At a Weekly wine tasting a few weeks ago, one of the bottles opened was the recently released 2003 chardonnay from John Abbott’s Abeja Winery in Walla Walla. We all expected to like the wine—though Abeja’s fairly new, Abbott has been making fine wine for other labels for many years. What we did not expect was to like the wine so much that it virtually erased all the others under consideration that day. The compliments were many and varied, but the one that captured the overall mood was: “If Washington can produce a chardonnay this good, why aren’t more winemakers doing it?”
So I called Abbott, and I found out why. “Wines with a lower pH [higher acidity] always seem more balanced and elegant. You tend to have higher acid at ripeness at cooler-climate sites, so we go first to Connor Lee Vineyard on the Wahluke Slope, which averages 10 degrees cooler than Wahluke average, and we pick it early as we can, soon as the greenness goes away, at 3, 3.18 pH.
“The next piece of the puzzle comes from the Kestrel View Estates outside Prosser. That site provides the majority of the fruit and basic structure, and we’re pretty finicky about it; the vines are older and more variable, so we pick through at least two or three times to get consistency. The third element of the wine comes from Celilo Vineyard down on the Columbia. The Celilo vines are pruned so that each shoot is left with just one primary cluster, and we actually go through and prune off the ‘shoulders’ [small bunches of grapes perched on top of the main bunch like epaulets] because they can keep the fruit beneath from ripening.”
So Abbott and company harvest four or five times and haul grapes from three sites separated by about 400 miles to make 500 cases of wine? “Uh-huh. We don’t really make it for the money. [The wine retails for about $25.] We have a lot of fun making it. I can’t imagine a harvest without chardonnay: the fragrance that comes out of the press when you open it, that allspice and candy-apple smell of the lees.”