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Originally published Sunday, August 23, 2009 at 12:04 AM

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Wine Adviser

L'Ecole No 41 succeeds by sustaining old-school values

L'Ecole No 41 winery is one of the Walla Walla region's oldest, and old-school values abide in its newer offerings — including its chenin blanc and sémillon, arguably the two most neglected and under-appreciated wine grapes in the country.

Special to the Seattle Times

Pick of the week

L'Ecole No 41 2008 'Walla Voila' Chenin Blanc; $15

The grapes for this wine come from a 30-year-old, Rattlesnake Hills vineyard. In some ways it's a throwback to earlier times, when chenin was a popular tasting-room white, modeled after the sweet and tart French vouvrays, but with a Washington twist — more fruit intensity, less minerality. (Elliott Bay distributes)

L'ECOLE NO 41 is the renovated schoolhouse-turned-winery that greets visitors to Walla Walla as they drive in on Highway 12 from the west. Marty and Megan Clubb took over the winery from her parents, who began it as a retirement project in the early 1980s. It was the third winery to open in Walla Walla, and remains one of the most important — for its history, its vineyards, its forward-thinking owners and, most of all, its wines.

I am often asked to name Washington's signature grape, or to predict the next great varietal to emerge from this state. But sometimes it is more instructive to think about the most notable underperformers. L'Ecole has succeeded with arguably the two most neglected and under-appreciated wine grapes in the country: chenin blanc and sémillon. Mind you, these are not obscure, nor are they marginal. Chenin makes some of the greatest white wines of the Loire Valley, in styles that run the gamut from dry to ultra-sweet. Sémillon is the backbone of Bordeaux blanc and also exceptionally popular in Australia, whether barrel-fermented or done in stainless tanks and blended with sauvignon blanc (often labeled simply SBS).

L'Ecole's 2008 'Walla Voila' Chenin Blanc ($15, this week's pick) is the perfect end-of-summer sip, modeled after vouvray, with bright melon, tangerine and pineapple fruit.

Three different sémillons are made, but the newest is the L'Ecole No 41 2008 Columbia Valley Sémillon ($16), which includes 11 percent sauvignon blanc in the blend. Rich, ripe, lightly spicy pear and melon flavors form the basis for this well-crafted, sturdy white that has far more flavor interest than most similarly priced chardonnays.

For the winery's version of a Bordeaux blanc, try the L'Ecole No 41 2008 Seven Hills Vineyard Luminesce ($20), a blend of 70 percent sémillon and 30 percent sauvignon blanc. Bursting with fresh pears, orange peel, hints of banana and toast, it's got a truly luscious, creamy mouthfeel.

L'Ecole's numerous reds are more or less divvied up into Columbia Valley wines and estate wines from the Seven Hills vineyard, the first important vineyard to be planted in the Walla Walla Valley (almost 30 years ago). The vineyard sources for the Columbia Valley wines are amazing. To cite just one example, the 2006 L'Ecole No 41 Merlot ($30) lists Pepper Bridge, Dionysus, Klipsun, Weinbau, Stone Tree, Loess (Leonetti) and Seven Hills among the suppliers.

It's a very nice bottle, but for a few bucks more I'd go with the L'Ecole No 41 2007 Seven Hills Vineyard Estate Merlot ($37). Cedary and silky, supple and substantial, it's a powerful expression of this outstanding vineyard's best fruit.

The two cabs — L'Ecole No 41 2006 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($33) and L'Ecole No 41 2006 Walla Walla Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($40) — express the same careful vineyard selection, old-vine elegance, judicious use of new oak and polished winemaking. Both are 100 percent cabernet, a difficult and impressive type of winemaking that shows Washington's undeniable strengths with the grape.

Two top-of-the-line Bordeaux blends are made each year, Apogee and Perigee. The L'Ecole No 41 2006 Seven Hills Vineyard Estate Perigee ($50) is the star of that year's show. It's made from the oldest vines in the Seven Hills vineyard, a blend of 56 percent cabernet sauvignon, 34 percent merlot and 10 percent cabernet franc. Dusty, earthy and complex, it carries strong scents and accents of coffee, chicory and dark chocolate, rich black fruits, firm acids, ripe tannins and fine balance throughout.

Paul Gregutt is the author of "Washington Wines & Wineries." Find him at www.paulgregutt.com or write to paulgwine@me.com.

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About Wine Adviser

My column is all about sharing the joy of exploring all the world of wine. I want to guide people to make inspired choices, and encourage them to try as many different styles of wine as they can. I will always seek out the best wines at the best prices. Wine Adviser runs on Sunday in Pacific Northwest Magazine.
paulgwine@me.com

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