Figgins Family Wine Estates takes pride in Old World approach with young vines

By on August 13, 2014
Chris Figgins and Tank, his young wirehaired pointing griffon, lead a group of visitors to the Mill Creek region of the Walla Walla Valley on Thursday, June 19, 2014.

Chris Figgins and Tank, his young wirehaired pointing griffon, lead a group of visitors to Figgins Estate Vineyard in the Walla Walla Valley on Thursday, June 19, 2014. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

WALLA WALLA, Wash. — At almost 1,700 feet elevation, Figgins Estate Vineyard sits as high in the Blue Mountains as any other site in the Walla Walla Valley, and those 32 acres are close to heaven for Chris Figgins.

The second-generation winemaker for his family’s legendary Leonetti Cellar soon will release his Figgins Walla Walla Valley 2011 Estate Red Wine, just the fourth bottling from the vineyard along Upper Mill Creek.

“It’s kind of my dream site,” said Figgins, president and winemaking director of Figgins Family Wine Estates in Walla Walla. “There’s just one red wine off this site. It’s along that Old World model from Bordeaux and Piedmont where there is no distinction between the winery, the vineyard and the brand. So it’s just called Figgins. That’s the label.”

The quality of fruit off this young site, planted in 2004, is apparent because it factored into the Leonetti Cellar lineup soon after coming into full production in 2008.

“It makes our Reserve a lot, and it’s just a really killer site,” Figgins told a media tour during Celebrate Walla Walla Valley Wine.

However, the vineyard’s flagship wine is the Figgins Walla Walla Valley Estate Red Wine, a proprietary blend of Bordeaux varieties Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot. The 2010 vintage paralleled the first two bottlings and furthered his goal. The focus always will be on the vineyard and not a single variety, unlike cult bottlings of Cabernet Sauvignon under the iconic Leonetti brand.

“To me, varietals are a lens through which to see a site,” Figgins said. “And if I had everything to do over again, I’d even take Leonetti that way and do single-vineyard things. Maybe someday. We’ve got five vineyards that go into Leonetti.”

Planting of Figgins Estate Vineyard began in 2004

Figgins Estate Vineyard, purchased in 2002 and planted in 2004, spans 32 acres along Mill Creek Road in the foothills of the Blue Mountains.

Figgins Estate Vineyard, purchased in 2002 and planted in 2004, spans 32 acres along Mill Creek Road in the foothills of the Blue Mountains. (Photo by Kimberly Teske Fetrow/Imageworks)

It seems as though this vineyard was destined to be in the hands of Chris and his father, Gary, both avid outdoorsmen. On this day, Chris was joined by Tank, his frisky and friendly young wirehaired pointing griffon who can sense his first hunting season just around the corner.

“One day I was fishing up Mill Creek and there was a ‘For Sale’ sign at the bottom of the road, so I picked it up and put it in the back of my truck,” Chris said with a chuckle. “We closed on that property five days later, so it was kind of meant to be.

“All along this slope up here are properties that belong to generational families, and the land never changes hands,” he added. “We were really fortunate to get this, and there was enough acreage here that my parents and I said, ‘We have Leonetti where we want it sizewise,’ so I decided to start a single vineyard project that was totally separate.”

A couple of years later, in 2004, planting began at Figgins Estate Vineyard, about a mile up Mill Creek Road from the family’s older Mill Creek Upland Vineyard.

“I credit my dad with wanting to plant up in this area,” Chris said. “He’s always pointed up to these south slopes up here from Blue Creek to where it flattens out and really was enamored with the south slope.”

figgins-riesling-2012-bottleRiesling finds its way into young vineyard

One convenient exception was made at Figgins Estate Vineyard – a block of Riesling less than an acre planted on the northern crest of the site. He produces about 100 cases of Riesling — listed as “dry” on the International Riesling Foundation scale — and there is significant family history with the German variety. The first commercial wine produced by his father was a Leonetti Cellar 1978 Riesling.

“The wines are not about me. It’s not about Leonetti. It’s about this place,” Chris said.

There are other touches of history and legacy at this young vineyard, including limestone fence points from Kansas, an homage to the Figgins family’s Scotch-Irish roots in the Midwest. Gary named his first winery after Grandmother Leonetti.

Figgins pays tribute to friends, family

Figgins Estate Vineyard includes 12 blocks, each named after a song that’s special and tied to an event, a time or a person in Chris’ life.

Cash and Tobacco is a Cabernet Sauvignon block that brings Figgins the tobacco aromatics he seeks. It’s named for a song by Nathan Hamilton and No Deal. One Big Holiday is a planted to Merlot and serves as a tribute to his high school chum and Doubleback partner Drew Bledsoe, the retired NFL quarterback. That song was sung by My Morning Jacket. The Sun Also Sets by Ryan Adams is a Merlot block dedicated to his friend and ex-wife Heather. Easy Plateau in the northern part of the vineyard, is planted to Petit Verdot and refers to another song by Adams.

Petit Verdot holds a particular fascination for Figgins, who said it made up about 15 percent of his 2010 Red Wine.

“It brings this black fruit component,” he said. “By itself, it’s very linear. On the palate it lacks fat. What it brings aromatically and with the acidity, I love it. Five acres out of the 32 is Petit Verdot, which is a lot.”

However, the traditional blending grape in Bordeaux isn’t one he can rely on.

“In 2011, the Petit Verdot only made up 1 percent of the blend,” he said. “It was really cool, and the Petit Verdot just ran out of gas. We didn’t frost, but we ran out of season.”

leonetti-cabernet-sauvignonFamily looks to hills after freeze of ’96

These higher-elevation Mill Creek sites were purchased and developed in part as a response to the devastating 1996 freeze suffered in the Walla Walla Valley. A year later, Mill Creek Upland Vineyard was established. In 2002, they planted Loess Vineyard near their winery.

“That was the mother of all freezes, and in ’97, somewhat ironically, is when we started working toward becoming estate grown,” Figgins said. “We intentionally started looking for higher elevation sites. This one is great.”

Killing freezes tend to strike the Columbia Valley and Walla Walla Valley every six to eight years. The next one came in 2004.

Six years later, vineyards got punched again. Damage was more severe in lower elevation sites such as Pepper Bridge, a partnership property that includes Marty Clubb of L’Ecole No. 41, the Figgins family and Norm McKibben of Pepper Bridge and Amavi wineries.

“The 2010 freeze, not to knock on Pepper Bridge, but that whole area — and it’s great growing area — it’s only 850 feet there, and the morning of that freeze it was minus 14,” Figgins recalled. “I was pulling into Amavi at 6:30 in the morning for a meeting there with Norm. And it was plus 4 right here (at Figgins Estate Vineyard). We picked a normal crop and had minor — 10 percent — bud damage.”

Veraison begins 3 weeks behind Wahluke Slope

Leonetti Cellar

Leonetti’s caves below the winery are open to patrons during Spring Release Weekend.

Grapes mature later in the Walla Walla Valley than in warmer areas of the Columbia Valley. This year, veraison was spotted July 14 in Malbec on the Wahluke Slope. At Figgins Estate Vineyard, Merlot in the Lost Boy Block began to turn color Aug. 4.

“On a typical high pressure system day, we’ll have this breeze coming up the creek and then in the evenings it dunks here,” Figgins said. “After sunset, 17 minutes later, the cold air hits from the mountains and we’ll smell pine trees. It will drop 20-25 degrees over 30 minutes. It’s remarkable how consistent it is.”

At Seven Hills Vineyard, another estate site for Leonetti, the climate difference shows in the ripening of the grapes and the wine at 1,200 feet elevation.

“Out at Seven Hills, in the south and west part of the valley, you get this more linear cooling throughout the night,” Figgins said. “Here, it’s two stages. It drops precipitously for an hour and then it levels off. (At Seven Hills), we’ll get lower acids and harvest at lower sugar maturities because I think the vine is transpiring more in the evening. Here, it’s in the fridge instantly.

“We typically have to pick at higher alcohols up here,” Figgins said of his young vineyard. “You can have a percentage lower alcohol at Seven Hills and it will show up, whereas here (at Figgins Estate Vineyard) it never does. It’s always in balance. For me, alcohol is not just a number, though. It’s a balance thing.”

There are soil and precipitation differences, too. At Seven Hills, the annual precipitation for those wind-blown loess soils — some 15 feet deep — averages around seven inches.

“We’re at about 22 inches of rain right here,” Figgins said of the Upper Mill Creek Road site. “This is the apogee of the loess deposits before you start going up the slopes, and they are highly eroded. We get awesome acids up here and really great color.”

Some of the farming techniques employed at Figgins Estate Vineyard are being applied at some of the family’s other plantings, which include their young site above Seven Hills called Serra Pedace as well as in the cobblestones of Milton-Freewater, Ore.

“Most of my spacing here is 6 by 9 — six-foot vine spacing and nine-foot rows — because we’re in deep soils and with 22 inches of rain, we have a little more vigor up here,” he said. “And we have our Cabernet on double cordon. It’s a lot of work and a lot of expense to put in, but it gets you higher vine density per acre with lower shoot density per linear foot because you are basically dividing it into two. It’s really neat.

“We replanted one block at our (Mill Creek) Upland Vineyard due to leaf roll and I went in back with that system,” Figgins continued. “The vigor is just right. We don’t have to hedge it. And it’s turning out really nicely. I would only do it at a freeze-free site where you know that you will never have to retrain. It’s a lot of perennial wood to lay down, and if you freeze, it’s going to be four years before you are back in action.”

Figgins pay close attention to Merlot

figgins-estate-red-wine-2010-bottleOne variety he pays special attention to is Merlot especially in the Figgins family’s Loess Vineyard at 1,000 feet elevation — their lowest estate site. In 2010, a neighbor of their Mill Creek Upland Vineyard lost their young Merlot vines to the freeze.

“We’re still burying the canes on Merlot during the winter,” Figgins said. “Four degrees is just enough to kill the plants. If we do have bud damage or worse yet complete trunk damage, we can retrain that and be in business. Merlot is so much more tender. In an estate-grown program, if you are out, then you are out. You can’t go out and buy fruit.”

Phylloxera hasn’t been an issue in the Walla Walla Valley, and Figgins listed several reasons why.

“One, we’re a young region. Two, the vineyards are spread out. Also, it’s not legal to bring in non-certified wood,” Figgins said. “Probably the most important thing is our winters are tough. Entomologists say the winged form requires this really long life cycle and our winters are too cold.

“If we get it — and I think it’s inevitable because everyone is after the new variety or the new clone and there are careless people out there — you just put quarantine measures in place,” he added.

Healthy soils make for healthy plants, and the proud Washington State University graduate invests in research, nutrition and labor for his family’s vines.

“The above-ground part is easy. The below-ground part is where the next advances are coming in terms of understanding soil biology,” Figgins said. “We use a lot of compost teas and composting to encourage biodiversity. Fungal domination in the soils is hugely important. Nematodes, like any pest, are looking for weakness. They sense stress, and they go after it and hit weak plants. If you encourage a super-healthy soil system, you keep a happy place.”

‘Feral’ vs. ‘native’ yeast fermentations

Figgins also is noticing a change during his fermentations, and he believes that’s also a byproduct of environmentally friendly farming practices.

“Until five or seven years ago, not only were our pest populations low, but our yeast populations were low,” he said. “I take field samples at harvest time and put them in the lab when they are crushed up because I like to see how the color bleeds out to help make picking decisions.

“It used to be that it would sit there for a week and nothing would happen,” he continued. “Now, on Day 2 in the lab, they are taking off spontaneously, which is super cool. I think it’s a combination of the region establishing a population of yeast, but also all of our pomace gets composted and put back out in the field. It’s neat.”

The appreciation of those yeasts now influences Figgins’ winemaking.

“I’m starting to experiment with wild or spontaneous fermentations,” he said. “Native is probably not the right word because that wasn’t happening here 20 years ago. Feral is probably a better word for it.

“I think people make too much of ‘native’ yeasts,” he said. “Is that necessarily better than yeasts that were selected for their awesome wine properties out of thousands of trials that are duplicated? I don’t know.”

The wines, while made in the vineyard, are nurtured downtown at the Figgins Wine Studio on Melrose Street, and high standards have been set for the 2011 Figgins Estate Red Wine. Last year’s release of the 2010 vintage ($85) sold rather rapidly through its 1,550-case production via “The List.” It was the product of a vintage he’s ranked alongside that of 1998 — his third vintage since joining his father in the cellar — and the stellar wines from 2005.

About Eric Degerman

Eric Degerman is the president and CEO of Great Northwest Wine. He is a journalist with more than 30 years of daily newspaper experience and has been writing about wine since 1998. He co-founded Wine Press Northwest with Andy Perdue and served as its managing editor for 15 years. He is a frequent wine judge along the West Coast and contributor to Pacific Northwest Golfer magazine, the region's longest-running golf publication.

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