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Jefford on Monday: The nature of Napa

Andrew Jefford gets an insight into central Napa - through Bordeaux eyes...

Jefford on Napa Valley with a Bordeaux twist

If price is any guide (and it is: expensive wine receives careful and repeated scrutiny through time), then the two greatest zones for wines based on Cabernet Sauvignon are Bordeaux’s Left Bank and California’s Napa Valley. I recently spent an unseasonally cool June week in the Napa, trying to discover a little about how its internal terroirs work — and along the way shared time with two Bordelais, Christian Moueix of Dominus and Philippe Bascaules of Inglenook. Their insights into the nature of Napa were fascinating.

Christian Moueix’s relationship with Napa stretches back over almost half a century: he loved his student days at Davis in the late 1960s (how could he not?); and he returned during the decade that followed to ‘prospect’ vineyards. The early 1980s saw him begin a joint-venture partnership, christened Dominus, with the existing owners of the Napanook Ranch (who, as it happened, were the daughters of John Daniel, the man who had inherited Inglenook), before eventually buying them out.

He gave himself time (he thought it would take 20 years to realise the vineyard’s potential), and began from two principles: the vines were to be dry-farmed, and he would never acidify the resulting musts or wines. Both were prescient. Acidification was widely practiced at the time (another grower remembered “buying tartaric acid by the pallet” in the 1980s, something he’s long since abandoned).

Dry farming in Napa, though, remains exceptional. Many insist it can’t be done on hillside and mountain vineyards, which was one reason why Christian Moueix prospected only the benchlands and alluvial fans on the valley sides. Is this true, though? Annie Favia of Favia Wines, a viticulturalist whose long experience was formed with David Abreu and others, is just one who believes that dry farming is possible anywhere in the Napa, provided that the vines are acclimatized early, and provided growers are prepared to adjust their expectations about how much, and how quickly, the young vines will yield.

The practice at Dominus, in fact, is to deep-water the vines a couple of times per summer in the first and sometimes second year following planting, to ‘train’ the roots to search for water, but to stop as soon as their fruit passes into production. The only other water the vines receive is a rinse to remove dust shortly before harvest, and most of this water evaporates swiftly afterwards.

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Moueix, of course, learned much along the way, mostly connected with the fact that the Napa is “so much warmer,” as he says, than Bordeaux (the median growing degree day total for Yountville is 1898, whereas given growing degree day totals for Bordeaux sites generally vary between 1400 and 1500).

Lesson one was a sad one: his beloved Merlot didn’t thrive or thrill here. “The delicacy we can have with Merlot in Pomerol was never apparent.” Plantings at Dominus are now around 90 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon with five per cent Cabernet Franc and 5 per cent Petit Verdot.

There has been a lot of canopy evolution, too, to try to optimize ripening while avoiding sunburn. “We’ve changed the canopy shape ten times,” says Moueix. It’s now a split canopy with four canes, or what Dominus Director Tod Mostero calls ‘double double guyot’. Optical sorting to eliminate every trace of raisin has been a great help. The Moueix family loves plum flavours (which Christian Moueix says are “the dominant taste of Napa”), but hates prune flavours. I remember Christian’s son Edouard telling me how quickly Merlot’s plum flavours can decline towards prune in Pomerol. That’s exactly what can happen with Cabernet in Napa.

There is a rigour about the Napa climate which is very different to Bordeaux’s gentle changeability, and the main climatic threat is not (as in Bordeaux) harvest rain, but heat spikes, with the fruit quality beginning to suffer as 100°F (or 37.7°C) approaches. “Just one mile north of here,” says the Bordeaux-trained Mostero, “it will be 4°F warmer than here on a hot day, so if we are at 98°F and it is 102°F a little further north, that makes a big difference. There’s often three or four days like that a summer, and the humidity here is under 10 per cent — whereas if it touches 40°C in Bordeaux, the humidity will rarely be lower than 25 per cent. The result is very different for vines.”

The nights, by contrast, are almost always cooler in Napa than in Bordeaux, and because of the influence of low-level marine cloud in the mornings, the hottest point of the day tends to come later, when the sun is lower in the sky, at around 5 pm. To begin with, says Christian Moueix, “we picked earlier, with the French approach, at lower brix.” The team found, though, that the tannins were often not fully ripe then, so now they wait, even at the risk of a little more alcohol and a little less acidity.

Philippe Bascaules is a newcomer to the valley compared to Christian Moueix, having been headhunted in 2011 from Ch Margaux (where he spent 20 years working with Paul Pontallier) to replace to replace retiring former winemaker Scott McLeod — at the same point at which owner Francis Ford Coppola was finally able to buy back the Inglenook name and return it to its historical origins. What a challenge!

Bascaules is looking after a much bigger and more heterogenous estate than Mostero (95 ha planted at Inglenook compared to 42 at Dominus) but many of his concerns are the same. Like Christian Moueix, of course, he is looking for the great Bordeaux virtues of elegance and finesse, and he has been given a free hand by Francis Ford Coppola, who shares those ideals.

The stop-go nature of the Napa climate also frustrates him, and he, too, suspects that this may be the cause of the rugged Napa tannins. “The average temperature doesn’t mean anything, because 55°F (12.7°C) is not efficient and 101°F (38.3°C) is not efficient either. It can be 55°F in the morning and only 60°F by lunchtime. It might get to 86°F or 90°F by the afternoon, but will go back to 50°F overnight.” Bordeaux’s warm nights just don’t happen here, nor are there bare gravels under the vines to reflect back radiant heat, nor do you find the low pruning system practiced in the Médoc. The result is a diurnal starkness within the context of a warm ripening cycle, in place of Bordeaux’s 24-hour-a-day, maritime gradualness within the context of a cool ripening cycle.

Bascaules’ initial instincts, in 2012, were also to pick a little earlier, but in that vintage he shied away from this. “The seeds were green and the skins weren’t ripe. So you have to wait. In

Bordeaux, often you cannot wait; here you can. But the risk is that if you wait too long, you lose the place, you lose the varietal and you lose the vintage.” This, in sum, is the great Napa dilemma.

His plan following 2012 was to try earlier pruning to get the vines started under optimal light, temperature and water conditions so that physiological ripeness (for perfect tannins) comes more swiftly, without excess ripeness jeopardising freshness, complexity and acid levels. He’s also trying to increase the yield slightly, to work with a more protective canopy, and to use irrigation to mitigate stress, particularly in the higher quality, back section of the estate.

Before we compare the contrastive Dominus and Inglenook wines from the 2013 vintage (see below), let me just offer a drinker’s perspective. Of course these two great Cabernet-growing areas are different: that’s why we love them both. Napa Cabernet does indeed taste riper and more powerful than Bordeaux, but from the valley’s greatest sites and most sensitive winemaking hands, that is precisely what gives it its beguiling warmth and friendliness, which is what makes it unique among the world’s fine red wines. Never repress your place; understand it in order to embrace it.

The tannins may on occasion be a little brusquer than those of Bordeaux, but their very plentifulness and amplitude is one of the Napa’s greatest assets, and allows the wines to achieve seriousness and balance without recourse to the acidification which is otherwise common in warm regions outside Europe. Napa is grand because of its tannins, not in spite of them. Tannin structures of this order provides the aesthetic thread which links Napa to great European regions like Bordeaux, the southern Rhône, Piedmont and Tuscany; they are exceedingly rare (at present) in the southern hemisphere.

The 2013 vintage was an extraordinarily dry one in Napa, with derisory rainfall in all twelve months of the year (though November and December 2012 had been satisfactorily wet). Quite how the unirrigated Dominus vines managed to produce such a magnificent wine after such a parched season I don’t know, though conditions were otherwise optimal, with only one short spike beyond 100°F in late June. The Dominus, made with just one third of the total crop, is just under 15% abv, but perfectly balanced with it.

The Inglenook Rubicon is made from an even more severe selection of the total crop (just 4,000 cases out of a potential 47,000) and, in contrast to Dominus, measures just 13.8% — low for Napa. Philippe Bascaules said he was able to achieve this by picking earlier in this vintage, and by controlled irrigation. The blend, though, was made without alcohol in mind; only afterwards did Bascaules and his colleagues discover it had come in under 14%. It is an almost daringly under-stated wine in the Napa context, though not in any way under-ripe.

Two wines to compare:

Inglenook, Rubicon 2013

Dark black-red in colour, with brooding but alluring aromas (quiet black fruits framed with the scents of spice, of the forest, of cool earth).  On the palate, this is dry, vivid and elegant.  The fruit flavours are precise and almost zesty, hinting at currant, pomegranate and citrus rather than the exuberant plum or lush blackberry more typical of the Napa, while the tannins are refined, fine-grained and stealthy — not quite cashmere, but certainly suede.  Give it time to unfold. 93 points (/100)

Dominus 2013

Saturated black-purple in colour.  Another brooding, quiescent scent: still more forest and hillside, and floral notes, too, with rummaged earth behind.  On the palate, it’s swiftly evident that this is a wine of singular depth, power and concentration: an essence of its place.  Everything in it is dark: earth, mushroom, truffle, black fruits. There are magnificent tannins, low acids, bitter plant extracts and sweet resins, all adding up to a magnificently complex whole, and expressing itself with such gathered force that you feel as if a bottle has somehow been compressed into a single glass, yet without vitiating the wine’s fundamental tenderness of articulation or (eventual) drinkability.  It struck me as the most astonishing young wine I have tasted on my travels since the unbottled 2010 Montfortino from Roberto Conterno (tasted in May last year): bravo. 99 points

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