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Promontory: Harlan’s rugged Napa territory

Stephen Brook meets the manager and winemaker of boutique Napa winery Promontory and tastes an exclusive four-wine vertical

 

It was Bill Harlan’s ambition to create the Napa equivalent of a Bordeaux first growth, and to this end he walked the hills west of Oakville.

He found the land he was looking for in the 1980s but also came across an isolated spot, neighbouring Dominus, that was a few hundreds metres south of what would become Harlan Estate.

The owner wouldn’t sell it, but Harlan already had what he had been searching for. But when this remote, rugged spot came on the market in 2008 he couldn’t resist buying it.

Harlan was unsure what to do with his new purchase so asked the celebrated French viticulturalists Claude and Lydia Bourguignon to dig and analyse soil pits.

They found soil types that were immensely varied: sedimentary and volcanic but also containing schist, shale and gneiss.

Moreover, condensation from the surrounding woodlands, combined with the fog incursions so common in Napa, gave the site high humidity, though it was well ventilated too.

All this was so different from Harlan Estate (and the family’s Bond property) that there was no question of fusing them.

Unique personality

For three years the Harlan team vinified the existing grapes to get a handle on the terroir and the typicity of the wine (some vines had been planted there but the crop had been sold off). The first commercial vintage of Promontory was 2009.

Some 70% of the vineyard is being replanted, mainly with Cabernet Sauvignon, thus today only 20 hectares are in production.

Bill Harlan’s son Will manages the property and Napa-born Cory Empting, who for years has managed the various vineyards owned or managed by Bill Harlan, is the winemaker.

If Harlan Estate’s vinification is essentially classic in approach, that’s not the case at Promontory. Tannin content – and acidity – can be high here, so Empting favours short macerations.

He was impressed by the quality of Austrian casks increasingly being used for ageing Barolo, and persuaded the leading cooper, Stockinger, to export to the USA for the first time.

Promontory spends five years in these casks. Empting and Will Harlan were concerned that such long wood ageing could dry out the wine, but that has not proved to be the case.

The aim, says Empting, is to retain both focus and freshness. The wine (Cabernet Sauvignon dominant) is neither fined nor filtered before bottling. Production at present is about 25,000 bottles.

As Bill Harlan suspected all along, Promontory has a strong personality of its own, which the team is keen to preserve.


Stephen Brook rates Promontory: 2011-2014

 

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