Visiting Owen Roe Washington

Red Willow Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 1973 Block
Wines of Owen Roe balance sunshine and freshness

“Obviously New World, but with natural acidity.”

That’s how winemaker David O’Reilly of Owen Roe describes wines of the Yakima Valley. “You can always ripen fruit because you have long, sunny days, but you still have natural balance,” he says.

With his business partners—including his wife, Angelica O’Reilly, plus Ben and Julie Wolff—he makes wine in Washington’s Yakima and Oregon’s Willamette valleys. I visited the O’Reillys recently at the cellar in Wapato, Washington, which sits in the heart of their organically-farmed Union Gap Vineyard. The family’s home is also sited nearby.

After greeting me with a strong handshake and a bright smile, we sat down to a taco lunch and tasted wines grown at that site and at the neighboring Red Willow Vineyard, which I’d explored earlier that day.

Both vineyards lie upon uplifted alluvial strata, a rattly mix of tumbled stone and volcanic pumice at 1,100 and 1,300 feet of elevation. These sites are 0ld and were above the area inundated by the Missoula Floods of the last de-glaciation. Some sections of the Red Willow Vineyard are estimated to be between six and twelve million years old.

Although both vineyards gain ample solar exposure, their arid, low-vigor soils encourage slow ripening, preserving that all-important freshness.

David and Angelica O’Reilly of Owen Roe

David and Angelica O’Reilly in their new GSM vineyard

As I stomped around both vineyards that day I was vaguely reminded of some spots in southern France and Spain, where Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre are anchored in similarly rocky so-called soil. Those sites are arid, too, with lots of sun, and the vines, as in Washington State, are often own-rooted.

Sure, Yakima, at 46° North Latitude, lies a full ten degrees farther north than, say, Murcia’s Monastrell vineyards, but the similarities prompted me to ask O’Reilly whether anyone in Washington State was head-training a GSM vineyard.

“Let me show you my new head-trained, GSM vineyard!” he boomed.

Stones in the new Owen Roe GSM plantation

Stony soils in the new GSM vineyard

We left the picnic tables and trundled to the height of Union Gap. Angelica joined us at the top (she’s as smiley as her husband). The new site is littered with a jumble of rocks and sparkled by shaggy weeds.

While the small patch of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre is irrigated for now, just barely, to help the vines get established, ultimately O’Reilly hopes to run them un-irrigated. It’s a dicey proposition in Washington State, where rainfall is minimal.

Crazy? I asked.

“Maybe,” he said, chuckling.

 

TASTING NOTES

2016 Owen Roe Rosé Yakima Valley

2016 Owen Roe Rosé Yakima Valley

This wine is 100 percent Sangiovese grown in the Red Willow Vineyard, and it’s ripe—“obviously New World,” as O’Reilly says. Peachy and rounded, it seems a tad sweet despite having been vinified dry, and the palate blooms with strawberries and white stone fruits. Snappy acidity lifts it, while a pleasing herbal bite keeps things fresh.
12% abv | $20 (sample)

 

2012 Owen Roe Cabernet Sauvignon Red Willow Vineyard 1973 Block Yakima Valley

2012 Owen Roe Cabernet Sauvignon Red Willow Vineyard 1973 Block Yakima Valley

This Cabernet was sourced from one of the first blocks to be planted in Red Willow Vineyard, in 1973. (That’s one of the vines in the photo at the top of this page. And by the way, sorry about the back-label shot here.) The wine reads like mountain air: an exhale of cypress and pine, with resinous fruits like cranberry and juniper anchoring the mid-section. The structure is finely articulated, with smooth but elaborate tannins and linear acidity. Bottle-age savoriness adds an alluring dimension.
14.5% abv | $75 (sample)

 

2012 Owen Roe Syrah Red Willow Vineyard Chapel Block Yakima Valley

2012 Owen Roe Syrah Red Willow Vineyard Chapel Block Yakima Valley

Mike Sauer of Red Willow Vineyard was one of the first growers in the state to plant Syrah, although he shares this credit with David Lake, MW, who in the 1980s encouraged him to experiment with the grape. A little later, Sauer expanded his Syrah plantation to the hillside around his new chapel, adding a little Viognier, too, in a nod to the Northern Rhône’s Hill of Hermitage. Owen Roe’s vineyard-designate Chapel Block Syrah is aged in French oak, one-third new, for twelve months. It’s a brilliant ruby-purple color with a bright red rim, and it practically smolders with black fruits and game. Still extremely youthful, this wine is made to age.
15.1% abv | $55 (sample)

 

Owen Roe Red Blend Union Gap Vineyard Yakima

2013 Owen Roe Red Blend Union Gap Vineyard Yakima Valley

A blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Malbec from the Union Gap home vineyard, aged about 18 months in French oak, one-third new. The color skews red while the fruit slants black, daubed with black tea and smoked sage and coffee bitterness. Cabernet Franc stands proudly in this blend, offering purple-floral highlights dressed in greenery. The wine feels fresh but dark at the same time; an inky wine for a shiny-bright day.
14.1% abv | $85 (sample)

 

 

Many thanks to Wine Business for sharing this article with their readers.
I’m grateful to Washington State Wine for sponsoring my travel.

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