Ask me to name my favorite Washington merlots over the past two decades, and a few gems gleam in my memory. Leonetti to be sure, in many...

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Ask me to name my favorite Washington merlots over the past two decades, and a few gems gleam in my memory.

Leonetti to be sure, in many vintages. Quilceda Creek, Andrew Will and L’Ecole No. 41 have all consistently made exceptional merlots. Among the most affordable versions, of course I would list Columbia Crest, but also Waterbrook; they pioneered Washington’s reputation for fine merlot in the early ’90s with one of the best $8 merlots in the country. By the end of the decade, the merlots of Canoe Ridge, made by John Abbott, set the standard.

Abbott moved on some years ago, switching gears after almost a decade at Canoe Ridge. His years there had left him eager to pursue winemaking on a more personal scale, and having conquered merlot, he turned his focus toward perfecting Washington state cabernet sauvignon. Happily, Abbott’s quest matched up nicely with Ken Harrison’s own plans for a new winery (and B&B) just outside of Walla Walla. Ken and Ginger Harrison, John Abbott and Molly Galt formed their business partnership in 2002, dedicating themselves to producing largely estate-grown cabernet, made to the highest standards, at the property now called Abeja.

Harrison had already begun by planting his 17-acre Heather Hill vineyard in 2001. Located just east of the Seven Hills vineyard at the southern border of the Walla Walla Valley appellation, Heather Hill grows mostly cabernet sauvignon, with an acre and a half of merlot and a shy acre of cabernet franc. The 7-acre Mill Creek vineyard, which adjoins the winery, was first planted by the previous owners, then extensively re-planted this spring. It now grows 4 acres of merlot and smaller amounts of chardonnay, viognier and syrah.

So much is new here, as is the case throughout the Walla Walla Valley, that it is still a bit premature to reach any conclusions about the ability of the estate to produce distinctive fruit. Vines take time to get established, and even after they begin bearing fruit, usually around their third leaf, it will be another five years at least before they begin to settle into full maturity.

But this eastern section of the Walla Walla Valley has much to recommend it. The elevation is more than 1,300 feet, and the proximity to the Blue Mountains brings with it considerably more rainfall than elsewhere. The older vines at Abeja have been successfully dry-farmed for the past three vintages. The late summer temperatures are cooler here, and the vines benefit from a longer window of time during which the afternoon heat is balanced with crisp, autumnal nights.

Not all Abeja wine is estate-grown at this point, nor will it be in the foreseeable future. The vagaries of Washington winters dictate that prudent winemakers purchase grapes from widely diverse growing areas. This is one of the state’s strengths, and in Abbott’s firm, polished chardonnays, you can taste for yourself how the right blend of vineyards can create layers of extraordinary flavor.

Pick of the week


Gallo Twin Valley; $4. Gallo’s economy-priced Twin Valley wines, which sell for under $4 a bottle, will not be your first choice for special occasions. But in the world of everyday wine drinking, they offer a level of competence and reliability that is hard to beat. Among the varied offerings, the sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and cabernet are the best three, and all warrant a recommendation. I would pass on the merlot. (Distributed by Odom)

His 2002, 2003 and 2004 Abeja chardonnays are all blends of fruit from some of Washington’s oldest vines: 40 percent Conner Lee; 40 percent Celilo and 20 percent Kestrel View. Tasted together, these wines all displayed a mix of stone and citrus fruits, streaks of bourbon barrel and a resonant, sweet finish reminiscent of marshmallow candy. The 2005, which will not be released until March, is the odd man out, as Gamache fruit was substituted for Celilo, yielding a finer mesh, and a more floral, aromatic style.

All of Abbott’s wines, chardonnay included, avoid the high extract, high alcohol, heavily oaked style in favor of a more elegant, more European approach. Many wineries ferment with custom yeasts designed to maximize the buttery microwave-popcorn flavors; Abbott uses a strain that minimizes that buttery character. The chardonnay, he explains, is “a labor of love,” especially given the widely separated vineyard sources, the expensive Louis Latour barrels, the limited (700 case) production and the modest (by global standards) $28 selling price.

Cabernet sauvignon is Abeja’s raison d’être (perhaps we should say raisin d’être?) — it accounts for 80 to 85 percent of the total production. Before Abbott and Galt joined the partnership, Zelma Long was the consulting winemaker, and she advised Harrison to find a “benchmark comparative wine” around which to style the Abeja cabernet.

“My benchmark,” says Abbott, “is to be true to the varietal. I don’t worry about it tasting like Washington; the wine will taste like where it’s grown, which is Washington. I knew that wouldn’t necessarily bring me massive scores. These are wines for food, not meals in a glass. I want to make wines that I personally feel comfortable drinking.”

Visiting the winery a few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to taste through the first four vintages of Abeja cabernet. Abbott mixes his fruit sources like Van Gogh mixed his paint colors, searching for pure, bright, resonant flavors. His primary Cabernet vineyards are Seven Hills (Walla Walla) and Conner Lee (Wahluke Slope). About 4 to 6 percent merlot is blended in also.

The 2001 Abeja cabernet sauvignon is now drinking wonderfully well, with dark, dense and well-articulated scents and flavors that suggest moist earth, mushroom and black olive. The primary fruit flavors have softened and are showing nice hints of herb and leaf; it’s almost Italian in style.

The 2002 Abeja cabernet sauvignon sports an entry note of rich, toasty oak. Its fruit is clean and sweet with cherry and berry, wrapped in smoke and toast. The smoke dominates the nose, and if you look for it you can see that the fruit does show some old vine character from the Bacchus grapes.

The 2003 Abeja cabernet sauvignon is the current release, and the tannins are not as smooth. Despite the rough edges, the wine is brimming with black cherry, licorice and cassis flavors, and opens up beautifully with a couple of hours of breathing time.

The 2004 Abeja cabernet sauvignon, which will not be released until March, is already drinking well. Smooth, almost soft, it’s delicious and silky, with great balance and mouthfeel. All of these wines are well-ripened but still show restraint; only the ’04 exceeds 14 percent alcohol.

How to find the wines? Best bet is to get them when released, by visiting the winery or signing up for their mailing list. Abeja is open to the general public only during spring release weekend, but private appointments are taken when wine is available. Guests of the inn can always schedule a visit and tasting. The winery’s Web site (www.abeja.net) notes that the Nov. 1 release will contain “one surprise.” I strongly urge all who love John Abbott’s merlots to check into it. (The winery phone is 509-526-7400.)

Upcoming events

The Columbia Valley Winery Association invites you to “Catch the Crush” this weekend. Member wineries will pause from stomping, stirring and pressing grapes long enough to welcome visitors with new wines, library wines, rare and limited releases, music and food. Bring your own wine glass and be admitted for free or purchase a $20 VIP ticket that gets you a wine glass, discounts of up to 20 percent, tasting of older wines and special food pairings. For complete details, go to www.columbiavalleywine.com.

Paul Gregutt is the author of “Northwest Wines.” His column appears weekly in the Wine section.

He can be reached by e-mail at wine@seattletimes.com.