Hospice du Rhone Seminar Series: Cayuse or The Return of the Bionic Frog

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Cayuse is one of those few Washington wineries that rocketed into cult status in relatively few years. Founded in the late 1990’s, Cayuse’s wines are now near impossible to get outside of the mailing list and a few big secondary market players. As always with such hyped wines, those of us without limitless bank accounts wonder if the wines live up to their scarcity.

Cayuse offers something more. Organic since 1997 and a proponent of biodynamics since 2002 (the first in Walla Walla), Cayuse is a leader in Washington state for organic and biodynamic farming. It was also the first winery to show the true potential of the Walla Walla Valley for Syrah. Most Washington Syrahs had been grown in the Columbia Valley where the climate is warmer and, many thought, more suitable to Syrah. However, Walla Walla has a unique terroir that expresses itself very well through the Rhone grapes Syrah and Grenache and has the potential to produce wines of distinction that taste like nowhere else.

Tiny Shot of Christophe Baron (right) and John Alban (left)

The Unique Terroir of Walla Walla

Great reviews can propel a winery from obscurity to high-priced stardom quite fast. But why should we care (especially when it is Jay Miller awarding the high points)? Cayuse is one of the few Jay Miller favourites that, in my opinion, makes truly compelling wine. Much of this has to do with the unique geology of its vineyards, which sit in a large alluvial flume that deposited cobblestones (originally formed by lava cooling into basalt) in the soils. There are also major deposits of sand and silt loam from old glacial floods. Walla Walla is one of only three regions in the world with the unique basalt stones and soils it possesses (the other two are in India and Russia). I suppose that’s what makes this terroir so interesting and different from the norm.

The cobblestones might prompt comparisons with Chateaneuf du Papes but, in fact, the soils in the two regions are quite different. Walla Walla, for instance, does not have the deposits of clay soils that CDP does and is in fact more like the Northern Rhone with respect to growing day hours.

Say Hello to the Umami-Bomb

Cayuse now owns eight vineyards with 57 acres of planted land. Cayuse is also a working farm and uses horses to plow its soils. The vines are planted at very high density (2000 vines/ha).

All of the wines are impressive and the Syrahs consistently show a huge amount of umami character (mushrooms, soy, etc.) that I have not tasted in a Syrah from any other region in quite the same way. In fact, it is fair to describe Cayuse’s wines as Umami-Bombs.

I tasted both the 2008 and 2009 God Only Knows Grenache from Cayuse’s Armada vineyard and found them both highly impressive ripe, rich and gamey Grenaches that also possessed interesting minerality and a savory character on the finish that make these superior to the great majority of Grenache being made in the United States. The wines are aged in used neutral puncheons from Rene Rostaing. The 2009 was bigger than the 2008, which I preferred for its deft melding of classic bing cherry with all the wonderful herbal savory garrigue-like elements you expect from a great Grenache. Both are Excellent.

The single vineyard Syrahs were all quite similar and while each had nuanced differences, I ultimately felt that you would do just fine with any one of them (and that there is little need to collect them all). That said, they are interesting, delicious wines that pack a wallop but also provide one of the world’s unique takes on Syrah.

The 2008 Cailloux Vineyard Syrah (the first vineyard Cayuse planted in 1997) sees a small amount of Viognier co-fermented into it, which is noticeable in its plush mouthfeel and floral aromatics. The vines in this vineyard are ungrafted (Washington does not yet have phylloxera). Classic soy and mushroom umami on the palate glides well through the silky texture. This is still somewhat tight and needs 4-5 more years. Excellent. I also tried the 2005 Cailloux Vineyard Syrah at one of the big tasting events, and it wore the age very well.

The 2008 En Cerise Vineyard Syrah was my favourite of the bunch and showed the best at the tasting. The nose was spicy and had far more minerality than the Cailloux. This is a very savory wine on the palate, with soy sauce, dirt, minerals and cured meat. Fruit is almost a second thought. There is some stem inclusion, which likely adds the interesting spice character. I can easily say that this is one of the most interesting Syrahs being made outside of the Rhone. Excellent+.

Up next was the 2008 En Chamberlin Vineyard Syrah – a smoky, animalistic wine. Absolutely massive, but as John Alban said, it backs off right when it should. This is made from grafted vines planted in 2001 (rootstock 110r). Aged in neutral puncheons for 22 months.

The 2008 Armada Vineyard Syrah offered a more restrained take on the Cayuse style. Tight with fine tannins, this needs time but is quite a minerally wine. Somewhat sweet, but not fruity. Excellent.

We then moved on to a three vintage vertical of Cayuse’s rarest and most famed wine: the Bionic Frog Syrah. Bionic Frog is a nickname given to Christophe Baron while he was working at wineries in Australia after finally managing to drink his Australian companions under the table after many unsuccessful attempts.

The 2008 Bionic Frog saw stem inclusion (Bionic Frog always sees 30-50% stem inclusion). All Bionic Frogs also go into the “magic cask”, which is a new barrique chosen by Baron for its unique qualities. The nose on the 2008 was showing a fair amount of oak right now, but there is also lots of ash, smoke and seaweed. The palate is huge and insanely complex – it seems that the use of the new barrique adds structure and mid-palate intensity. I imagine this impacts the wine’s ageability quite a bit. An astonishing wine. Excellent+.

The 2007 Bionic Frog was also a big punch of game on the nose. Extremely expressive of spice, smoke, fat and Spanish cured ham, fans of massively intense salty aromas will love this. Interesting minerals pop up on the palate, though the wine is ultimately a game and cured meat-driven wine. Excellent.

The 2006 Bionic Frog was fruitier and more forward than the other two vintages, but there was some smoke and spice from the stem inclusion. Game and sweet chocolate on the palate, the oak is present but not dominant. Excellent.

While the Bionic Frogs are fantastic wines, I think overall I prefer the wines made entirely in the neutral oak puncheons. They seem softer texturally and a little less overtly slutty, even though they are huge bombs of wine. If you like big wines but prefer smoke, fat, game and meat over fruit, then there is no better winery I can think of to provide such an explosion of umami coupled with an utterly hedonistic silky texture and very long finish. These are definitely some of the most idiosyncratic Rhone-variety wines being made in the United States.

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