Napa Diary Day 12: Quintessa – Expression of an Estate

“This is Quintessa,” says winemaker Rebekah Wineburg, gesturing at the hills around us and the lake below, “this is what it’s all about, we are an estate.” Although Quintessa has 150 acres of vines in a 280 acres estate, it produces only one wine. “The wine is an expression of the entirety of the estate.”

The estate runs from the Silverado Trail to the Napa River. But its terrain is not at all what you expect from the location in the center of the valley. The valley floor is generally rather flat, but Quintessa has a series of hillsides. It’s actually quite a steep hike up from the building at the entrance to the individual pavilions in the hills where tastings are held. The folds of the land are deceptive, and it feels as though you’re in the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains, although actually they are three miles away. A large lake in the center of the estate, created by a dam, provides water for irrigation, together with wells elsewhere on the property.

The building is at entry to the vineyards, but tastings are up in the hills

“I have three types of terroir here,” Rebekah says. The eastern part of the estate is a landslide from the Vacca hills with white volcanic ash (rhyolite). The central and western hills are mixed volcanic and older alluvial soils. The benchland in the west along the Napa river is clay and true alluvial soil. The variations are emphasized by a barrel tasting from the 2019 vintage. Mount Calisse (from volcanic ash on the eastern hills) has a tight impression with the tension of volcanic mountain origins, while Bench (from deep clay by the river) is rich and powerful with a chocolaty edge to the finish.

“Quintessa has always valued elegance rather than power, and was not popular for that, but the pendulum has shifted,” Rebekah says. New oak has come down from 80-85% in earlier vintages to 60% in 2018. Fermentation is in stainless steel, concrete, and there is some barrel fermentation (especially for lots with mountain tannins). It’s racked only three times during aging, and is bottled without fining or filtration. The blend is 90% Cabernet Sauvignon, with small amounts of Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Merlot, and Carmenère. Tasting recent vintages, there seems to be an increase in refinement. The 2018 conveys a sense of precision, 2016 shows breadth on the palate;, both vintages show nicely defined black fruits on the palate, with hints of chocolate on the texture. From a much cooler vintage, 2011 shows development in a savory direction.

The Sauvignon Blanc, Illumination, comes from a mix of sources: the estate, farther south in Napa, and Bennett Valley in Sonoma. It is labeled as a Napa-Sonoma blend. It uses a variety of vessels for aging: barriques with 4% new oak, acacia, stainless steel, and concrete eggs. It’s another demonstration of the potential of Sauvignon Blanc in Napa to produce wines that are harmonious, with as much sense of stone fruits as citrus, and with some aging potential. Comparison of the 2018 and 2019 suggests that it needs a year after release to gather extra depth.

Faust is sometimes described as a second wine of Quintessa, but although it started at the estate, it now comes from a separate vineyard and winery in Coombsville, plus grapes from other sources, including some from the Quintessa estate.

The focus on a single wine from such a large estate makes Quintessa unusual for Napa, especially given the diversity of terroirs in the estate. Clearly the view here is that the blend is greater than the sum of the parts.

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

Tasting Notes

Napa-Sonoma, Illumination Sauvignon Blanc, 2019

Subtle mix of herbaceous and perfumed notes show on nose. Palate is quite aromatic, nicely rounded, follows subtlety of nose. Very faint touch of bitterness on finish accentuates impression of freshness and helps balance fruits. This is a little muted by comparison with the 2018 and still needs a few months to come out.  90   Drink now-2025.

Napa-Sonoma, Illumination Sauvignon Blanc, 2018

Just a touch more herbaceous development than 2019 with hints of asparagus on the nose. The extra year’s development has brought a more pungent sense of Sauvignon Blanc on the palate than 2019 and more flavor intensity with slight bite to finish. Fruits tend to citrus, showing grapefruit and bitter lemon.    91 Drink now-2025.

Rutherford, Quintessa, 2018

This will be released in September. Restrained sense of black fruits to nose. Quite an elegant impression with an almost chocolaty texture to palate. Very smooth tannins on the finish. This vintage shows the most precision.   14.5%  94 Drink now-2036.

Rutherford, Quintessa, 2016

Similar fruit spectrum to 2018 but not quite as concentrated on the palate. Elegant fruits tend to blackberries with a chocolaty texture. Tannins are smooth and firm on the finish. This vintage shows the greatest breadth and should age to become quite delicate.   14.5%  92 Drink now-2033.

Rutherford, Quintessa, 2011

This cool, wet vintage has resulted in more rapid development in the wine. Nose shows some tertiary notes with hints of gunflint at first, and then calms down in glass. Development is not so obvious on palate although you might describe it as savory, with tertiary notes coming back faintly retronasally. Tannins are resolving and fruits tend to blackberry.    90 Drink now-2025.

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