Unless you are a winemaker, you don’t usually get to see wines immediately after they have finished fermentation, but in many ways this is the most revealing stage, before any oak or other influences have changed them. This is a real WYSIWYG situation—what you see is what you get. I had an unusual experience of comparing the products of four vineyards on a recent visit to David Abreu in Napa in tasting through a range of tank samples as the wines waited to be transferred to barriques.
David Abreu is probably the most famous vineyard manager in Napa and is responsible for establishing many of the top vineyards. He still functions as a grower with his own vineyards, making wine from only some of the production. Winemaking here follows a somewhat unusal approach, and the emphasis is decidely on the vineyard as opposed to the individual variety.
Every one of Abreu’s four vineyards—Madrona Ranch (in St. Helena at the base of Spring Mountain), Capella (just south of Madrona Ranch), Thorevilos (east of St. Helena just below Howell Mountain), and Howell Mountain (in Angwin) is planted with a mix of Bordeaux varieties. Usually Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc are predominant. There are several harvesting picks in each vineyard–there were 6 in Madrona this year, and 3-4 in the other vineyards–and the grapes that are considered ripe on each pass are harvested and then cofermented, irrespective of variety. Abreu’s winemaker, Brad Grimes, says, “People tend to think that separating into lots and fermenting as such is more precise, but one of the advantages of taking fruits that are ready together and cofermenting is that you can usually balance out acid and alcohol.”
Certainly these samples gave more complete impressions than you usually see from barrel samples. The special quality of Madrona came through clearly; it was always the most profound, irrespective of the date of picking or the exact mix of varieties. Capella seemed to be the most refined and elegant, Thorevilos more masculine. The big surprise was Howell Mountain, where the interplay of fruit and tannins practiced an unusual deception. At first taste, the wine was surprisingly soft, round, and chocolaty: where were the famous mountain tannins, I wondered? Then 30 seconds later, the finish closed up completely with a massive dose of tannins.
All these wines will mature in 100% new French oak, so there’s a great deal of change yet to come, but it was fascinating to see the essential character of each vineyard come out so directly from the fermentation tank.