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.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

2011 and 1998 Dunn

Dunn is one of my all-time favorite Napa Valley wineries, and along with Diamond Creek and Ridge, is a reference point for what a mountain Cabernet should taste like. I love the wines. They have stood the test of time. They are incredibly versatile with food, due to acidity, savoriness, and low-alcohol frame. They are intense (without being heavy) with dark fruit, tar and mountain rocks, and echos of pine forest. They are not easy to understand for newbies because they are tannic and rugged, with zesty herbs and root vegetables pronouncing themselves with age. By the time the tannins soften (10-15-20 years+ down the road), the baby plushness and primary fruit sweetness are gone, and you get great intensity and complexity that is anything but "fruity" - perhaps an acquired taste.

Mike Dunn, Randy Dunn's son who works and makes the wines alongside Randy, has always been an incredibly fun and gracious host. Simple and honest to deal with - no BS, no marketing. The wines are under-priced, in my opinion - less than half of what peers now charge for similar quality. Antonio Galloni recently wrote this about Dunn 1979-1999 vertical: "Overall, the wines were striking and confirmed Randy Dunn’s place among the top winemakers in Napa Valley." He also gave 98 points to their 2010 Howell Mountain. The Dunns can raise prices if they want to, and I am afraid they eventually will. They have a fairly deep library of old vintages, many still available for sale in magnums. For now, the winery remains a go-to "secret" of wine geeks, and for selfish reasons I hope it stays that way, though probably it will not, especially if I continue to write posts like this!

This time I was particularly interested in 2011. Randy and Mike hand-signed two magnums of the 2011 Howell Mountain to my son Evan for his birth-year collection. I was just going to swing by to pick them up and be on my way. But of course, Mike wouldn't let me go without sitting down for a taste!

The Wines

2011 Dunn Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon - opened for 1 day, with most of the wine still in the bottle. This is only the third vintage where all the fruit came from the Howell Mountain - they now produce enough from their youngest Lake vineyard on the "estate" (really more like a farm in the town Angwin, as the Dunns have a very simple, unpretentious life-style). I first tasted it on day 2 and then again on day 5. With 70% remaining in the bottle till day 5 (I pumped out the air and kept it in the fridge), it showed no signs of oxidation. Nose: juicy blueberry, pomegranate, tart ripe black plums, ripe beets. Palate: dark juicy blueberry, pomegranate, plum, hint of bell pepper and pine needle, zesty acidity, softly tannic texture, smoke / tar / tobacco, savoriness, slightly bitter Provencal spice (lavender perhaps), unsweetened dark chocolate, medium-short finish. Doesn't quite have the concentration or length of the Howell Mountain.

2011 Dunn Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon - quite a step up! Signature nose: deep, dark, mountainous boulders and pine forest. Palate: I love it! Juicy, lush, but cooler vintage makes this sleek. Really classic Dunn Howell Mountain cab - dusty unsweetened dark (bitter) chocolate, pencil lead / graphite, tar, blackcurrants enveloping herbal / pine grove savoriness, salinity, tobacco and spice cabinet. Hints of bell pepper, root veggies and green peppercorns, but generously mixed with powdered chocolate and tar.  Very complex. Lingering aftertaste of tobacco, coffee and very black cherries. The tannins are slightly rustic, like chewing tobacco. This is dark, rugged and full of character, not your typical generic Napa fruit bomb! Drank this over three days. It was still going strong, no signs of oxidation, even when the 2 oz. that had been left at the bottom of a decanter overnight were tasted in the morning. This wine will have a long life! Seems incredibly versatile due to its acidity and savoriness, and I would not hesitate to pair it even with arugula salad, roasted winter veggies, cheeses, let alone meat or poultry. Mike Dunn said that 2011 was not a poor vintage for them like for many in Napa, because the weather on Howell Mountain was fairly typical. In fact, the 13.9% alcohol was relatively high for Dunn (they even had to remove some to bring it down from over 14%), which means the grapes accumulated plenty of sugar. To me, though, the flavor profile is less ripe than what I recall from the recent tastings of their 21st century vintages. Mike mentioned that his preference recently started gravitating toward fresher fruit, away from the riper, less acidic profile of the last decade. In 2011, yields were smaller, 2200 cases as opposed to the  normal 3000.

1998 Dunn Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon - we tasted this after it had been opened for 2 days, with most of the wine still in the bottle. Then I pumped the air out, put it in the fridge, with 70% left in the bottle, and re-tasted on day 5, and then finished the bottle on day 7 with lunch. Next to the 2011, this shows obvious secondary development. Nose: alluring autumnal bouquet of dark cherries, cassis and dry plum liqueur, sweet tobacco, menthol, sweet caramelized tomato sprinkled with a splash of sea-salt and balsamic, very beautiful and comforting, like a warm blanket on a cold winter night, watching your favorite movie. Palate: consistent with the nose. Forest floor and autumn leaves (love that!), leather, cassis, sweet grainy porridgy tones (like a '96 Clape I had recently), still slightly tannic, savory, hints of iron and blood (like in a good Chateauneuf-du-Pape), coffee, smoke / tar / tobacco. Just a beautiful wine in a great spot! Ready for drinking, and it should have years of life ahead. Impressive for a "second" wine. I had tasted the flagship Howell Mountain version few years ago during my original visit to Dunn, and it was one of my all-time favorites. The Napa Valley bottling is very compelling as well. A week after opening, it continued blossoming, as I paired it with a roasted goose for Christmas lunch - an amazing match!

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.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

First-time visit to Atelier Crenn

For Rona's birthday, we ventured to the city to try a new (for us) gastronomic restaurant. We had watched French-native Chef Dominique Crenn battle on Food Network TV's "The Next Iron Chef" (2009) and "Iron Chef America" (2010, "the Yogurt battle" defeating Iron Chef Symon), and wanted to check out her mastery in person. We were able to book the 2-Michel-star restaurant Atelier Crenn three weeks in advance. At slightly over $200/person for a Chef's Menu, and $45/corkage, this is not inexpensive, but after experiencing the art of food that is Atelier Crenn, I think it's worth it. In addition to being absolutely delicious from both hedonistic and intellectual points of view, this was one of the most artistic gastronomic meals we have ever had, and that list includes a number of domestic and international Michelin-starred restaurants. The attention to visuals and especially the most amazing textures in the endless progression of the French-inspired dishes (each dish bite-size) was truly extraordinary. The place originally opened in January 2011 in the space previously occupied by PlumpJack Cafe on Fillmore St., was remodeled in the beginning of 2014. It is small, tasteful, cozy, and Chef Crenn personally coming out to greet guests was a nice touch.

The menu was presented as a poem, each line referring to a dish!

2006 Paul Pernot Bienvenues-Batard-Montrachet grand cru white burgundy was drinking well. Rona loved it for her birthday. On the palate: dominant silky butteriness and lemon custard. Substantial density but not heavy or cloying. Distant nuances of dried apricot, smoke, sea salinity. Consistent profile with the same bottle I drank 2 years ago but this one was more silky and better. Very good and proper grand cru, though no fireworks - in my opinion lacking some excitement or kaleidoscopic breadth of a truly great grand cru. This was a great match to the exquisite food art cuisine, which emphasized lighter and oceany ingredients.

Savory dishes (in the order they were served)

Sweet dishes

Iron Chef slayer Chef Dominique Crenn and yours truly, Iron Chevsky.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Highlights of the 2014 Wine & Spirits Top 100 Wineries Tasting

Wine & Spirits Top 100 Wineries tasting is a great annual event in San Francisco each October that I make a point not to miss. Great venue (Metreon), sharp looking people, delectable food, and seriously good wines. Below are the highlights of the this year's 11th annual event. (The 2013 was documented here, 2012 here, 2011 here, 2010 here, and 2009 here).

Diamond Creek, with dear Boots Brounstein. As usual, Diamond Creek showed well - dark, cool, mountain fruit with good structure, one of my favorite Napa Valley wineries, recently highlighted on this blog.

Dominus, with Tod Mostero, who hosted me several years ago at the estate. This was the second time I tasted the 2011 Dominus, and my opinion improved. The wine has some grippy tannins and herbs, slightly leaner than usual, thanks to the 2011 vintage. I like how the slight austerity and a leaner body give it a Euro-inclined balance. I believe it will age well.

I ran into Burgundy's vunderkind of Domaine du Comte Liger-Belair in Vosne Romanee, Loius Michel Liger-Belair, in an elevator. He is making the most exciting reds in Burgundy right now, including the iconic La Romanee grand cru in Vosne Romanee. Louis-Michel is consulting with one of the Oregon wineries at the event - Chapter 24 Vineyards.

More memorable sights:
Bright earthy fruits in 2011. Chambertin had good stuffing.
Really enjoy the purity of Potel's "Roche de Bellene" wines.
The new Jura-based brand from the famous Guillaume d'Angerville of Volnay, first vintage.
I really liked these, both red and white, for their deep flavors and elegant medium bodies. Not quite as refined as Angerville's burgundies, but characterful, satisfying, food friendly, and well worth drinking IMO off-the-beaten-path.

Too "new world" for me. I much prefer Drouhin's burgundies.
Enjoy Moric blaufrankisch every year.
Wonderful smoky Austrian reds.
The 2010 "Ursules" rocks! Excellent QPR.

The iconic Penfolds Grange. Very refined. 
Beaucastel nailed it in 2011, both red and white.

Hard to choose between these two.
For me, the 2000 perhaps was tastier. But both are great!

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