Pepper Bridge's Perfectionist: Jean-François Pellet
Pepper Bridge was one of Walla Walla Valley’s pioneering wineries. Its first 10 acres were planted in 1991 behind the tasting room, and the first grapes grown there were sold to Leonetti and Woodward Canyon and some other developing estates in the region. Subsequently, 200 acres were added, and the famous Walla Walla Seven Hills Vineyard was incorporated into Pepper Bridge.
Significantly, the winery’s vineyard soils contain silt loam created from glacial loess, the high sand content being a vital factor the vines’ health. This, combined with the dry weather and surrounding mountain cover, helps to protect against pests like the dreaded phylloxera from invading.
Pepper Bridge vineyards grapes include Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Sangiovese, and Syrah. The resultant wines evoke something of the French Bordeaux sense of elegance and remind me of the wines from the Graves area. They age terrifically in bottle, putting on weight and gaining extra complexity after about 4-5 years.
The Pepper Bridge Winery clearly justified a visit, and when my wife, Julie, and I arrived we were very warmly greeted by winemaker Jean-François Pellet, an extremely knowledgeable and friendly fellow. A third-generation winemaker, he began his career in his native Switzerland then in Spain before heading to the Napa Valley and Heitz Cellars, where he made, among others, the famous Martha’s Vineyard. He is a perfectionist who knows every inch of his Pepper Bridge vineyards, even the part the local coyotes call home!
We sat and talked for two hours straight, and it was fascinating. I asked Jean-François if there was any Terroir yet. Surprisingly he answered, “Yes, but it’s in its infancy.” I wondered if phylloxera would hit? “Absolutely,” was his reply. Could he describe the style he thinks his wines achieve? “Halfway between a classic European and a New World sensibility,’’ said Jean-François. A sip from a glass of his superb 2016 Merlot that had magically appeared in my hand supported his assessment. The banter between wine lovers continued, covering soil compositions, rainfall, different vinification techniques and other esoteric wine debates filled a pleasant couple of hours. Then it was time to taste the wines.
We began with a comparison of the 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon Cuvée to the 2016. The 2016 was strong and inky with some pencil lead on the nose; this needed some time in the bottle, but the stuffing is there. In comparison the 2015 had already picked up some interesting and complex aromas of aged date-like fruits, teak, furniture polish and some lovely floral accents. Lighter than the ’16, the autumnal ’15 was my preferred bottling. Then we approached the 2015 Trine, a cuvée sold only to wine club members and a definite step up from the Cabs in terms of complexity and power. Forty-percent new oak utilized and comprising the 5 classic red Bordeaux varietals, it’s similar to rich, high quality 5-growth. It’s also dark, dense, slick and concentrated whilst still retaining elegance. It would be interesting to see how this wine develops with more time in bottle. This cuvée is exactly halfway between an Old and New World Cabernet in style.
Lastly, we tasted the 2016 Seven Hills Vineyard bottling, which I have to say was exceptional. The Seven Hills Vineyard was called “one of the ten great vineyards of the earth” when profiled by Wine & Spirits Magazine. Certainly, their wines really shine. The first dozen acres of the Seven Hills Vineyard were planted in 1981; today it currently boasts more than 235 acres. This wine is decadent, concentrated, packed full of red and black fruits. Complex and multi-dimensional it also contains (like all Jean-François’ wines) a lovely sense of freshness despite its strength. Long and well-balanced, this will age fantastically in bottle.
Our visit to The Pepper Bridge Winery was very insightful, fun, and educational. Jean-François is a superstar, so friendly, charming, and passionate. Thanks to him and his team again who sent us home with plenty of bottles. We can’t wait to visit again!
A footnote to an enjoyable visit: Pepper Bridge has also expanded its portfolio and created Amavi Cellars, a new venture winery nearby. The winery is small, family-owned like Pepper Bridge, and makes wines in a more fruit-forward, affordable style. The two most interesting bottlings in my opinion are their Syrah and Semillon, but all the cuvées are rich, full, and immediate.
By Nick Wise
Nick Wise was born in NYC in 1969 and moved with his family to the UK when he was two. After graduating from Tufts University, he began writing books on popular culture and earned a bachelors in wine at the Wine and Spirit Education Trust in London, all the while working with various historic English wine and spirit companies including John Armit and Fuller, Smith and Turner. He is the author of four books on wine and a contributor to Decanter and Wine Magazine. Read his blog at wiseonwine.com. Follow Nick and his wife, Julie, on Instagram at @wiseonwine.