In February, Cuvaison Estate Wines in Carneros, The California Wine Institute and Napa Valley Vintners welcomed a group of curious Canadians for a walk in the fields and a comprehensive tasting. Some older and old-ish bottles were opened in the session with Cuvaison’s winemaker Steve Rogstad, Groth’s Suzanne Groth, Schramsberg’s Hugh Davies and Trefethen’s Loren Trefethen. Journalists and sommeliers are always pleased to see some (bottle) age in a tasting.
We drink wine to experience moments that do not occur in other situations, settings or with other beverages. When we taste older wines we look into the past and pause, for thought and for who might have had a hand in this glass, back then, for us to wonder about now. To dislike older wines is to arraign a censuring of the past and a refusal to let it testify on its own behalf. The dismissal of aged wine is an act of complacent idleness. It is spiteful, incurious and therefore inept. It may seem pedantic to harp on the anti-older wine curmudgeon but let’s face it. The act of self-moralizing without admitting to being a moralist is just not cool.
In 1981 Napa Valley became the first Califronia-designate American Viticultural Area to hold such a distinction. You have to pay a visit not only to comprehend its beauty but also its stature. In terms of size it is just 30 miles long and a few miles wide, is planted to a mere five per cent for viticulture and represents just four per cent of California’s wine grape harvest. And it’s a mammoth in the global wine industry.
Los Carneros is the largest AVA and the only appellation located at the crossroads of two major wine regions, the Napa and Sonoma Valleys. The area is influenced by the maritime breezes and fog from its southern border with the extension of the San Francisco Bay. Cuvaison is a Pinot Noir and Chardonnay specialist taking full advantage to use that cool fog for its rolling hills perched above San Pablo Bay. Time spent in Carneros with winemaker Steve Rogstad and President Jay Schuppert leads to a coveting, of its undulating vineyards and its tasting room warmth. A room with a view and an uncanny ability to turn all into calm.
A motley Canadian crew of Quebeckers, Ontarians and one great Manitoban saunter through the winter mustard with Schuppert and Rogstad who explains that the plant material in Napa Valley then (twenty-five plus years ago) was not what it is today. There was so much virus so ripeness conversion was very different. Today with everything being so clean, ripeness is less of a challenge.
Related – Napa Valley: Where ripeness happens
Though this is one of the first stops on the compressed and consigned three-day Napa Valley tour, the thematic is already unfolding like the bedtime transformation inside a sustainable, high-tech, architecturally modish, 800 square foot, pre-fab home. Napa Valley’s chief concern, like the home’s comfort, efficiency, giving back to the grid and common sense, equates to ripeness. It’s what everyone is after. It’s what matters. If a grape completes its phenolic journey and achieves optimum ripeness, related to and specific to site, then the mission is complete. What follows is less important.
Though the quest for ripeness is easily assessed in 2016, especially because the last four Napa vintages have seen to produce perfect fruit, there is something to be said for what happened back in the day. Napa Valley garnered attention long before the vines were this clean of disease and virus. Ripeness was a virtue and still is, but today’s definition has little or nothing to do with what passed for fulfillment in the 8o’s and 90’s. Today’s wines are bigger, darker, deeper, higher in alcohol, hedonistic and lush. They are not this way because of stylistic divergence. They are this way because that’s what the weather and the vines are giving. My recent visit confirmed this sense of clarity.
We tasted eight comparative wines with Hugh, Steve, Suzanne and Loren. Here are my notes.
In celebration of Schramsberg’s golden anniversary, 50 years after Jack and Jamie Davies revived the historic Schramsberg estate for the purpose of making the nation’s first Chardonnay and Pinot Noir based, bottle-fermented sparkling wines. A North Coast (57 per cent Napa, 25 Mendocino, 15 Monterey and 13 Sonoma) blend of 74 per cent Chardonnay and 26 Pinot Noir. Seventeen years have come to ginger, cumin, coriander and galangal in laminous, oxidative ingenuity, wholly arid in kicking up the aromatic dust. Flavours of pressed lemon, bitter brioche and then tannin, yes tannin. From a protracted year, picked as late as October 19th, disgorged in August of 2014 at a dosage of (very necessary) 11.5 g/L RS. Blessed with high natural acidity of 9.8 tA. How can I not concur with Hugh Davies. “What we’re really showing here is Napa Valley Chardonnay.” Drink 2016-2031. Tasted February 2016 @ @
A Blanc-domainted sparkling dedicated to Schramsberg’s founder Jacob Schram, gathered from the very best base wine lots of approximately 250 that simmer each year. North Coast (65 per cent Napa, 19 Sonoma, nine Mendocino and seven Marin) Chardonnay (84 per cent) and Pinot Noir (16) from significantly low pH, high habitual acidity and healthy dosage define the signature sparkler in the arsenal of winemakers Sean Thompson and Hugh Davies. Spent seven years on the lees and was disgorged less than a year ago. So similar to 1999 but obviously brighter, though the profile is a microcosmic version. With citrus more pronounced, by lime and grapefruit in addition to the lemon. I wonder if they might fully dissipate with time. Not as dense and pressed but again, thank/blame time and/or vintage relations, not to mention evolutionary stresses. Earlier dosage is certainly a factor. This 2007 is a more moderate bubble from a vintage finished by the end of September. Drink 2016-2024. Tasted February 2016
Very expressive Pinot Noir that within the context of tone I find the VA noticeably elevated, as are the aromas of fennel and a transition from balsamic to soy. Quite advanced while aerating brings out a floral foil, namely violet. A sweet and tart palate comes with a bite of what seems ironically like mustard seed, thoughtfully Japanese in origin and condiment. This would pair well with the eclectic flavours of teppanyaki. Drink 2016-2018. Tasted February 2016 @ @
Part of winemaker (since 2002) Steve Rogstad’s Single Block Series, from a drought vintage’s fruit aged for 16 months in French oak puncheons. Fresh and bright, within and without, from a solid black cherry core to framed by the same. Cool from San Pablo Bay fog, savoury and dusty with cocoa to long espresso. Typical Carneros ripe and pure Pinot Noir to the nth degree. Drink 2016-2022. Tasted February 2016
Tasted alongside the alluring 1987 with Suzanne Groth. Extremely primary and struck as if by cool fog and mineral mist. Unmelted and unshaken tempered chocolate to be sure, cracked and fissured into shards. The flavours welcome Cassis and graphite with quite the lightning on the tongue. Enervating Cabernet, pulsating and tingling. Should age long but not quite like the 1980’s. Contains 12 per cent Merlot and saw 22 months in 100 per cent oak, but notes Suzanne, “other than that everything is completely different.” Drink 2018-2032. Tasted February 2016 @ @
Not so much the look but it is the feel that is fuelled by dill weed and a touch of mushroom soy. Almost inconsequential older aromas are dissed by the positivity of flowers, some dried into potpourri while other’s drape sprung and stoic in the hanging pot’s balance. A slice of dried orange sits on the wrought iron porch table. Here is the wonder of 28 year-old Cabernet that persists as a pleasure to drink, not because it’s exciting but because its lovely and alive. Blessed with a truffled finish. Quite amazing actually. A child of a small crop and very healthy year, with 10 per cent Merlot, 22 months in 100 per cent French oak and the nerve to emerge like this in 2016, which is quite incredible. Made at a time when the fruit was protected from burn. “Definitely tastes like Cabernet from the 1980’s.” Drink 2016-2018. Tasted February 2016
From one of Napa Valley’s lithesome and adroit plots, the gravelly soils in the northwestern quadrant of Trefethen’s estate vineyard. Fifteen year-old Cabernet in a demurred state of grace, pausing, reflecting its own incredible condition. Cool and stretchy, still so primary, kernel coated in chocolate and dark berries. Mineral too with a few plus a couple of years to go. A creature conditioned by a soil’s alluvial fan giving courage and strength. Drink 2016-2021. Tasted February 2016 @ @
Forceful, almost brooding, with a plethora combined of chocolate and savour, from mint and with a touch of eucalyptus. Wonderful fruit components are accented by spice. Here the accumulated knowledge of re-planted vineyards has come to this in which elegance meets power and with your next great meal in mind. Loren Trefethen notes the use of double T trellising so that the grapes are subjected to a dapple light effect with which they are neither tanning nor shaded. Certainly some levied tones that will need to settle. Fascinating wine of geology, vineyard management and a redux return to an older way of fashion. Drink 2018-2029. Tasted February 2016
Good to go!
WineAlign: Michael Godel