Monday 17 June 2013

'We've got two wine OBEs in the audience today...'

Some of Napa’s finest wineries came together in London for a Masterclass last week. Nothing unusual in that, but what was notable was the personnel the wineries fielded – Delia Viader, Doug Shafer, Chris Hall (the list is at the bottom), and the wealth of wines on show. The idea wasn’t simply to showcase the wines but also, I think, to show development of style over three vintages, the 02, 05 and 08. ‘Cool, cooler, coolest’ as Tim Atkin, chairing, characterised them. 2002 had a dry, cool spring with rain, an average summer and a warm, windy September. Yields were low. In 2005 the crop was far bigger and the harvest was late – mid to end of October, rather than the more normal end of September. 2008 was the coolest of the three, with widespread frost damage (some estates on Howell Mountain reported 30% losses of fruit) then a cool summer with heat spikes, and an Indian summer to follow. At the time, winemakers were optimistic for an elegant vintage, hopes that were borne out in many of today's wines.

The first thing to say is that the tasting reinforced (as if it needed reinforcement) the concept of vintage variation in Napa. I don’t know why I even have to mention it, frankly, but there you go… The 2008s were invariably more austere, tighter – look at the Stag’s Leap District wines: Chimney Rock and Pine Ridge have a very different profile in 08 to the wines before them. And it’s not just that they are younger wines: the taut tannins and nervy acidity speak of wines that are going to mature into an elegant old age.

Three sparklers from Schramsberg. The Napa fruit is all Carneros, and accounts for 50-60% of the blend. The balance is Sonoma, Mendocino and Marin County. What lovely wines they are, the 02 especially, but I loved the tight, closed 08, which will mature beautifully. In 1972 Richard Nixon chose the 69 Blanc de Blancs to toast the Chinese premier Zhou Enlai after that old rogue Henry Kissinger had worked his magic on him.

Nice surprise...
The Merlots were an odd bunch. I kept thinking of Sideways and Miles’s ridiculous diatribes, and felt I could agree… And just as Sideways revolutionised California Pinot production (I went from Los Angeles to the top of Napa on a Pinot trip in 2006, and in every meeting, that great film was mentioned within ten minutes. Sales went up 16% in 06/07, and even Riedel felt the effect, its Pinot glasses flying off the shelves, sales up 45%, or so they said at the time) so it stuck a knife into Merlot, the grape disappearing from wine lists.

Oddly enough for what is still America’s favourite red grape, the Merlots here were presented as outliers. Andre Crisp at Luna was almost apologetic, pointing out the ‘only 100s of cases’ that they produce. For me they were mixed: the best had lifted cherry fruit and refreshing acidity, but many were marred by vegetal flavours, hints of cabbage and ammonia. Are they picking too young, chasing that ‘notion of Euro-elegance’ as Parker once said of Tim Mondavi? Note that Jean-Claude Berrouet, formerly of Petrus and Dominus, is now consulting winemaker at Twomey, from the 2012 vintage onwards.

There was a feeling of lift-off when we got to the Cabernets. This was by no means a pushover though: there were disappointments. Over the last few vintages we’ve got so used to elegance in Napa, that it can be a shock to remember there are still some big, hot beasts doing good business. The Shafers, for me, seemed old-fashioned. They weigh in at 15% and more and the alcohol makes its presence felt. Still, as Doug Shafer said, they may be big, but they certainly sell. Pleasant surprise was Chimney Rock, which people can be rude about. I loved them. In fact, just to make sure, opened a bottle of the Chimney Rock 2008 Tomahawk Vineyard yesterday, and it was very fine – tight and closed at first, pure fruit, juicy tannins. 24 hours later it had developed into a silky classic. And I have to mention the brilliant Viader, if I haven’t been effusive enough in the notes below. Among the finest wines in Napa.

Dynamic, thought-provoking, slightly chaotic (minor cavil - too many wines in too short a time. We all found ourselves hurrying through...) But what a great tasting (and did I mention the lunch?). It was packed - standing-room only - with bigwigs. Atkin began proceedings by noting 'We've got two wine OBEs in the room today' - that'll be Jancis Robinson MW OBE sitting right at the back, and Gerard Basset MW OBE MS smiling into his moustache. The only person missing was Steven Spurrier, who Napa holds dear.

Thanks to Emma Wellings for putting it all together, and Cessa Beckett of Napa Valley Vintners, and to The Palm in Pont St for hosting

The wines

Schramsberg Vineyards 2002 Blanc de Blancs Napa Valley
Creamy ripe citrus nose, with hints of crème brulee. Bright sweet melon, pineapple on the palate with racy acidity. Lovely smoky, woody end palate.

Schramsberg Vineyards 2005 Blanc de Blancs Napa Valley
Some earth and brioche notes on sweet nose of pineapple and sweet lemon. Nutty spice on the palate, around cut apple and more citrus notes. Nice long finish

Schramsberg Vineyards 2008 Blanc de Blancs Napa Valley
Hardly evolved, nose quite closed. Dense acidity and sharp spicy notes on the palate, with fine tropical flavours half-submerged but ready to burst. Crisp acidity and fine finish

Luna Vineyards Merlot 2003 Napa Valley
Ripe dense earthy slightly rotted nose. Powerful acidity and some early nose of ammonia (sulfites?). Powerful and dense, bright cherry fruit leading to slightly drying finish to the tannins

Luna Vineyards Merlot 2010 Napa Valley
Sweet plum and cherry on nose with a nice delicate vegetal hint. Powerful acidity, cherry and plum carried through. Tannins angular, the whole slightly boxy and four-square

Twomey Cellars Merlot 2002 Napa Valley
Jean-Claude Berrouet, formerly Petrus and Dominus, is consulting winemaker.
Evolved colour, dark red with rim of lighter brick. Slight hint of cabbage on first sniff, then attractive cigar-box aromas and dry crunchy leaves. Very fresh acidity, nice black hedgerow fruit, mostly blackberry. Sharp, angular tannins.

Twomey Cellars Merlot 2005 Napa Valley
With 4% Cabernet Franc
That slight cabbage aroma again, then on the palate powerful acidity and dry, chalky tannins which dissolve into sweetness and juice at end palate. Much more successful than the 02, with nice bright cherry fruit really integrated with the tannin. Will last.

Twomey Cellars Merlot 2008 Napa Valley
13.7% alcohol. Raspberry on the nose then sharp palate showing early-season, slightly unripe plum. There is sweetness fighting to climb above the acidity, but not quite managing to get its head up.

Chimney Rock Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 2002, Stag’s Leap District
In magnum. 14.2% alcohol. Lovely bright cherry fruit nose with notes of cedar and earth. Beguilingly perfumed with parma violets and mint. Ripe dark plums on the palate with bright sweet tannins. Very fresh acidity. Good.

Chimney Rock Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Stag’s Leap District
The nose is fresh and bright with sweetish dark fruit – blueberry, black cherry, leading to an austere palate mitigated with a heft of cherry and tobacco. Elegant but lush.

Chimney Rock Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Stag’s Leap District
Austere nose, quite closed, hints of cedar and vanilla (not pronounced). Palate is loaded with sour/saline plum, damson, cassis, with supple tannins and superb length. Excellent.

Long Meadow Ranch Winery EJ Church Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2002, Napa Valley
Founded in 1989 by Ted Hall, who took on renowned winemaker Cathy Corison as consultant throughout the 90s. Long Meadow was catapulted into the premier league by the purchase of 36ha of prime Rutherford vineland in January this year: it now joins Inglenook, Quintessa, Beckstoffer and Beaulieu Vineyard as one of the 10 largest land holders in Rutherford. There’s no 2002 in the lineup – LMR lost all of its library vintages – including the 2002 - in the devastating, and deliberately set, Vallejo warehouse fire of 2005 .

Long Meadow Ranch Winery EJ Church Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Napa Valley
13.5%. Attractive green tinge on nose with ripe sweet blackberry and cassis. The palate is elegant and fresh with sour fruit notes, dense acidity and quite tough dry tannins.

Long Meadow Ranch Winery EJ Church Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Napa Valley
Sweet ripe cherry on nose. Palate has ripe and racy acidity with real grip to the tannin and real definition to the fruit. Complex palate – there’s earth there, and aromatic summery forest floor, soft black fruit, leading to a fresh and juicy, food-friendly finish

Pine Ridge
Pine Ridge is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. It makes wine in five Napa AVAS – Howell Mountain, Rutherford, Oakville, Stag’s Leap and Carneros.

Pine Ridge Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2002, Stag’s Leap District
Nose of blackcurrant, hint of sweet vanilla. Powerful leather and black fruit on the palate, gripping tannins, hint of agreeable greenness. Fresh acidity, great length.

Pine Ridge Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Stag’s Leap District
The nose is savoury, with hints of bovril. Palate sweet black fruit, blackberry, cassis, superb dryish gripping tannins. Very smooth though slightly marred by a hot finish

Pine Ridge Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Stag’s Leap District
Bright nose with sour plum and damson, palate taut and nervy, full of fruit with nice tension to the acidity, dense dry tannins

Robert Mondavi Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2002, Napa Valley
83% Cabernet Sauvignon, Cab Franc and Petit Verdot
Bright fresh nose, very open with violet notes and cedary oak, and hints of grassiness. The mid-palate is elegant, there’s good blackberry and cassis, some mintiness, but sense it’s not firing  on all cylinders – slight hollowness before dry tannins kick in and resolve into juiciness. Slightly unsatisfying

Robert Mondavi Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2005, Napa Valley
85% Cabernet Sauvignon, Cab Franc and Petit Verdot
A powerful tannic wine, lots of blackberry, cassis, dark plum and dark sour cherry. Tannins are dense but integrated and never dominate, still juicy at end

Robert Mondavi Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2008, Napa Valley
Powerful chalky grippy tannins. This needs time – still young and tough, tannins dominant throughout but with dense dark fruit peeping round the edges. Big and brooding chocolatey finish.

Shafer Vineyards Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon 2002, Stag’s Leap District
The three Shafer wines are 15-15.5% alcohol
Lovely open nose with textured dark plum and blackberry fruit. Dense sweet black fruit on the palate, powerful tannins though smooth, notes of iodine and licorice. Complex

Shafer Vineyards Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Stag’s Leap District
Dense, knotted, sweet nose, powerful and elegant. Some green notes. Huge palate – blackcurrant, mocha, cassis – but still very fresh. Alcohol: while it doesn’t burn, it makes its presence felt, giving a slight misgiving of imbalance. But nothing a hefty rare T-bone wouldn’t remedy.

Shafer Vineyards Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Stag’s Leap District
Huge. Licorice, salinity and iodine alongside blackcurrant fruit on the nose. Deep palate, robust tannins complemented (aided and abetted) by brisk acidity, huge doses of blueberry fruit and coffee. Massive sense of alcohol (see the 05 above – it doesn’t burn but it’s an aggressive presence). When was this opened? I would leave half a day open – but in any case don’t come back to it until at least 2015.

Silver Oak Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 2002, Napa Valley
82% Cabernet, 11% Merlot, Cab Franc and Petit Verdot
Really superb nose, savoury textured dark fruit, repeated on the palate. Tannins after 12 years are full of energy, great grip, chalky and detonating juicily on the tongue. Very satisfying. Lots of life left in this.

Silver Oak Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Napa Valley
Great juicy tannins at first but falls down on the mid-palate – the fruit is bullied by insistent acidity, and the tannins close in and add to the ruck. Closed for the duration? I couldn’t decide about this. There’s primary fruit there but will it come through? Will the tannins get any sweeter? Jury’s out.

Silver Oak Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Napa Valley
Ripe red fruit. Lots going on here, cherry and salty plum, violets. Tannins are soft at first and building into attractive dryness becoming mouthwatering for the finish. Very nice indeed.

Viader Vineyards and Winery, Viader Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 Napa Valley
Roughly 60/30 Cabernet Sauvignon/Cab Franc.
Delia Viader’s eyrie clings to the side of Howell Mountain but is some 200m outside the AVA, hence the Napa Valley designation. Never mind. Superb ripe blackcurrant nose with fresh mint notes and exotic spice (what? all-spice? Marijuana?) as well as some green. Vibrant, powerful, effortless. Lovely earthy structured wine, built around elastic, silky but ultimately dense tannins with grip. Viader loves her Cabernet Franc, and it shows…

Viader Vineyards and Winery, Viader Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 Napa Valley
Roughly 60/30 Cabernet Sauvignon/Cab Franc.
Powerful nose of blueberry and old leather. Refreshing acidity in a palate subtle with black fruit. Tannins bright and ever-present lead to food-friendly finish. This was Michel Rolland’s first vintage consulting for Viader.

Viader Vineyards and Winery, Viader Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 Napa Valley
Roughly 60/30 Cabernet Sauvignon/Cab Franc.
Bright and fresh with incredible young, chalky tannins. Bright fresh palate with earth and leather, plum and ripe black cherry. Exuberant, very elegant, unfussy. Delicious.

Waterstone Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 Napa Valley
Started in 2000, Waterstone sources fruit from all over the valley, much of it hillside. The 2002 is mainly (or all?) Oakville and Rutherford. Bright, minty nose with aromas that act on the nasal passages like a vapor-rub. Wonderful. The fruit is at that indeterminate end of the red spectrum, wild strawberry and raspberry with blackcurrant, then earth, leather, cherry and sour plum. Excellent

Waterstone Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 Napa Valley
Some smoke and earth on the nose, then the first hint of green, then a blistering (almost literally) palate with black fruits scrambling over each other for attention, and alcohol very noticeable. It’s still young though I wonder where that alcohol is going?

Waterstone Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 Napa Valley
First off on the nose is bright cherry, then woody blueberry fruit, some licorice. Superb refreshing acidity and ripe, suave tannins with grip. Long and lush. Excellent

Who was there:
  • Schramsberg: Maryann Bautovich, Export Representative
  • Luna Vineyards: André Crisp, President of Sales
  • Twomey: Vivien Gay, International Sales Manager
  • Chimney Rock: Elizabeth Vianna, Winemaker & General Manager
  • Long Meadow Ranch: Chris Hall, General Manager & Proprietor
  • Pine Ridge: Michael Beaulac, Winemaker & General Manager
  • Robert Mondavi: Tim Fogarty, VP International Sales & Marketing Europe
  • Shafer: Doug Shafer, President
  • Silver Oak: Vivien Gay, International Sales Manager
  • Viader: Delia Viader, Owner & founding winemaker
  • Waterstone: Brent Shortridge, Owner

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