Posted on 22.11.19 #111

Napa: what’s in a vintage? More than you imagine

There are those who will tell you that vintage matters less when it comes to the wines of Napa. Tell that to the crowd rammed into the basement of 67 Pall Mall on a cold November morning, where the buzz suggested that, on the contrary, vintage matters rather a lot.

Making its London debut, ’A Perspective on Vintages’ was designed to replicate an event that Napa Valley Vintners lays on back home, just ahead of its flagship ‘Premiere’ fundraiser each year.  Tasting blind adds an element of intrigue and also attracts some high-calibre, or at least aspiring, noses and palates.  

Is there a collective noun to describe a group of Masters of Wine and apprentice MWs? ‘A bevy’, or perhaps ‘a bunch’? If so, it could have applied here, as I must have counted almost a dozen, sniffing and spitting studiously.

In all there were 18 flights, each containing 3 vintages from the same Napa producer.  Of these, 11 flights were recent releases and the remaining 7 were library wines, going back as far as 1990.  Napa Valley Vintners Head of International Marketing, Connor Best, told The Buyer that comparing a total of 16 different growing seasons would allow those present to experience  vintage variety whilst also appreciating an individual producer’s consistency of style.

As a rule, American consumers tend to be less obsessed with the age-ability of premium wines, so for Napa’s British fans it was also a great opportunity to see how its signature grape, Cabernet Sauvignon, is evolving over time.

The wines had been decanted, also ensuring their identities were masked, so the ‘big reveal’ was due just after lunch.  Among the established names represented across the vintages were Inglenook, Trefethen, Tor, The Hess Collection, Shafer and Silverado.


There was also the chance to get to know some ‘new kids on the block’, in the UK market at least, including a personal favourite of mine, Rombauer, recently – and justly – listed by The Humble Grape in Battersea (check out the Rombauer Carneros Chardonnay, which is sumptuous), and a relative Napa newbie, SR Tonella Cellars, whose first vintage was less than a decade ago.

Steve Tonella (pictured below) is fourth generation Rutherford, descended from Italian immigrants who cannily  managed to build a successful business during Prohibition, thanks to their supply of sacramental wine to the Catholic Church.  Although the family business is focused on growing grapes, he has begun to produce his own boutique wines, using a custom crush facility.

Despite only producing 2-thousand cases, Tonella has ambitious plans for expansion, with London as a brand-builder.  “In this city there is a great sense of openness, of curiosity, a real appetite to try new wines”, he told me, “in some places they only look to the Old World, but London has an appreciation of both Old and New, with our prices perfectly positioned for affordable luxury, despite the currency pressures.”

… so how were the wines showing?

Of the recent vintages, 2015, a drought year, was perhaps the least consistent, with the best wines showing great concentration, while some felt ripe to the point of giddy, with alcohol to match.  Both 2014 and 2016 were showing really well – to me, classic Napa – evenly balanced with character, structure and depth.

Doing my best impersonation of Cinderella, I left before the ‘reveal’.  Although I tasted blind, the wines were listed at the back of the booklet, which made for a revelatory ride home on the train.

There were so many highlights.  Happily, Tonella’s wines were among them, with the ’14 already displaying some attractive tertiary soft leather notes, liquorice root and blackberries wrapped in fine-grained tannins, with what might have been a waft of ‘Rutherford dust’.  ’15 felt bigger, albeit with some elegant floral character. The ’16 was already drinking well, with a distinctive, relatively youthful Cabernet minty freshness, juicy Victoria plum, mocha and an undertow of damp stone.

Barnett Vineyards Rattlesnake Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 – from Spring Mountain (pictured above) at 600 metres on the western side of the valley – provided wild notes of menthol, foraged hedgerow fruit, with violets, black cherry, mocha and plush well-polished tannins. ’15 felt riper and plusher, ’16 still a touch juvenile, but there was a wonderful consistency of mountain character and freshness to all of these wines.

Inglenook Rubicon Red Blend 2016, from Rutherford, was a standout for me at the recent Covetable Napa tasting with its bright wild-fruited cassis and black cherry, its plush tannic structure and distinctive herbal charm.  I confess this was one of the very few wines I successfully identified blind, but – tuning in to the conversations being had – others appeared to be enjoying more success.

Jennifer Lamb of Herb Lamb, a boutique producer from the foothills of Howell Mountain, was present at the tasting, giving no clues (to me at least) to which were her wines.  There was a delicious class and consistency to the trio, with the 2014 ‘HL’ Cabernet Sauvignon a standout star of the tasting.  Packed with still fresh black fruit, dark chocolate, tobacco leaf and cracked black pepper, the velvety tannins underpin a regal elegance.

Finally, the wines of Pine Ridge Vineyards, in the Stags Leap District, were showing really well, all of them exhibiting a consistent savoury streak.  This was the only flight where the ’15 was actually my preference.  Pine Ridge Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 offers an earthy mix of bramble, mushroom, tea leaf, cloves and black pepper, luxuriating on a bed of silky tannin.

a version of this piece first appeared in The Buyer.

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