We always make our first stop in Walla Walla at L’Ecole 41‘s historic schoolhouse, to visit talented winemaker Marcus Rafanelli and taste impressive L’Ecole wine. We also always enjoy seeing Marcus, whose skill and love for WA wine shines. Last month, we tasted 12 of his wines; half were tank samples because his team was bottling that week. L’Ecole is one of the most honored wineries in WA, and has generated national and international accolades for producing superior quality wines.
L’Ecole 41 is a third-generation, family-owned artisan winery. Most importantly, L’Ecole 41 is a leader of the sustainable farming program in the Walla Walla Valley. All of L’Ecole’s estate wines are Certified Sustainable and Salmon Safe. The technology at L’Ecole 41 is showcased in state-of-the-art equipment — head of the class for small-batch winemaking.
We’ve been fans of the winery since we moved to Washington in 1999. So, on this 2023 visit, we were not surprised to discover the lineup of L’Ecole wine scored again. Gold stars all around at the schoolhouse!
Marcus poured us six impressive wines and six tank samples. These are the outstanding wines we tasted: 2021 Sémillon Royal Slope, 2021 Sémillon Columbia Valley, 2020 Merlot Estate, 2020 Syrah Estate Seven Hills Vineyard, 2020 Ferguson Estate, and 40th Anniversary Red. In addition, we finally met Ben Dimitri, who kindly gave us samples of four new releases of summer whites – featured below – to take home. But first, Marcus took us to the production facility.
During our time in the production facility, Marcus shared six tank samples with us. Subsequently, he noted, “Winemakers are artists and scientists, always experimenting. So if wine is exactly the same every year, something is wrong.” In short, these are our six tank tastes from the 2021 vintage: Cabernet Franc-Merlot Estate Blend, Candy Mountain Red Blend, Bacchus 50th Anniversary Cabernet Sauvignon, Perigee and Apogee. Each one shows spectacular potential.
2021 Cabernet Franc-Merlot Estate is a 50/50 split of Cabernet Franc and Merlot from two Estate vineyards, Ferguson and Seven Hills. Talk about symmetry! This incredible blend displays the promise of its predecessors.
2021 Candy Mountain Red Blend combines 70% Cabernet Sauvignon with 30% Merlot and already offers tantalizing flavors.
50th Leaf Old Vines Cabernet Sauvignon is 100% Cab Sauv from 50-year old vines from Bacchus Vineyard Block 3. Marcus told us this is the only time that the L’Ecole wine portfolio will include this special bottle. Moreover, It already has that wow factor, and we can’t wait to see where it lands.
2021 Perigee is L’Ecole’s flagship Bordeaux-style blend, which already epitomizes Seven Hill’s distinctive cedar and dark fruit aromas and flavors, framed by a structured elegance.
2021 Apogee is almost identical to Perigee’s blend, but with fruit from different vineyards. Its special richness and concentration of the fruit immediately grabbed our attention. “This wine makes me happy,” said Marcus. We agree!
2021 Ferguson will be as luscious and stunning as previous vintages. The 2021 marks the 10th vintage since L’Ecole’s inaugural, award-winning 2011. Be sure to look for this one in the months ahead.
Current Releases: Whites
Marcus gave us side-by side pours of two styles of L’Ecole Sémillon. He noted that both are classic food-pairing wines; for example, with goat cheese. However, their outstanding quality means you could also enjoy them, without food, on the deck on a warm day.
2021 Sémillon, Columbia Valley ($18) is L’Ecole’s flagship Sémillon (82%) blended with Sauvignon Blanc (18%), which adds mouthwatering acidity and complexity to the rich palate.
2021 Sémillon, Stillwater Creek Vineyard, Royal Slope ($25) is rich, complex and elegant, with layers of apricot, lemon zest, pear, and hints of ginger. We loved it.
Current Releases: Reds
2020 Merlot Estate Ferguson and Seven Hills Vineyard ($42) blends 81% Merlot with 14% Cab Franc and 5% Cab Sauv. As a result, opulent aromas and flavors of dark fruits, dark chocolate and licorice jump from the glass. The elegance and old-world structure of Seven Hills Vineyard adds complexity to the earthiness and minerality of Ferguson’s basalt soil. Further, L’Ecole is recognized as one of the state’s top producers of premium Merlot.
2020 Syrah, Estate Seven Hills Vineyard ($42) makes us want to start up the grill, stat. This single-vineyard Syrah is magic, featuring savory aromas, with earthiness, and bold, yet silky flavors of blackberries, espresso, baking spices and black plums.
2020 Ferguson Estate Vineyard, Walla Walla Valley, 2020 ($70) features a crushed-stone minerality influenced by its volcanic basalt soil. This is a complex and intoxicating blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (59%), Merlot (24%), Malbec (7%), Cab Franc (6%) and Petit Verdot (4%). On the nose, we found mineral-laced aromas of blackberries, black cherries and licorice. Next, the palate provides layers of dark fruit, espresso, chocolate and graphite. In other words, this is a head turner.
40th Anniversary Red ($50) honors L’Ecole’s history as the third winery established in the Walla Walla Valley 40 years ago by Jean and Baker Ferguson. And what a treat to see the original, historic label of the schoolhouse again. This gorgeous blend of Merlot (50%), Cabernet Sauvignon (30%) and Cabernet Franc (20%) properly celebrates 40 years of L’Ecole greatness since their initial vintage in 1983. We found aromas of cherries, dark fruit, figs, espresso and cedar. We tasted dark chocolate and dark plums, along with hints of graphite.
As mentioned, L’Ecole’s Ben Dimitri kindly sent us home with four recent releases of summer whites. Every one of them pairs with sunshine, and/or seafood.
2022 Chenin Blanc Old Vines, Yakima Valley ($19) is a perfect summer sipper at an excellent price point. Further, L’Ecole has produced this old-vine Vouvray-style 100% Chenin Blanc since 1987. Aromas of lemon peel, green apple and wet stone lead into opulent flavors of pears, citrus, apples and salinity. This white wine also exhibits a pretty mouthfeel, wonderful texture, good structure and good acidity.
2022 Sémillon, Columbia Valley ($18) Similar to the previous vintage mentioned above, Marcus added 18% Sauvignon Blanc to 82% Sémillon, for mouthwatering acidity and complexity. The result is a rich, complex white with beautiful balance and expression of fruit. Think melons, stone fruit, pears and key lime. Delicious.
2022 Luminesce, Estate Seven Hills Vineyard ($25) is a standout, award-winning, Sémillon (60%)-Sauvignon Blanc (40%) blend. Above all, this is a very unique wine for L’Ecole since it’s produced exclusively with fruit from their acclaimed Estate Seven Hills Vineyard. Likewise, it’s a perfect wine to take on a picnic, lakeside or wherever you head this summer. Sauvignon Blanc’s floral, mineral notes accent Sémillon’s creamy, textured richness. This succulent, compelling Bordeaux-style white blend, hugged by crisp minerality, is very popular at the winery.
2022 Chardonnay, Columbia Valley ($23) offers a beautiful weight, balance, freshness, complex minerality and crisp acidity. Considered L’Ecole’s Heritage Chardonnay, we found flavors of freshly baked croissants, citrus, apricots and hints of pears. It is not at all buttery — certainly it’s our kind of Chardonnay.
Summary: L’Ecole Wine
In conclusion, you can’t go wrong with any of these L’Ecole wines. Each and every one of them is impressive. Sip on the whites on your deck or take a couple of bottles to a picnic or outside happy hour. On the other hand, fire up the grill and pair these barbecue reds with a steak or juicy burgers. Raise a glass (or two) to summer!
Margot and Dave