Monthly Archives: February 2019

Clos du Val Winery continues to make history

 

It is the perfect scenario for a Hollywood movie. A dream come true for a man who settled in the Napa Valley to produce world-class cabernet sauvignon and watched his first vintage become a part of history, the kind of history that changes things forever.

Clos du Val began in 1972 when John and Henrietta Goelet, after years of searching, purchased a parcel in the what is today the Stag’s

Clos du Val Winery in Napa Valley’s Stag’s Leap District

Leap District and set about making great cabernet sauvignon.  Working with French trained winemaker Bernard Portet, the inaugural release, the 1972 Clos Du Val Cabernet Sauvignon, was a part of the California contingency of wines that outscored the French wines in the venerable 1976 Judgement of Paris blind tasting.  In fact, the same vintage was the overall winner in a 1986 rematch.

If your first vintage helps to change the wine world and catapult California to the forefront, what’s next.  Well, Bernard Portet stayed at Clos Du Val for other 40 years, continued to produce top Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon and both became icons in the industry.  

Still owned by the Goelet family who reside on the East Coast, Clos du Val has, for over 45 years, succeeded through high-end consistency, stability among their staff and a focus on relationships, both with the customer and the surrounding community. They are also not willing to sit on their laurels.

In 2014, with new winemaker Ted Henry at the helm, Clos Du Val made the decision to dramatically reduce production, from 90,000 to 35,000 cases annually, and focus solely on making wines from their estate vineyards in the Stag’s Leap District, Yountville and the Carneros.

The 126-acre Hirondelle Vineyard, that surrounds their Stag’s Leap property, is the main source for cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, petite verdot and malbec, all native to the Bordeaux region. The State Lane and Riverbend Vineyards add more fine cabernet sauvignon clones, cabernet franc with sauvignon blanc and viognier.

Under Henry’s tenure, Clos Du Val is returning to where they started, to the principles on which they were founded. He realizes that they can’t be everything to everyone and that the experience starts with people first, then the wine.

With the change in focus came the construction of a spacious, retro-modern tasting facility with indoor and outdoor spaces overlooking the Hirondelle Vineyard, furnishing comfortable enhancements to the experience.  Designer Erin Martin used the outside of old barrel staves as paneling and the inside of the staves for the ceiling to create history in the architecture.  Glass walls open to the West and bring in the outdoors with elegant patio furniture and water features. To the East, there is another glass door that opens to the barrel room and production facility.

We sat in a cozy nook with Ted Henry and members of the staff to taste some current releases that began with classic aromas of spice and red fruit in the 2016 Estate Pinot Noir, Gran Val Vineyard, Carneros, Napa Valley ($65).  Aged in 100% new French and Hungarian oak, the cherry and red fruit flavors were concentrated and lingering.

The next three wines were all sourced from the estate Hirondelle Vineyard beginning with the lush 2015 Estate Merlot, Hirondelle Vineyard, Stag’s Leap District ($65).  There were complex, earthy aromas of baked fruit and spice with integrated berry and fruit flavors and hints of espresso on the finish.

Cabernet franc, with tremendous heritage, is one of the most overlooked reds varietals in California.  The mineral and menthol hints on the nose of the 2015 Estate Cabernet Franc, Hirondelle Vineyard, Stag’s Leap District ($100) foreshadowed the full-bodied herbal

Clos du Val tasting room

flavors and elegant velvet finish.

The 2015 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Hirondelle Vineyard ($120) with merlot and cabernet franc added and the 2014 Three Graces Cabernet Sauvignon ($175), named for a sculpture that modeled the label design, were both exceptional wines that exemplify the grandeur and history of the Napa Valley.

As a special treat, we opened a 1996 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from the library and found it to be surprisingly pristine and fruit-forward, an acknowledgement of how well Clos du Val wines age.

The rich legend of the 1972 vintage will be preserved in perpetuity as the contemporary Clos Du Val winery continues to create great wines, ambiance and memories for a new generation. 

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Winemakers adjust to the impacts of climate change

 

With everything that surrounds the mystique of wine, it is, essentially, an agricultural commodity, produced by farmers.  Like all farmers, wine grape growers are and must continue to adapt to the challenges of climate change.

The French word, “Terroir,” is used to describe wine grapes matched with the perfect soil type, rainfall, temperatures, sun and wind exposure, elevation, etc.  Scientific data has shown that the terroir is changing.

Winegrowers deal with the ever-changing climate conditions for each vintage where seasonal variations of yield can exceed thirty

Hillside vineyard above the Mosel River

percent.  However, climate change may demand thinking beyond the grapes that have flourished in their regions for decades and even centuries.

As a co-author of a study in Nature on the impacts of climate change, assistant professor of organismic and evolutionary biology Elizabeth Wolkovich suggests that diversity is the answer for wine growers who should be exploring lesser known varietals.  She explains that while the old regions of Europe grow over one thousand different grapes, there are only twelve varietals that comprise over eighty percent of the market in New World countries

The Europeans, for the most part, produce blends that are not dependent upon a single varietal, whereas, in the United States, we have become fixated on single varietals like cabernet sauvignon, syrah or sauvignon blanc. 

Change in most parts of Europe will be difficult because of strict ordinances that carefully regulate what can and can’t be planted.  In California, we are regulated only by the strong influences of terroir and comfort.  Who can imagine the Napa Valley weaning itself from cabernet sauvignon and selling the vines to growers in a warmer Russian River Valley?

Don’t look for that change soon. The 2017 California harvest of cabernet sauvignon, the world’s most planted grape, was up six percent from 2016 at nearly 600,000 tons.  In contrast, most other varietals were down including popular chardonnay which dropped nine percent, the result of abnormal heat spikes.

California now grows sixty different wine grape varietals and Washington State has long had success with diverse plantings.  In contrast, Oregon is mostly pinot noir and may not be well-positioned to adapt to climate change. 

Although it may be short-lived, there is one country that is reaping the rewards of climate change. Over the past three decades, while

spatburgunder grapes (pinot noir)in Germany

Germany’s agricultural and tourist industries have been negatively affected by steadily rising temperatures, Germany’s wine industry,  at least for the time being, is benefitting from the spikes in heat, primarily because their prized riesling grapes are fully ripening.

A northern European country that has long been associated with beer, Germany has historically created fine riesling and gewürztraminer in the southerly Mosel region along the French (Alsace) and Luxembourg borders. Summer temperatures in Mosel had been fairly cool, averaging 64 degrees which, at times, did not allow the grapes to fully ripen, ultimately holding back the full expression of fruit and roundness to the wine.

Today, viticulture in Germany is less about finding ways to allow the grapes to fully mature and more about the fear of over-ripening. With increased temperatures, the riesling grapes are consistently ripening earlier increasing the yield and the quality of the wines, culminating with the 2018 vintage, that many say will be the best in a lifetime.  While acknowledging the harmful impacts of climate change to our planet, German winemakers admit that today, it is a boom for their product.

Conducive terroir for wine grapes has expanded to the North and opportunities to plant red varietals are growing.  There are reports of cabernet sauvignon, syrah and pinot noir plantings, previously unknown to Germany’s wine history, that are producing high-end results in the bottle.

Thirty years ago, all red grapes represented only ten percent of German vineyards, half that of riesling. Since then, higher average temperatures and a new approach to making red wines has catapulted them into the fore front.  Winemakers have focused on lower yields, malolactic fermentation to reduce acidity and oak aging to achieve their success.

Increased plantings of pinot noir, called spätburgunder, embody the growth of new German red wines that can be found online or in fine wine outlets throughout the Bay Area.

Meanwhile, we should all take advantage of extraordinary German kabinett (austere), spatlese (late-harvest) or auslese (dessert) style riesling wines, warmed by the new heat, and abundantly available at higher, but still reasonable prices.