Ciel du Cheval Vineyard
by Cole Danehower
When wine experts consider Washington State's great vineyards, one name that consistently appears near the top of any list is Ciel du Cheval Vineyard in the Red Mountain AVA. Famed for the elegance and complexity of the wines it produces, Ciel du Cheval and its owner Jim Holmes have become near-legendary exemplars of what Washington wine is all about.
The desirability of fruit from Ciel du Cheval can be seen in the names of the wineries that produce wine from the vineyard. Culling through a client list that includes 25 producers in Washington and Oregon reveals some of the Northwest's most prestigious labels: Fidelitas, Mark Ryan, Quilceda Creek, Andrew Will, McCrea Cellars, Cadence, Betz Family . . . among others.
"It's great to have such a positive reputation," admits Jim Holmes. "But it's one of those things that feels temporary because there's always the next guy coming up around the corner somewhere!"
But what isn't temporary at Ciel du Cheval are the two ingredients of success that Holmes feels are critical. "Dirt and climate, climate and dirt," he says when asked how he accounts for his vineyard's success.
Geology Lays the Foundation
The forces that helped form Ciel du Cheval, and the Red Mountain geology in general, were truly gigantic. The deep bedrock of most of the Columbia Basin is basalt, formed from the massive lava outflows caused by intense volcanic activity. On top of the basalt lie layers of sediment deposited by repeated ancient floods - the largest floods ever recorded. And on top of the sediment are layers of sand and silt from eons of erosion and weathering.
Walking out among the vines, Holmes leans down, roots around with his fingers in the finely textured silt and loam topsoil, and picks up a fist-sized rock to illustrate the importance of the area's geology. "All around here are exotic rocks that don't belong here," he says as he kicks around the grey dirt, "they washed down with the Spokane Floods. All these rough and tumbled stones form the underlying rock of the vineyard."
He turns the rock over with his fingers, and scratches at the surface with his thumbnail. "See this white coating? It's basically calcium carbonate and that's what accounts for the pH of our soils - it's so high. If you dissolve calcium carbonate in water and put a pH meter in it, you'll get a pH of 8.4."
This naturally high level of pH in the soil at Ciel du Cheval is, believes Holmes, one of the elements of its greatness. The high pH acts as a brake to the vigor of the grapevine - a viticultural blessing in the region's warm climate that otherwise encourages dynamic plant growth. "We think it's a good thing," says Holmes. "The high pH makes it hard for the plants to extract nutrients from the soil, helping keep vigor down and canopies in balance."
Climate Provides the Potential
In it's natural state Ciel du Cheval (like most of the Columbia Basin) is a desert - arid, hot, and flooded with sunlight - ideal for growing wine grapes. "It is a warm site," says Holmes of Ciel du Cheval, "typically running 3,000 degree days."
"Degree days" (also sometimes called "heat summation index") is a measurement of the cumulative amount of heat the grapevine experiences during the growing season, from April 1 through October 31. The potential of an area to grow a specific type of grape is often a function of its degree days - generally, the higher the number, the warmer the climate, the better for reliable ripening. At Ciel du Cheval, the hot and sunny climate that delivers 3,000 degree days means Holmes has wide latitude to grow and ripen many different varietals.
But as much as good heat is a positive, you can have too much of a good thing. If the air temperature rises above a certain level, often above 97° F, the grapevine can shut down its metabolism, thereby slowing ripening, and potentially doing damage to the vine. At Ciel du Cheval, however, this danger has not been great. "Generally, our peak temperatures seldom get above 100° F," says Holmes - right in line for good, sustained vine development and fruit ripening.
Another important climate factor is the amount of sunlight available to the plant. After all, the grape vine is essentially a photosynthesis engine whose energy drives the ripening of the fruit. Located roughly along the 46th parallel, the Red Mountain AVA gets around 2 hours more daily sunlight then Napa Valley - a real plus in providing lengthy hang-time for full development of flavors.
An additional element contributing to the quality of grapes grown at Ciel du Cheval and at neighboring vineyards in the Red Mountain AVA is the significant diurnal temperature variation. This means that the difference in temperature between the warm daylight hours and the cool nighttime hours is relatively high - as much as 45 degrees. Such cool nights help develop flavors and character in the grapes by slowing the ripening process that was accelerated by the day's warmth, and by helping to retain natural acidity in the grapes.
Finally, another aspect of Ciel du Cheval's climate that is important to consider is the cold winters. Low temperatures and frost are definite issues for grape growers in Red Mountain, but generally not as big an issue as it is on some other regions. Ciel du Cheval, like many other vineyards, employs large fans to keep air circulating around the growing vines in spring and fall when cold weather threatens. Luckily, the relatively flat topography of the vineyard means that there are few low areas where cold air can settle and threaten vines.
People Grow the Vines
If geology laid the groundwork, and climate provides the potential, then it is the hands of humans that realize the full fruition of the vines at Ciel du Cheval. The best soil and climate is meaningless unless the right viticultural decisions are made.
Holmes, and his close friend and former partner John Williams, first saw the potential of Red Mountain in the early 1970s. Both men were scientists who worked together, budding wine aficionados and attendees of the local oenological society tastings, and hopeful investors who saw potential in the land around Red Mountain.
"A good story," laughs Holmes today, "would be that I searched all over the world, analyzed the soil here, smelled the air, and said 'This is it!' In reality, John and I were looking for an investment, and we bought 80 acres in 1972 from his father-in-law."
That 80-acres became Kiona Vineyard, and helped set off a spurt of grape planting growth throughout the region. A few years later some friends became interested in growing grapes, and Holmes helped them plant Ciel du Cheval (roughly translated as "horse heaven" - a tribute to the Horse Heaven Hills located to the south of the vineyard). When the original owners lost interest, Holmes and Williams purchased the vineyard and made it part of Kiona.
In 1994 the two friends amicably split their partnership, and Jim Holmes became the new owner of Ciel du Cheval Vineyard. He was free to work with the geology and climate of the site to produce the kind of grapes, for the kind of wines, that he wanted.
Today Holmes and his vineyard manager Ryan Johnson farm 120 acres of Ciel du Cheval, plus 40-acres of additional vineyard land adjacent to Ciel du Cheval. This latter land is composed of two 20-acre parcels, each managed as a limited partnership, one with Quilceda Creek and the other with DeLille Cellars.
One lesson that Holmes has learned in his 30-odd years of grape farming, is to concentrate on what works. Previously grown varietals - Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, are all examples - have been pulled out and replaced by tried and true varietals, or by new grapes whose potential attracts Holmes.
"We're concentrating on what we know we do well," says Holmes. "Things we plant that don't end up doing well, we pull them out!"
What works well at Ciel du Cheval, has been all the major (and some ninor) red Bordeaux varietals, Rhone grapes - both red and white - and some Italian varietals. These grapes are grown in a variety of trellis styles, from standard vertical shoot positioned to a less common fan trellis - a style that Holmes and Williams favored early in their grape growing careers for the quality of wine it produced.
One key to quality has been the careful use of drip irrigation - it is the water that unlocks the potential of the region, turning it from barren desert to verdant swaths of vineyard rows. "Our regime is to shoot water into them during dormancy," explains vineyard manager Ryan Johnson, "and then get real careful in how we irrigate up to verasion." The goal is to keep the vine healthy without encouraging excessive vigor.
Unlike cooler climate growing regions, leaves are not pulled off the plant in the fruit zone. The intense summer sunlight means that Holmes and Johnson want to see the dappled sunlight that some leaf shading provides.
Another factor to consider is that morning sun is more desirable then afternoon sun, because it is less drying and burning. Accordingly, many of the vine rows at Ciel du Cheval have been planted offset by a10° angle from the north/south axis. This gives just a bit extra morning sun, and helps reduce the chances of burning as the weather gets warmer in the summer.
To help protect young vines from winter damage, for the first three years they are buried when dormant. This helps harden the vine against the cold, allowing to stand up to bitter weather better when more mature.
Vision Makes the Wine
After nearly thirty years of growing grapes on red Mountain, Jim Holmes knows a thing or two about wine and grape growing. Yet at the same time, he knows that he'll never know it all. With thinly veiled impatience, he fends off another attempt to get him to describe what it is that makes Ciel du Cheval such a special vineyard.
"Go to Burgundy and ask that question," he says, "they won't have an answer! All I can do is talk differences between spots - what makes this place different from that place? It's differences in degree days, it's differences in soil sets . . "
Finally, as if to end the discussion, he lets forth a brief but passionate statement of how he views what he is doing at Ciel du Cheval:
"Making great wine is like painting a great picture: you have to have some idea of what you want to paint before you put paint to canvas. We've got a great site - we've got great paint! If you want to make a great bottle of wine, you've got to think about what you're doing in the field. You've got to know why you did this, and why you did that, and why one worked and the other didn't work. You've got to keep working at those things because the desire is to put great art on the canvas.
We've gone through a whole number of canvasses, and we've got a good idea of what to do next. But the artwork will continually evolve. I think the theme is to make great wine and make it better tomorrow. We're lucky with this site, damn lucky. But if you have vision and a great site, you're apt to achieve the art you want."
Wines made from Ciel du Cheval Grapes
Mark Ryan "Dead Horse" Red 01
Made entirely from Ciel du Cheval grapes.
Ciel du Cheval Growing America's First Brunello
One thing about Jim Holmes: he likes to experiment. When Oregon winemaker Gino Cuneo came to Holmes with the idea of planting North America's first certified Brunello Clone Sangiovese, Holmes jumped at it.
Brunello is the name given to a series of special Sangiovese clones that are grown in and around the commune of Montalcino, in Tuscany, Italy. Brunello di Montalcino is one of Italy's greatest and most sought-after wines, savored especially for its depth, complexity, and power. But the Brunello Clone of Sangiovese had never been grown commercially in America. Until, that is, Gino Cuneo approached Jim Holmes.
"Under his own steam, Gino had gotten really interested in new Italian clones coming from the research cooperative in Rauscedo, Italy," remembers Holmes. "He went over there and he got his hands on the very best from Brunello, working with NovaVine here in the US. We'd had good success with Sangiovese before, so I said what the heck - let's plant this clone!"
The Brunello Clone that was imported to Ciel du Chval had undergone extensive testing and certification, both in Europe by Italy's Vivai Cooperativi Rauscedo (VCR), and in the US by the Foundation Plant Materials Service (FPMS). Such testing and certification is important in minimizing the potential of plant diseases and viruses.
Five acres of the Brunello Clone Sangiovese (designated VCR 6) were densely planted to reflect Tuscan practice. Vines are planted in 7-ft. rows by 3-ft spacing to a density of 2,000 plants to the acre. Drip irrigation is sparingly used to ensure vine health. Planned long-term yields are between 1 and 2.5 tons per acre.
Now in their third leaf, Jim, Gino, and Ryan have spared no effort to ensure the best quality Brunello crop for their first production vintage. And with an excellent growing year in 2004, the grapes are rapidly ripening. America's first certified Brunello Sangiovese crop is about to be picked at Ciel du Cheval Vineyard, and made at Cuneo Cellars!