Roadtrip: Lake Chelan

Earlier this month, I had my annual “Gals’ Wine Weekend” which is on it’s 12th (I think?) year. This year there were 14 of us ladies heading over to Lake Chelan for wine tasting, bonding and mild debauchery. It was our second trip to the area, and the second time I’ve been there in my entire life. Having lived in Washington State for 43+ years, I’ll admit that this is pretty pathetic. Needless to say, the Lake Chelan AVA is an area I am incredibly unfamiliar with.

Time to CorkDork out! The Lake Chelan AVA became the 11th AVA in Washington State in May, 2009. Although the entire AVA is around 24,000 acres, less than 300 are currently planted to vines. The first production vineyard was planted in 1998 by Bob Christopher and Steve Kludt when they took out orchard acreage and planted wine grapes. The first winery followed shortly thereafter, aptly named Lake Chelan Winery, opening in 2000 by the Kludt family.

The Lake Chelan AVA has a significant “lake effect” that creates mild, favorable temperatures for grape growing. The leading varieties currently being produced here include Syrah, Merlot, Malbec, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. Ok . . . where is my Viognier??!

chelan-sunrise
Breathtaking sunrise over Lake Chelan

Unlike all my other wine tasting trips, this one is more about consumption than contemplation. So I wasn’t anticipating learning all that much about the wines of the area or being able to put some semblance of a blog recap together. But thankfully, I kept my wits about me for at least some of the tastings in order to take a few notes on the wines and make some general observations and opinions about this beautiful area:

Gorgeous tasting rooms. These wineries definitely don’t skimp on making their tasting rooms inviting places for you to stay awhile and enjoy the stunning views.   Many of them had their own restaurants, or food available to snack on, and ample places to sit. From Tsillan’s Tuscan inspired tasting room with a cozy fireplace, to the cool Champagne chalk cave replicas of Karma, to Benson’s spectacular view of the lake – each had it’s own way of coaxing you to stay.

Very accommodating for our group of 14. Granted, this time of year is the slow season and I’d called ahead a few weeks prior to reserve our spots. At one place our reservation had slipped through the cracks, but they still made room for us in their downstairs dining area without hesitation (thank you Benson!). All tasting room staff were very friendly and, at least not to our faces, not annoyed with a large group of loud, libated ladies. I give them all major props for that. 🙂

The white wines in this region shine – and kick the crap out of the reds. Chelan whites are crisp, aromatic, with complex flavors ranging from floral to spice to stone fruits. The reds we tried, on the other hand, need a little work. Many were thin and borderline watery, or too heavily oaked. Benson’s reds were by far the favorite . . . more on that below.

Lack of tasting fee reimbursement if you buy a bottle. This is something that I don’t usually see when wine tasting. Often times, there’s a minimum purchase required for reimbursement. But at many places we visited in Lake Chelan, the tasting fee wasn’t waived no matter how much you bought. Period. I do wonder if this was just because of our large group. It wasn’t a deal breaker for me, I’m fine paying $10 for nice sized and selected pours (which most of them were!) But I realize this is something that not everyone is happy to do. Including members of our group. :-/

Those were my general thoughts on the Lake Chelan area as a whole, and now some winery specific ones:

Tsillan Cellars: Seriously beautiful grounds with the vines changing colors and a warm & inviting Tuscan-styled tasting room. You could pick the wines you tasted (which I always like) so I started with the 2015 Estate Chardonnay. Oy – this definitely had oak and overwhelming apple pie and vanilla aromas. Almost tasted sweet and dessert like (did have .25% R.S). Tsillan’s 2015 Estate Nudo Chardonnay (unoaked) was a little more appealing to me, but still rather disappointing with its lack of acidity and flat finish. Not what you’d expect, or want, in an unoaked Chard.

chelan
Tsillan Cellars vineyards

 

The 2013 Estate Syrah was lighter bodied and more rustic and was my favorite of the tasting -although I didn’t buy any (which says something). Their 2013 Estate Reserve Syrah was aged in 100% new oak (!!) and clocked in at over 15% alcohol (!!). Massive amounts of oak and chocolate notes. Again, overdone on the oak for me, but for others who prefer this style – this is the place to go.

 

Siren Song: No bellying up to the bar here, they bring their wine tastings to you at your own table, which makes for a very relaxed and personable experience. You also get to choose your own wines for your flight, so I selected two whites and some bubbles. Both whites were incredibly rich and aromatic. I went home with the Viognier/Roussanne blend called “Musique” which was a very unique wine with lots of floral and perfume notes.

The only red I tried was the 2013 Jolie – very lush and ripe, smelling and tasting of liquid violets. Not my style, but smelled heavenly. Siren Song currently has vineyards in Lake Chelan AVA, but also in Walla Walla and Wahluke (where Musique was from).

Chelan Estate Winery: We had a very informative tasting with Mary, wife of winemaker Bob Broderick. She told us about the history of the winery (they started over 25 years ago with an experimental vineyard in the area) and gave us an overview of each of the wines we tasted. chelan-estateShe could not have been kinder, I just wish I would’ve liked their wines. 😦 While their prices were very reasonable, the wines were too delicate and mellow for me. They had a screaming deal on their house red blend, 6 bottles for $60, and most of the ladies scooped up a couple bottles of these.

Benson Vineyards Estate Winery: Benson was definitely the crowd pleaser of the weekend. Me included. Their whites were rich and fruity with nice acidity and their reds had more structure and flavor compared to those of the other wineries we’d visited. They also had their oak in check. Benson winery is 100% estate, which means that their fruit is all from the Lake Chelan AVA. So what are they doing that the others aren’t?

Time for another CorkDork moment!: Benson’s location on the north shore of Lake Chelan makes a big difference as to why their wines, reds in particular, stand out. When I got home and recovered a bit from the weekend, I consulted my Washington Wine Bible (aka “Washington Wines and Wineries,” by Paul Gregutt). I learned that since the north shore of the lake has south and west facing slopes, this area is better suited for red grapes. On the flip side, literally, the south shore of Lake Chelan has vineyards facing north and east, and is more ideal for planting whites and cool-climate (Pinot Noir) grapes. So Chelan Estate, which is on the south shore, has vines that aren’t getting as much sun as the north shore. This perhaps explains why their wines are lighter bodied and lacking the structure of Benson’s.

I’ve discovered in my wine tasting adventures that sometimes the place and the wines are both amazing (Willamette Valley, Walla Walla). And then there are times when the wines outshine the place (yes “Palm Springs of Washington”, I’m talking to you). But on occasion, the place outshines the wines. I think, for now at least, Chelan fits here for me. Although they’re so young, maybe they just need a little more time to find themselves and their identity.

In any case, Benson’s reds make me want to explore that side of the lake next time I visit. I’m curious to see if other wineries in that area (Cairdeas, Chelan Ridge) have similar complexity to their reds. I’d also definitely revisit Benson, not only for their wines, but because they had Ernie. 🙂

ernie
Best tasting room attendant – Ernie of Benson Vineyards!
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