid,” he says, “and that’s interesting.”
But the acidity also makes it less vulnerable to spoilage and gives it better ageability. Carmenere mellows with time. Seattle Wine Awards named Morrison Lane’s 2005 vintage a 2015 Diamond of the Decade in Taste, recognizing the best wines produced from the 2005 vintage. It’s one of the Morrison’s favorite library wines. After 10 years, Dean sighs happily. “It’s as smooth as glass.”
Anne Sampson lives in the heart of Washington wine country, where she writes about wine, food, and culture. She has written for Wines & Vines, Good Fruit Grower, Northwest Palate, Appellation America, and Salon.