By now, it is something of a well-trodden path in the world of wine. A long-standing European wine family begins to cast its eyes farther afield for new projects in which to invest, discovers a site in America, and sets about creating a new wine brand. The Spanish have done it, the French have done it, and so have the Italians.
The story of how Marchese Piero Antinori ended up establishing a winery in Washington State, however, owes its genesis to a Russian. Specifically, the legendary winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff, who convinced Antinori to take a look at the state during a period when Tchelistcheff was serving as a consultant for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.
Antinori would eventually enter into an equal partnership with Ste. Michelle to found Col Solare Winery, a project that from its inaugural 1995 vintage would help set a new bar for what Washington was capable of when it came to fine Cabernet Sauvignon.
The Antinori family brought a decidedly restrained and refined sensibility to the partnership, while Ste. Michelle brought unparalleled knowledge of the region and its growing conditions, resulting in an exceptional portfolio of wines that has remarkably only seemed to get better over time.
In 2007 the brand built itself a winery in the Red Mountain AVA of Yakima Valley (where it had been sourcing fruit for some time), and now comfortably represents one of the pinnacles of that region’s winemaking, having switched to all Red Mountain fruit starting in the 2012 vintage.
Red Mountain, of course, is a tiny, extremely warm AVA in eastern Washington that features deep, powdery soils laid down by the cataclysmic Missoula Floods on top of volcanic basalt. These desert soils are somewhat surprisingly calcareous, thanks to the presence of caliche, which is a sediment of calcium carbonate that coats many of the loose rocks within the soil. With an incredible amount of sunlight modulated somewhat by wind effects and diurnal shifts, as well as its unique, nutrient-poor soils, Red Mountain produces some of Washington’s best Bordeaux varieties, and increasingly some of its best Rhône-style wines as well. I recently covered Red Mountain in-depth for Jancis Robinson’s website, for those that are interested.
While Ste. Michelle Wine Estates was eventually sold to Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris, and then sold again late last year to the private equity firm Sycamore Partners, Antinori continues to maintain its 50% ownership in the project. Renzo Cotarella, the chief enologist and chief executive officer of Marchesi Antinori, visits at least twice a year and continues to be directly involved in the crafting of each vintage, which is accomplished by winemaker Darel Allwine and enologist Stephanie Cohen.
This past fall, I sat down with Cohen to taste through a bunch of vintages and hear how things were going in the wake of having new partners in the enterprise.
“As opposed to Altria seeming to look at every move we make, these new partners really seem to trust us,” she said. “They understand wine is an investment and a longer-term thing.”
That would be a very good thing, indeed, for a winery that is seemingly operating at the top of its game.
Cohen explained that the winemaking follows about as classic a model as you might imagine. With a custom-designed winery built to function entirely by gravity, including all racking, the hand-harvested grapes are fermented separately in steel tanks with inoculated yeasts. Some tanks will have a little saignee bled off to concentrate the wine, fining is rarely if ever done, and a very coarse filtration is done to remove any “chunks” of sediment before bottling. The flagship red spends 22 months in oak.
Originally, Col Solare made only a single wine, but in recent years the winery has expanded its portfolio in small increments. It now also makes a second tier of wines under the label “Shining Hill” which is the English translation of the winery’s Italian name.
The winery’s “Tenuta” bottling, launched in 2016, represents the very best blocks in each vintage is made the same way with the addition of barrel fermentation for anywhere between 35% and 50% of the final blend, which is limited to 7 barrels (175 cases of wine) each year. It also spends 22 months in barrel.
The team is currently experimenting with adding concrete tanks to the mix as well.
In addition to the winery’s main Cabernet Sauvignon blend and the Tenuta bottling, the winery makes tiny amounts of some other wines for their mailing list customers that Cohen describes as an opportunity for herself and Darel to “have some fun and change it up a bit.”
These include a “Collector Series” that often highlight specific growers, sites, or unique blends, and a “Component Series” that showcase individual single grape varieties that often end up in the Cabernet blends.
I can remember the first time I tasted a Col Solare wine, which brought me up short as I was making my way through hundreds of wines at the annual Taste Washington trade fair. This was before the winery had narrowed its focus on Red Mountain fruit.
Even then, though, the winery had managed to arrive at a particularly regal interpretation of Cabernet Sauvignon, one that balanced power and finesse beautifully, without the overt flavor of oak. These wines are always wonderfully bright with acidity, and generally feature velvety, carefully managed tannins, making for relatively accessible drinking in their youth, but also enough structure to age beautifully.
These days I try to avoid resorting to the metaphors of “Old World” and “New World” when describing wine as I find them increasingly inadequate, but in this case it seems fitting to describe Col Solare’s wines as walking the fine line between these supposed outposts of wine style. They are undeniably rich in fruit and demonstrate the warmth that characterizes the desert landscape from which they come. But they also show a restraint and elegance of winemaking that sometimes eludes West Coast winemakers who can overdue a sense of power and polish, often through excessive and overt oak programs.
In short, I adore these wines, and believe they are among some of the better red wines made on the West Coast, standing easily in the company of top bottlings from Napa and Sonoma, but at much, much, much lower prices. I’d put the 2018 bottling up against anything from Napa in the $300-$500 price range and expect it to hold its own beautifully.
2014 Col Solare Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain, Yakima Valley, Washington
Dark opaque garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cedar, dried cherries and plums. In the mouth, juicy cherry and plum flavors are shot through with cedar and dried herbs and flowers. Faint, powdery tannins wrap around the core of fruit with lovely citrusy acidity that lingers in the finish, along with hints of dried herbs and licorice. Supple, velvety tannins and overall quite lovely. A blend of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Cabernet Franc, 4% Merlot, and 2% Syrah. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $65. click to buy.
2015 Col Solare Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain, Yakima Valley, Washington
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dried flowers, cassis and black cherry tinged with dried herbs and what I can only describe as pulverized purple Smartees candy. In the mouth, juicy black cherry, cassis, and candied violets mix with dried herbs under a fleecy blanket of tannins. Quite aromatic. This vintage was a rare 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $65. click to buy.
2016 Col Solare Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain, Yakima Valley, Washington
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of bright cherry fruit with a touch of green herbs. In the mouth, the wine has classic Cabernet character with supple, fine-grained tannins grasping a core of cherry and cedar, with hints of cola and floral notes, but overall a wonderful purity of cherry flavors. Gorgeous. Contains 6% Cabernet Franc. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 . Cost: $65. click to buy.
2017 Col Solare Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain, Yakima Valley, Washington
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and a touch of cocoa powder and green herbs. In the mouth, incredibly juicy cherry cola flavors are held firmly in a tight muscular tannic grip, slightly more aggressive and rough hewn than the usual tannins, thanks to a challenging year. Delicious cherry flavors mix with cola and licorice as the wine finishes long, and the tannins squeeze hard. Contains 3% Cabernet Franc. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 . Cost: $75. click to buy.
2018 Col Solare Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain, Yakima Valley, Washington
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and dried herbs and flowers with a hint of cola. In the mouth, muscular, fine-grained tannins wrap around a core of gorgeous, almost crystalline cherry and floral flavors. Fantastic acidity. The tannins, which were aggressive at first, mellow a bit in the finish, as floral and cherry notes soar through a long finish. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $75. click to buy.
2019 Col Solare “Collectors Series – Kiona Vineyards” Syrah, Red Mountain, Yakima Valley, Washington
Dark garnet in the glass with purple highlights this wine smells of flowers and cassis. In the mouth, lovely blackberry and cassis flavors lean towards candied blueberries as the wine soars through a gorgeously long finish. Lovely stony underbelly with fine-grained tannins. A faint saline note makes for an extra mouthwatering quality, along with great acidity. 14.1% alcohol. Score: between 9.5.
2018 Col Solare “Component Series” Syrah, Red Mountain, Yakima Valley, Washington
Inky purple in the glass, this wine smells of cassis and black cherry. In the mouth, gorgeously polished flavors of cassis and black cherry are nestled into a fleecy blanket of tannins with hints of herbs and citrus peel offering bright grace notes as the wine soars through a long finish. Excellent acidity and some nice wet pavement notes This fruit comes from the estate vineyard. Includes 2% Cabernet Sauvignon. 14.8% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $95. click to buy.
2018 Col Solare “Component Series” Malbec, Red Mountain, Yakima Valley, Washington
Inky purple in the glass, this wine smells of dried herbs, sage, and brambly blueberry. In the mouth, juicy blueberry, blackberry and a hint of woodsmoke mix under a dusty blanket of tannins that coat the mouth. Excellent acidity. This is 100% Estate fruit. They have 1-2 acres of Malbec. 14.8% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $95.
2018 Col Solare “Tenuta” Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain, Yakima Valley, Washington
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry, cedar, herbs and flowers. In the mouth, the wine is expansive and bright with a suede throw of tannins draped over juicy cherry and black cherry fruit that gushes with acidity. Hints of dried flowers and beautiful cherry fruit linger in the long finish. Interestingly this flagship bottling is coming across as slightly more open and accessible than the standard Col Solare bottling, whose tannins are a little more aggressive and closed at this point. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $175.