Napa Diary Day 2: Diamond Creek under Roederer

Diamond Creek is such a personal creation and idiosyncratic operation that it’s hard to image without Al Brounstein or his family, but with no third generation to take over, it was sold to Roederer in 2020. No one had planted vineyards this far north in the mountains when Al purchased forested land on Diamond Mountain to create a vineyard in 1968. Vineyards were planted with Bordeaux varieties smuggled across the border (fortunately on St. George rootstock, against conventional wisdom, so they have survived phylloxera and there are many original gnarled old vines on the property).

Way up Diamond Creek road, well into the mountain, the estate has four  individual vineyards, all with roughly the same blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc; Petit Verdot comes from a separate plot nearby. All replanting is based on propagation of vines from the original selection. There are no plans to change or expand production. The vineyard management and winemaking team at Diamond Creek stayed on, although winemaker Phil Steinschriber later retired and Graham Wehmeier came from Futo to take over.  The main change in the immediate future is a ten-year plan for some replanting.

The view from the winery looks down Red Rock Terrace and up to Volcanic Hill.

The contemporary winery sits at a high point looking over Red Rock Terrace, immediately below and facing to the north, with Volcanic Hill opposite, with the slope facing full south. Gravelly Meadow is to one side, and Lake is a very small vineyard to the other side. Next to Lake is the plot of Petit Verdot that is used for all the wines. Lake is the coolest site of all, and makes a wine only in some vintages; after that, Gravelly Meadow is the coolest, and Volcanic Hill is distinctly warmer. Indeed, going round the property, the extra warmth hits you as you go up Volcanic Hill. Soils are distinct, ferrous for red rock, gravel for Gravelly Meadow, and volcanic ash for Volcanic Hill. Harvest starts at Volcanic Hill in September, and ends several weeks later in Lake. Production is small, around 500 cases each, except for only 100 cases of Lake when it is made. The wines age for 21 months in all new French oak. The blends are all similar, with 76-78% Cabernet Sauvignon, and then Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot in decreasing amounts.

Tasting the 2018s soon after release, Red Rock shows as most forward and approachable, with Gravelly Meadow close behind. Both show black fruit aromatics with a fine tannic structure, typically elegant for Red Rock, and touch more textured and earthy for Gravelly Meadow. Volcanic Hill is more reserved, with less obvious, but potentially more complex aromatics, and the typically taut tannic structure more evidence against the fruits. It seems likely to be longest lived. All the wines have been running at alcohol levels around 14.5% for the past decade, up from an average of 14.1% in the previous decade. Occasionally Al produced a blend across the vineyards by selecting special barrels–the last vintage was 2013, with 70% Volcanic Hill, 25% Red Rock Terrace, and 5% Gravelly Meadow–and as of the 2019 vintage, the Three Vineyard Blend will become a regular feature (priced at the same level as the single-vineyard wines).

“Al thought Volcanic Hill would be the longest lived wine, but actually they all age equally well. But Volcanic always comes around last, there is no doubt about that,” said his stepson, Phil Ross, on a previousd visit. Tasting older vintages, I could not say I have a favorite: in some vintages I prefer Volcanic Hill, and in others Gravelly Meadow.

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

Tasting Notes on 2018 Vintage

Red Rock Terrace
Deep black fruits on nose point towards blackcurrents. Sweet ripe fruits on palate show faint hints of alcohol coming through the richness. Tannins are fine but the wine is still a little tight, although showing some forward black fruit aromatics. The style seems more modern than it has in previous years; at least this is the easiest and most overtly aromatic of the trio. 14.5%    92 Drink 2023-2040

Gravelly Meadow
Even a little darker and more purple in hue than Red Rock. Nose a fraction more intense with more obvious blackcurrant aromatics. There’s a greater sense of structure, although the tannins are very fine, showing just a touch of asperity against the ripeness of the fruits. It’s a little riper and richer than Red Rock, with the black fruit aromatics just beginning to come out. 14.5%    93 Drink 2023-2040

Volcanic Hill
Dark inky appearance, a little more intense than the others. This shows the smoothest palate of the trio and is the most reserved, with black fruit aromatics waiting to come out, and less evident than the others at first, although after a while they emerge to show greater complexity. The sense of reserve will turn into elegance as the wine develops and this certainly has the greatest potential in this vintage.    94 Drink 2024-2045

Bordeaux 1970 versus California 1974

As part of the research for my book on Cabernet Sauvignon, I wanted to determine whether the stereotypes about aging of Bordeaux versus California Cabernet are true, so  I compared wines from the classic 1970 vintage in Bordeaux with Cabernet Sauvignons from the 1974 vintage in California, really the first vintage that put California on the map as a potential competitor to Bordeaux. Is it true that California Cabernet has more limited aging potential compared with Bordeaux?

The two top wines in the tasting absolutely typify the character and quality of Bordeaux versus Napa. The Pichon Lalande had that delicious balance of fruits and herbaceousness; as it gets older it turns more savory. The Mount Eden Cabernet Sauvignon (which comes from an old plot of ungrafted wines on Santa Cruz Mountain) has that warm impression of sweet, ripe red fruits; age has brought a faint impression of piquancy that adds complexity. Ultimately it will become sweeter and simpler.

The California wines are aging well, but they are staying ripe and sweet and warm and showing impressions of ripe strawberries rather than going savory. The best are absolutely delicious, but it’s not obvious what further evolution will occur if they are kept longer. To what extent is this because most are 100% Cabernet Sauvignon or simply a consequence of the warmer climate? The California wines that made great reputations in their day remain the leaders. Heitz Martha’s vineyard has lost some of its density, and is less evidently in a European style. Ridge Montebello shows more evident savory notes. Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill is every drop a mountain Cabernet, just a touch behind the Mayacamas (from Mount Veeder).

Bordeaux was more surprising with some reversals of reputation. From Margaux, Châteaux Giscours and Brane Cantenac, generally considered to be slightly rustic and slightly overcropped in the era, showed better than more classic wines from Pauillac or St. Julien. The issue with the Bordeaux as they age is just how savory you like your wine, as ultimately they can turn herbaceous and medicinal. On this showing, typical or not, the best showed  more complexity than California, but usually were less delicious.

The difference is not so much that California Cabernet doesn’t age so well as Bordeaux, as that it ages differently.

Tasting Notes

Wine were tasted blind in one flight by a panel including Joel Butler MW, Bill Blatch (Bordeaux negociant), Peter Sichel (former château owner), and Josh Greene (Editor, Wine & Spirits magazine).

 Château Pichon Lalande, Pauillac, 1970

Slightly cedary, spicy nose, a touch of Brett lending a leathery complexity: classic Bordeaux. Sturdy on the palate, giving a rather St Estèphe-like impression.  Classic herb-driven palate with almost medicinal after finish. Absolutely classic Bordeaux in the tradition of the sixties and seventies with that delicious mingling of fruits and herbaceous influences. If there was a wine in the tasting that typifies Bordeaux of the sixties and seventies, this was it. 91 Drink to 2018.

Mount Eden, Santa Cruz Cabernet Sauvignon, 1974

Spicy with faint suggestions of cereal, then warm ripe suggestions of sweet, ripe fruits suggesting California. Still lovely and ripe on the palate, the generosity of the warm fruits is evident, but relatively slight development in the direction of savory evolution. Alcohol is a little higher than average. Complex array of flavors on the palate, albeit a touch rustic. and a faint impression of herbaceousness coming through. Delicious balance. 13.9% 91 Drink to  2018.

Heitz Martha’s Vineyard, Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, 1974

Faintly savory intimations of roasted meats, then reverting to a faint spiciness, even a hint of perfume. Sweet and ripe on the palate although there is a touch of volatile acidity. Warm impression with nice flavor variety. There’s a touch of iron that resembles Pauillac. 13.0% 90 Drink to 2017.

Freemark Abbey, Bosché Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa, 1971

Quite youthful on the nose with slightly floral perfumed mixing with impressions of spices. Palate follows the nose, nice balance, elegant and flora; a touch of that sweet strawberry impression identifies the origin with California. There seems to be very little development in a savory direction, but good acidity pushes this a little towards a Bordeaux spectrum. 12.4% 90 Drink to  2018.

Château Giscours, Margaux, 1970

Fresh, intriguing nose, hints of spices, a touch of perfume, hints of fruits, quite complex.  Elegant and ripe and the palate, refined red fruits, but lacking a touch in the complexity you expect at this age. Very good, but a little rustic. This fooled almost everyone into thinking it came from Napa; it’s definitely much fuller than you usually find from Margaux, but that’s Giscours. 89 Drink to 2017.

Mayacamas, Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, 1974

Perfumed and floral with suggestions of roses and violets on the nose. A lovely balance on the palate here, firm ripe fruits yet with an impression of delicacy, and just a faint herbal underlying hint. But oxidation is beginning to creep in. Touch of  Brett adds complexity. 89 Drink to  2018.

Ridge, Montebello Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Cruz, 1974

Some impressions of cinnamon and other spices on the nose, a surprisingly youthful impression, developing savory overtones of roasted meats in the glass. If you ignore the increasing acidity on the palate, there’s an impression of ripe, sweet, warm fruits from California, presently ripe and nutty retronasally (with a faint impression of American oak), but developing in a savory direction, even a hint of herbaceousness (more Bordelais than most California wines in this tasting). 89 Drink to 2016.

Château Mouton Rothschild, Pauillac, 1970

A very faint leathery suggestion of Brett on the nose, turning a little flat, but the palate is still lively. Solid fruits, firm, but subject to attack by the acidity. This is a very solid wine, developing some flavor complexity, with a warm impression reminiscent of California (not seen on previous bottles, which were more clearly in the herbaceous spectrum). 89 Drink to 2017.

Chateau Brane Cantenac, Margaux, 1970

Controversial between those who loved it and those who thought it had dried out. Classic Bordeaux nose of cedar, spices, and leather, identifying some Brett (more distinct than on the Pichon Lalande, which also showed a touch). Although acidity is threatening to take over the palate, there is still complexity to the savory fruits counterpoised against the leathery overtones, still delicious. 12.0%, 89 Drink to 2016.

Diamond Creek, Volcanic Hill Cabernet Sauvignon, Diamond Mountain, 1975

Amazingly dark. youthful color. Fragrant, perfumed impression on the nose, a really clean impression compared with all the other wines. The only wine not to have some Brett, said Joel Butler MW. Ripe, sweet, warm, acidity is lifting up of course, but nice fruits underneath, with a touch of tobacco. The initial soft warmth of the fruits identifies California, but in the glass they become more evidently taut, reflecting the mountain site. 12.0% 89 Drink to 2018.

Château Léoville Lascases, St. Julien, 1970

Restrained nose, in fact completely closed. Piercing acidity on the palate as the fruits dry out. May have been elegant, but too old now. Slowly picks up a bit in the glass to reveal some flavor complexity in a savory Bordelais style, and then (after a couple of hours! reverts to a warmer, softer, richer impression, although the finish remains dry and a little tart. 12.0% 87 Drink up.

Château Pontet Canet, Pauillac, 1970

Herbal and savory intimations, barely perceptible hints of raisins, a little tired on the nose, faintly musty. Tight fruits on the palate, originally elegant, but the acidity is beginning to take over, disguising its origins. Elegant fruits but tiring now. 86 Drink up.

Château Grand Puy Lacoste, Pauillac, 1970

Slightly acid nose, some herbaceous intimations, but seems old. Nice fruits on the palate, elegant style, but a touch of volatile acidity. Fruits are lightening and drying out but have not become savory. 86 Drink up

Beaulieu Private Reserve, Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, 1974

You never know what you are getting with this wine, because there were two bottlings, one of which was evidently much better than the other. In this bottle, you can see the original spices and fruits , but some oxidized notes of raisins are threatening to take over: the general warmth of the impression identifies California as the origin. Volatile acidity is taking over, turning to raisins in the glass. 13.5%  85 Drink up.

Mondavi, Napa Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve

This was a great bottle in its time, and one of the wines that put the 1974 vintage on the map, but this example did not seem to be the best condition. Mature nose with mixture of acid, fruits that aren’t quite tertiary, but giving an impression that the fruits are drying out. Palate shows better than nose although spoiled by a must, moldy impression. This was delicious before the spoilage took it over. Possibly corked at sub threshold. 13.0% 85 Drink up.