I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve sat down and tasted through the new releases from L’Ecole No. 41, one of Walla Walla’s founding wineries. But the lineup, however familiar, never fails to please, and often, to surprise.
Owners Marty and Megan Clubb more or less inherited the winery from her parents, Baker and Jean Ferguson, who began it as a retirement “hobby” almost 30 years ago. The Clubbs have expanded and upgraded the vineyard holdings, which now include partnerships in Seven Hills and SeVein, and locked in long term contracts around the state. Marty is on wine boards and committees too numerous to mention, and has turned over official winemaking duties to Mike Sharon, who joined the team 15 years ago.
Long known for its unique label, a child’s colorful drawing of the old schoolhouse for which it is named, L’Ecole recently did a complete label redesign. The new look, far more polished and formal, nonetheless gives a welcome nod to the history of the place.
As the winery website ( www.lecole.com) explains, the new label is an original, sepia-tone illustration of the historic Frenchtown schoolhouse. There are several versions. The black label is for the Columbia valley wines, many from some of this state’s oldest producing vineyards. The white label is for the Walla Walla Valley wines, notably those from the estate vineyards. L’Ecole No. 41 is featured more prominently at the top of the label, while the (rather confusing) N° 41 tag is diminished. Most people in the trade have simply called it L’Ecole for years now; these new labels make it more or less official.
The newest wines comprise a sizeable portfolio of diverse and superbly well-crafted releases that speak to the maturity and overall excellence that characterizes the top tier of Washington wines. Rarely if ever flashy, and generally priced below comparable offerings, even from Washington, these expressive wines take careful note of the character and complexity of their various appellations and vineyards. They are particularly enjoyable for their use of old vine fruit, and the overall elegance and polish of the blends.
Some highlights from the most recent releases:
L’Ecole No. 41 2010 Sémillon; $14
A good, crisp version, whose green apples and tart pear flavors offer a slight hint of honeysuckle. The juicy acidity is the main component here. Barrel fermenting adds just a touch of toast.
L’Ecole 2010 Chenin Blanc; $15
The latest vintage of this old vine chenin blanc is as good as ever. Dense, ripe and complex, the flavors a riot of melon, citrus and peach, with juicy acidity and refreshing minerality.
L’Ecole No. 41 2010 Chardonnay; $20
From a very cool vintage, this wine takes full advantage of the flavors it delivered. Bracing and fresh, with a lively mix of lime and citrus fruits, its vivid acidity, and a wash of wet rock, gives it life and length across the palate. Complex and textural, this is a lovely wine.
L’Ecole No. 41 2010 Seven Hills Vineyard Estate Luminesce White Wine; $20
Modeled after Bordeaux blanc, this is two-thirds sémillon, one third sauvignon blanc. Pretty scents of sweet apricot, peach and melon lead into a mid-palate that gathers both strength and concentration. Notes of citrus rind and dusty spices continue into a full and satisfying finish.
L’Ecole 2008 Syrah; $25
This was the first wine to disappear when I set out a tasting of the entire lineup for some visiting friends. It’s superbly executed, setting its ripe berry fruit flavors in a tart, citrusy framework.
L’Ecole No. 41 2009 Seven Hills Vineyard Estate Syrah; $37
A pure varietal blend from the estate vineyard, this has everything you look for in Walla Walla syrah – black fruits, loam, graphite, balsamic – and a very inviting scent of orange liqueur. Licorice, iron and a concentrated, muscular depth elevate the finish.
L’Ecole 2008 Columbia Valley Merlot; $25
The complex blend includes cabernet franc, petit verdot and malbec. Young, sappy red fruits lead into a wine with depth and substance, annotated with highlights of citrus and steel.
L’Ecole 2008 Seven Hills Vineyard Estate Merlot; $37
Tight and spicy at first, this opens into a deeply-flavored, brambly wine with a vivid mix of berry and stone. Firm tannins anchor it solidly and the overall structure suggests it could age for a decade or more.
L’Ecole 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon; $37
Fragrant and smoky, this tight, young cabernet sauvignon brings a generous mix of raspberry, pomegranate and cherry fruits into play. The firm and supple tannins are folded in seamlessly, with hints of iron, coffee and chocolate.
L’Ecole 2008 Seven Hills Vineyard Estate Cabernet Sauvignon; $60
Old vines bring intense aromas of mountain fruit. Bramble, light herb, black cherry and cassis combine in a polished, elegant wine.