We are unabashed fans of wine from Washington State. We also happen to love Spanish wine so when we found out that there was a Spanish winemaker in Washington, we knew we had to meet him and find out more about his winery: Pomum Cellars.
Javier Alfonso hails from Ribera del Duero, an acclaimed wine region in Northern Spain, where he literally spent his childhood surrounded by wine. His extended family have a small parcel they work every harvest there and it would seem only natural that he would become a winemaker. However, when it was time for him to decide his future as a young adult, being involved in wine was the furthest thing from his mind, “Pruning and harvesting was hard, back-breaking work and as a child, I hated it with a passion. My father told me I could do that for the rest of my life or go to college, so I left for college as soon as I could!”.
He studied engineering at the University of Madrid and then transferred to the University of Washington in 1995 while working for Boeing. There he met his wife Shylah and together they started tasting wines around the state. Engaging with quality wine in a different part of the world ignited his passion for wine as well as his curiosity about what could be done in the region, particularly with Spanish varieties. “We started making wines as amateurs in 2000 and by 2003 we were experimenting and making so much wine, we ran out of friends to give it away to.”
They decided to get licensed so that they could at least sell what they didn’t drink and in 2004 Pomum Cellars was officially established. Not only was this a smart move, but clearly they were making something good as their phenomenal growth will attest. The winery has increased production by 50-100% every year since 2004. They are in their 3rd space and getting ready to take more space next to their current location in Woodinville.
The name Pomum comes from the latin word for fruit which seems fitting for any wine, but coupled with the fact pomegranate is both Javier & Shylah’s favourite fruit, the name seemed particularly appropriate. In 2009, they started their Idilico label (Spanish for Idyllic) with the idea that it would be the label associated with Spanish varieties, while Pomum would represent his wines using Bordeaux varieties (save for his Tempranillo which he started making before the Idilico label was started). “I always wanted to do Spanish varieties in eastern Washington. The climate is very similar with a short growing season, hot growing days, and extremely cold winters.”
As we tasted his 2017 Idilico Albariño, we were amazed at the terrific balance and quality of this wine, given Albariño made its mark in the much cooler Rias Baixas region in Spain. “We were worried a bit at first that it might be too hot in Washington to grow this grape, but we took a chance as it’s the most popular white from Spain on this side of the ocean. We thought it was going to ripen much earlier and it would be challenging to control the canopy but to our surprise the desert climate meant for a smaller canopy so for the first 3-4 years we were cropping at Cabernet levels; where we aimed for 5-6 tons per acre for the whites, we were getting only 2-3. It took 4 years before we got to our target cropping levels. It ripens later than Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, and almost as late as Riesling. By chance it’s almost ideal for this region.”
We start to discuss the particular challenges that Washington presents to winemakers and Javier points out that because the region is own-rooted, all the plantings are similar to Europe hundreds of years ago before Phylloxera. On the plus side it means a very unique terroir. The drawback is that there isn’t any rootstock, “Rootstock acts as a filter and you can pick different ones to address different issues with your soils. With no filter, young plants in particular are so vigorous they uptake everything in the soil. It’s not until a vineyard gets older that it gets less efficient at up taking and more familiar with its surroundings and adapts to the terroir.”
And then there’s the weather. Since 2012, Washington State has seen one very warm vintage after another culminating with the hottest in recent history in 2015. This is driving Javier to look for sites that are fresher and ripen later, “I like to get good hang time with my grapes and I like to preserve acidity. There’s nothing that upsets me more than when I go to harvest something that I had been checking a week before, 1-2 days before, and it comes in overripe.”
Javier is particularly excited about the new and exciting AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) in eastern Washington state that have what he’s looking for including Ancient Lakes in the northern Columbia Valley and Lake Chelan, which he believes has great potential for white and early reds. Another AVA that has gotten his attention is the Naches Heights AVA in Yakima that sits a full 500 feet higher in elevation, “We started experimenting with Syrah there and our first pick in 2016 from the Konnowac Vineyard was early September, while our last pick was at Strand Vineyard almost in November. The two sites are only 50 miles apart but the 300-foot difference in elevation is very noticeable.”
In 2019, Pomum purchased the Konnowac Vineyard which sits at 1100 feet in elevation, quite high for Yakima Valley. It was originally planted in the late 1980’s with all Bordeaux varieties. As a result, it is now home to some of the oldest Petit Verdot and Malbec in the state.
Depending on the vintage Javier makes anywhere from 3500-5000 cases of wine a year which allows him to do pretty much everything on his own. His philosophy in the winery is minimal intervention, “I keep my hands off as much as possible. I try to pick right, try not to use to new oak and don’t add any ‘shenanigans’ to my wine [mega purple, oak chips, artificial tannin, etc].” He does inoculate with his own yeast because the space he uses has been housing wineries since 1997. Before he took over, Ross Andrew had his winery there and was an apprentice for Betz Winery which was also there and that means certain yeasts were present in the winery before Javier arrived. “Bob Betz inoculated his wines with a certain yeast I’m familiar with so I prefer to control the process with my own inoculation rather than do a spontaneous fermentation at the winery. If I do a spontaneous fermentation I try to do it at the vineyard which I’ve done before with varying results.”
The 2019 vintage is still to be determined but so far so good according to Javier. It was an early start to the season with a couple of cool weeks in early July. The key, he tells us, is what the weather will bring once the grapes go through veraison (change of colour) and that the goal is to get the fruit ripe, “You can do that fairly easily in Washington and I aspire as much as possible to bring the soul of the vineyard into every bottle.”
Tasting through both his Pomum & Idilico wines, we were truly impressed by the quality level across the board as our tasting notes below will show. Each demonstrated all the things we look for in fine wine – balance, complexity, length, intensity and great expression of each varietal. And if we could call “soul” a tasting note, we’d confidently say that his wines definitely have that too.
2017 Idlico Albariño
This delicious wine has the body of a Chardonnay and the acidity of Sauvignon Blanc. Fresh and at the same time textured, it has good back end acidity acting as a counter point to the medium+ body, resulting in terrific balance. Pear and melon interspersed with a nice minerally streak.
Very Good/Excellent (Club members only)
2016 Pomum Riesling Upland Vineyard
Washington State can do rival Germany and Alsace when it comes to Riesling and here is a wine to prove the point. Lots of pear and green apple on a medium- body with medium acid and hints of white peach coming through on the finish. Very refreshing and full of intense flavours.
Excellent (USD$16 tasting room (unbelievable good value for this quality level)
2017 Pomum Chardonnay
Low yielding old vines at French Creek Vineyard in Prosser provide the fruit for this wine. Pear and golden delicious apple dominate the fruit profile along with secondary notes of mango. Great balance between body and acidity gives this wine texture and definition, each in the right proportion.
Very good+ (USD $26 at tasting room)
2016 Pomum Syrah
Fruit for this wine comes from Upland Vineyard and from their estate vineyard, Konnowac. Many Washington Syrahs are made in the big, power mode, similar to California’s Central Coast or Australia’s Barossa. But Pomum has focused more on elegance with this wine, bringing to mind something closer to a Cornas. Dark red fruits of plum and black cherry dominate with added complexity coming from savoury notes and spice hints on the finish. There is also a slightly meaty quality, which tends to further evoke the Rhone. Focused and precise.
Excellent (USD$32 at tasting room)
2014 Pomum Tempranillo
Clones originally from Ribera del Duero and Toro in Northern Spain have been planted at the highly regarded Dineen and Upland Vineyards. Dark red raspberry flavours mix with smoke and game notes to create a complex wine of medium body and a good, defining acid streak. On the young side today, this will develop nicely for at least a decade.
Very Good/Excellent (USD$36 at tasting room)
2015 Pomum Shya Red
Shya (named for Javier’s wife) is usually a blend but in 2015 Javier was so impressed with the Cabernet Sauvignon he decided to make a varietal (100% Cabernet Sauvignon). This wine shows lots of red and black fruit: black currant, cherry, plum and hints of blackberry. The texture is rich and full and is framed but some serious, ripe tannin. Delicious now, it is still forming and will no doubt develop for a decade or more in your cellar. Smoky barrel notes add complexity and the finish is very long and infused with spice notes. A very classy Cabernet!
Excellent+ (USD$42 at tasting room (this is particularly good value for this quality level)
Woodinville, WA 98072