PROSSER, Wash. — Paul Champoux earned worldwide acclaim growing Cabernet Sauvignon in Washington’s Horse Heaven Hills. Now that he’s retired, he’s having fun promoting an unusual red grape — the winter-hardy and early-ripening Marquette.
“My alma mater was Marquette High School, and this has snowballed into looking at wines made with the Marquette grape from across the country,” Champoux said with a chuckle.
While his inspiration started with a bit of whimsy, the respect Champoux and Champoux Vineyards developed around the country lured some of the Washington wine industry’s biggest players and winemakers from the grape’s home state of Minnesota to taste 12 wines. Samples came from two of Washington’s most famous vineyards as well as from Maine, Minnesota, New York, Nebraska and Vermont.
The panel Champoux assembled at the Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center in Prosser included Doug Gore, director of winemaking for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates; longtime winemaker Greg Powers of Powers Winery; fellow Marquette grower Mike Sauer of historic Red Willow Vineyard in the Yakima Valley; Thomas Henick-Kling, Washington State University’s director of viticulture and enology; and two WSU researchers — wine chemist Jim Harbertson and plant pathologist Michelle Moyer.
“I talked with Michelle this past summer, and she tasted some Marquettes when she was back in the Midwest on vacation,” Champoux said. “I asked her, ‘Why don’t I round up some Marquettes and line them up in a blind tasting?’ Then she gave me some names of people who were quality growers, and I called them up, and they would tell me, ’OK, you need to try this one, too.’ Now we’ve got six states represented here. I kept people informed, set a date, and here we are.”
Minnesota researchers pay tribute to Jesuit explorer
Champoux grew up in Yakima, and his Catholic school was named after Pere Marquette, a 17th century Jesuit missionary and explorer. It so happens that the University of Minnesota’s horticultural research center also paid tribute to Marquette with its cross of hybrid MN 1094 and Rabat 262. It began in 1989, and the parentage includes Pinot Noir and Frontenac. Commercial release came in 2006.
“Like Paul, we have grandkids going to the middle school named Marquette, so that was a little bit of the hook,” Sauer said. “But the real reason we got into it was that Red Willow really struggled mightily to get things to ripen in 2011, so coming out of the 2010 and 2011 cool vintages, we were looking for something that would make sugar.
“The Marquette came into production in 2014 and 2015, and it does nothing but make sugar,” Sauer continued. “This year (2015), we picked it Aug. 6 at 4 tons per acre at the 24 Brix range. In 2014, we picked it Aug. 21. We had no idea how productive it was going to be, so we only cropped it to one cluster per shoot, so it only produced at one ton per acre.”
Champoux and his wife, Judy, planted their Marquette in 2011, starting with 6-inch cuttings from Inland Desert Nursery in Benton City, Wash. The 2014 bottles he poured were his first commercial vintage, made by the renowned Charlie Hoppes of Fidelitas on Red Mountain and Mitch Venohr at Hoppes’ Wine Boss facility in Richland.
“It’s the best Marquette we’ve ever worked with,” Venohr said with a smile. “It’s always the first thing that comes into the winery, so we’ve got to fire up the equipment and make sure that everything is working right. It’s an interesting grape to work with and very different from anything else we’re bringing in — high sugar and high acid.”
Marquette ‘tough as nails’ vs. winter, fungus
Budbreak comes a couple of weeks earlier than red Bordeaux varieties, so that is a concern. Champoux also modified the VSP trellis because of some sunburn on the clusters, but those are about the only issues.
“We didn’t take the leaves off this year until halfway through véraison, and we don’t have the same exposure as we do for a Bordeaux variety,” Champoux said. “We harvested (in 2015) on Aug. 10.”
Regarding fungus, he said Marquette is “tougher than nails. It’s like Concord. And the literature will tell you that after a winter of minus 20 to 30 degrees, you’ll still get a full crop.”
The harvest date generated a few chuckles and a gasp or two from the tasting panel. It was a historically early harvest in Washington state. In Minnesota, the grape typically is not harvested until mid-September. For the inaugural 2014 bottling, Champoux took his 1.6 tons of Marquette on Aug. 18. He doubled the crop for the 2015 vintage.
“They are really skinny vines, like Concords,” Champoux said. “I think we can grow it from 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 tons per acre and get real exceptional quality.”
Winemakers liken flavors to some Pinot Noir
Eight Bells Winery in Seattle has cornered the market on the Marquette at Red Willow Vineyard in the Yakima Valley, and Tim Bates, one of Eight Bells’ three winemakers, attended Champoux’s tasting.
“People have really enjoyed it,” Bates said. “It’s got a distinct flavor to it, and we ended up allocating two or three bottles per club member. It was sold out quickly. It’s a lighter red that’s similar to an earthy Pinot Noir, but it’s got another interesting fruit flavor that you’ve never had before.”
Many of the wines assembled carried a dark purple fruit profile akin to Marionberry, blueberry and elderberry, backed by pomegranate-like acidity. The fruity and soft tannin structure of most examples made them easy to approach. A few came off as cloying because of their residual sugar.
Steve Zeller, winemaker/co-owner of Parley Lake Winery in Waconia, Minn., began planting Marquette — just after the variety was released — across 5 acres in 2007. He said his soil type is quite different than most of the other Minnesota wines assembled at the tasting.
“We’re five miles from the horticulture and research center at the University of Minnesota,” Zeller said. “We’ve had six years of making it, and we’re waiting longer and longer to harvest as the climate allows to get the TA (total acidity) down.”
Marquette ready to pick at 2,500 heat units
Champoux said he harvested his Marquette at 2,525 growing degree days. He eventually reached 3,525 GDD at Champoux Vineyards by the end of the year. Sauer estimated his pick of Marquette came at 2,500 heat units.
“For 2014 and 2015, people in this room know these were by far the most heat units we’ve ever had,” Sauer said. “If we got back to a somewhat normal year, perhaps we’d get back to the end of August or first of the September before we start picking this.”
Zeller, who estimated his final heat units range from 2,200 to 2,600, picks his Marquette in early October — two weeks later than others in Minnesota. The grape’s inherently low tannin structure at harvest also presents a challenge in the winery.
“During fermentation, you can lose as much of half of your tannins,” Zeller said. “When you have tannins like Washington does, you don’t care, but we have so little tannins in Minnesota that if you lose half, that’s terrible.
“Frontenac has hardly any measurable tannin structure,” he added. “Marquette has some more, but on a scale, they are less than one-tenth of the tannin of any Cab or Merlot would have.”
WSU student set to return to Minnesota
Sovereign Estate, also in Waconia, Minn., produces about 3,000 cases of wine annually. Isaac Savaryn and his family grow 5 acres of Marquette, which leads to about 600 cases — about 20 percent of their total production.
“It’s hard to compare this wine to another wine,” Savaryn said. “It’s very similar to Pinot Noir, but it’s got its own characteristics. It has a really nice fruity character — full of dark fruits, cherries — but it can take oak very exceptionally, so you’ve got to be very careful.
“Marquette is the Minnesota ticket to red wine,” he added. “In the past, we haven’t had that. It’s turned some heads and changing some of these beer drinkers and sweet wine drinkers.”
Savaryn, a student in Washington State University’s wine school, received notice of the tasting from his program director — Henick-Kling.
“I spent my first two years in Pullman and my last two years in Richland,” he said. “I will be graduating in May and probably heading back to Minnesota unless something else happens out here, but my main intention is to take this Marquette and go further with it.”
Paul and Judy Champoux poured the following wines Jan. 29, 2016 at the Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center’s Vineyard Pavilion:
- Champoux Vineyards 2014 Marquette, Horse Heaven Hills, $25
- Eight Bells Winery 2014 Red Willow Vineyard Marquette, Yakima Valley, $25
- Grape Mill Vineyard and Winery Marquette, Minnesota, $24
- Hinterland Vineyard Reserve Marquette, Minnesota, $23
- Parley Lake Winery Marquette, Minnesota, $25
- Sovereign Estate Winery Marquette, Minnesota, $24
- Lincoln Peak Winery Marquette, Vermont, $17
- Shelburne Vineyard Reserve Marquette, Vermont, $29
- Cellar 426 Winery Aspire Marquette, Nebraska, $28
- Coyote Moon Winery Special Reserve Marquette, New York, $50
- Liberty Vineyard & Winery Marquette, Lake Erie, $15
- Breakwater Vineyards Marquette, Maine, $35