Napa Diary Day 10: Mountain Wines at Viader

Viader Vineyards occupies a steep slope on Howell Mountain that runs down into Bell Canyon. At an elevation of 1,200 feet, it’s just below the Howell Mountain AVA. Delia Viader purchased and then cleared the land in 1981 to plant with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot.  The estate has 90 acres with 27 acres currently planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Syrah, and Malbec.

The Glass Fire started in the hillside opposite Viader, and 60% of the vines were lost to fire. Production will be reduced until the replantings come on line, but all the cuvées  continue to be made. A rocky vineyard at the very top which was planted with Cabernet Franc that struggled to ripen is being replaced with some experimental varieties, Touriga Nacional, Tempranillo, and Grenache. The property has the potential to plant an additional 17 acres, and there had been plans to plant another 10-12 acres before the fire, but that’s now been delayed by the need to replace lost vines.  The cave consists of tunnels dug into the hillside.

Vineyards go straight down the steep slope to the reservoir

Delia has now handed over winemaking to her son Alan, although she is still involved in the blending trials. The flagship Viader is a blend of only Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, with proportions varying from year to year, but always with a majority of Cabernet Sauvignon. Della had intended to include Petit Verdot, but it turned out not to fit the profile she had in mind. For a while there was a varietal Petit Verdot, and now there is the V cuvée, a blend of Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon, with varying proportions but always a majority of Petit Verdot. There’s always been a varietal Cabernet Franc, and it’s now called DARE. Alan introduced the Black Label cuvée, which started out with much more Syrah but now has a majority of Cabernet Sauvignon and also includes Cabernet Franc and Malbec. This is intended to be more aromatic and approachable.

As Alan explains his style, “I do like a wine that is approachable on release, it doesn’t have to be ready to go. I want it to show well after 10 years but I don’t like massive intense wines that you can’t enjoy for ten years.” Alan started off by perhaps using a little more extraction than Delia, but in 2017 was forced by fires to intervene less in winemaking. “The wines made themselves,” he says, “which told us that perhaps we didn’t need to do so much, and now we have reduced pump-over.”

The style of all the cuvées shows the tension of mountain tannins. Black Label is the most aromatic and approachable. Viader is restrained, not quite stern, but showing a fine structure. V shows the taut precisely delineated aromatic black fruits of Petit Verdot, backed by the structure of Cabernet Sauvignon.

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

Tastings of Current Releases

Black Label 2017 (Cabernet Sauvignon 56%, Cabernet Franc 9%, Syrah 23%, Malbec 12%)

It’s hard to disentangle varieties on fruity nose but the aromatics of Syrah seem the most obvious with impressions towards blueberries, and then perhaps a very faint note of tobacco from Cabernet Franc. Palate is fruit-driven and aromatic, but in elegant style with smooth tannins that are not at all obvious. There is just a faint touch of bitterness to cut the fruits at the end, perhaps from the Cabernet Sauvignon. This gets the least oak of any of the Viader cuvees, and is more or less ready to drink now.    90 Drink -2027

Viader 2015 (Cabernet Sauvignon 69%, Cabernet Franc 31%)
Some development shows on nose as tertiary notes with touch of gunflint. This is quite a restrained style of Napa, definitely in the mountain tradition, although not aggressive. Palate at first shows furry texture melding into touch of bitterness on finish. Fruits are mature and black with a faint piquancy coming out in glass, cut by impression of tobacco at end. There’s a good sense of grip on the palate.    91 Drink -2029


V 2017 (Petit Verdot 59%, Cabernet Sauvignon 41%)
The nose shows floral, perfumed notes. The palate shows the precisely delineated black fruits and aromatics of Petit Verdot with a more structured impression from the Cabernet Sauvignon. The overall impression is more typical of Petit Verdot than Cabernet Sauvignon, but the wine may be going through a closed phase.   Viader 91 Drink -2031

Napa Diary Day 8: Rock ‘n Roll at Cliff Lede

Napa Diary Day 8: Rock ‘n Roll at Cliff Lede

The winery has had a roll call of famous consultants since it was founded in 2002 when Cliff Lede left his construction business, Ledcor, to go into wine production. Bordeaux was his passion as a wine collector. David Abreu planted the vineyards, Michel Rolland consulted on winemaking, Philippe Melka was winemaker. Today Cliff’s son Jason is involved, with Christopher Tynan as winemaker.

Cliff Lede has two major plots in Stags Leap: the 40 acre Twin Peaks Vineyard surrounds the winery on the west side of the Silverado Trail; the 20 acre Poetry Vineyard is higher up on the other side of the Silverado Trail. There’s also a 20 acre vineyard at Diamond Mountain in Calistoga. The winery is state of the art, with an optical sorter, gravity feed operations, tronconique tanks for fermentation. It’s just up the road from the tasting room; the road is called Abbey Road after Cliff’s other passion, rock-‘n-roll.

The tasting room is part of a hospitality center that has displays of contemporary art.

Focus is on Cabernet Sauvignon and blends, with several cuvées from different vineyards. The style for the Cabernets has backed off a bit. “Until 2016 we were more into big powerful wines, now we are picking a bit earlier, not restricting yields quite so much, and getting lower alcohol, more towards elegance,” says winemaker Christopher Tynan. The Stages Leap Cabernet Sauvignon, which is the largest production run in reds, has all five varieties. It comes almost entirely (95%) from the estate, mostly from the main vineyard plus a little from younger vines at Poetry, and a little fruit purchased from neighbors. There’s about 7% new oak and it ages on gross lees for 22 months. It’s supplemented by smaller cuvées from Diamond Mountain, Howell Mountain, Songbook (a blend from Thorevilos and Madrona Ranch), and Beckstoffer To-Kalon. Claret and High Fidelity are Bordeaux blends.

Going from the Stags Leap cuvée to single vineyard blocks, the black fruit aromatics become darker. Beckstoffer To Kalon is relatively understated for the vineyard, promising elegance as it ages. “For Beckstoffer To Kalon we are always the first to pick the vineyard,” Christopher says. The flagship Poetry Cabernet Sauvignon (100% varietal) is always the least accessible of the Cabernets when it is young. Brooding and reserved, it promises long aging. When will Poetry be at its peak? “We don’t know yet,” Jason says, “but the reckoning is that you should wait ten years before starting Poetry.” The first vintages of Poetry were more approachable and fruit-forward; recent vintages seem to be more tightly structured.

The largest production run is the Sauvignon Blanc, a blend from Rutherford and some other vineyards, including some Sémillon, aged two thirds in barrique. It has frequent battonage and offers a smooth palate with stone as well as citrus fruits. A separate range, called FEL, comes from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from a 42 acre vineyard Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley to the north.

Oenotourism is encouraged by a range of tastings (vineyard blocks are named after rock-‘n-roll songs, and classic rock plays in the tasting room), and the Poetry Inn is a boutique hotel above the Poetry Vineyard.

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

Tasting Notes

2019 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc (Sauvignon Blanc 85%, Sémillon 12%)
Attractive fresh nose is poised between perfume and herbaceous. Balance on palate is smooth and silky. Ripe fruits shows stone as well as citrus fruits and aromatics at end add complexity. Very successful, especially considering the scale of production. 14.1%   90 Drink -2024
2018 Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon (Cabernet Sauvignon 76%, Cabernet Franc 2%, Malbec 3%, Merlot 13%, Petit Verdot 6%)
Faintly piquant, faintly pungent nose promises development to come. I get a sense of pungency from Merlot. Typical for the area: rich but not overwhelming. Tannins are ripe and round, palate is smooth and pretty much ready to drink, black fruit aromatics are coming out. This is very good for the scale of production. 14.9%   90 Drink -2028
2018 Stags Leap District Magic Nights Cabernet Sauvignon (92% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Petit Verdot, 3% Merlot)
Each year there is a special cuvée blended from two plots. 2018 is Magic Nights, a blend of Nights in White Satin (the eastern part of the main vineyard) and Magic Bus (a lower block at Poetry). Darker black fruit aromatics than the Stags Leap Cabernet Sauvignon, trending towards black cherries and blackberries, but not too obvious. More sense of structure here with tannins just showing a faint bitterness and drying finish. Quite a fresh impression and nothing too overt. I would give this another year.   91 Drink 2022-2034

2018 Sunblock Cabernet Sauvignon (Cabernet Sauvignon 76%, Merlot 13%, Cabernet Franc 4%, Petit Verdot 7%)
A blend of 4 varieties only just above the minimum for Cabernet Sauvignon, this has Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc from Madrona and Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot from Thorevilos. Some aromatic lift to the nose, spicy notes, hints of herbal pungency, more forward and overtly fruity than To Kalon, but also more obvious structure with some bitterness from the tannins. Blackberry and other black fruit aromatics are more obvious than To Kalon and this is certainly a big wine, very intense and concentrated. It needs at least another 3 years.   93 Drink 2023-2040 

2018 Beckstoffer To Kalon Cabernet Sauvignon
Aromatics come out on nose with a touch of piquancy. Very good balance between the black fruits, which are deep and black but not flashy, and the structure of firm ripe tannins, with little dryness evident on finish, which picks up in the glass. Faintly smoky as the aromatics evolve in the glass, a little flattening from the tannins, and then gravelly impressions on the finish. When the tannins resolve the fruits should show as quite elegant; this is relatively subtle for To Kalon, and it’s potentially the most subtle of the Cabernets. 14.4%   94 Drink 2022-2037

2018 Stags Leap District Poetry Cabernet Sauvignon
This is always the least accessible of the Cabernets when it is young. Quite stern nose shows some rocky impressions. Reserved on the palate, real sense of restraint, aromatics not coming out yet, touch of tobacco but otherwise stern on gravelly finish. Blackberry fruits in background. Coiled spring waiting to unwind.   94 Drink 2026-2045

Poetry 2014 Stags Leap District Poetry Cabernet Sauvignon

Some development shows with tertiary notes of gunflint. Smooth on the palate as tannins have begun to resolve, allowing fruits to come out a bit, but still quite tight. Blackberry fruits still see a little brambly. May be in a closed phase as the palate seems to have tightened up a bit by comparison with younger vintages.   94 Drink -2040

Napa Diary Day 7: Hyde Estate and Hyde de Villaine

Arriving at Hyde Estate in Carneros, there was a cool breeze blowing, and it felt about 10 degrees cooler than it had when we left St. Helena farther up the valley 30 minutes earlier. True to form, the wines showed more of a cool-climate impression than those from up valley.

Larry Hyde started with 50 acres for growing grapes in 1979 and built Hyde Vineyard into one of the most prestigious sites in Carneros, selling grapes to more than 40 producers. In 2005 he purchased an apple orchard close by, and in 2006 he planted it to Pinot Noir. “The project was launched specifically with making wine at the estate in mind,” says Larry’s son, Chris. There are 3 acres of Pinot Noir and 15 acres of Chardonnay.  More recently he purchased another vineyard in Carneros which is planted with Syrah, Merlot, Viognier, Cabernet Franc.

The Hyde Estate winery is in the middle of the vineyard in Carneros

The winery (small and practical along bare-bones warehouse lines) was built from 2014 to 2017, when Alberto Rodriguez came from Patz and Hall as winemaker. Pinot Noir is by the far the best known variety here, but there are also varietal estate wines of Chardonnay, Merlot, Syrah, and Viognier. The wines age for 11 months in barriques with 25% new oak. The Chardonnay is rich with sweet fruit impressions and notes of exotic fruits, the Pinot is quite aromatic with earthy red fruits backed by crisp acidity, and the Syrah has impressions of the light style of the Northern Rhône. 

Larry is also a partner with DRC’s Aubert de Villaine, a relative by marriage, in Napa’s HdV Wines, which sources its grapes from Hyde Vineyard. The project started in 2000, and the winery was built in 2003, a practical building with the appearance of warehouse. It’s located just outside downtown Napa, at the start of the Silverado Trail, and is surrounded by a 24 acre vineyard, which is managed by the team at Hyde, but the grapes are sold off. The focus is on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

The Hyde de Villaine winery is just outside Napa, but sources its grapes from Hyde Estate in Carneros

Chardonnay is barrel fermented, with 15-20% new oak, and no battonage. It stays on the lees for 11 months and then spends 4 months in stainless steel. It’s 60-70% Wente and the rest is Calera by clonal origin. The style is one of the most Burgundian I have encountered in Napa; in terms of comparisons with Burgundy, there are mineral impressions like Puligny Montrachet when young.

Pinot Noir comes from two sources: Ysabel is the exceptional cuvée that’s not from Carneros, but comes from a 1400 ft high plot on Sonoma Mountain. It gives a much stronger impression of cool-climate origins than the Ygnacio Pinot Noir from Carneros, which is rounder and more aromatic and quite Beaune-ish. The Syrah, Californio, has rounded fruits supported by elegant tannins much in the style of the Northern Rhône. Bonne Cousine is a Bordeaux blend, varying quite a bit with vintage, but typically a bit more than half Merlot and a bit less than half Cabernet Sauvignon.

Grapes sources are similar for the two producers, but the wines are distinct, although Chris Hyde says, “HDV has had an impact on our own winemaking. We farm for the site, we get a little more acid.” The Chardonnay at HdV has a more eurocentric style while at Hyde it shows the typical richness of Carneros, the Pinot Noir from Hyde is more distinctly cool-climate than the Ygnacio from HdV, and the Syrah from both has an elegance far more like the Rhône than like Shiraz from the New World.

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

Tasting of Hyde Estate 2017

Chardonnay
Rich with sweet fruit impressions and notes of exotic fruits, Attractive and approachable, with the fruits becoming more linear as it develops in the glass. 89 Drink -2024

Pinot Noir
Quite aromatic nose shows red cherries and raspberries, with strawberries in the background. Crisp acidity follows to hints of earthy strawberries on palate. The aromatics are quite earthy, but the overall impression shows freshness of Carneros, emphasized by some tea-like tannins on the finish. 90 Drink 2022-2030

Syrah
Somewhat stern nose leads into crisp palate with light impressions of the Northern Rhone. Tannic structure shows in slight touch of bitterness on finish, with some tea-like tannins giving impression of striving for ripeness. Fruits round out nicely in glass and seem increasingly like the Northern Rhone. The palate is moving in an attractively spicy direction. 90 Drink -2028


Tasting at Hyde de Villaine

2018 Chardonnay
Fresh nose with subtle fruits shows a resemblance with Burgundy, with hints of minerality that point towards Puligny Montrachet. Nice density, well balanced fruits and acidity, some hints of citrus and gunflint. Very fine balance. 92 Drink -2029

2015 Chardonnay
Faint notes of exotic fruits show development with touch of asperity. Fresh palate shows greater density and viscosity compared with 2018, rounder and richer. The exotic hints become fainter in the glass as the palate moves more towards minerality. The texture and overall impression reminds me a little of Corton Charlemagne. 91 Drink -2025

Ysabel (Sonoma Mountain) 2018 Pinot Noir
There’s a definite cool-climate impression, with the earthy strawberry fruits showing a touch of asperity. The dry earthy finish gives this quite a lean character. (Fruits come from a site at 1400 ft elevation.) The vineyard is surrounded by redwood trees, and it’s possible that this is response for a cedary impression on the palate. 89 Drink 2023-2031

Ygnacio 2018 Pinot Noir
Reflecting its origins in Carneros, rounder and more aromatic than Ysabel. Ripeness on the palate shows against a touch of young tea-like tannins drying the finish, with greater sense of viscosity. Still needs more time, and may become generous and elegant. It seems quite Beaune-ish. 90 Drink 2022-2032

Californio 2016 Syrah
Nicely rounded impression on nose follows through to elegant palate supported by fine, silky tannins. Purity of fruits really comes through. The elegance and fine texture remind me of the Northern Rhone 14.3% 91 Drink -2031

Napa Diary Day 6: Stony Hill – from Chardonnay to Cabernet

It’s all change at Stony Hill, an icon in Napa Valley for its early production of Chardonnay. Fred and Eleanor McCrea purchased the property in 1943 and planted their first Chardonnay in 1947. The first vintage, produced in a lean style without malolactic fermentation, was 1952. Even today, after a half century of changes in fashion, it remains one of Napa Valley’s best-known Chardonnays. although its style lives up to the name of the winery, stony and lean, the antithesis of the caricature of rich, fat, buttery Chardonnay that more often typifies Napa. “Fred’s objective  was to produce Chardonnay that would do well after ten years,” says Laurie Taboulet, the estate manager since Gaylon Lawrence bought the estate in 2020. Jamie Motley came as winemaker from Pax Mahle.

The address on St. Helena Highway North is deceptive. The estate is actually an enclave within the Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park (the winery was founded before the park), several miles up a steep, twisting road to the winery, which at 800 ft elevation is in the center of the vineyards, which rise up to 1500 ft, all above the fog line. This may not be the most isolated winery in Napa Valley, but it’s certainly a contender. Soils have more clay around the winery, and become volcanic and quite ferrous as indicated by a redder color as you go up to the top. The woods were burned by the Glass Fire but the vineyards escaped.

The winery was originally built as a house for the McRea’s in 1952.

Long time winemaker Mike Chelini used short elevage and the wine was bottled the June after harvest. Wine was aged only in used barriques, and MLF was blocked. Jamie plans to use longer elevage and to age wines in a mix of demi-muids and foudres of Austrian oak from Stockinger, as well as some cement. New oak will remain light, but may be a bit higher during the transition period.

The style of the Chardonnay is distinctly reserved, more stony than mineral. The herbal edge of young vintages gives an impression of austerity. There isn’t much development in the first couple of years, but after about six years the style opens out, and the herbal character of young vintages segues into a sense of garrigue, releasing more mature flavors inclined towards a citrus spectrum, with a delicious delicacy. This for me is the peak. Flavor intensifies and the palate becomes more viscous for another few years, until the wine begins to tire.

The Cabernet Sauvignon (either 100% varietal or close to it) is an eye opener, one of the very few Cabernets in Napa where I might hesitate in a blind tasting as to whether its origins were New World or European. The first year was 2009. Even a young vintage such as 2017 shows a distinctly restrained style, silky and elegant (if I wanted to compare with Bordeaux, St. Julien would come to mind). Ten years after the vintage, the style of the 2010 shows the tension of mountain tannins without the aggression that characterizes many mountain Cabernets. These are very much food wines, and left me persuaded that Stony Hill has the potential to produce Cabernets that will rival its reputation of Chardonnay.

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

Tasting Notes of a Chardonnay Vertical

2018 
Stony with austere impressions on palate. Very dry impression with just a faint lift at end. Flavor variety hasn’t started to develop yet, but there’s a sense of a coiled spring waiting to unwind. 13.5%   91 Drink -2030

2017 
Palate hasn’t really started to develop yet, acidity melds into hints of piquancy as it opens in the glass. The austere stony character really lives up to the name of the vineyard. A slightly nutty aftertaste promises complexity to come. 13.5%    92 Drink -2030

2015 
Fresh nose still offers some herbal impressions. Development shows as softness on palate, tending to salinity rather than minerality, with a real impression of delicacy. The palate has really come into balance now with mature citrus fruits and a faint viscosity. This is the perfect point of balance, retaining freshness but showing development. It’s the roundest of the vintages of the past decade. 13.0%    92 Drink -2025

2012 
Distinctly more golden color than younger wines. Greater sense of viscosity cuts the austere impression on palate, bringing more roundness with age, and a sense of the garrigue has come with development. Intensity picks up in the glass.    89 Drink -2023

Tasting Notes on Cabernet Sauvignon

2017 
Fresh herbal impressions on nose retain the familar house style from the Chardonnay. This impresses as a restrained Eurocentric style. Fruits are already showing flavor variety and are balanced by light silky tannins. I would not have difficulty in believing this smooth style came from Bordeaux.    93 Drink -2031 2010

 2010
Fruits show as more red than black on nose, with faintly piquant developed character. Silky palate shows maturing red and black fruits, showing the restraint and tension of mountain fruits but without the tension of mountain tannins. This is very much a food wine. 13.5% 91 Driuk -2033

Napa Diary Day 5: the Ultra-Concentrated Cabernets of Alejandro Bulgheroni

Along Meadowood Lane, round the back of the Meadowood hotel complex, is the Alejandro Bulgheroni Estate on 15 acres that Alejandro (an Argentine multi-billionaire) purchased from Bill Harlan. It’s a somewhat isolated, rather forested site, but the focus anyway is on making single-vineyard cuvées from grapes purchased from top vineyards elsewhere. The winery looks all but deserted from the outside (I almost drove away when I arrived because I thought I had come to the wrong place) and consists of an industrial-looking warehouse at ground level, with a somewhat snazzier barrel room underneath.

The winery is a discrete building in the woods

There are 7 cuvées, with 5 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2 Cabernet Franc. The Lithology series comes from Beckstoffer vineyards, including Las Piedras (Cabernet Sauvignon), Dr. Crane and To Kalon (Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc), and the Lithology Napa Valley (a blend from several sites). The Alejandro Bulgheroni Estate Cabernet Sauvignon comes from selected lots in Rutherford and Oakville. (Alejandro took over the Bounty Hunter wine bar and shop in Napa in 2014 and acquired the lots that Bounty Hunter had previously bought from Beckstoffer). Production starts with roughly twice as many grapes as are needed for the cuvées, and those that aren’t used for Litholgy are sold off or used elsewhere in the group.

“There is no fixed policy about pure varietals versus blends,” says winemaker Matt Sands. “It varies. We want the best wine. Some years a blend improves the wine, sometimes that’s not true.” The Cabernet Sauvignon cuvées are usually pure varietals or very close to it. Going along the Lithology range of single-vineyard wines from 2018, the tannins become increasingly fine, and the fruit impressions become correspondingly more precise. Las Piedras shows sweet, very concentrated black fruit, Dr Crane is a touch more aromatic and has the greatest sense of tension in the series at present, and some spicy impressions on To Kalon make it more approachable than Dr. Crane right now. If these have fine tannins, the Alejandro Bulgheroni Estate Cabernet Sauvignon is über-fine, with more reserve resulting from greater tannic presence. The compromise is that the Estate blend has greater breadth and potential longevity, but less sense of precisely delineated fruits than the single-vineyard wines.

House style is that intense black fruit aromatics are only just beginning to develop after three years, usually pointing more towards black cherries than blackcurrants as they develop, and the texture takes on chocolaty overtones as it opens out in the glass. The wines age in barriques with more two thirds new oak, and all have alcohol over 15%; however, neither oak nor alcohol is obtrusive. The Cabernet Franc from Dr. Crane makes a slightly fresher impression than the Cabernet Sauvignon, in much the same style. Michel Rolland consults.

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

Tasting Notes on the 2018 Vintage at Alejandro Bulgheroni

Lithology Beckstoffer Las Piedras 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon
Nose is quite reserved, almost musty. Palate shows sweet, very concentrated black fruits, with very fine tannins but slightly tart on the finish. Great sense of fruit delineation. Touch of mint comes out at end offsetting that slightly musty note of very ripe Cabernet. 14.9%   92 Drink 2024-2036

Lithology Beckstoffer Dr. Crane 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon
More sense of fruit and asperity to the nose before the palate shows as softer than Las Piedras. A touch more aromatic in the direction of blackcurrants, then moving to intense black cherries on the palate. This has the greatest sense of tension in the 2018 range at the moment. 15.3%   92 Drink 2024-2036

Lithology Beckstoffer To Kalon 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon
Some spicy impressions to the nose makes this more approachable than Dr. Crane. Greater sense of density behind the fruits. Very fine tannins show on the finish. 15.3%   92 Drink 2024-2036

Alejandro Bulgheroni Estate 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon
Fruits are blacker and more aromatic than the single vineyard wines in the Lithology series. Very fine tannic structure gives more sense of dryness on finish (and potential longevity). The tannic structure flattens the profile in the glass, 15.3%   93 Drink 2026-2040

Lithology Beckstoffer Dr. Crane 2018 Cabernet Franc

Nose and palate seem a little fresher than Cabernet Sauvignon, the aromatics are less obviously towards blackcurrants, and there’s a faint touch of tobacco to offset the jammy fruits on the finish. Palate has a fine texture and some chocolaty notes develop in glass. 15.3%   91 Drink 2024-2034

Napa Diary Day 4: Restrained Cabernet Sauvignon at Spottswoode

Driving along Madrona Avenue in downtown St. Helena through suburban housing, you wonder where the Spottswoode winery can be, and then suddenly you come out into 35 acres of vineyards stretching from the edge of the town up to the mountains. Jack and Mary Novak purchased the property in 1972, when Jack was a practicing physician. They replanted the property with current varieties, but were refused a permit to make wine because the neighborhood was residential. They later purchased a winery across the road (in 1990) that allowed the wine to be made in the vicinity.

The Spottswoode winery looks like a residence in St. Helena

The style of the Cabernet has a freshness almost reminiscent of Bordeaux. The palate shows a restrained style dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon. Aron describes his style: “I’ve always felt the biggest challenge for us is to tame the heat–St. Helena and Calistoga are the hottest places in Napa. We don’t want to ripen wine on the monolithic side of super-ripe or to go to the monolithic side of under-ripe wine. The idea is to retain a fresh edge in which aromatics are part of the wine and not over-ripe.”

Tasting back through a vertical, the sense of freshness becomes less obvious and the palate moves to a more textured impression, at its smoothest showing a velvety structure. Alcohol is usually at or just under 14%. The high-alcohol vintages of 2016 and (to a lesser extent) 2015 show a chocolaty density. “I think this is the California style,” Aron says. “You would probably see this effect in any 5 year vertical.” The wines are intended to be immediately accessible–” in the American market consumers like everything to be drinkable on release,” Aron says–but age for several years; Aron sees them as really ‘smoothing out’ at 8-10 years.

The white ages 50% in stainless steel, 45% in barriques including 15-20% new oak, and 5% in other containers. It had 1-5% Semillon until 2010, when the source of the Sémillon was lost, but Sémillon has been reintroduced at 3% from 2019. It has a fresh but not overly crisp style, poised between perfume and herbaceousness.

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

A 5-year vertical tasting of Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon

2018 
Opens with sense of tart asperity and black fruits behind. Fresh impression follows to palate. You might call this old-style in a European context. Tannins only evident by some dryness on finish. Needs time not so much to resolve tannins as to let flavor variety develop. Softens a bit as it opens up in glass. 14.0%    90 Drink 2023-2033

2017 
A little softer and rounder on nose than 2018. Soft and black on palate but characteristic house freshness still shows in almost Bordeaux-like fashion. Acidity moves towards piquancy on finish to contrast with chocolaty texture developing in the glass. 13.7%   90 Drink 2022-2030

2016 
A little deeper on the nose, rounder and blacker than 2017. Softer than 2017 with greater sense of chocolate giving velvety texture. Nice sense of black fruits beginning to emerge, following through to long finish. Perhaps the  higher alcohol contributes to the greater sense of viscosity. 14.4%   92 Drink -2031

2015 
Not quite as superficially soft as 2016, texture not quite so evident, house freshness more evident, but good sense of density underneath. Fruits are a little brambly. 14.4%   91 Drink -2031

2014 
The most reserved of recent vintages with faint nose just beginning to emerge. Light sense of structure, black fruits a bit in the background, just beginning to come out. Developing slowly and showing structure more clearly on finish than other vintages. Uncertain when this will come round. 14.2%   90 Drink -2038

Napa Diary Day 3: The Unusual Zinfandels of Robert Biale

Situated in the middle of the valley just north of Napa, the Biale Winery is surrounded by vineyards of what is now an unusual variety in Napa Valley: Zinfandel. Sitting on the terrace that is the tasting room in the summer, I asked Bob Biale,  Why did you focus on Zinfandel in this location? “Because my dad loved the grape and kept it in the ground. It’s only recently–since the 1970s–that Cabernet has been the grape. The valley was full of Zin and Petite Syrah before the Judgment of Paris (tasting in 1976). We make about 15 Zinfandels, mostly from Napa Valley. As it turns out, Oak Knoll (the AVA just north of the town of Napa) is perfect for Zinfandel.” Biale is probably the preeminent winery specializing in Zinfandel in Napa.

The tasting room is a terrace in the middle of the vineyard

Zinfandel comes from wide-ranging sources here, with about ten single-vineyard cuvées, some a little unusual. There are about 300 cases of each single-vineyard wine. Most of the cuvées contain some other varieties (often from old field blends): only Limerick Lane and Stagecoach are 100% Zinfandel.

Grapes are sourced 20% from estate vineyards and 80% from long-term contracts with growers where the vineyards are farmed to Biale’s specifications. About 65% of the Zinfandel grapes come from Napa, mostly around Oak Knoll. There are also vineyards in Coombsville (south of Napa) and in Carneros (on the Sonoma side).  “If things are really warming up, Zinfandel may not be viable up Napa Valley. The profile for the (Zinfandel from Coombsville and Carneros) is cool-climate: brighter but surprisingly rich. If we need to, we may plant more there.”

Zinfandel is famous for uneven ripening of the bunches, often producing contrasting notes of jammy fruits and piquancy. Biale avoids this. “We remove 100% of the ‘wings’ from the bunches. The problem is that when you wait for the wings to ripen, the rest becomes over-ripe. The wings are dramatically under-ripe, even with them removed, the main cluster does not ripen as evenly as a Bordeaux variety, but we get more evenness this way. ” Alcohol usually ends up over 14%.

“We use open-top fermenters to let some alcohol blow off, punch-down for gentler extraction, and use all Burgundy barrels. We treat our Zin somewhat like Pinot, the Zins all have about the same new oak, only about 25%. Petite Syrah is bigger so it gets more new oak, 30-35%.”

‘Elegance’ is not a word that often appears in my tasting notes about Zinfandel, but the house style at Biale shows a purity of fruits, and, yes, elegance. The reference wine for the winery is Black Chicken, which comes from estate fruit, mostly around the winery and elsewhere in Oak Knoll. Quite a bit comes from old plantings of field blends, including a fair bit of Abouriou, a low acid variety that takes off the edge. “I give the original growers credit for this,” Bob says. “This is our flagship wine, it’s strikingly Oak Knoll in its nature.”

First Grade is the exception to the general house style of drinkability on release. Made since 2016, it’s based on a selection of barrels from estate vineyards around the  winery plus Aldo’s Vineyard and Stagecoach, and sees 50% new oak for 16 months. It’s about 78% Zinfandel and 15% Petite Syrah, with the rest from various varieties in the field blend. A much bigger wine, it’s intended to be ready after five years. Only about 120 cases are produced from just 4 barrels.

Cuvées from the famous Stagecoach Vineyard in Napa’s Atlas Peak (where Zinfandel is a tiny part of the vineyard, which is otherwise devoted to Bordeaux varieties) and Monte Rosso in Sonoma (where the vines are some of the oldest in California) are perhaps the most elegant. You might say that Stagecoach and Monte Rosso epitomize the difference between Napa and Sonoma, with a touch of  austerity for Stagecoach playing against a rounder impression for Monte Rosso. They convey that sense of top-flight wines of any variety that they will only deepen and intensify as they age.

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

2018 Zinfandel Tasting at Robert Biale

Black Chicken, Napa Valley
Faintly piquant impression, dry and fresh on palate, with surprisingly good acidity, although a faint burn from alcohol at the end. The acidity is all natural, we don’t acidify back,” Bob says. Faintly nutty on the palate, quite a bright style for Zinfandel, generally trending towards elegance rather than power. 14.8%    89 Drink -2025

Aldo’s Vineyard, Oak Knoll
This comes from a field blend planted in 1937. Some spicy notes to the nose, good flavor variety showing on palate. “This will go 10 years, easy,” Bob says. Palate is smooth and velvety, tannins scarcely evident, good freshness. The velvety texture–they call it pillow-soft at the winery–is typical of the vineyard. 14.8%    90 Drink -2030

First Grade,  Napa Valley

Faintly spicy but quite restrained on the nose, tight and relatively closed on the palate, and there’s actually a some sense of bitterness from the tannins on the finish. Although the tannins are not gripping or dry, they need to resolve to let the fruits come out. This should mature to quite an elegant style but it’s going to take time. 14.8%    92 Drink 2025-2035

Valsecchi, Carneros
“This is the southernmost of our Zins,” Bob says, “from less than 1 acre on the Sonoma side of Carneros, making only 1-3 barrels.” Slightly spicy nose. You can see the relatively cool climate character in the crispness of the refreshingly tart palate. Flavor variety is just beginning to develop. The winery describes the fairly tight style as ‘more Burgundian.’ 14.5%   89 Drink -2026

Stagecoach Vineyard, Napa Valley
Nose inclines more to red fruits than black with some red cherries. Quite elegant, almost translucent impression to palate. Light tannins give structural support in the background. There’s a very faint touch of heat at the end.    93 Drink -2030

Monte Rosso, Moon Mountain District

More reserved on the nose than Stagecoah but a rounder, slightly more viscous impression on palate. Great sense of purity of fruits comes through, with structure more in the background than Stagecoach.The texture is very fine and conveys a taut sense of precision. 14.8%  93 Drink -2032

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

Napa Diary Day 1: Cabernet Purity at Corison

“Diurnal variation is the magic of Napa, that’s why it’s such a special place,” says Cathy Corison as we start tasting in the Kronos vineyard behind the winery. It was just beginning to warm up at mid-morning, with temperatures having dropped into the fifties overnight and being forecast to reach the nineties in the afternoon. A massive hand-carved travertine table has just been installed at the entrance to the vineyard, and we sat there looking over the fifty-year old vines towards the Mayacamas Mountains.

My first visit for July in Napa, I was catching up on the evolution at Corison. Starting with a wine appreciation course in college (when she thought she was going to become a marine biologist), which was based on French wine, Cathy’s reference point has been European. She’s known for making wines that favor elegance over power with moderate alcohol.

The tasting table at the entrance to Kronos has a view over to the Mayacamas Mountains

“I pick weeks before most,” she says. ” I care what the sugar level is. If we get too ripe, we lose the red and blue part of the spectrum, we are left only with black. I believe table wine should be 12.5% and if I could get ripeness at that level I would.” Alcohol levels are in the low 13%s in cool vintages, up to 14% in warmer vintages. Kronos, where the vines are oldest, usually is a bit lower than the other cuvées.

The other cuvées of Cabernet Sauvignon are the Napa Valley (a blend from three vineyards) and Sunbasket, a single vineyard from which Cathy had been making wine for 20 years when she was able to buy it in 2015. Its first vintage as a single vineyard designate was 2014. “When I bought Sunbasket, I hadn’t blended the 2014, so I made a single-vineyard designate, I had decided I would not make a single-vineyard designate wine unless I owned the vineyard.”

All the wines are 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. “I am a Cabernet chauvinist, at least on the bench here. I believe Cabernet Sauvignon can do everything other varieties can do here.” New oak is similar at around 50% for all three cuvées. “I couldn’t make the wine in this style without oak, but I don’t want you to be able to taste it.”

The vines at Kronos are among the oldest Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley. The story behind the vineyard is that Cathy was determined to find gravelly terroir for her Cabernet Sauvignon, and this turned up in the form of a neglected vineyard. It was thought that it would have to be replanted because the rootstock was AxR1, which was succumbing to phylloxera, but 6 of the 8 acres turned out to be clone 2 Cabernet Sauvignon on St. George rootstock. “The combination gives scraggly cluster of tiny berries and doesn’t bear very well, only about 1.25 tons/acre.” These are now wonderfully venerable vines. A 2 ha plot in front of the winery was in fact on AxR1 and now been replanted on St. George. (Cathy hasn’t decided yet which cuvée these grapes will go into.) The Kronos vineyard is infected with leaf roll virus–it turns an attractive red in the Fall–which is anathema to viticultural experts, but Cathy says this slows development, as well as reducing yields, and contributes to the concentration and lowers sugar levels at harvest.

Tasting the range from 2018 (Napa Valley has been released, Sunbasket and Kronos are bottled but not released yet), leaves a strong impression that the focus is on elegance and purity of fruits. The Napa Valley has the most direct fruits, conveying a great sense of purity, with silky tannins in the background. Sunbasket adds a more direct sense of tannic texture to the palate. (There is also a Cabernet Franc from a few rows at Sunbasket, which shows a more reserved style than the Cabernet Sauvignon). The tannins in Kronos are so velvety that it actually seems more approachable at this point than Sunbasket, but the greater sense of density deepens the palate and promises the greatest longevity. The star of the show here is the purity of Cabernet Sauvignon.

For my reality check, to see how the wine pairs with food as opposed to a tasting, I had a Kronos 2004 with dinner. It still felt like a baby, age showing in even greater finesse on the palate, with the silkiness of the tannins contributing to an enhanced sense of the purity of Cabernet fruits, giving a translucent impression to the palate.

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

Tasting Notes for Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 at Corison

Napa Valley
Nose offers a delicious faintly piquant impression, relatively aromatic, then ripeness is nicely offset by freshness on the palate. Tannins are already quite silky. The aromatics carry through to the palate, which offers subtle hints of the oak aging. This really could be enjoyed almost immediately, but should become increasingly elegant over the next few years. 91 Drink 2022-2030

Sunbasket 2018 
Nose shows a touch more asperity than the Napa, not as soft or intense as Kronos. The sleek silky house style comes through, tannins are a touch more obvious on the finish, so this needs a little more time than the Napa bottling. It will probably continue to show a slightly more robust style as it develops.   92 Drink 2024-2035

Kronos Vineyard
The most intense of the range but relatively approachable because tannins are so velvety. The elegant house style with that sense of delineation to the fruits comes through the intensity. Very faint sense of piquancy in background keeps the palate criso. Youthful structure shows directly only a faint dryness onb the finish.    94 Drink 2024-2044

Kronos 2004

Still quite dark, maroon with some purple hues. Black fruit aromatics show hints of blackcurrants. Showcases absolute purity of Cabernet on palate, with pronounced cassis. Intense aromatics on opening integrate as the wine opens in the glass.Age shows in the extra smoothness on the palate, with very fine silky tannins, and no rasp to the finish; there’s no tertiary development yet. The palate flattens as it opens, bringing a feel of more European restraint. 13.8%   94 Drink -2035

Can High Alcohol Wines be Balanced?

You sniff a glass of wine: it has a bouquet of aromas characteristic of its variety, promising an interesting palate. The palate is full of the anticipated flavors, rich and perhaps a touch exuberant, but not yet multi-dimensional as this is a recently released young wine. This is a beautifully crafted wine, representing its region and grape variety, but then a sense of warmth hits you on the finish, sometimes running into an impression of overt heat. The wine would be perfect if only it had a percent or so less alcohol. I have had this experience many times on this visit to Napa.

When asked about alcohol levels, a small minority of winemakers in Napa say it’s a concern, but most say this is what the climate gives you, and the wine is balanced, so there is no problem. Well, my response is yes and no. Generally the wine is balanced, and at a tasting you may not always notice the high alcohol, although it may express itself more forcefully in the course of drinking a bottle with a meal. But even when alcohol is not obvious, I believe the reason is that the balance that is necessary to hide it involves more extraction. It’s the combination of high alcohol and extract that makes the wine fatiguing rather than the alcohol alone—after all, fino Sherry is 15% alcohol and can be delicate and elegant. Indeed, some wines are getting into fortified territory. My companion, the Anima Figure, who is less tolerant of high alcohol than I am, commented on a Chardonnay at dinner, “This winemaker should be working in a distillery,” because the sense of raw spirits entirely hid the fruits.tokalon10

Napa Valley viewed from the To-Kalon vineyard.

Balance is surely a compromise, and the problem, I think, is that achieving phenolic ripeness is regarded as the ne plus ultra, so all other aspects of balance are pushed into the background. Okay, in the old days balance used to be regarded as basically getting enough sugar to achieve 12% or 12.5% alcohol; next a slightly more sophisticated approach was to look at sugar/acid ratios: it was assumed that if the ratio was about right the wine would be good. Those wines would be regarded as seriously unripe by the criterion of phenolic ripeness (although that is not so new: in ancient Rome, Pliny recommended tasting the seeds to judge when grapes were ready for harvest).

But does making phenolic ripeness the single criterion for harvest achieve balance? What if phenolic ripeness is achieved at punishing alcohol levels—Pinot Noir at 15% or more, Cabernet Sauvignon at 15.5% and up, Zinfandel well into the 16%s. Doesn’t “balance” imply making some compromise between sugar, acid, and phenolic ripeness, in which the first two count for something, if perhaps not as much as the last? Is it heretical to ask whether the wine might actually be better if the grapes were picked at slightly lower ripeness, but with better balanced sugar and acidity?

I question whether it’s a true balance if grapes are picked solely for ripeness and then acidity is added, alcohol is adjusted, or water is added to get to more acceptable parameters. (I have not found a single winemaker in Napa who denies needing to use watering back at some point: adding water when the sugar level is too high is now legal, but it seems a dubious means for achieving balance.) Part of the problem is that the current generation of winemakers is not really conscious of the great change in alcohol levels. “This vintage is quite moderate, alcohol is only 14.5%,” one winemaker said, “sometimes we have been pushed up over 15%.” Another said, “As long as I’ve been making wines, I have never seen alcohol below 14%.”

When 14.5% alcohol can be regarded as moderate, we are in big trouble. Even if I enjoy it at a tasting, it is too fatiguing to share a bottle over a meal. My own rebellion against this is not to purchase any wine for my cellar which is over 14% alcohol, and to look at the label before opening a bottle at a restaurant: if it’s over 14% I send it back and make another choice. I recognize that a one man consumer rebellion won’t get very far but you have to start somewhere.

The mantra in Napa Valley is that the Cabernets can be enjoyed more or less on release but will also age well. How soon you can drink them depends largely on your tolerance for tannin in young wine; for my palate most of these wines really need four or five years before the tannins calm down enough to let fruit flavor variety show, but more to the point is that alcohol is likely to become more evident as the tannins and fruits lighten up. With lower alcohol, many of these wines would have great potential for classic longevity; but with alcohol around 15%, I suspect they are Cheshire Cat wines: the grin of the alcohol may be all that is left.

What can be done about this? Part of the problem is that the current combinations of rootstocks and cultivars are generating higher sugar levels in the grapes. One change came when AxR1, widely planted in Napa, had to be replaced because of its sensitivity to phylloxera: the rootstocks that replaced it give higher growth rates. Another is that the ENTAV clones introduced over the past decade or so were selected thirty years ago in a cooler period specifically in order to ripen sooner to avoid past problems with insufficient accumulation of sugar. We need new clones and rootstocks designed for the era of global warming. But that takes time: right now winemakers need to start regarding balance as something where reasonable alcohol and acidity are part of the equation as well as phenolic ripeness, and not ancillary factors that you either live with or adjust artificially when they get completely out of control.