Growing & Winemaking


Winemaker Interview: Chris Dowsett

November 2014
by Laurie Daniel
Winemaker Chris Dowsett chooses vineyard sites that ripen at lower Brix to keep alcohol levels down without adding water. He also believes warmer fermentations help keep alcohol low.

Chris Dowsett made his first wine in 1983, when he was in the 10th grade. It was 10 gallons of Gewurztraminer from his family’s small vineyard in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The family had purchased the near-abandoned vineyard in the early 1980s, and Dowsett helped his father revitalize and expand it.

Those experiences led him to study horticulture at Oregon State University. While earning his degree, Dowsett spent a year studying enology and viticulture in Australia at Roseworthy Agricultural College (now the University of Adelaide), where he worked in the school’s winery and lab, making experimental wines for wineries such as Penfolds.

After graduating from Oregon State in 1991, Dowsett worked for Robert Mondavi, Domaine Chandon, Schramsberg and Stonestreet in Northern California before returning to the Pacific Northwest for an assistant winemaker job at Canoe Ridge in Walla Walla, Wash. After stints at Latitude 46° and Artifex, he joined blends-focused Buty Winery in Walla Walla in 2009. In addition to being the winemaker at Buty, Dowsett has his own label, Dowsett Family Winery.

Wines & Vines: You’re using concrete fermentors for your white wines at Buty. What are the advantages and the drawbacks? Have you considered using concrete for the reds?

    In search of Muscadelle


    One relatively obscure variety that Chris Dowsett works with at Buty is Muscadelle, a traditional but minor component of the white wines of Bordeaux.

    “One goal from the founding of the winery was to use all three of the white grapes of Bordeaux,” Dowsett says. But that was easier said than done, because there’s not much Muscadelle in Washington state. It wasn’t until 2007 that the Buty team was able to find some: 1.3 acres of clone 1 Muscadelle in Yakima Valley at Lonesome Spring Ranch. “At the time, it was the only vineyard in Washington state with plantings of Muscadelle, all of which was going to Buty,” Dowsett says.

    He explains that the vineyard is on a sloping, south-facing hillside, and the Muscadelle is planted in sand and silt on top of basalt rock. “This free-draining section of Muscadelle produces an incredible expression of the varietal, offering high-tone floral perfume notes and amazing acid that can balance with the richness of the Semillon,” he says. “Because Yakima Valley is somewhat cooler, and Lonesome Spring has excellent air drainage, our Muscadelle retains wonderful natural acidity.”


Chris Dowsett: We started using concrete tanks in 2009. Our plan was to ferment early-ripening Semillon in the tank and then move to Rhone red varieties later in the season. We were initially looking for something with thick-wall insulation similar to barrels, but with the airtight sealing ability of steel. Looking at the brochures for the Nomblot tank that we chose, I was struck by how many of the European customers were from Burgundy, Chablis and even Champagne. I had assumed that most of the wineries would be producers of big, rustic Rhones or Spanish wines. The amount of delicate reds and whites being produced in these tanks was unexpected.

Once we started using the tank on the Semillon, for our Buty Semillon-Sauvignon-Muscadelle blend, we were amazed at how well suited for our white program it was. The tank we bought was cube-shaped. It has 6- to 8-inch-thick walls and a large, flat floor. The thick concrete almost sucks the heat out of the fermentation, giving a nice, long, cool progression. This is very important to us in our white fermentations, because it helps to retain delicate aromas and keep the lees in suspension for a longer period of time.

The flat floor of the cube also helps for sur lie aging. Instead of having to weekly, or biweekly, stir barrels of whites to suspend the yeast cells, the huge surface area of the floor gives a nice, shallow area of lees. The less stirring, the less oxygen introduced to the finished wine.

We have also found that the concrete helps to pull tartrate crystals from the wines. We have never cold-stabilized our wines, and we bottle one of our whites in a clear bottle. Any limitation of tartrates forming in the bottle is helpful. Ultimately, we were so happy with the concrete tank, we bought a second Nomblot tank in 2010 to use for our Conner Lee Vineyard Chardonnay.

The drawbacks of concrete are fairly minor. Placing the tanks the first time required a very large forklift. Our bigger tank weighs almost 12,000 pounds empty. Cleaning is also difficult. We can only use water up to 100° F, and no high pressure, ozone or caustics. Alkalines are all we can clean with. We do use soda ash to burn off tartrates and sodium percarbonate products to help with sanitation.

We have yet to put a drop of red into our two tanks, but maybe in the future we will look at a designated red concrete tank.

W&V: The Buty wines generally have modest alcohol levels. How do you achieve that?

Dowsett: Buty has always been known as a winery that aims toward balance, complexity and richness in our wines, without sacrificing acidity or bringing excess alcohol heat. Most of our work to keep alcohol levels in control is in the vineyards. We chose sites that produce grapes with our concept of ripeness, without having to go to 27° Brix (and beyond).

We do not add water, acid or sugar, or use any mechanical alcohol-reduction methods. We also handle fruit from different areas with individual methods. Our Cabernet Sauvignon from the Horse Heaven Hills tends to produce some of our bigger, riper wines. These wines we ferment in wooden Taransaud upright tanks. We believe that the warmer ferments we get with these wines not only help with tannin control, they also blow off some alcohol from the large tank openings. We also use a food-grade compressor to inject air into the fermentors of Bordeaux varieties to do the same. We use the air to soften tannins, feed the yeast some oxygen, drive out excess carbon dioxide and help break up the cap—but we do believe it does help blow off some of that alcohol.

The wines we make from the Stones area of the Walla Walla AVA tend to reach flavor maturity at much lower Brix. We find that these vines growing on deep cobblestones can often have brown seeds at 19° Brix, and the flavors we are looking for at 21°-24° Brix. We ferment these reds cool in small fermentors to hold in aromas and flavors. Our Rediviva of the Stones blend (Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and, lately, Mourvedre) has only once in the recent vintages ended up finishing over 14% ABV.

We have also found that it is important for us to keep our cellar from drying out too much. Our Columbia Rediviva sees two years in barrel and can creep up in alcohol from concentration if the humidity gets too low.

W&V: Do you filter any of your wines?

Dowsett: The white wines made here at Buty are almost always only partially complete with malolactic fermentation. This is one of the ways we can balance acidity to make a consistent acid mouthfeel on wines that may come from very different vintages. For this reason, we do filter all our whites to make them biologically stable. We have a lenticular filter from Filtrox that uses the stacks of media discs. We prefer the sealed environment to open pad filters for keeping oxygen pickup down.

Our reds we try to filter as little as possible. We are not anti-filtration, we just prefer to interfere as little as possible with the wine. Our Conner Lee Vineyard Merlot and Cabernet Franc bottling is always the first wine of the vintage bottled, at about 13 months in barrel. This wine may need a bit more polishing to be pretty in the glass than our Columbia Rediviva blend that sees over 20 months in barrel.

With the advances in cross-flow filtration technology, we have been researching some of the machines available from mobile services. The newer machines run at very low pressures, and are all done under inert gas. I find the lenticular filter very gentle, but if I need two different grades to get a wine stable, it means two passes. Cross-flow filtration is now a one-pass process. We may be cross-flow filtering in the future.

W&V: You’re working with Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah from both The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater in the Walla Walla Valley and from Horse Heaven Hills, which are very different areas. Do you vinify the fruit differently?

Dowsett: One of the initial intentions of Buty Winery was to make a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah from distinctive Washington state sites. After working the first year with fruit from Champoux Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills, and Christophe Baron’s Cailloux Vineyard in Walla Walla, we decided there should be two different blends.

We have since moved across the road from Champoux Vineyard to Phinny Hill Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills. We have designed a block of Cabernet Sauvignon and two clones of Syrah with the owner/operator, Dick Beightol, for our Columbia Rediviva. The wine has been a Phinny Hill vineyard designate since 2006. In 2006, we also bought 10 acres of land in The Rocks District to plant our Rockgarden Estate to varieties specifically for our Rediviva of the Stones. The 2011 was our first release that was 100% Rockgarden Estate.

The Horse Heaven Hills is a warm area that cools at night from the influence of the Columbia River. It is made up of traditional Washington deep soils, with loam or loess above basalt rock. The rainfall is mostly supplied through a dripper. From this area we make our Columbia Rediviva, which is always heavier on the Cabernet Sauvignon than the Syrah. We work in the cellar to control the tannins of the Cabernet and bring in the Syrah to add richness and a bit of dark fruit to the wine. We ferment warm in big oak fermentors, with an excess of air, to keep these wines big and juicy, but not astringent. The wine sees all French oak, with 20%-40% new Bordeaux barrels. We also release this wine after two years in barrel and one in bottle.

The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater is a moderately warm area that sees a midday spike of warmth from growing vines on bare rocks. These rocks provide hundreds of feet of water drainage and root growth. The rain trapped by the foothills of the Blue Mountains is slightly more than you see in much of the Columbia Valley. In this area, we prefer the structure of Syrah-heavy blends, with Cabernet Sauvignon providing some lift and prettiness, and Mourvedre filling in the middle. We ferment these wines cool, in small fermentors with gentle punch downs, uninoculated fermentations and often whole clusters in the Syrahs. We use only older barrels and thick-staved puncheons for this wine. We bottle the wine 14 months after harvest and give it a year in bottle before release.

W&V: Buty has a second label called BEAST. What is the philosophy for the BEAST wines?

Dowsett: BEAST is the alter ego of Buty. While our Buty portfolio is limited to just six core wines, BEAST allows us to explore different varieties, vineyards or blends. BEAST gives us a lot of freedom, which is fun. At the same time, while they are fun wines to make, and we get a little playful with the back label and winemaker notes, we don’t take them any less seriously than our Buty bottlings; they are great wines. Also, with the exception of our Wildebeest and our Sphinx Riesling, most are only available directly from the winery and may not be made every vintage. In general, the BEAST style offers a lot of bright fruit and youthful energy.

A resident of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Laurie Daniel has been a journalist for more than 25 years. She has been writing about wine for publications for nearly 15 years and has been a Wines & Vines contributor since 2006.

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