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Wine Legend: Opus One 1991

A 'rich and opulent' wine...

Wine Legend: Opus One 1991, Napa Valley, California

Bottles produced 270,000

Composition 93.4% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Cabernet Franc, 0.5% Merlot, 0.1% Malbec

Yield 45hl/ha

Alcohol 13.5%

Release price $70

Price today £352

A legend because…

In retrospect it still seems astonishing that a great Bordeaux personality such as Baron Philippe de Rothschild, owner of Château Mouton Rothschild, should embark on a joint venture in Napa Valley with visionary local producer Robert Mondavi. The baron’s first approach was made in 1970, but it wasn’t until 1978 that the deal was sealed. New vineyards in Oakville were planted for this venture, with Tim Mondavi – and from 1986, Mouton winemaker Patrick Léon – overseeing the winemaking. The first vintage was 1979, with 1991 widely recognised as an exceptional year.

Looking back

In this year the magnificent new winery for Opus One was inaugurated. The new facility was gravity-operated, which in 1991 was by no means as common as today. The winery, with its eye-catching circular design and magnificent underground barrel cellar, large enough to hold 1,000 barriques without stacking, signified an ambition to create the Californian equivalent of a Bordeaux first growth. That also meant establishing a very high price for the wine, a risky strategy given that Opus One is a brand releasing more than 20,000 cases each year. But it has worked and the wine is a staple of international wine lists.

The vintage

The growing season was cool and long. A trouble-free flowering ensured a generous crop too. The fine summer was followed by a balmy autumn that led to fully mature bunches. The Cabernets were deep in colour, with good acidity levels.

The terroir

The Opus vineyards were planted at the Mondavi winery from 1981, but some of the early plantings succumbed to phylloxera and had to be replanted. Also in 1981, Mondavi sold 14ha of his celebrated To Kalon vineyard to the new joint venture. Much replanting took place after 1991, again due to phylloxera, and this was done to a far higher density than was usual in Napa. This was controversial, as some thought that the greater vigour of the Napa climate led to more generous canopies that provided too much shade, discouraging even ripening. Later plantings were more widely spaced as a consequence.

The wine

After harvesting by hand and careful sorting, the destemmed grapes fall by gravity into fermentation tanks below, without pumping. Maceration was unusually long, at 33 days. After fermentation the skins were pressed in specially designed basket presses. The wine was aged for 18 months in new barrique, and was egg white-fined before bottling.

The reaction

In 1997 Michael Broadbent noted: ‘Deep, velvety… crisp, fruity, mouthwatering, very sweet, fairly full-bodied, tolerable tannin, good acidity.’

In 2019 Stephen Brook was impressed: ‘Smoky, cedary nose, distinctly Bordelais in style, blackberry fruit; aromatic, elegant and refined. It’s rich and opulent, but not too extracted; lovely texture, still fresh. Stylistically more Pauillac than Oakville. Long, with piquant acidity on the finish.’

This first appeared in the June 2019 issue of Decanter.

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