We arrived at Avennia’s “facility” in Woodinville’s warehouse district, about 30 minutes drive north of Seattle. We use the word “facility” because it is not a tasting room, but a barrel room, winery, office and a little reception area where we tasted their wines. Avennia is not open to the public, but that does not stop them from selling out all of their wines via their mailing list along with wine specialty and high end grocery stores in the Northwest. (You can register on their mailing list here.) As the tasting notes that follow will show, this has become one of the rising stars on the Washington wine scene, producing wines of great finesse and intense flavours.
We arrive for our appointment and are met by owners Chris Peterson and Marty Taucher. Chris was the former winemaker at DeLille Cellars, another Washington icon, but rather than being an upstart, it is among the old guard of Washington wine. Marty gets involved in the business aspects of the winery. A former Microsoft executive and early-stage venture capitalist, he learned the wine trade the hard way. After leaving his fancy office and title at the world’s largest software company behind, he became a cellar rat at DeLille. He decided he wanted to learn the wine business from the bottom up. It was at DeLille that he first met Chris.
Sitting on a desk in the office area is a Miles Davis CD. We notice the CD and mention it and the conversation starts out about jazz. It turns out that the four of us are jazz fans, and music fans generally. The conversation quickly becomes animated with Marty telling us that he was just listening to the CD which had “a solo on it by Coltrane that was sick!” We could have spent the entire morning talking to them just about music, and we would have been thoroughly entertained. But we were there to learn more about how their upstart winery had, in just four vintages, earned critical acclaim including mid-90s scores from The Wine Advocate, The Wine Spectator, The International Wine Cellar, Vinous and the Wine Enthusiast.
Avennia takes its name from the ancient Roman word for the city Avignon, in the Chateauneuf du Pape region of Southern France. It is an homage to the traditions of Old World winemaking. For the 2013 vintage they crushed 60 thousand tons of grapes to produce 3,100 case of wine. They produce a rosé, a white and 5 different reds, all with purchased grapes from contracted vineyards located in the southern part of the state. These vineyards are their partners, working in tandem with Chris Peterson to deliver him the grapes that he wants to express his winemaking ideals. These are some of the very top vineyards in the state: Boushey, Bacchus, Red Willow, Klipsun and Champoux all sell grapes to Avennia. Peterson wanted these vineyards because of the age of their fruit; at up to 30 years they have become some of the oldest vines in the state and produce more complex flavours.
Chris Peterson likes to make a wine that expresses his ideals: on their website he talks about “clarity of place, clarity of type, clarity of purpose”. The results are wonderfully balanced wines that express not only the vineyards they originate from, but they also express Chris’ ideal of traditional winemaking. He is very influenced and respectful of the winemaking traditions that have been handed down through generations in France’s Bordeaux and Rhone regions. He recognizes Washington’s ability to grow fully ripened fruit and uses French techniques to keep ripeness in bounds resulting in elegant and sophisticated wines of great depth of flavours that marry very well with their structural components. He tells us he wants wines that are not showy, but are companions to the dinner table. He uses the analogy of conversation; he is making wines that have something interesting to say, wines that don’t need to shout to say it. They reflect his own way of speaking: erudite, interesting, thoughtful and gentle in tone. As the following tasting notes will show, these are exceptional wines, among the very best in the state, that offer complexity, balance, new world fruit and structure that reflects a respect for old world winemaking tradition.
100% Sauvignon Blanc (55% Boushey, 45% Red Willow). Grapefruit and green apple are the dominant fruit flavours that receive support from lemon notes and cut grass. There is a fullness to the wine which makes a nice counterpoint to the crisp acidity. There is none of the pungency that many New World Sauvignons have taken on. We are reminded of a Pouilly Fume, with the dials turned up. The finish is long and minerally.
Very Good/Excellent – $25 at their Tasting Room
100% Syrah, all from Boushey. Arnaut takes its name from Arnaut Daniel, a 12th century Troubadour, creator of the Sestina poetry mode, (see review below) and lauded by Ezra Pound as the greatest poet ever. Dark purple in colour, with a completely intoxicating nose of black fruit, bramble and boysenberry. The medium plus body is round and plush. The wine coats your mouth with a velvety texture and brings forward a structural presence that keeps the lush texture in check. This wine offers it all: heavenly bouquet, gorgeous, soft mouthfeel, and though the fruit clearly dominates at this early point in its evolution, there is already enough complexity to keep it interesting and to assure even greater enjoyment several years down the road. This wine can stand shoulder to shoulder with top Syrah from across the world.
Extraordinary – $50 at their Tasting Room (particularly good value for this quality level)
Also 100% Syrah from Boushey, this wine has a similar profile to its older sibling. The difference between the two vintages is that in the 2013 the accent is more on the savoury notes and a touch less dominance from the fruit. Some might want to say the 2013 is more Northern Rhone in style, and while the comparison is somewhat useful as a descriptor, it ultimately fails as these are uniquely Washington wines. We also detect a bit more structure in the 2013. A group of tasters asked to assess the two wines would likely come out divided as to which was the better. Those preferring savoury complexity might lean toward the 2013, those preferring intensity and a sexy mouthfeel, might prefer the 2012. But no one would be disappointed!
Extraordinary – Not yet released – $50
This blend of Mouvedre, Grenache and Syrah delivers a mixture of red and blue fruits in its flavour profile. The wine is wonderfully complex, with herbs, orange peel, and earth combining with the dark cherry to make a wine that intrigues as it changes from sip to sip. Like the Arnault, there is a terrific mouthfeel that is rich and long. The finish is long with a minerality and slight smokiness, and shows enough structure to reward medium term ageing. The dominance of the Mouvedre gives a slight feral quality to the wine which adds to its interest.
Excellent – Not yet released (the 2012 sold for $40 at their Tasting Room)
Gravura takes its name from the Graves region in Bordeaux and the wine’s style is an homage to the region. The blend is 48% Cabernet Sauvignon, 41% Merlot and 11% Cabernet Franc. Gravura is a completely charming wine and Chris Petersen refers to it as their “Ambassador”, the wine that first grabs your attention and introduces you to the rest of the lineup. Soft and approachable, but still complex, this wine offers up dark cherry, mocha, tea and plums. Tannins are present and would suggest a couple of years in the cellar.
Excellent – $35
Sestina takes its name from a six line, ancient form of French poetry. The name is apt, as both the poetry and the wine are intricate, harmonius and complex. Sestina (the wine) is 72% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Merlot and 11% Cabernet Franc. It is a sensational blend that immediately grabs you with its nose of blackberry, cassis, underbrush, flowers and earth. As the wine opens in the glass, even more complexity comes out. Powerful, structured but beautifully balanced, this wine is best left in the cellar for a few years to allow it to reach its full potential. This wine proves, along with a handful of others, that Washington produces Cabernet that stands with the best on the world stage.
Extraordinary – $60 at their Tasting Room
Since these wines are the very top of pyramid of quality in Washington, they are likely to become harder to source and more expensive as the years go by. Arnaut looks like it is headed toward cult status with its high scores by the critics and its quick sell out upon release, and is the current attention-getter. But we would not be surprised if Sestina became viewed as the top of their line up while time allows its complexity to shine through its structure. Good news for people wanting access to Avennia’s wine making comes from the recent announcement of the introduction of their new negociant label: Les Trouvés. These wines are lower in price and should be more available, and a red and a white blend are offered. We did not get to taste these wines while we were there, but we look forward to doing so on our next visit. Info can be found on their website here.