Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Araujo Revisit 2014

Last year Araujo was acquired by the Artemis Group, the owners of Chateau Latour. With that, Araujo joined Opus One and Dominus, two others among Napa Valley's greatest wineries closely tied to Bordeaux's greatest estates (Chateau Mouton-Rothschild and Chateau Petrus, respectively). More info on the acquisition can be found here and here. Four years since my last visit, I headed over to Calistoga to talk about the changes, and to taste the wines. The long time director of wine-making Francoise Peschon is no longer there, but her colleague winemaker Nigel Kinsman is still consulting. Largely a new team has been assembled with Frederic Engerer (Latour's president) and Helene Mingot as the Technical Director. Michel Rolland is gone, the Araujos moved on and aren't involved anymore. While the 2011 vintage was made entirely by the old team, the 2012 was the first vintage with the partial influence of the new ownership coming in at the blending phase. Araujo had been a blue chip of Napa for a long time. The Eisele vineyard's successful track record had long resonated the Latour owners' sense for place and quality in wine. As a result, the Artemis Group has not sought to make any dramatic changes - rather continue to tend to and refine the iconic Eisele vineyard. That said, their blending process for the 2012 vintage was quicker and more decisive than the old team's - for the flagship Eisele cab they quickly determined to use only those blocks that had exclusively ever gone into the flagship wine and never into the second wine Altagracia. One of the experiments the winery team is running is the current barrel program, where they are exploring reduced levels of new barrel toast. The production will remain relatively small - less than 2000 cases a year for Eisele cab. A sure sign of the winery's higher profile is prices going up. While member pricing didn't go up significantly, the jump in retail from 2009 to 2011 vintage is over 50% (according to wine-searcher). It is impossible to tell at this point, with not even one full vintage released under the the new ownership's belt, the effect on the wine. What I can tell is that both 2011 and 2012 Eisele cabs were terrific, and some of the best wines I had ever tasted from Napa.

The Wines

2011 Araujo Eisele Syrah - not talked about much, but it's been made since 1994. About 50% new French oak. Good structure, cooler year gave it Northern Rhone-like clarity and freshness, without jam or fluff. Graphite and spice. Dark juicy fruit, no doubt lifted by the addition of 3% Viognier (co-fermented with Syrah), and probably the most enjoyable Syrah I have had from California.

2011 Araujo Altagracia - Very enjoyable. Aromatic. Graphite, mint / menthol, pine-needle. Ripe and structured, tannins are visible but not offensive in any way. Very good. Love the coolness / firmness / freshness of the vintage. 80% new French oak. 1/3 of the price of the Eisele Cab.

2011 Araujo Eisele Cabernet Sauvignon - Oh I really like this! The leaner structure resulting from the challenging 2011 vintage is on display again. A more polished wine than the Altagracia. Not obviously bigger, deeper or denser, but broader, more perfumed, and classier than the last. Balanced and fine, with piquant, well integrated acidity. Perfectly ripe with chocolate covered cherries and pine needle nuances, some graphite and gravel surrounded by incredibly fine tannins that make this wine delicious to drink now. It certainly has capacity to age. The balance is superb. 100% new French oak. Great success.

2012 Araujo Eisele Cabernet Sauvignon - bottled but not released yet. Contrary to 2011, the conditions in 2012 were good, so this is a more "typical" Napa cab in the sense of bigger, darker, creamier nose and texture. Plums and apricots, longer finish, thicker velvetier texture and more weight. Very fine tannins that make this drinkable now, although it has a bit of a liqueur sweetness quality that presently makes it a littler harder to pair with food, and I personally would give it a few years, whereas the 2011 is a pleasure now. Both wines are above 14% alcohol, but there is no perceptible heat or heaviness. They are full-bodied wines with medium weight, though as mentioned, obviously the 2012 is heavier. Araujo team considers 2012 a great vintage, and 2011 a challenging one. The profiles of the wines bear that out, but to my palate the 2011 is exactly the profile that might bring me personally back to drinking Napa, while I have no doubt that 2012 will get higher scores.

2012 Araujo Eisele Sauvignon Blanc - probably one of the top whites in California. A clear and refined expression of Sauvignon Blanc, juicy and saline, a hint of classical citrus, grass, and cat-pee notes, nowhere near the attack of NZ sauv blanc, or the stony minerality of Loire. Medium acidity, very pure and polished, but not over-done. 1/3 steel, 1/3 cement, 1/3 new French oak.

Impressive portfolio at Araujo. At nearly $500 retail for a bottle of the current (2011) release of Eisele Cabernet, it's not easy to swallow. That said, I have to acknowledge these are some of the best wines I have ever had the pleasure of tasting in California. I look forward to a future visit to see where the new team take this.

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