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L'Ecole 41 Semillon 2005
In 1984, shortly after the first 1983 vintage was resting in barrel, Jean and Baker Ferguson, the founders, held a contest with all the relatives' children under grade six. The objective: draw a colorful drawing to be used as a wine label. Some of the children drew pictures of the school building, others drew bottles of wine with glasses, and at least one drew a picture of the cat. The prize at the time was $100 cash, plus royalties on posters sold (fortunately the state liquor board would not allow royalties on the wine).
The winner: 8 year old third grade cousin Ryan Campbell. Ryan's watercolor of the schoolhouse was drawn just about the time of Walla Walla's Hot Air Balloon Stampede, and he came up with the grape cluster balloon. All of the entries, including Ryan's original, hang in the tasting room for visitors to admire. Today, Ryan has just completed his Architecture Degree at the University of Idaho.
A large and geographically diverse AVA responsible for a wide variety of wine styles, the Columbia Valley AVA is home to 99% of Washington State’s total vineyard area. A small section of the AVA extends into northern Oregon as well. Because of its vast size, it is necessarily divided into several distinctive sub-AVAs, including Walla Walla Valley and Yakima Valley—which is further split into three more even smaller AVAs. A region this size will of course have varied microclimates, but on the whole it experiences cold winters and long, dry growing seasons. Frost is a common risk during winter and spring. The towering Cascade mountain range creates a rain shadow, keeping the valley relatively rain-free throughout the year, necessitating irrigation from the Columbia River. The lack of humidity combined with sandy soils allows for vines to be grown on their own rootstock, as phylloxera is not a serious concern.
Red wines make up the majority of production in the Columbia Valley. Cabernet Sauvignon is the dominant variety here, where it produces wines with a pleasant balance of dark fruit and herbs. Wines made from Merlot are typically supple, with sweet red fruit and sometimes a hint of chocolate or mint. Syrah tends to be savory and Old-World-leaning, with a wide range of possible fruit flavors and plenty of spice. The most planted white varieties are Chardonnay and Riesling, the styles of which depend on the warmth of the site. Citrus and green apple are common to both in cooler sites, while warmer vineyards will produce riper, fleshier stone fruit flavors.
A shy but noble variety with considerable structure, depth, and length, beneath Sémillon’s aloof exterior lays a singular, uncompromising white with the power and intensity to create wines that can last and improve for several decades. It is the perfect partner to tame Sauvignon Blanc's wild side in its most important outpost of Bordeaux. Sémillon especially shines in Sauternes, one of the world’s greatest sweet wines, with highly concentrated flavors of honey and dried apricots. While Sémillon is not the most fashionable grape in the rest of the wine world, it has had great success in Australia, where it can produce elegant, complex dry wines.
In the Glass
Sémillon is most notable for its oily texture and significant palate weight. In youthful dry wines, it expresses subtle aromas of lemon, green apple, pear, and stone fruit. Aged or sweet Sémillon wines show more complex character of lanolin, beeswax, honeysuckle, ginger, saffron, vanilla, or toast.
Thanks to its moderate acidity, this fairly full-bodied wine can stand up to pretty boldly flavored food. Think lightly spiced Asian or Indian white meat or fish dishes, or anything with cinnamon, clove, or star anise. It’s also great with autumnal vegetables like kabocha squash, yam, or potato. Botrytised Sémillon, as in Sauternes, is a perfectly decadent pairing with foie gras.
Sémillon was once the most common variety in South Africa—so common, in fact, that in 1822, when 93% of the country’s vineyard area was planted with it, it was simply referred to as Wyndruif, or “wine grape.”