2009 K Vintners Syrah Royal City
100% Syrah, Man this is it! You name it, it's got it. Hickory, black cherry, Venezuelan chocolate, pie crust, camphor, beeswax and suede. It is complex. It is elegant. It is Royal City.
(92 Points) Representing the fourth installment of a wine designed to showcase what he treats as his Cinderella vineyard (though it's not actually his), with whose Syrah vines as he puts it "we hit it out of the ballpark already with the first vintage," Smith's 2009 Syrah Stoneridge Vineyard Royal City combines amazing density of sappy cassis, cherry concentrate, bitter huckleberry, licorice and road tar with vibratory impingement of brown spices, citrus rind, brined anchovy, and some je ne sais quoi that, as with numerous other Washington behemoths, it manages to pull from an environmental stock of energy. All of that said, you'll have to really like the particular flavors on exhibit here to want to imbibe them at this level of near-overwhelming concentration; overnight the only change I noted was the emergence of a faintly caramelized and rancid note from oak; and whether the strong tannins that lurk beneath this wine's sweet, viscous, tarry surface will remain well-blanketed as it evolves in bottle only time can tell. (I'll hope to taste one of the four previous vintages of Royal City next year, but even so, wine built to this scale must count as very young still at only age six or less.) Naturally it hasn't escaped me that most of my fellow critics have praised these Royal City wines as if they represented the proverbial Shining City on the Hill of Syrah, and some friends I especially respect have written eloquently of their virtues. I guess I have to part ways with them in the degree of excitement I find myself able to muster for an, as yet at least, rather amorphous syrup of Syrah, even one so startlingly shot through with virtual lightning bolts of energy. But, as already suggested, I'll hope to find out what precipitates from this big, dark vinous storm cloud over the years. Charles Smith's large persona and long-haired visage have become so iconic (the latter now featured on eastern Washington billboards) that I'm forced to remind myself it was barely more than a decade ago that this ex rock band manager and wine geek, encouraged by Christophe Baron, moved to Walla Walla with, as Smith is fond of telling, "$5,000 and an Astro van" to start K Vintners. Smith appears to have mellowed a bit since I first met him in 2003; what's more, his wines - while still boldly-flavored and flamboyant - have not attempted to keep pace in brashness with some of his more extreme (if always eye-catching) label art, but - on the contrary - in the best instances strike me as having become more nuanced and soulful. Smith and his articulate young winemaker, Andrew Latta, had no trouble convincing me of either their mastery of multiple wine media (but above all Syrah) or their determination to take fame in stride and keep striving to make their wines ever more distinctively delicious and engaging, as among other things, their 2011s I tasted from barrel already compellingly demonstrate. I was inspired by their self-depreciatingly self-described "working cellar" in a district of Walla Walla whose borderline squalor was rather shockingly brought home to us in the course of my visit. Bare-bones; low-tech; and quite clearly lived- not just worked in, this is a building where only people who value the quality and integrity of their wine above anything else would spend winemakers- hours. Smith does, however, plan to build a new facility within the next two years on property south of town, nearer the high elevation and cobbles that he - like so many others - thinks of now as the destiny of this region and in which he has invested 40 acres of new plantings. Asked whether he plans to cut back on fruit contracts once these substantial estate acres come into production, he replied "I believe we won't, because demand for our wines is so high. K Vintners is now at around 7,500 cases; the high end of my Charles Smith project is around 2,000 cases, and with the core portfolio of under $20 wines I make about 160,000 cases. We have lots as small as three barrels, and for K Vintners the largest lot is about 1,200 cases." Until Smith's new site produces, K Vintner's bearing estate vines comprise only the two acres of Syrah he planted around his home east of town in 2002. The emphasis with purchased fruit continues to be on Christophe Baron's vineyards in the rocks of Milton-Freewater and what Smith sees as ideally complementary sites on the Wahluke Slope as well as the parallel stretch to the north known as the Royal Slope of the Frenchman Hills, where he credits himself with discovering and reviving Stoneridge, "an ugly duckling that became a swan." With a single exception where fruit from two sites is blended, all of the K Vintner and upper-end Charles Smith label wines are single-vineyard. A major development here is pushing the envelope on length of elevage, with the wines - one or two at a time, so as to minimize both delay in turnover and customer frustration - being moved from 15-18 months in barrel to 22-28 months. "We began to notice that if given the chance the wines take this turn we really like at 18-22 months," explains Smith. And in what has begun to seem like a very familiar refrain on two continents, barriques are slowly giving way to larger - in this instance 500-liter - barrels; and the percentage of new oak is diminishing. "We want to grow," Smith explains apropos his expansion and stylistic evolution,"but we also want to make the sort of wines that we like drinking. As many of the vines we work with are maturing, we think they're kind of meeting us halfway. But we want to respect the vineyard, and if it's a vineyard that doesn't really do what we like, we'll just get new vineyards, especially (if they're) in cooler sites." Wine Advocate #204, Dec 2012
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