How the Armstrong Family Winery is Producing Cabernet the “Old-Way”

Armstrong Family Winery

Old-world methods are making a comeback to wineries. More and more wine makers are exploring a mix of urban production and old-time techniques to create handcrafted wine that excels.

Wineries producing Cabernet can particularly benefit from these techniques, as Washington-based Armstrong Family Winery has discovered. We talked to co-owner Jennifer Armstrong to find out what makes Cabernet production so special and how else is the winery making strides.

QUESTION: Can you tell us a bit about how Armstrong got started?

JENNIFER ARMSTRONG: We have always enjoyed wines together, however, several years ago while we were living in Chicago, we started buying Bordeaux’s. As we paid more attention to the wines, we started asking questions about the differences we were finding between wines from adjacent Chateaus, or from the same vintage or varietal. We took some winemaking classes through UC Davis and the more we learned, the more fascinated we became in the industry and the more we wanted to be a part of it. Tim worked for Microsoft at the time and had a chance to move out to the Seattle area with his job.

We happened to move out soon before harvest that year and literally before our furniture had been delivered, he was volunteering nights and weekends to help Woodinville winemakers with a harvest. Winemakers took him under their wing, and he learned a great deal volunteering weekly – if not daily – for the next couple of years while going through the viticulture and enology programs at WSU. On the side, he began making our wine in leased space, and in the fall of 2013 when we had wine to sell, we opened our winery and tasting room here in Woodinville. This will be our third harvest in our space.

QUESTION: We love the idea of your Cabernet Franc and its uniqueness. Can you tell us what inspired this wine, why you choose this particular aging process and how did you choose to go with the undertones of chocolate and fruit?

JA: The first bottle of wine I ever fell in love with was a ’98 Cabernet Franc. Ever since, we’ve both enjoyed Cab Franc for its spice, flavors, and complexities. It’s a widely used grape and an important grape in Bordeaux, but it’s often used as a blending grape rather than as the big star. However, since the beginning, we’ve been making a Cab Franc dominated blend each year. Last year, when we were blending our 2012 wines, we tasted our 2012 Cabernet Franc and decided it was beautiful just the way it was.

We had aged some of it in American Oak barrels and some in French Oak to take advantage of the different characteristics of the oak types – American oak imparts a sweeter, more vanilla characteristic on the wine and French oak offers an elegant creaminess. Blended together, the grapes offered beautiful fruit flavors of black cherry and currant, characteristic Cab Franc spice and flavors of dried herbs and olives, and the oak contributed a creamy, almost chocolatey character. Needless to say, it sold out right away.

QUESTION: Can you tell us a bit about your Cabernet wine blends? What makes them so special?

JA: We were wine lovers first and what we enjoyed most as wine consumers were Old World wines, which are all blends. We enjoy blends because the different varieties come together in each blend to create something unique. We love the way blends offer layers of flavor and complexity. When done well, there’s a synergy creating something even more exquisite than the original wines alone. One of our most popular blends is a white blend we call Wild Angels, which is made up of 60% Chardonnay grapes and 40% Viognier.

This isn’t a very common blend, but it’s one we’ve been doing for several years because we love the way the Chardonnay and Viognier bring out the best in each other. And people love it… including people who don’t typically enjoy Chardonnay – or even white wine! Another popular blend of ours is our 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon. In this wine, we didn’t just blend varietals, we blended the same grapes from different Washington regions to create something unique. In this blend, we used Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from both Red Mountain, one of the hottest areas in Eastern Washington so there is bold, ripe fruit flavor, and Cabernet Sauvignon from Rattlesnake Hills where it gets cooler at night, so there is more acidity in the fruit and some more vegetal characteristics, with Merlot from the Whaluke Slope. The blend created a complex and satisfying wine that has become one of our most popular and highly rated wines to date, including 91 points from Wine Spectator.

QUESTION: Where do you see the winery going? Any special goals or things you have in mind to explore or want to work towards?

JA: We are committed to making world-class wines with New World character, yet Old World finesse. We are investing significantly in quality – in fact, this year, we purchased new crush equipment that will allow us to ensure the very gentle and careful care of our grapes through the sorting and destemming process. We first fell in love with Bordeaux, which are, of course, blends, so we love to create beautiful blends that bring out the unique and beautiful character of each grape.

We also love Cab Franc. That has always been my favorite, and it’s a variety we enjoy working with. You don’t see Cab Franc as much as some other varieties, but we love the spice and complexity it offers, both in blends and all on its own. In fact, our 2012 Cabernet Franc was 100% Cab Franc, which is pretty unusual, and it won a Double Gold in the Seattle Wine Awards and other distinctions. Unfortunately, it sold out right away, so we’re looking forward to releasing our next vintage this fall.

Diana Bocco is a writer and author who writes for Yahoo!, the Discovery Channel website, Marie Claire, Poplar Mechanics, and more. You can find more about her work on her website

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Follow by Email