Monday, 13 October 2014

Rite of passage: Vérité takes its place alongside the world's first growths

There’s a she-bear stealing grapes from one of Jackson Family Wines’ Sonoma properties and I thought – for a moment - I’d use it as an intro for the Decanter feature I’m writing on JFW’s CEO, Barbara Banke. Something along the lines of, ‘Banke gives it a wide berth, and I’m sure the feeling’s mutual – it would take a brave bear to tangle with the formidable etc etc.’ A bit glib, of course...

Banke may be modest (the family/corporate pic on the website has her diminutive and smiling in the second row; if you didn't know her you might take her for a loyal and valued senior staffer) but formidable she certainly is. Since her husband Jess Jackson died in April 2011 she has increased JFW’s holdings to the tune of 14 new estates (from Oregon to McLaren Vale), spending some US$100m a year for the past three years. If JFW was a force in California three years ago, it is now well on the way to international First Growth cachet.

This is a deliberate and planned policy, as evidenced by the latest tasting of the company’s flagship wines, Lokoya, Cardinale and – at the very top of the pyramid – Vérité.

Banke, often accompanied by one of her daughters, both of whom are deeply involved in the family company, has been coming over to London every autumn for the past few years to show the latest vintage of these wines, which are made in small quantities from the premium vineyards of Napa and Sonoma. Lokoya is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, made by Chris Carpenter from the four great high-altitude appellations of Napa: Mount Veeder, Spring Mountain, Diamond Mountain and Howell Mountain. Cardinale, also by Carpenter, is a Cabernet-Merlot from Oakville.

Vérité was born in 1998 when Jess Jackson suggested to the French winemaker Pierre Seillan (originally from the Loire but with a Bordeaux pedigree) that he could make a wine from Sonoma ‘as good as Petrus’. Ninety-eight was cool and ‘Bordeaux-like,’ Banke says. ‘It rained all the time’ and the wine (which I haven’t tasted) is ‘ageing very well’.

Standing, left to right: Jennifer Jackson Hartford, Don Hartford, Laura Jackson Giron, Rick Giron, Barbara Banke, Christopher Jackson, MacLean Hartford. Seated, left to right: Katherine Jackson, Julia Jackson, Hailey Hartford.

There are now three Vérité wines based on some or all of the five Bordeaux grapes, sourced from the Sonoma appellations Alexander Valley, Bennett Valley, Knights Valley and Chalk Hill. According to Jackson’s – and Seillan’s – vision, each wine aims to evoke a different Bordeaux terroir. The Merlot-based La Muse is inspired by Pomerol; Le Desir, Cabernet Franc, is St Emilion (Cheval Blanc is frequently mentioned at tastings), while the Cabernet Sauvignon-based La Joie takes Pauillac as its benchmark.

They don’t slavishly ape Bordeaux (I always think American winemakers must get sick of the constant referencing). ‘Of course not. These are California wines,’ Banke says. 

This year’s tasting marked a coming-of-age for the wines. In a low-key fashion, without much noise, Banke and her right-hand man Nick Bevan put together a splendid line up of international icons, including Lafite 2001, Tenuta dell’Ornellaia 2004 and Mouton 2004, for a comparative tasting.

Pitting your wine, blind or otherwise, against the established greats is something of a rite of passage for new world wineries aspiring to first growth status. Eduardo Chadwick does it to great effect with his well-known Berlin Tasting series, and every year there's any number of Judgment of Paris lookalikes.

This was an eccentric exercise in a way –  we tasted Grange 2007 and Pingus 2007 against Cardinale 2007 – that is, a Shiraz and a Tempranillo and a Cabernet. It wasn’t done blind: ‘The idea wasn’t to do a Judgement of Paris,’ Bevan said. ‘But to show that our wines can genuinely hold their own alongside the first growths of the world.’

And hold their own they did. However great the company (the Lafite 01 was effortlessly poised)  they were never eclipsed, and in some cases they sang – I was particularly impressed by how the Cardinale showed against Grange and the overoaked Pingus.

For what it's worth, Robert Parker, and latterly Antonio Galloni, love these wines. Parker has handed out seven 100-point scores to Vérité since 1998.

I love tasting the 2011s, a famously cool and difficult vintage. I was in Oakville, at Opus One, and Screaming Eagle, in October of that year. Those winemakers who celebrate restraint were pleased with the quality (if not the quantity) – Michael Silacci at Opus was particularly excited. But it was an incredibly difficult year, with producers losing row after row to botrytis; no one was complacent about it.

2011 Tasting
The Dorchester Hotel, London, 7 October 2014

Vérité La Muse 2011, Sonoma County
89% Merlot, 7% Malbec, 4% Cabernet Franc
Very elegant restrained nose with hints of briar fruit and damson and ripe plum, sweet cherry, tobacco leaf with undertow of fresh nettle. Sour plum and damson on palate, snapped stalk greenness, not dense but feeling of lightness and open freshness. Length elegant, the tannins tactile and chewy and never taking over but delivering welcome fresh juice like tiny darts in the mouth.

Vérité La Joie 2011, Sonoma County
74% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc, 7% Merlot, 6% Petit Verdot, 3% Malbec
Lovely fresh nose, savoury, mint and marmite, some medicinal and saline notes. Structure and precision – tannins tightly-wound, dense dark damson fruit in high register, ending in tannins with dry grip releasing back-palate juice. Savoury, saline length

Vérité Le Desir 2011, Sonoma County
54% Cabernet Franc, 36% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5%  Malbec
Opulent nose with dark chocolate and coffee – roast fresh coffee – with ripe briar fruit. Palate perfumed, ripe dark fruit at first then redcurrant, coffee and chocolate, mouthwatering freshness from the acidity. Dry, arrow-sharp tannins dissolving to juice. A tour de force.

Cardinale 2011, Oakville
Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 
Intensely lush and opulent medicinal nose with great concentration. Palate elegant and powerful with dense dark fruit and brisk acidity, lovely juiciness setting off elegant dry tannins. Full length, continues for more than a minute and then subsides slowly. Delicious

Lokoya Spring Mountain 2011
Cabernet Sauvignon
Almost raisined nose leading to fresh and bright open palate, graphite, stony minerality, open and juicy, fresh, with wonderful cedary brightness. Elegant

Lokoya Diamond Mountain 2011
Cabernet Sauvignon
Tight ungiving nose. Refreshing acidity, very approachable, juicy, mouthwatering cherry and damson fruit. Rugged, dense with juicy acidic finish

Lokoya Howell Mountain 2011
Cabernet Sauvignon
Massive, tarry, sweet fallen black stone fruit, lovely tactile grainy tannins. Wonderful freshness borne out of intense acid and tannin. Length very fine

Lokoya Mt Veeder 2011
Cabernet Sauvignon
Carpenter calls Mount Veeder ‘the beast’. Quite undemonstrative nose, tarry, then on palate really powerful tannic edge, intensely dry, powerful with concentrated dark fruit slowly gathering itself to push through the tannin. This will evolve, the tannins will calm, the fruit will sweeten. Good length

Comparative tasting

Vérité  La Muse 2004, Sonoma County
Lovely dense sweet nose with ripe plum and damson, then on restrained coffee and mocha, sour plum, saline/mineral texture, very open and fresh, sense of juice and freshness

Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Masseto 2004
Tar on nose, powerful, intense tarry chewy tannins, ripe macerated black fruit. Powerful and rather brash

Chateau Mouton-Rothschild 2004
Wonderful evocative perfumed nose, lots of elegant earthy notes, tannins in a lower key, there’s perfume and grip but the juice is restrained, holding back now, leading to dryness at finish, charming but lacking in punch

Cardinale, Oakville 2007
Damson bright fruit, dusty dry tannins, tannins dominant and strong, very powerful, very strong, still incredibly young and powerful

Grange 2007
Tarry intense medicinal nose. Opulent palate, very new world with sweet raspberry fruit, dark chocolate – almost jammy! – tannins intense and precise to the end with very good length, length intense, concentrated, massive.

Dominio de Pingus 2007, Ribera del Duero
Slightly closed nose. Sinewy, chewy tannins almost swamping sweet blackberry fruit, which comes through with graphite, and smoky damson. I find the oak – 23 months new French - drying and over-powerful and I fear the tannins are not going to get any sweeter.

Lokoya Mt Veeder 2001
Deep spicy nose – brooding – then very juicy, the tannins giving out juice from dark fruit, ripe plum and damson, even hints of sloe. Full-bodied and concentrated, with extraordinary structure and fine length

Tenuta San Guido Sassicaia 2001
Struck match and coffee nose, dense knitted dry tannins, full savoury even meaty nose. Perfumed palate, concentrated dark fruit, very fresh acidity with dry tannins dissolving to juice. Fine length

Chateau Lafite-Rothschild 2001
Sweet and wonderfully juicy from the beginning – poised and precise, fine-grained tannins, acidity and oak beautifully integrated, dark plummy fruit concentrated and intense. Effortless finesse, standing out even in this company as quite masterful.

In addition, the following wines were tasting at AWC, London, 6 October 2014

Vérité 2011 - see above

Vérité 2007

Vérité La Joie 2007, Sonoma County
Gorgeous cedar (old armoire) nose, velvety almost porty raisined grape aromas, pot pourri. Still very young, a bit closed now,  tightly-wound tannins holding out promise of juice to come, overall fresh and brimful of potential.

Vérité La Muse 2007, Sonoma County
Toasted oak on nose, meaty and savoury notes hint of very ripe redcurrant, even tending to jam. Palate with powerful tannins, ripe, fresh acidity carries through to finish, though there seems a slight disjoing in the integration of acidity, tannin and oak. Lovely length, and as wine opens in glass any angularity softens.

Vérité Le Desir 2007, Sonoma County
Wonderfully savoury, tarry nose, then bright, fresh tannin and acidity on palate. Fresh and dense, opening out to juice and sweetness of blackberry and blackcurrant fruit, integrated oak and acidity and leading into a pure, concentrated finish. magnificent

Vérité 2004

Vérité La Joie 2004, Sonoma County
Tarry perfumed nose with sweet ripe black cherry and damson. Fruit carries through satisfyingly to palate with saline notes and brisk minerality, very intense chewy tannins, hints of camphor. The tannins are there, young and vibrant to the end, dry but releasing spurts of juice. Lovely

Vérité La Muse 2004, Sonoma County
See above

Vérité Le Desir 2004, Sonoma County
Nose has a wonderful freshness - fresh cigar, even a note of hay - getting some age now, sweet ripe fallen damson and pot pourri, lovely earth and dark, spiced chocolate, camphor. Velvety tannins enriched with black cherry, the whole freshened by racy acidity. Delicious

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