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A Stylistic Dilemma
By Mary Ewing-Mulligan
Dec 15, 2009
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Seven Hills Winery, Red Mountain (Washington) Ciel du Cheval 2007 ($32);
Seven Hills Winery, Red Mountain (Washington) Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 ($45):  I don’t particularly have difficulty making decisions, but when compelled to choose between two wines that are stylistically different, both of which I like a lot, I can become stymied.  That happened when I dined with Seven Hills Winery owners, Vicky and Casey McClelland, and it happened again when I tasted my two favorites of their wines at home.  One wine is softer, subtler and more approachable, and the other is tight and lean with concentrated fruit character and oak to age -- but both are excellent.

Seven Hills Winery is one of the elders among wineries in Walla Walla, Washington, an area that has seen an explosion of wineries over the past several years.  The McClellands established their winery in 1988, way ahead of the growth curve.  Several years before the winery’s establishment, now-winemaker Casey McClelland and his father planted the renowned Seven Hills Vineyard.  Originally owned by McClelland and partners, that vineyard changed hands in 1995, but the McClellands have 20 adjacent acres of vines in their estate vineyards, and they also continue to make vineyard-designated wines from Seven Hills Vineyard.  In addition, they make vineyard-designated wines from other celebrated vineyards elsewhere in the state, including a fine Cabernet from Klipsun Vineyard in the Red Mountain AVA.

I find McClelland’s reds to be, in general, relatively understated, well-balanced wines that aren’t exaggerated in ripeness or alcohol.  “I’m among the earliest to pick the grapes in many of the sites I use,” he explained.  The wines are also very reasonably priced.

My two favorite wines are both from the Red Mountain AVA, one a vineyard-designated blend from the acclaimed Ciel du Cheval vineyard and the other a Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from fairly young vines on a steep, north-facing hillside with very thin soil.

The 2007 Ciel du Cheval wine is the softer, subtler, more approachable one.  It’s a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (43%), Merlot from 30-year-old vines (34%), and fan-trained Petit Verdot (14%) and Cabernet Franc (9%), from a vintage that McClelland describes as “ripe, forward, beautiful.”  Its aroma, only medium-intense, suggests plump, dark fruit and cedar.  Where the wine shows its stuff is in your mouth: a soft entry, full body, sedate flavors of ripe but fresh fruit, and very soft tannins.  You can detect oak in the wine’s flavor and also in the structure of the wine, and it forms a spine for the lovely fruit.  The wine’s top asset is that fruit: the wine is seamless as it caresses your tongue with smooth, silky but not heavy texture and it tastes as if its raw material were simply perfect.

The 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon is only the sixth Reserve bottling for the winery in 18 vintages, and the first since 2001.  It is 88 % Cabernet Sauvignon with 10 % Merlot and 2 % Cabernet Franc.  Just smelling the wine shows you what depth and intensity it has; the aroma is tight and contained, with mineral notes such as lead pencil emerging first and fresh, dark-berry fruit only afterwards.  In your mouth the wine is fruitier than the Ciel du Cheval -- sporting splendid bright, fresh, concentrated dark fruit flavors along with unmistakable mineral notes -- but it is also lean and taut in structure.  Its oak is still a bit noticeable but I expect that in time it will integrate nicely with the ripe, concentrated fruit.  This is a quietly powerful wine.

Because both wines are “Bordeaux blends,” analogies from Bordeaux come to mind to explain their different styles.  While both are definitely fruitier than Bordeaux wines, the Ciel de Cheval’s relaxed style, soft tannins and approachability are suggestive of the Right Bank, while the concentration and relative austerity of the Reserve are suggestive of the Left Bank.  Right Bank vs. Left Bank?  No wonder I couldn’t choose!

Ciel du Cheval, 92 Points
Reserve, 92 Points