Friday 9 October 2015

Sonoma's Verité takes on the cultiest of Napa cults

This article was first published without tasting notes on

There was a compelling new angle to the launch of Jackson Family Wines’ Verité 2012 at the Dorchester in London’s Mayfair this week: a comparative tasting against three of Napa’s mosh cultish of cult wines.

Verité fruit is sourced from its Alexander Valley vineyards
The tasting featured the three imminent new releases plus a non-blind look at the 2005 Verité La Joie alongside the same vintage of Harlan, Scarecrow and Screaming Eagle.

It’s been fascinating to watch the trajectory of the Sonoma wine over the last few years, how it has steadily grown in confidence, and how its creator Pierre Seillan has gradually positioned it as the thinking wine lover’s California cult.
Pitting the wine against the greats is nothing new: last year JFW showed it alongside Lafite 2001, Mouton 2004, Grange 2007, Ornellaia 2004 and other icons. It performed very well.

The fact that CEO Barbara Banke and her team have chosen wines of such rarety and – in the case of Screaming Eagle, which retails in London for over £2,500 - fabulous expense, is perfect evidence of the ground they wish to occupy. Nick Bevan, the company’s senior vice-president, spelled it out. “We’re aiming for that territory,” he said. “We’re not aiming at Grange, or Opus – we’re far smaller and we’re beyond them now. We want to be a global cult wine.”

The finest of the three
The story of Verité has been told many times: how Jess Jackson asked Seillan if it would be possible to make a California Merlot as good as Petrus, and how Seillan replied “Pourquoi pas?” and produced the first Verité in 1998, a wine still spoken of in hushed tones by the Sonoma team. Verité is lauded in the US, where Robert Parker has handed down eight perfect 100-point scores over the years. In the UK they have been accepted, said Greg Sherwood of London’s Handford Wines. “People are no longer questioning the quality of the Verité wines but finally delving into the terroir and vintage conditions that created these wines”.

There are now three Verité wines, based on the three great Bordeaux grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. According to Jackson’s – and Seillan’s – vision, each wine aims to evoke a different Bordeaux commune. The Merlot-based La Muse is inspired by Pomerol; Cabernet Franc-centric Le Désir is a St.-Emilion follower, while the Cabernet Sauvignon-based La Joie takes Pauillac as its benchmark.

But comparisons with Bordeaux are little used now; these are Sonoma wines. Monique Seillan, who speaks for her husband and comes every year to London with Banke to show the new vintage, is passionate when she describes the variety of the terroirs they source from: Alexander Valley, Bennett Valley, Chalk Hill and Knights Valley. “Everything we plant is mountain land,” she says. “There are 32 different types of soil, which is more than most of Bordeaux combined.”

High-altitude Sonoma, with its dozens of orientations and complex soils, can produce wines of great sophistication. And in 2012, they were blessed with a winning vintage, it appears. Banke herself adores the vintage. “It’s like coming back to California after [the cool and difficult] 2011. “It was wonderful on every level. There was heat, but not too much, the acidity and the tannic structure are perfect. Sonoma 2012 is like Bordeaux 2005.” However, she insists on keeping the prices stable. “I want people to drink these wines,” she says.

Sense of humour? Scarecrow
The three wines are closely related by terroir and by winemaker, yet distinct. Panel moderator Patrick Schmitt MW noted the tannins were a distinguishing feature. “[They] got finer as we moved through the flight, from the big tannins in La Muse, which is Merlot dominant, to the high but tight-grained character of the Cabernet-led La Joie, and finally, the extremely fine chalky nature of the tannins in Le Désir, which is predominantly Cabernet Franc.”

The second flight, featuring La Joie 2005 and the three Napa wines, was designed to show how Sonoma could be the equal of its celebrated neighbour. “It just doesn’t have Napa’s reputation,” Bevan said. “But you’re going to see exciting things coming out of Sonoma.”

As well they might. Schmitt (the only non-partisan member of a panel consisting of Banke, her daughter Julia Jackson, Bevan, JFW's in-house master sommelier Dimitri Mesnard and marketing director Gayle Bartscherer) and the majority of the audience (by a show of hands) agreed that in terms of power and finesse, brightness of fruit, evolution and balance, La Joie 2005 is not only equal but in some ways superior to the Napa wines. Some mentioned that it was in the Napa wines they had noted the alcohol for the first time. One person suggested the Screaming Eagle was “one-dimensional compared to the Joie”. Finally – and this was a fact not lost on an audience mainly made up of wine retailers from around Europe – it should be noted that for every bottle of Screaming Eagle 2005 you can buy 10 bottles of La Joie.

The three Verité wines will be available in the US, Europe and Asia at around $450 a bottle by the end of November.

Verité La Muse, Sonoma County 2012
Merlot (85%), Cabernet Franc (11%) and Malbec
Sweet early-summer blackberry nose with iodine, minerality, spice, leather, violet perfume, dark chocolate. Seductive and coltishly young, on palate depth of briar, freshly-roasted coffee beans with cocoa powder. Sour cherry, violet, black fruit juice, very fresh ripe powdery tannins. The lovely gauche elegance of youth

Verité La Joie, Sonoma County 2012
Cabernet Sauvignon (76%), Merlot (12%), Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot
High tobacco notes on nose, then fresh young blackcurrant with leaf. Toasty sweet roast coffee and cocoa. Lovely tight-grained texture to the sweet and juicy tannins. Round and voluptuous, mouthfilling acidity with ripe small damson giving waterfalls of juice, exuberant, unrestrained, with a length that goes on forever.

Verité Le Désir, Sonoma County 2012
Cabernet Franc (64%) Merlot (24%), Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petit Verdot
Dusty sweet nose with hay, lovely quality of freshness and presence – this is the most precise of the wines, mouthcoating fine chalky tannin and fresh ripe plum and sweet black cherry fruit, very dark earthy chocolate, perfumed, notes of truffley forest floor, exotic spice. Both opulent and elegant, and utterly delicious. The finest of the three

Verité La Joie, Sonoma County 2005
Cabernet Sauvignon (67%), Merlot (12%), Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec
Bright ruby hue. Wonderful nose brimming with character, dark fruit, cassis hidden, sweet oak, cedar, snapped nettle stem. Palate dancing with fruit and sweet tannin, acidity releasing juice, flavours of coffee with some zest of orange, dry tannins lifted by juice, superb structure and mouthwatering length, beautifully balanced.

Harlan Estate, Napa Valley 2005
Bordeaux blend
Dark red with purple rim. Lovely cedary deep old nose, restrained though very elegant with hints of rot and truffle. High earthy violet perfume, coffee, black fruit, beautifully silky tannins, mouthwatering juice, brooding and full-bodied but superb finesse. Very evolved, almost reaching peak.

Scarecrow, Rutherford 2005
100% Cabernet Sauvignon
Exotic but 1D?: Screaming Eagle
Very sweet stink of iodine and river mud, crushed violets, eucalyptus of an almost Barossan pungency, very big, the alcohol noticeably hot but well integrated considering its port-like heft. Opulent blackberry and blueberry, very concentrated, tannins fine and suave but unrelieved by juice. Grand, tending to the monolithic, short on humour or charm

Screaming Eagle, Napa Valley 2005
Cabernet Sauvignon (98%) and Cabernet Franc
Rich dark fruit, black cherry and blackberry, and medicinal flavours, smoky coffee, exotic perfume, tar and cigar tube; tannins dry but releasing generous juice; lovely grainy texture, fine persistent finish

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