On Monday 6 September, I was invited by Bibendum to taste their new listings from K Vintners and Charles Smith Wines. Bibendum will be importing five of these wines in January 2011, so this was an early preview.
The tasting was at Nobu, which I had not visited before. On my wages I have to rely on invitations from wine merchants and PRs to eat at places like this. The food was very good, though the restaurant itself was too noisy, with lots of slebs shouting and laughing – not that I noticed anybody “famous” while I was there. Doubtless the place was crawling with famous people but I rarely watch TV and they’re mostly unknown to me.
Charles Smith (pictured left with Janna Kline Rinker –apologies for the poor lighting) looks (and sounds) like a refugee from Haight-Ashbury. Born in California, he moved to Denmark in pursuit of what he calls a “hot piece of ass.” The hottie disappeared but Charles stayed in Europe and became the manager of several rock bands. He moved back to the USA 1999 to the Pacific Northwest. Here he found Walla Walla and began to make wine.
The wines balance New World Fruit with Old World winemaking. The grapes are very ripe – some of these wines hit 15.5% alcohol, which makes them very flattering to taste but I suspect a night out chez Smith would result in heads thumping like an earthquake.
As a self-taught winemaker, Charles is not dogmatic. Oak “depends on the vintage, depends on the wine.” Rather than wood, stems are used to build structure and texture.
The simple but eye-catching label designs (and names) conceal a cunning plan. “Black and white labels enable me to be consistent but change things,” said Charles.
He doesn’t like the “faux-European” stories of some US wineries who name themselves Château this or Domaine that: “I wanted this very much to be an American winery.” He is half-French, though.
I have not been to the Pacific Northwest but was told by Charles’s Director Janna Kline-Rinker that Walla Walla is not on the way to or from anywhere but it was on the Oregon Trail.
Charles’s favourite wine is Châteauneuf-du-Pape, with a particular liking for Henri Bonneau, whose wines I have tried only once. They were very raisiny, which is not something that one sees in Charles’s wines. Surprisingly, “I’m not a fan of Australian wine.”
2009 Kung Fu Girl Riesling
“I love Riesling and I found this vineyard of real character”, explained Charles, who has a democratic swagger: “I wanted to make a wine that was affordable… You can get great vineyards that are relatively inexpensive.” In the UK this will retail for £11.50.
A mineral nose and generous palate, crisply dry with lemon sherbet flavours on the finish. It has only 1.3 g/ltr sugar but the generous fruit makes it feel sweeter.
2009 K Viognier Columbia Valley
From the Archie Den Hoed vineyard in the Yakima Valley of Washington State. This is the only barrel fermented wine made by Smith. The varietal’s character really comes through on the finish – that dry, fruit-skin bitterness. £17 UK retail.
2008 K Syrah “Milbrandt” Wahluke Slope Columbia Valley
Jammy at first. Plummy, generous, low acid (pH 3.69). Sand and gravel vineyard, which perhaps created the pixellated tannins. Easygoing, like the man himself. Good with the tempera! £20 in the UK. K Syrah = que sirrah. Geddit?
2008 K Syrah “The Deal” Sundance Vineyard Wahluke Slope
Tauter than the Milbrandt, with spice and warmth on the finish. Lovely tannins. Generous style, as always. 15%.
2008 K Syrah “Northridge” Wahluke Slope
A different texture to the Sundance, with more tannin, though still approachable. 15.5%…
2008 K “El Jefe” En Chamberlin Walla Walla Valley
80% Tempranillo and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, co-fermented. Liquorice on the finish.
2008 K “Ovide” En Cerise Vineyard Walla Walla Valley
57% Cabernet and 33% Syrah, co-fermented. More “aged” than the previous wines, nicely textured.
2007 K “The Boy” Walla Walla Valley
90% Grenache and 10% Syrah. Strong Grenache character (of course!). Bonneau-inspired, perhaps.
2007 Charles Smith “Heart” Syrah Royal Slope Columbia Valley
Big, rich and chocolaty. I was thinking “velvety” for the texture but for Charles “spandex” is more appropriate.