Monday, December 22, 2014

Opus One Revisit 2014

It has been four years since my last visit. At that time we had tasted across three decades of Opus, a truly remarkable experience. This time I was happy to spend a couple of hours again with Opus One's winemaker since 2001, Michael Silacci. The theme was odd-numbered vintages of Opus One from the 21th century (also all odd-numbered vintages since Michael's arrival at the winery).

The Wines

2001 Opus One - nose: bright, zesty, savory, laser-focused dark red berries. Palate: intense, velvety, spice, very polished, weighty, tannins still there, chocolate covered cherries, some savoriness. Michael noted this was his first, i.e. "transitional" vintage, when he was still learning about Opus One. I think he was successful in his first effort.

2003 Opus One - nose: slightly riper, with whiff of acetone. Palate: slightly stewed fruit, warmer, sweeter, tannins perceptible. Some warm-vintage Barolo-like notes, on a thick, full-bodied frame, a bit awkward and hefty. Michael noted this was not his favorite vintage, but the wine is showing better now than it had in the past. Not a bad wine, but my least favorite of the group.

2005 Opus One - nose: bright and polished. Intense fruit with herbal nuances (in a good way). More like the 2001, but with more of everything and meatier. Palate: velvet (or "flannel" according to Michael), full-body. Michael explained that at the time of its making this wine had represented his notion of a "classic" Opus One, based on his experiences tasting vintages 1979 - 2000.

2007 Opus One - intoxicating, liqueur'ish aromatics of sweet fragrant flowers and berries. Palate: riper, sweeter, hotter. Very flashy. As ripe as '03, but better balance and refinement. This was the first time Michael had co-fermented Cabernet Sauvignon with Petit Verdot, rather than blend in the end, and he believes this gave it silkier mouth-feel. Critics proclaimed this a great vintage in Napa for Cabernet Sauvignon, and I can see how this wine is a classic representation of what one thinks of as Napa cab. This is Antonio Galloni's highest scoring vintage in this group (96 pts.)

2009 Opus One - big nose, almost like a Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Palate: big spice, very sweet, tannic, very big and full-bodied, luxurious oak, darker tones of coffee and tobacco. Michael noted this was the vintage he finally "understood" their Cabernet Franc from the iconic To Kalon vineyard, which resulted in a smoother wine.

2011 Opus One - the current release. Nose: fresher than '09. Palate: oh, now we are talking! It's that leaner 2011 vintage in Napa whispering to me again. I really like this! Less sweet, really elegant, none of the overt heaviness or sweetness. Lighter body. Silk rather than velvet. More fun to drink. My favorite.

As last time, clear theme ran across all the wines - herb-inflected luxurious chocolate-covered cherries, incredibly velvety mouth-feel, closer to the red end of the spectrum than black. I happened to visit Araujo and Dunn on the same day - both showed darker fruit profiles and leaner structures, and clearly the wines of Opus One are the most full-bodied and opulent among the three. Each vintage of Opus reflected the weather conditions, as well as the winery's style. 2003, 2007, and 2009 came across warmer, fuller, heavier. 2001, 2005 slimmer, fresher, lighter and brighter, and 2011 the sleekest. Not surprisingly, to my palate, the order of preference was 2011, 2001, 2005, 2007, 2009, and 2003. I believe the heavier vintages will "slim down" with time. If I were to choose what to drink now - it would be 2011 (for its vivaciousness) and 2001 (for its balance and age). With time, I think 2005 will outshine the 2001, with perhaps 2007 and 2009 requiring longer to shed baby fat, but eventually destined for beautiful drinking too.

Michael Silacci, the winemaker (left) and Christopher Barefoot, head of PR (right)

With 20-25 thousand cases of Opus One per year (~25% sold in Japan), it's a medium-sized operation. Opus also make a second wine - Overture - a multi-vintage (i..e non-vintage) blend from grapes that didn't make it into Opus One, not necessarily because of quality but because of proportions - in each vintage there is a surplus of certain varieties that are not used to construct Opus One. Those end up saved and used in current and future releases of Overture. We debated a bit as to why the component vintages of Overture are not identified on the label, similar argument as in Champagne. The response I got was kind of a shrug that consumers seem to trust the brand and don't really care. I am not sure - I know that Antonio Galloni will not rate an unidentifiable wine, because what he rates may be completely different from what you buy. Hence he doesn't review Overture. No matter! - Galloni is quite positive on Opus One flagship, scoring in the low to mid 90's, the 2007 having gotten 96 points. Calibrating to his remarkably versatile palate, I know that Antonio doesn't mind flashier richer styles of wine, while I prefer slimmer ones.

The full-body and relatively high alcohol made the wines seem weighty and luxurious. Michael noted that in the last couple of years his philosophy has shifted toward freshness and earlier picking. Being a great fan of Burgundy, and of domaine Dujac in particular, he certainly knows a thing or two about that. We didn't taste the 2010 this time, but it is clear that the 2011 was a great success. Talking to him, one gets an unmistakable impression you are in the presence of a passionate wine scientist. The amount of rigor he displays in analyzing vines, plots, and wines, and then training his staff is mind-boggling. In every vintage he conducts numerous experiments in pursuit of higher quality - from co-planting Bordeaux varieties to co-fermenting to yeast selection. These are not generic results that can be learned from elsewhere - these are specific to Opus One vineyards. Building intimate knowledge of their plots is key. He walked me around the lab, explaining in great detail four or five pieces of latest and greatest equipment designed to analyze every aspect of grape, juice, and wine from every single plot, which allows them to measure and track things and make future predictions. But then when time comes to select grapes for Opus One, Michael and his team walk and taste every single row, and it's a vine-by-vine decision, in multiple passes, no matter what the predictive model said. On occasion, he has been surprised by the differences even between nearby vines, when the fruit was ready much earlier than they had expected. The learning continues.

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