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.

Have Mondavi and Opus One Lost their Way?

It may be unfair to link Mondavi and Opus One together at this point, since although Opus One started as a joint operation between Robert Mondavi and Philippe de Rothschild, they went separate ways after Constellation purchased Mondavi, but I was struck at a dinner with wines from both producers by the similarity in their development. Current vintages of Mondavi’s Fumé Blanc and Reserve Chardonnay were followed by three vintages of Opus One, and it would be fait to say that power is triumphing over elegance all along the line.

In the early years of Napa Valley’s development, Mondavi was a benchmark for Cabernet Sauvignon (the 1974 Reserve was a defining wine for the vintage), the Chardonnay was one of the more French-oriented, and the Fumé Blanc was a master stroke that tamed Sauvignon Blanc with subtle oak impressions. But today the 2012 Fumé Blanc gives an impression of sharp acidity with indistinct fruit impressions, while the 2013 Reserve Chardonnay gives an impression of raw oak in front of fruits. In fact, you might say that the Fumé Blanc is too much Sauvignon and not enough Fumé, while the Chardonnay is too much oak and not enough fruit.

I can’t trace the change in character of the whites historically, but a change in the reds goes back to the early 2000s. There was a long-running difference of opinion between Mondavi and the Wine Spectator over style. The Spectator’s lead critic on California, James Laube, commented in July 2001, “At a time when California’s best winemakers are aiming for ripe, richer, more expressive wines, Mondavi appears headed in the opposite direction… [Winemaker] Tim Mondavi and I have different taste preferences… He has never concealed his distaste for big, ultra rich plush or tannic red wines. I know he can make rich, compelling wines, yet he prefers structured wines with elegance and finesse.” Tim Mondavi replied, “I am concerned… that there appears to be a current trend toward aggressively over-ripe, high in alcohol, over oaked wines that are designed to stand out at a huge tasting rather than fulfill the more appropriate purpose of enhancing a meal.” There you have the whole debate about style in Napa in a nutshell. Yet after this was all said and done, the style at Mondavi changed in the direction of greater richness.

I’ve always found Opus One easy to underrate in the early years, when it tends to be somewhat dumb, and to retain a touch of austerity, but in vertical tastings I’ve found it to age well. Tasted at the winery five years ago, the 2005 was showing beautifully, the 1995 showed the elegance of a decade’s extra aging, and the first vintage (1979) was still vibrant. My impression at the dinner this week was different. The 2005 shows powerful primary fruits, with not much evidence of development, and a touch of oxidation, showing in the form of raisons on the finish. If it hadn’t seemed the most complete wine of that vertical at the winery, I would say that it must have been brutal when it was young. As this is an unexpected turn of events, I wondered whether perhaps the bottle might be out of condition, whether perhaps the oxidative impressions were due to poor storage, but I think this question was answered by the 2009, which showed a similar, but less evident, impression of oxidation. Again this is a turn-up for the book, as the last time I had the 2009 was at the winery just after it had been bottled: tannins were subsumed by dense, black, and aromatic fruits, and my impression was that the fruit concentration offered great potential for development. But today, aside from taming the tannins with time, I really don’t see much development in flavor variety, and I suspect this is going in the same direction as the 2005. The 2012 is certainly a very big wine, yet identifiably Cabernet-based, with that sense of restraint and hints of tobacco, but I’m concerned that the massive fruits may turn in the same oxidative direction as the earlier vintages. How long, Oh Lord, how long, will it be before the wines develop interesting flavor variety?

I wonder how much alcohol has to do with these impressions? The first vintage of Opus One had 12.9% alcohol, the level stayed under 13% through the 1980s, under 14% through the 1990s, and now alternates between 14.0 and 14.5 according to the labels. Although alcohol isn’t obtrusive on the palate–in the current parlance that winemakers use to explain or apologize for high alcohol, it is balanced—it’s the very high extract and fruit concentration that achieve the sense of equilibrium. This makes it hard for the wine not to over-power a meal. I know that there’s a school of thought that alcohol levels aren’t relevant or interesting, and that no one really cares, but I do: not just because the wine is too heady, but because I don’t like the corollary that there’s simply too much flavor . Or more precisely, too much quantity of flavor and not enough variety. There comes a point where levels of extraction are so high that varietal typicity disappears and everything is just fruit, fruit, fruit. My plea to Napa winemakers is to back off: you don’t have to extract absolutely everything you can from the grapes. It might be a better compromise to harvest under 14% alcohol than to go that last step to super-ripeness.