Napa Valley: Where ripeness happens

Godello in the Napa Valley mustard

Godello in the Napa Valley mustard

You need only spend a few days in Napa Valley to gain a basic understanding of what drives the machine. Immerse yourself into three or four structured tastings and hear the mantra repeated. Listen to the winemaker and the viticulturist talk about the growing seasons and intuit the very basic premise, the essential doctrine and the constitutive aspect on everyone’s mind. Ripeness.

The 2011 vintage was an unmitigated disaster. Cold, rain and low brix levels made for less than stellar Napa Valley reds and whites. At the time it wasn’t so much swept under the rug as much as shrugged off. Still some very good wines were made. Even today critical proponents of cool-climate and understated wines will champion the elegance and proportion of 2011 Napa reds, especially the Cabernets. Talk to or listen to a local winemaker speak and know they will (mostly) all agree to disagree with those ideas. There was little to no phenolic journey fully completed in 2011. Relativity is the general, special and principle quizlet to compare and contrast Napa Valley wines. The next vintage afforded the opportunity to put 2011 behind them. The proximate three relegated 2011 to the footnotes of history.

What followed 2011 was drought, extended drought, difficult times drought. Grapevines do quite will when they struggle, provided their keepers have equipped them with the organic and self-preserving tools to survive without water. While the rest of the state suffered, Napa Valley grapevines produced exceptional fruit. From 2012 to 2015 the pilgrimage to maturity happened with ease. Quality over quantity? Sometimes both. In 2012 there was a huge crop from an incredible growing vintage. Along with 2013 they are being heralded as two of the best vintages in the last 30 years.

If a tutored Napa Valley tasting is centred around Cabernet Sauvignon and parent grape variety Sauvignon Blanc then the mind may wander into comparative territories with Bordeaux clearly on the analogous radar. Cabernet defines Napa Valley, hook, line and sinker. Nearly everyone grows it, bottles it and employs it to define who and what they are. The numbers corroborate the abstraction. Cabernet is still the king. The interesting diversion is Sauvignon Blanc. In the context of Bordeaux it is not a diversion at all but Napa growers and producers are infatuated with it. It makes for good but rarely great wines. Chardonnay has proven its Napa Valley pedigree. So why Sauvignon Blanc?

If Bordeaux epitomizes a mono-worshipping culture then deconstructing Napa Valley reflects the effort of extricating monotheism out of a polytheistic context. But Napa is not Bordeaux and also avoids the affectation and mannerisms of monotheistic worship, something that is very specific to Bordeaux and even more so to other ancient wine-producing regions. In Napa there is great interest and time set aside for Chardonnay but also some love Pinot Noir and Zinfandel. Cabernet Sauvignon leads with authoritarianism on a chilling scale and Sauvignon Blanc exists in a polar opposite vacuum. Nothing is inexpensive to grow and most markets expect to pay a premium for quality. Demand will perpetually support Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel. Sauvignon Blanc above $20 and not from Bordeaux is different. It is Napa’s greatest curiosity, made with great care and thrown caution to the marketplace wind. And it sells. Looked at from both sides clarity is noted in the adage that Napa Valley is not Bordeaux.

Berry to bottle

Berry to bottle

On February 9th, 2016 nine Canadians sat down to taste with the principals of three Napa wineries, Joseph Phelps, St. Supery and host Silverado Vineyards. Karen MacNeil is a wine author, journalist, educator and consultant. MacNeil moderated a two-varietal tasting with Bill Phelps (President of Joseph Phelps Vineyards), Emma Swain (CEO at St. Supery), Russ Weis and John Emmerich (GM and winemaker at Silverado). From berry to bottle was organized by the California Wine Institute and Napa Vintners.

“Dirt is once again the sexy part of the business,” began MacNeil’s presentation. “Place is the core construct and inescapable construct.” The hills, slopes, ridges and valleys of the Valley are indeed intricate and the soil sets as diverse as you are want to find anywhere. Napa Valley contains 33 soil series with more than 100 soil variations and half of the soil orders that exist within the world can be found in the Napa Valley. At the end of the day ripeness follows. At all other times it leads. We tasted six wines that day. Here are the notes.

Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc

Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc

Joseph Phelps Sauvignon Blanc 2014, St. Helena, Napa Valley, California (Agent, $59.95, WineAlign)

Graced by and driven for texture, with lees, out of second fill barrels and finished struck across a scraped mineral tang. Highly refreshing compression of density and weight. Long linger of stone fruit, primary peach and secondary apricot. Non-discernible citrus. Phelps has been producing this wine since 1975 from the home ranch vineyard, typically in increments of 2500 cases. If Sauvignon Blanc were made in Alsace, this is what it would be like. Unpronounced acidity and a floral note pay thanks to integrated Musque clones Bill Phelps says are integral to the mix. Drink 2016-2019.  Tasted February 2016  @josephphelps  @LiffordON

Joseph Phelps Insignia 2012, Napa Valley, California (710400, Agent, $299.95, WineAlign)

The 2012 Insignia had me at first whiff. At first sip I could not be reached. Massive aromatics blast from this formidable Insignia, clearly noted with immediate clarity as a proprietary blend for the ages. The current torrent is so plugged in and highly climatic, like a visibly sparking conduit, storm and fire all wrapped into one electric happening. The peaks, valleys, waves and intonations are bred of perfectly ripe fruit sets traveling as one in perfect syncopation. The ripe, chain-link tannins will take this very, very far. This is as fine a California wine as I have ever tasted.  The first vintage was 1974. All five bordeaux varietals are represented which is not often the equation. In 2012 the blend is 75 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon, 10 Merlot, 10 Petit Verdot with bits of Malbec and Cabernet Franc. Drink 2018-2045. Tasted November 2015 and February 2016

St. Supery Estate Vineyards and Winery Sauvignon Blanc Dollarhide Estate 2014, Napa Valley, California (AgentWinery, $35 US)

An altitude effected, single-vineyard, warm days, cool nights Sauvignon Blanc so much more in residence of varietal hyperbole, from grass to gooseberry, apple terpenes and finishing spice. Highly emotional SB of San Pablo Bay cooling and antithetical drought thanks to Sierra Nevada snowpack, or lack thereof. Stainless on lees stirred weekly bolstered in texture by 18 per cent barrel fermentation. Aussie expat winemaker Michael Schultz controls this big, vivid and vital style. Drink 2016-2019.  Tasted February 2016  @StSupery  @vonterrabev

St. Supery Estate Vineyards and Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Dollarhide Estate 2012, Napa Valley, California (AgentWinery, $100 US)

Dollarhide was a cattle farm, a 1530 acre enormity of a ranch, now one of the more impressive Napa vineyards of altitude, micro-climate and heterogeneous soil series. The 2012 is a 100 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon cornered from the finest (number eight) 30 year-old vines parcel, planted in 1982. It is youthful and even a bit reductive, with dark red fruit and cooler savoury curation. Possessive of some black olive and mint-like coolness. Sweet tannins and espresso, specified and agreed from all French oak, left to decide a hillside expression. A fine chocolate finish is far from bitter with paid homage to that parcel which is a combination of volcanic and ancient sea sediment. Large shells have been found in the vineyard at 1200 feet. Tres cool. Drink 2018-2027.  Tasted February 2016

Silverado Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc Miller Ranch 2014, Napa Valley, California (AgentWinery, $35 US, WineAlign)

Fruit from vines burrowed into seep soil on a Yountville site between Hopper Creek and the Napa River (though 5 per cent is from Soda Creek Vineyard). A small elbow (four per cent) of Sémillon injects a shot of vitality into the arm of Sauvignon Blanc. For winemaker Jon Emmerich Miller Ranch in a climate sweet spot, a go between in which cool evening and morning temperatures mitigate the sweat of warm sunshine. Its home soils are blessed with terrific water capacity. No de-stemming is performed and the wine sees a long, cold (up to two months) fermentation. All in the name of aromatics. And so the Silverado home ranch Sauvignon Blanc lies somewhere in between the excitable and the elegant. Quite Bordelais but also grapefruit refreshing, with a slight spritzy tingle. Drink 2016-2018.  Tasted February 2016  @SilveradoSOLO  @KylixWines

Silverado Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Solo 2012, Napa Valley, California (Agent $119.00, WineryWineAlign)

From heritage Cabernet Sauvignon vines recognized by the University of California, Davis, in other words, a clone unto itself. The home ranch estate vineyard was planted in 1968 and over two decades the vines adapted to Silverado’s steep, shale soils and mutated. Through meticulous field selections an entirely new clone of Cabernet Sauvignon emerged. Here is one of only three Cabernet Sauvignons to attain this status and the only one from Stags Leap District. Who knew such magic lurked in the Napa hills? The stuff of Roald Dahl imagination. This is a dusty and grounded red, of chaparral in arid, arenose, hillside forest floor character. Higher tones (there is a bit of VA) leaps with this SOLO’s Cabernet metamorphosed self, in a semblance of the clone it used to be. It honours a perfect growing season. From General Manager Russ Weis: “In Stag’s Leap we are not looking for something mouth-filling as much as mouth coating.” Drink 2019-2028.  Tasted February 2016

Good to go!

Twitter: @mgodello

Instagram: mgodello

WineAlign: Michael Godel

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