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DeLille Cellars Chaleur Blanc: 1995-2016
BY STEPHEN TANZER | JANUARY 07, 2020
Full disclosure: Although I have tasted the Chaleur Blanc shortly after its release every year since its maiden vintage (1995), I was not a huge fan of the earliest vintages because I frequently found the wine to be rather unyielding, not to mention dominated by its new oak in the early going. But I started warming up to it—or perhaps it was the other way around—in the early 2000s, and over the past dozen years or so it has been, according to my ratings, the single finest white wine produced in Washington State. It is no exaggeration to compare this Sauvignon Blanc/Sémillon blend to the finest white Bordeaux bottlings made in oak. Better still, in recent years production has increased substantially, without any apparent compromise in quality, so this is now a world-class Washington wine that Vinous readers should actually be able to find. And its price—still south of forty dollars—remains very reasonable considering its consistently stellar quality.
Moreover, as a stunning vertical tasting at DeLille’s new winery in Woodinville this past August made clear, those early vintages, even if they’re not in the class of what’s being made today, are still alive more than 20 years later, a remarkable performance for a dry white wine from a desert climate. As fruit sources have been tweaked, and winemaking, élevage and bottling have been refined through the years, DeLille’s flagship white wine has gained in clarity, complexity and class.
Sagemoor Vineyard overlooking the Columbia River
The Beginnings of DeLille Cellars
DeLille Cellars was co-founded in 1992 by former wine broker Jay Soloff; winemaker Chris Upchurch, who had previously interned with the late David Lake at Columbia Winery; Greg Lill, an insurance agent; and Greg’s father, Charles Lill. The four partners received valuable early assistance from Lake, who served as a consultant to the new venture during its early years and introduced the principals to top grape growers around the state. In the beginning, all four co-founders made the wines together, but Upchurch was the real winemaking master here from the start: in additional to making the first dozen or so vintages, he has trained and advised subsequent winemakers and still serves in a consulting role today.
DeLille Cellars was created to make Bordeaux-style wines. (It was Washington’s 50th winery license issued; the total in the state topped 1,000 in 2019.) The winery was a pioneer of Bordeaux blends; previously most Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots made in Washington were varietally labeled—and in nearly all cases 100% varietal. From the outset, DeLille was able to purchase fruit from some of Washington’s top vineyards, particularly Klipsun (Red Mountain), Sagemoor (in the Columbia Valley AVA, situated about 15 miles north of Tri-Cities) and Ciel du Cheval (Red Mountain). DeLille’s first wines were from vintage 1992: a total of about 1,200 cases of their Chaleur Estate Red and a second wine called D2. In 1994, DeLille acquired the rights to Harrison Hill vineyard (in the Snipes Mountain AVA), which had some of the oldest vines in Washington, and since that year DeLille has made a separate Harrison Hill Cabernet Sauvignon in every vintage.
With a third red wine in the works, the partners decided that they needed to add a white wine to their portfolio and, as Soloff told me in a recent conversation, Upchurch insisted that “No winemaker in good conscience would bring another Chardonnay into the world.” As DeLille was a Bordeaux house, the obvious solution was to make a white blend from Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon, the latter a popular variety in the state at the time but almost always bottled as 100% varietal and in some instances off-dry. So Soloff and Upchurch went off to Bordeaux in the spring of 1995 to see how these blends were made in the Old World. Among their many chateau visits were stops at Haut-Brion, Domaine de Chevalier, Olivier and Smith-Haut-Lafitte, all of whose winemakers were willing to share their methods for making white wine. Although Upchurch found the Haut-Brion Blanc a bit “butterscotchy” owing to the new open-grained Séguin-Moreau barrels that were used for this wine at the time, he described it as one of his chief inspirations, along with Chateau Olivier. The new DeLille wine was labeled Chaleur Estate White Wine until vintage 2015, when the name was shortened to Chaleur Blanc.
The name Chaleur Estate, by the way, was a shortened version of the word chaleureux, which means warm, hearty, or cozy (as in an accueil chaleureux), which was how co-founder Charles Lill thought of his ten-acre weekend property in Woodinville, with its farmhouse, barns, orchards and trout pond. In the two years following the establishment of DeLille, he turned the old farmhouse into a “chateau” that included DeLille’s winery and offices, as well as a popular party space for wedding receptions and other celebrations.
Charles Lill passed away in 2008 and his son Greg retired two years ago. Upchurch, who has devoted most of his time in recent years to his own venture, Upchurch Vineyard (he sells most of the fruit from his Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot vineyard at the southern tip of the Red Mountain AVA to DeLille), is still officially DeLille’s founding winemaker. Soloff is the only original partner still involved in the business day to day, but he is supported by a strong winemaking and marketing team.
Through the years, DeLille Cellars has served as one of the state’s most important incubators of winemaking talent, as an impressive list of its past winemakers have gone on to make very good wines under their own or other labels, including the late Lance Baer and Chris Peterson (Avennia Wine, Passing Time, and, most recently, WeatherEye). Ross Mickel (Ross Andrew Winery) also worked in the DeLille cellar in 1998, and other first-rate Washington winemakers have spent time at DeLille as well: Louis Skinner (now winemaker at Betz Family Winery), Mike Macmorran (Mark Ryan), and Kit Singh (Lauren Ashton). Jason Gorski, who succeeded Chris Peterson in 2010, has officially been winemaker since 2013 and was promoted to director of winemaking at the beginning of 2019. Through the years, Upchurch has served as winemaking guru, ensuring continuity.
Klipsun Vineyard's Sémillon vines
The Making of a Washington Classic
From the outset, the fruit for the Chaleur Blanc was whole-cluster-pressed into stainless steel tanks, where it was allowed to settle for five days. “We wanted to work just with the nectar,” Upchurch explained. The clean juice then went into oak barriques, 100% new in the early vintages, for the fermentation. That general approach has been maintained ever since, although the percentage of new oak has been reduced steadily through the years to between 60% and 70% today. The alcoholic fermentation can take up to six weeks to finish. DeLille began by using an Epernay yeast because Upchurch liked its estery quality, but since about 2000 the fermentation has relied on a combination of selected and wild yeasts.
Following the primary fermentation, the wine is racked into barrels, where it spends four to six months on its fine lees. From the start, the Chaleur Blanc has gone through full malolactic fermentation (the wine is inoculated for the malo, which normally finishes in December or January) and has benefitted from regular lees stirring—weekly until the malos finish, then less frequently during its final months in barrel. The wine is then blended in tank, where it settles and clarifies for about a month before being bottled in May. Until 2000, Upchurch bottled the wine without filtration. “I found out at the time that Steve Kistler was bottling his Chardonnays without filtration, so I figured that if Kistler can do it, so can I.” But the wine had to be bottled bright and clear in order to be commercially viable, and Upchurch told me that he did extra rackings of the early vintages so that he could bottle them unfiltered, admitting that “I may have beaten up some of the early wines with racking.”
Since 2000, the wine has been racked only before it’s assembled in tanks for the bottling. In retrospect, the multiple rackings and the strong oak influence during the early years were probably the main reasons that I found these wines ungiving, with their flavors a bit muted, in the year or two following their release. The winery filtered with cellulose pads through 2013 before switching to a cross-flow filtration system in 2014, which winemaker Jason Gorski noted is gentler on the wine and also allows it to be bottled with lower levels of dissolved oxygen.
Top vineyards have always been a key to the quality of the Chaleur Blanc, and grape sources have been remarkably consistent over the years considering the massive amount of vineyard development that has occurred in Washington just since the turn of the new century. In the first vintage, the wine was made entirely from Sauvignon Blanc planted in Sagemoor Bacchus Vineyard Block 5 in 1972, and Sagemoor Dionysus Sémillon, also dating back to the 1970s. (Sagemoor ultimately pulled out these Sémillon vines in 1999 and replanted them to Cabernet Sauvignon, but the Sauvignon Blanc vines from the ‘70s are still part of the Chaleur Blanc blend.) Klipsun Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon were added to the blend in 1997.
The most important change in sourcing since the earliest vintages has been the addition of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon from Boushey Vineyard vines that Dick Boushey planted with the DeLille team in 2003 (this new fruit first went into the Chaleur Blanc in vintage 2006). The wine also benefitted from the addition of Sauvignon Blanc from Sagemoor’s Bacchus Vineyard Block 6 (planted in 1977) when DeLille expanded production of the Chaleur Blanc in 2013. (Inevitably, small percentages of fruit from other vineyards have found their way into the Chaleur Blanc blend through the years, but not since 2011.)
DeLille's barrel room in their new winery located in the repurposed Redhook Brewery in Woodinville
Recent Expansion of DeLille Cellars
In early 2013, the San Francisco-based private equity firm Bacchus Capital Management made a major investment in DeLille Cellars, which gave the winery’s partners the cash infusion they needed to expand production, as demand for their wines had grown faster than their ability to satisfy it. According to Upchurch, “we knew that the number one nemesis for Washington or any other young growing region is the loss of quality that often follows sharp growth in production. So we had no excuse to let that happen.”
Jason Gorski, who had originally been hired following stints at Chateau Ste. Michelle and Spring Valley, was promoted to winemaker and given much of the responsibility for overseeing the scale-up in production, according to co-founder Soloff. In short order, DeLille’s total annual output grew from about 11,000 cases in 2012 to nearly 23,000 cases in 2015. Over the same period, case production of the Chaleur Blanc increased from less than 1,800 to a bit over 3,700 cases. Annual production of Chaleur Blanc since then has been mostly in the 4,500 to 5,000 case range. Crucial to maintaining quality, said Soloff, was the fact that all of the winery’s important grape suppliers (especially Boushey, Klipsun and Sagemoor Bacchus), immediately made a higher proportion of their best fruit available to DeLille. Incidentally, just over three-quarters of DeLille’s output is red wines, but the Chaleur Blanc represents the lion’s share of the rest.
A White Wine with Unusual Longevity
From the start, the Chaleur Blanc was envisioned as a roughly two-thirds/one-third blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon. “Our objective was to make a wine in which one component does not overwhelm the other,” noted Upchurch, adding that, “at 50/50 the Sémillon would have been too dominant.” Still, noted Upchurch, in the early vintages the wine was typically dominated by its Sémillon component in its first year.
Beyond moderate yields that are normally around four tons per acre and the quality of the raw materials, Gorski believes that the wine’s longevity is driven by several factors beginning with whole-cluster pressing, which gives the wines a needed tannic element in addition to preserving its acidity. He also points out that the quality of the barrels is better today than ever before. At the outset, Upchurch used Dargaud & Jaegle Burgundy barrels along with Séguin-Moreau’s Yquem barrel. Nowadays Gorski uses a mix of Séguin-Moreau, Saury and Orion’s white wine barrel, plus bits of Quintessence and Boutes. Chris Peterson cut back on the use of new oak to between 75% and 80% during his tenure (it had been 100% through 2004) and Gorski reduced it further beginning in vintage 2013, to between 60% and 70%.
While the still-substantial percentage of new oak and the practice of weekly lees stirring are potentially oxidative, Gorski points out that controlled introduction of oxygen during winemaking and élevage results in wines that better resist oxidation in bottle. And, most important, the wine has historically been bottled with a healthy pH (almost always between 3.15 and 3.35) and firm total acidity (typically between 6 and 7 grams per liter, expressed as tartaric acid). The Boushey site is the coolest and normally the latest to be picked, with the fruit typically coming in between 21.5 and 22 degrees Brix. It provides the acid backbone of the wine and frequently an element of minerality. The Klipsun site, planted on deep soils, is the warmest and its grapes are usually the highest in pH.
Even though DeLille Cellars appreciates cooler sites and leans toward earlier picking nowadays, Gorski doesn’t hesitate to acidify when he feels it’s necessary. In fact, he pointed out that he has been quick to add acidity at the juice stage in several recent warm vintages that featured late-August heat and higher levels of potential alcohol. A harvest starting in August was a rarity for the Chaleur Blanc fruit until 2013, but every vintage since then, except for 2017, has begun before the end of that month—and 2017 started on September 1! Over the same period, every harvest except 2014 has begun with Boushey Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc.
Gorski believes that today’s wines are more harmonious from the start, probably due in large part to better barrels and a lower percentage of new oak. (Since 2012, Gorski has fermented a tiny portion of the wine in stainless steel tanks.) He also finds that the “modern, present-day style is Sauvignon Blanc-dominant on the nose and palate for the first year, at which point the Sémillon begins to show more.” He added that because Sauvignon Blanc varietal aromas start to fade with air contact, the vintages of the ‘90s may have shown more Sémillon character earlier, due to the fact that back then the wine was aged in 100% new oak and racked multiple times. With the less oxidative methods used today, the primary aromas of Sauvignon Blanc are maintained better.
Gorski provided a capsule description of what each of the vineyard components of the blend brings. The Klipsun Sémillon (normally about 15% of the blend in recent vintages) provides restraint and keeps the wine’s alcohol in check; this fruit is harvested, says Gorski, “as soon as it’s no longer underripe.” But he added that the Klipsun Sauvignon Blanc (10%) is “underripe until it develops more tropical flavors,” so the team waits for pineapple and piña colada notes before harvesting these vines. The Boushey Sémillon (roughly 20% of the blend) is picked early, “with neon-green fruit, high acidity and a dominant character of lemon curd,” said Gorski, “but the Sauvignon Blanc from Boushey (20%) is very different. “It brings more earthy flavors,” he explained. “The juice looks dirty but the wine smells like classic Sauvignon Blanc.” Finally, the Sagemoor Sauvignon Blanc, which typically comprises a substantial 35% of the blend, brings an element of white flowers. “And in particular, Sagemoor Block 6, which has been part of the blend since 2013, brings “in-your-face typicity; we avoid riper fruit flavors here, looking instead for grass and hay.”
The Boushey Vineyard in the Yakima Valley AVA
A Few Observations on the Wines
The vintages from 2007 on (we started with the 2016 and worked backward) were uniformly excellent to outstanding. Even the oldest vintages in this group were full of life and have more development ahead of them (assuming careful storage, of course). The wines from 2005 and earlier were fully mature; one or two bottles seemed past their peaks but all of them were still in remarkable form for their age.
The Chaleur blend gains in complexity and texture in what I would describe as an Old World way, achieving complex secondary and tertiary aromas while still retaining energy. Any oxidative elements here were the result of graceful evolution in bottle, with notes of vanilla, butterscotch, roasted nuts and marzipan still supported by adequate energy and fruit character. Interestingly, the 1995, the first year for this wine, was my favorite vintage of the ‘90s: firm, complex, adamantly dry and full of life at 24 years of age. Reading my notes after the tasting, I found that I was more aware of the oak component in the wines made until the mid-2000s than in more recent vintages (vintages through 2004 were fermented in 100% new barrels.)
If the Chaleur Blanc doesn’t show quite the site specificity or Old World wildness of the very finest dry white Bordeaux bottlings—it’s a blend of disparate vineyards, after all—it has been better than ever in recent years. This is an utterly distinctive wine for Washington in terms of its texture, purity, complexity, savory character and ageability. And the wines made over the past decade or so have also been more harmonious from the outset than many earlier vintages: rich and dense but at the same time vinous and penetrating, and more pliant in the early going. And their fruits, flowers and Sauvignon Blanc grass and fresh-cut hay pungency come through early.
The Chaleur Blanc has always stood out for its structure, but recent vintages also offer a new level of clarity, fruit intensity and early deliciousness. Will today’s wines age as gracefully as the vintages made in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s? Only time will tell. Upchurch and Gorski agree that the Chaleur Blanc has always aged on its balance and acidity, and those two qualities are as apparent in today’s wines as ever before.
Vineyard Photos by Richard Duval
See the Wines from Youngest to Oldest
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