What do you do when you discover some old, abandoned Chardonnay vineyards essentially right in your backyard?
Not just any vineyards, either – these had been planted in mixed limestone, much like those of classic Burgundian wines, such as Puligny-Montrachet. Well, if you’re Charles Smith, the answer is obvious: you make great wine with it.
Now, it wasn’t entirely random that Charles found these vines. He’d been looking to make Chardonnay and was scouting the perfect Washington location to do so when he stumbled upon them. A noted lover of French wines, he knew he was onto something special, and he knew he was the guy to make it happen.
“It was time for someone to put a flag in the ground for Burgundy grapes in a serious manner,” Charles explained. “Considering our soils are parallel in aspect we decided to do it. From the onset we wanted to find old vines at high elevation.”
Charles decided to release these wines under a new name – SIXTO.
Sourced from three different Washington Vineyards, each vintage has garnered rave reviews and high scores.
The Roza Hills vineyard is in a natural, south-sloping bowl that sits 1350 feet above sea level on the southern slope of the Rattlesnake Hills. Boasting the most moderate temps in the state, its soil, called the Moxee Series, is made up of loamy silt and clay with basalt mixed throughout, resting shallowly on limestone. These Chardonnay grapes were planted in 1977.
The Moxee Vineyard, located east of Yakima, is on a south-facing slope at around 1450 feet of elevation. The soil is, again, Moxee loam with limestone. The vines here were planted in 1973.
Frenchman Hills is a 30-minute drive north of the Wahluke Slope. While this region is traditionally one of the Columbia Valley’s warmest, Frenchman’s high elevation – 1650 feet – manages to stay cooler without easily succumbing to fall frost. Because of this, grapes can stay on vine longer without over-ripening, thus retaining expressive acidity. These are the youngest SIXTO Chardonnay vines, planted in 1998.
“The name SIXTO came from a couple sources,” Charles told me. “Sextus in Latin means ‘the sixth’, and this was my sixth project. Plus, having recently seen the film Searching for Sugar Man featuring Sixto Rodriguez, I loved that it was a complete encapsulation of the idea of taking something that had been forgotten and bringing it back to life.”
Rodriguez’s story does indeed hold parallels. The musician, having seemingly disappearing for decades, was tracked down by documentary filmmakers for the Sugarman film. He’s since enjoyed a creative and commercial resurrection , especially after the film won an Academy Award. Similarly, SIXTO’s wines continue to reach new heights. Consistently ranking scores in the mid-90s and finding themselves on ‘best of’ lists by esteemed outlets like Wine Enthusiast, Charles and Brennon have continued to prove that for these old vines, the best is yet to come.
“SIXTO, as a project, is to reach the highest heights of what is possible for Chardonnay in Washington State,” Charles concluded with a smile. “And I think we’re doing that.”