William Church winemaker finds his way with reds

With his sixth harvest complete, winemaker Marcus Rafanelli believes he’s gaining a greater understanding of Washington grapes.

Rafanelli joined William Church Winery in July 2008 after graduating from Walla Walla Community College’s winemaking program. Today, he makes 2,800 cases for William Church owners Rod and Leslie Balsley, and his reds are now just as strong as the Viognier that has been his signature wine.

“As I’ve gained experience, it’s been easier to build those blends,” he said. “I’ve learned more about the red winemaking process over the years. It takes time.”

Rafanelli, a Seattle native, recently celebrated his 35th birthday by treating himself to dinner at the venerable Herbfarm in Woodinville. He ordered the restaurant’s last bottle of Columbia Winery’s 1988 Syrah, the first Syrah made from Washington grapes. Rafanelli saw it as research because he now uses grapes from Red Willow.

“I was seeing the same character in that wine as I see in mine,” he said. “It finally clicked.”

Rafanelli will continue his education when he flies to Australia in February to spend four months working Down Under during harvest. It’s an investment the Balsleys are more than willing to make in their talented young winemaker.

“I’m looking for experience to make their wines even better,” he said.

Here are some William Church red wines we’ve tasted recently. Look for them at your favorite wine merchant or contact the winery directly.

William Church Winery 2010 Syrah, Yakima Valley, $32: Back in the 1980s, grape grower Mike Sauer decided to grow Syrah at Red Willow Vineyard in the western reaches of the Yakima Valley. This was the first planting of Syrah in Washington and led to a revolution that has pushed the Rhone variety to No. 3 amid the state’s red wine grapes.

This superb example of Washington Syrah comes from Red Willow, where Sauer is marking his 40th year as a wine grape grower. It opens with complex aromas of plum, mint, raspberry and boysenberry. On the palate, this is not some simple, hedonistic, syrupy Syrah. Rather, it is a sturdy wine with flavors of red raspberry, plum sauce, boysenberry and chocolate. It’s a sexy wine with ample acidity and well-managed tannins.

William Church Winery 2010 2 Spires, Columbia Valley, $34: This red blend leads with Syrah and follows with Cabernet Sauvignon. It opens with aromas of cedar, strawberry, mint and cranberry, followed by flavors of dark chocolate, black pepper, Marionberry and black cherry. It is a richly structured wine with beautiful balance between fruit, tannin and acidity.

William Church Winery 2010 Sur La Mer, Columbia Valley, $36: This Merlot-heavy blend also includes Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot. It offers aromas of maple candy, raspberry, cedar and rosemary, followed by rich flavors of pomegranate, Rainier cherry and milk chocolate. It’s all backed with assertive tannins that meld with the rich fruit flavors.

William Church Winery 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley, $40: Here’s a gorgeous Cabernet Sauvignon that begins with aromas of dark plum, blueberry jam, black pepper and pomegranate, followed by flavors of horehound, black licorice, cocoa powder, boysenberry and plum. The moderate tannins make for an easy-going structure. This is a versatile food wine.

William Church Winery 2010 Gamache Vineyards Malbec, Columbia Valley, $34: Malbec, a grape from Bordeaux that has become famous in recent years in Argentina, is a strong candidate for Washington’s next big thing. This is a great example of what the state can produce. It opens with aromas of dark plum, blackberry, watermelon, strawberry and mint, followed by rich, dark, spicy flavors of mineral, black cherry and pomegranate. It’s packed with bright acidity and sturdy tannins, which provide ample structure for this fruit-driven red wine.

Eric Degerman and Andy Perdue run Great Northwest Wine, a news and information company. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.

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