Meeting Christophe Baron to taste his sought-after Rhone-style wines made from a distinctive terroir on the Washington State/Oregon boundary
‘Don’t call me a winemaker,’ says Christophe Baron, as he addresses a smart crowd gathered at 67 Pall Mall to taste his highly regarded wines from Walla Walla in Washington State. ‘We create wine, we don’t make wine.’
Well, Baron’s winery, Cayuse, is ‘creating’ some of Washington State’s most sought-after wines, and his story is a good one.
He hails from the Champagne region, where his family make wine from 55 hectares of vines. Baron was born in Château-Thierry, which is part of the Vallee de la Marne, which is Pinot Meunier country. He studied in Avize, but he says he was such a ‘good’ student (I assume that this was meant ironically) that he got kicked out by his uncle. ‘You are the shame of the family,’ he was told. ‘I got sent to Burgundy,’ he says, ‘and that’s why I’m in Walla Walla: it opened my mind.’
‘In Beaune I discovered the real sense of the meaning of terroir,’ says Baron. ‘In Champagne 25 years ago, it didn’t mean anything.’ Baron was aware that Burgundian producer Drouhin had an outpost in Oregon, Domaine Drouhin Oregon, so he went there looking for work. ‘I couldn’t find a job. But a friend of mine told me they had a job in Walla Walla.’ He went there, but it was in the middle of nowhere, he was 23 years old, and there weren’t enough girls.
So Baron moved back to the Willamette Valley in Orgeon and ended up finding work with Adelsheim. After this finished, he travelled the world, going to New Zealand, Australia and Romania. His father and uncle then asked him back to Champagne, but he wasn’t interested. He headed back to the Pacific northwest, with his sights on returning to the Willamette. But that’s where he discovered the stones, in the Walla Walla Valley on the border of Washington State and Oregon.
‘I discovered an amazing terroir,’ recalls Baron. ‘It was stony like Châteauneuf du Pape. ‘And it was inhospitable, which is what many of the best terroirs of the world have in common.’
‘This is it!’ Baron said to himself. ‘I’m not moving to the Willamette Valley!’ He began Cayuse, and, in his words, ‘I’ve been living the dream ever since.’
The area Baron settled on is what is now known as the Rocks of Milton Freewater AVA in the Walla Walla, and he was the first to plant here when he put 4 hectares in, back in 1997. The land was relatively cheap then, at US$35 000 per hectare. In 2002 he converted to biodynamics, and also began developing the horsepower vineyard.
Now he has 30 hectares in various plots, all in Walla Walla. The main vineyard is farmed by tractors so the row spacing is 1.8 m, but the Horsepower vineyard is much closer density (less than 1 x 1 m), with each vine individually staked (‘sur echalas’)and 12 500 vines per hectare.
One of the challenges here is winter low temperatures, and because these can damage vines Baron hills his vines over and covers the shoots. Since 1997 there have been damaging lows four times, with the worst being in 2004 when temperatures dropped to -25 C.
Red winemaking is in 2500-5000 litre concrete fermenters. There’s a punch down at the beginning because he doesn’t want carbonic maceration, and then there are pump overs during fermentation. There’s no recipe, and all ferments are with native yeasts. No new oak has been used since 2011.
Baron says that the soil is rich in manganese, and the result is that the wines often develop aromas of orange peel. He says that Chambolle also has high manganese and the wines there also have orange peel notes. This is a really interesting idea.
Production is around 4500 cases, and 90% is sold to a mailing list with 3500 active customers. Baron says that there are 15 000 people on the waiting list.
Cayuse Viognier Cailloux Vineyard 2015 Walla Walla
Made in concrete eggs and stainless steel barrels. Powerful but fine with floral notes, some apricot and pear fruit, and citrus brightness. Very fresh and fine with lovely delicacy. This has precision and focus, and it’s pretty stylish. 93/100
Cayuse God Only Knows Grenache 2012 Walla Walla
Christoph got cuttings of Grenache from Beaux Freres in Oregon (they planted a bit because critic Robert Parker, one of the shareholders, loves the variety). It’s whole-cluster ferment in concrete tanks, then 22 months in used barrels. Sweet aromatics with some green herb notes. Supple and fine with some fine spicy notes and real finesse. Expressive with lovely herbal notes and real precision. 96/100
Cayuse Grenache Sur Echalas 2012 Walla Walla
Wonderfully expressive aromatic nose of sweet red cherries and fine herbs. So delightful with sweet cherries and plums. Pure and fine with a herbal hint. 96/100
Cayuse Bionic Frog Syrah 2007 Walla Walla
From a 1.7 hectare plot where the soils aren’t so stony. Concentrated, dense and rich with sweet black cherry and red cherry fruits. Rich and expressive with nice density. Bold and sweet with herbs, spice and liqueur cherry notes. Very rich but still fresh. 94/100
Cayuse Syrah Walla Walla Special #5 2013 (magnum) Walla Walla
Supple, smooth and sweetly fruited with delicate red cherries and plums. Silky and expressive with nice purity and elegance. Sweet but fine with lovely black cherries. 94/100
Horsepower Syrah Sur Echalas 2012 Walla Walla
Concentrated and sleek with sweet fruit. Has a supple green edge to the smooth black cherry and raspberry fruit. Very fine and silky with nice freshness. 93/100
Horsepower Syrah The Tribe Vineyard 2012 Walla Walla
Supple and fine with sweet cherries and plums. Has richness with sweet cherry fruit, but also subtle spiciness. Very fine indeed. 95/100
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