Walla Walla Valley: A Matter Of Rocks

A cobblestone riverbed in the Walla Walla Valley AVA shows unique terroir in some of the world’s toughest soil — and it’s garnering a lot of attention from winemakers in Washington and Oregon

Click here to view the actual pages as published in the Summer 2013 issue of Tasting Room Magazine.

Photo by Richard Duval
Photo by Richard Duval

Winemakers and wine lovers alike are fond of speaking of terroir—that mysterious mixture of climate, place, and person that displays itself in a unique manner in the wines from a specific region. It is the holy grail of winemaking, the belief that site does matter, that you can find it in the glass. Just south of downtown Walla Walla, in the southern section of the Walla Walla Valley, is a region that has terroir in abundance and winemakers abuzz.

Known as The Rocks, the area is the former riverbed of the ancestral Walla Walla River. Flowing down from the Blue Mountains, the river deposited cobblestones that fan out across the region and span as deep as one can dig.

Long known for growing cherries and apples, The Rocks’ wine grape history is much more recent. In 1997, French-born vigneron Christophe Baron (whose family’s Champagne house dates back to the 1600’s) came across the ancient riverbed while visiting the valley. Reminded of the famed pudding stones of the Chateauneuf-du-Pape region of France, Baron decided to put down roots in the area, planting a series of vineyards over the ensuing years and starting his winery, Cayuse Vineyards.

At first, many thought Baron’s efforts were a Frenchman’s folly as he used crowbars to pry apart the ground and plant in the unforgiving soil. However, as Baron consistently produced attention-getting Syrahs and other varieties that received stratospheric scores, other winemakers not only took notice, they began to follow suit. The area is now a hotbed of planting with more vineyards being planted each year.

One of those winemakers is Richard Funk of Saviah Cellars. Funk, who founded Saviah Cellars in 2000, planted his estate vineyard in The Rocks in 2007.  He says that his decision to plant in the area was driven by the unique character of the resulting wines.

“I’ve been collecting and buying Christophe’s wines from the beginning,” Funk says. “You can look all over Washington for wines that have that characteristic and you won’t find them.”

Stylistically, the wines are known for their outrageous, earthy, meaty aromas and flavors. In contrast to Syrah grown elsewhere in the Northwest, many of the wines off The Rocks emphasize the savory aspects of the grape instead of the fruitiness.  “It’s very, very gamey,” Funk says of his Syrah from the region. “When it’s in the fermenter, a lot of the time it smells like there’s a leg of prosciutto in there!”

The wines are also notable for their soft profile. Chad Johnson and Corey Braunel of Dusted Valley Vintners planted a site called Stoney Vine in The Rocks in 2007. “Those tannins are so soft and so silky down there,” Johnson says of The Rocks.  He also provides a more visceral reason for planting in the area, saying, “Those rocks are just so damn sexy!”

Winemaker Chris Figgins, whose father Gary gave birth to the modern day Walla Walla Valley’s wine industry in 1977 when he founded Leonetti Cellar, plans to plant a vineyard in The Rocks this year. Figgins has already been sourcing grapes from the area for several vintages.

“I really like the fruit profile,” Figgins says. “I’ll stop short of calling it minerality, as many people do.  In my mind, it’s more earthiness. It’s just a completely different palate sensation and different structure than our other sites.”

Unlike many in the area who are focusing on Syrah and other Rhone varieties, Figgins is planting Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese and plans to use the new site to blend with other wines in the Leonetti portfolio. “It adds another arrow to the quiver in terms of building complexity and giving more blending options,” he points out.

So what is it that makes the wines from The Rocks so distinctive? When you look out at the cobble-strewn vineyards, the answer seems obvious: the rocks.   However, the real answer may be more nuanced.

Part of the effect on wine grape growing is that the rocks absorb heat and radiate that heat back at the grapes and into the ground during the height of the day, warming up the soil. Tom Waliser, who owns Beresan Winery and manages 70 acres in The Rocks, says that this has a number of effects. Bud break, bloom, and sometimes even veraison—the changing of color of the grapes—happens considerably earlier in The Rocks than the other sites he farms.

Interestingly, though, Waliser’s grapes from The Rocks end up being some of the last to be picked. “It’s funny how it can be out of the starting gate first but end up finishing the race last,” Waliser says. “Why that is, I don’t know.” What this does, however, is allow for continued flavor development without additional sugar accumulation.

Chris Figgins, however, believes that it’s not just the rocks that affect the nature of the resulting wines. “Everyone focuses on the rocks themselves but what’s interesting about those soils is not so much the rocks as what’s in between them,” he says. In particular, Figgins points to higher levels of iron and other minerals that affect the cation exchange capacity and ultimately vine physiology.

Dusted Valley’s Johnson also notes the differences in soil chemistry in the area.  “When we tested the Rocks soils versus the loess soils from elsewhere in the valley, there’s a higher content of iron, calcium and titanium,” Johnson says. How exactly these minerals affect the lifecycle of the grape vines to make such unique wines is an open question.

What isn’t up for debate though is that grapes grown on these rocky soils create incredibly distinctive wines. For some wineries, the consumer response has been overwhelming.

While some wineries—including Beresan, K Vintners, Reynvaan Family Vineyards, Watermill, Sleight of Hand, and, of course, Cayuse—have already released a number of vintages using fruit from The Rocks, many others are just planting their sites or releasing inaugural wines this year.

Richard Funk, whose first Syrah off his estate vineyard will be released in 2013*, sold all of the wine on futures before it was even bottled. “People would taste it from the barrels and they would just flip out,” he says of the distinctive style the region is known for. “I’m really, really happy with the quality we’re getting. It really is a special little place.”

Written by Sean P. Sullivan