The aptly named Wines of Substance received a fine accolade this winter when Wine Business Monthly named it one of the year's top 10 "Hot Small Brands." Substance is a Walla Walla wine project, laudable on many levels, conceived by Jason Huntley and Jamie Brown (Waters Winery), and Greg Harrington (Gramercy Cellars).
The packaging is simple, clever, eye-catching and superbly executed. Substance wines take their graphic look from the periodic table of elements, transmuting individual grape varietals into chemical symbols, just as the wine in the bottle stands for the signature of each particular grape.
The lineup strays far afield from the usual suspects. You will find riesling and chardonnay, but also viognier and pinot gris. Cabernet sauvignon and merlot are included, but so are cabernet franc, syrah, malbec and even counoise. The website (www.winesofsubstance.com) lays out the products in a "Periodic Table of Wines" that includes helpful background information on all these grapes and many more. (Two quibbles: The constant floating of the symbols gets annoying, and roussanne is misspelled.)
As Harrington explained when the wines were introduced a couple years ago, "the inspiration for Substance wines is to educate, as well as please, the palates of budding oenophiles, and to appeal to consumers beyond the bounds of Washington." There is a practical purpose as well, notes Brown. "The goal is to make wines that are distinctly Washington state and varietally correct. These wines are handcrafted and quality-driven at a price point that is affordable for aspiring wine aficionados."
Affordability is a dominant force behind almost all winemaking and wine retailing these days, and Substance wines now have a fair amount of competition, even locally, in their just-under-$20 price range. Saviah's The Jack, Tamarack's Firehouse Red, Dunham's Three Legged Red, Kestrel's Lady in Red and Platinum White and a host of other Washington wineries are putting out very good wines at competitive prices.
But Substance remains unique. Apart from offering single varietals, Substance wines reflect their exceptional vineyard sources and the specific tastes and styles of the winemakers. The focus is on more European flavors, avoiding excessively ripe grapes, and allowing for natural flavors of herb, forest and stone to take the forefront rather than the perhaps more seductive flavors of new oak barrels.
The current releases (priced $15 to $20):
Substance 2008 Cf Cabernet Franc
Made in the somewhat austere style of a Loire Valley Chinon, "rare in the New World," the winemakers confess on the Web site, "as any hint of green, or herbs, in cab-based wines makes most winemakers apoplectic." Those flavors are entirely appropriate here and do not translate to anything harsh, bitter or unpleasant. What is more surprising is the soft plum and cherry fruit that round out the mid-palate.
Substance 2008 Mb Malbec
Stone Tree (Wahluke Slope) vineyard provided much of the fruit, and there is a small (10 percent) amount of new oak in the mix. This captures the steely core of cassis, matches it to sharp, defining acids, and hones the accents of herb and cinnamon spice to a perfect pitch.
Substance 2008 Me Merlot
This shows the ample muscle of Washington merlot, with vineyard sources ranging from Canoe Ridge to Sagemoor to Seven Hills and beyond. Juicy, tangy, forward yet deep. This is not your ordinary merlot; it's got flavors of cured meat, almond pastry and black tea sifting through, ephemeral but fascinating. At the heart is good black-cherry fruit.
Substance 2008 Sy Syrah
This is a fine introduction to Washington syrah, as it shows not only the fruit (raspberry and boysenberry) but also the fragrances (earth, herb) and the nuances (rock, compost) that make these wines so complex and interesting.
Paul Gregutt is the author of "Washington Wines & Wineries." Find him at www.paulgregutt.com or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.