Napa Diary Day 14: Restraint and Ageworthiness at Opus One

One of the more striking wineries in Napa when you get close to the circular entrance, Opus One was created as a joint venture between Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild in 1979. After Constellation took over Mondavi in 2004, it functioned more independently of the individual owners.

When the winery was built, the attitude towards consumers followed Bordeaux rather than Mondavi, and they did not intend to open to the public. That has changed dramatically with a new focus on oenotourism. The winery has just completed a five year reconstruction program. The working winery has been extended at the back, and a luxurious hospitality center has been created at the front, with lounges and verandas where hosted tastings can be held. There will be a culinary program as well, “but everything stays focused on the wine.”

Opus One nestles into the ground

As one of the first collaborations between Bordeaux and Napa winemakers, it was assumed from the start that the wine would be a Bordeaux blend. The wine is labeled as a proprietary red, but usually has more than 80% Cabernet Sauvignon (enough to carry a  varietal label). The lowest Cabernet Sauvignon was 71% in the cool, wet year of 2011; the highest was 97% in 1989.

There are 70 acres of vineyard around the winery and another 100 acres split between To Kalon north and south. Plots are replanted after 25-30 years. Initially the blend started with Cabernet Franc and Merlot; Malbec was added in 1994 and Petit Verdot was added in 1997.

Opus One is easy to under-rate in its early years, when it tends to be somewhat dumb, with a touch of austerity, but it comes out, decade by decade, so my tasting at the winery of wines from three decades was the perfect way to assess it. Taking the European aesthetic farther, the wines are extremely expressive of vintage.

The current release, the 2017, isn’t releasing a lot of fruit or aromatics yet; coiled up tight, it is waiting to unwind. The 2010 is more developed than the 2006; in fact, in a blind tasting I would probably have reversed the vintages of this pair. The 2010 reflects a (relatively) cooler growing season until there were heat spikes at the end of August and in September. The wine impresses as ripe, but reflecting cool-climate conditions. Showing some tertiary notes, it’s perfect now. The 2006 growing season was also relatively cool, but had a heat wave earlier in the season, in July. The wine feels 4-5 years less developed rather than more developed by comparison with the 2010: it is just at the point of making the transition from fruity to savory. All the wines show a restrained style in which flavor development steadily accentuates with age.

The oldest vintage I have had was the inaugural 1979 (made from grapes from Mondavi’s To Kalon vineyard) which at 30 years of age was still vibrant. Other vintages have been excellent after 20 years, so I anticipate a very long life for current vintages.

An updated profile will be included in the 2022 edition of the Guide to Napa.

Tasting Three Decades of Opus One

2017 (Cabernet Sauvignon 80%, Cabernet Franc 1%, Malbec 1%, Merlot 5%, Petit Verdot 9%)
Fairly tight as it opens but promises elegance as it matures. Tannins are tight but not overbearing. Aromatic black fruits come out slowly in the glass. Not ready yet, not because of tannins, but needs time to develop flavor variety. Overall a relatively restrained European style.    92 Drink 2024-2039

2010 (Cabernet Sauvignon 84%, Cabernet Franc 5%, Malbec 1%, Merlot 5%, Petit Verdot 4%)

Some signs of development with tertiary notes that are typical of cool climate extending to faint vegetal notes as counterpoise to the fruits. Mature black fruits have touch of sous bois in background and very faint touch of herbaceousness. Complex flavors on palate give Bordeaux-like cool climate impressions, then the black fruit aromatics take over from the herbaceous overtones in the glass. This is perfect for drinking now.    92 Drink -2026
 

2006 (Cabernet Sauvignon 77%, Merlot 12%, Cabernet Franc 5%, Petit Verdot 3%, Malbec 3%)
On release the wine was closed and austere and hard to read. Now it has really come out. It’s developing slowly as the aromatics are fresher than 2010 and show only a faint touch of development. It seems in fact to be a few years behind 2010 in development. Mature black fruits are right at the tipping point from fruity to savory. The style plays to elegance rather than power. 14.4%    93 Drink -2030

For  comparison, this is my tasting note for the 2006 soon after its release:

Deep purple with black hues. Deep black fruit nose, some nutty aromas coming to the fore in the glass. Although the Cabernet Sauvignon percent is low this year, the wine shows greater austerity than usual.  Falls just a bit short in flavor interest, and is a bit briary and closed at the moment.

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