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Friday, Jul. 03, 2009

Location, location, location -- for distinctive Washington wine

Three distinct climates plus a trio of varying soil types equal three syrah wines with different flavor profiles that reflect the characteristics of the land on which the grapes were grown.

A new wine label called Alma Terra, produced by a Washington geologist and a Yakima Valley winemaker, seeks to highlight how the taste of a varietal changes based on the vineyard location.

Alan Busacca, a well-known former research professor in geology, agriculture and soil science at Washington State University, and Robert O. Smasne, a prominent winemaker in the Yakima Valley, started the project about three years ago. And the first fruits of their labor recently hit the market.

"I had an interest in launching a wine label," Busacca said. "(Robert) and I were talking about what would make sense, what would be a little unique in the marketplace. We hatched the idea of a terroir series of wines."

Terroir is a French term for the effect of climate, soils, geology and vineyard practices on the flavor of wine.

And Alma Terra, a term meaning nourishing earth, was the perfect name for the project.

Partway into the 2006 harvest, the pair contacted the owners of Minick Vineyard in the Yakima Valley, Coyote Canyon Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills and Ciel du Cheval Vineyard on Red Mountain.

"We picked the three vineyards based on general vineyard setting," Busacca said. "We wanted a cool climate site, an intermediate warmth site and a very hot site."

Soils at the three vineyards also vary greatly, from about one foot deep at Minick to 30 feet deep on Red Mountain, he said.

Smasne suggested Syrah as the variety because it's "really responsive to its site," Busacca said.

"In order for us to make the best attempt to have the wines in the bottle express the character of the vineyard ... (we had to) make each of the wines in an identical fashion," he said.

That way variations in each of the three wines would be mostly a result of the site.

Jim Holmes, owner of the famed Ciel du Cheval Vineyard, said he was excited about the project.

"I think it's a great idea," he said. "I'm interested myself in the outcome."

He noted the high concentration of calcium carbonate in the soils of Red Mountain that results from very little rainfall as one of the growing area's most unique characteristics.

The three Syrahs produced from the 2006 harvest are now for sale in a boxed set, which includes a set of laminated cards explaining the project and a fourth bottle of wine that's a blend of the other three.

"When you taste the blend ... you go, 'Oh my gosh I can really taste the symphony of all three wines together,'" Busacca said, complimenting Smasne's vision for the project and his winemaking acumen.

The pair produced 500 boxed sets and an additional 50 cases of the blend for individual sale.

Smasne and Busacca also made a 2007 Viognier blend that's been released as a preview of the single-vineyard wines that likely will be ready next year.

Getting the new wine to market has been more of a challenge than expected, Busacca said.

And sales of more expensive wine have slowed with the economy, meaning many wine shops are hesitant to take on new high-end inventory, he added. The boxed set sells for $220.

He credited Kennewick's Sara Nelson Design for creating the look of the bottles.

The pair are happy with the results of their project so far, Busacca said. And while they may pursue other varieties down the line, they'll stick with the two they've got for now.

"Right now our focus is to tell the world about the syrah and viognier wines we have," Busacca said.

For more information, visit www.almaterrawines.com.