Opus One winemaker Michael Silacci claimed that the high alcohol in California wine today is a concern that is voiced 'mostly in Europe'
Opus One winemaker Michael Silacci claimed that the high alcohol in California wine today is a concern that is voiced ‘mostly in Europe’. Speaking at a vertical tasting in London last week, organised by the Institute of Masters of Wine, Silacci was responding to questions about the marked rise in alcohol levels since the wine’s first vintage in 1979.
He attributed higher alcohol to healthier vines, warmer vintages and yeasts that are more efficient at converting sugar to alcohol in the winery. He also acknowledged that when making decisions about when to pick at harvest time, ‘skins are more important than sugar’. This focus on the flavour and texture ripeness of grape skins results in fruit that is picked when riper than in years past, when the primary or sole measure of ripeness was sugar.
Silacci, whose first vintage at the winery was 2001, said that he aimed to ‘enhance tradition and maintain innovation’. He pointed out that the relative rise in alcohol levels in Opus One was moderate in the context of other Cabernet-based wines from California (12.9% in 1979 compared to 14.4% for the 2006 vintage), and that this is a trend that is not limited to California but extends to other regions, including Bordeaux.
Opus One was born of the shared vision of two of the wine world’s most legendary figures: Baron Philippe de Rothschild, owner of Château Mouton Rothschild, and Robert Mondavi. In 1981 a case of the first vintage of Opus One became the most expensive California wine sold to date, at $24,000. The Robert Mondavi Winery’s 50% share in the company passed to Constellation Brands on its acquisition in 2004. Today Opus One remains jointly and equally owned with Baroness Philippine de Rothschild.
The tasting highlighted Opus One’s evolution and included a selection of Silacci’s favourite vintages.
Opus One, Napa Valley (magnum) 1991
(13.5% abv; 93% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Cabernet Franc, 1% Merlot)
Deep ruby-purple. Nose intense, cassis, smoke, slightly animal, dense. Silky palate, with bright, fresh fruit, ripe but not warm. Delicious black fruit sweetness, quite concentrated. Acidity lowish, but balanced, tannins very smooth. Perfectly mature, but there is no hurry to drink this. Long, spicy finish. Black pepper, cassis, confit character. Excellent. Drink up to 2020 (18.5 points)
Opus One, Napa Valley 2001
(14.2% abv; 87% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Merlot, 3% Malbec, 2% Cabernet Franc & 2% Petit Verdot).
Deep, glossy, youthful colour. Nose of black, figgy fruit, some oak and leather and cocoa. Palate ripe and full, with silky tannins and really big, ripe, but fresh fruit. Wow. Impressive wine, with lovely sweetness of flavour. Alcohol does show a little, but has real star quality. Long, tarry, savoury, black fruit finish. Fabulous. Drink up to 2025-plus. (18.5-plus points)
Opus One, Napa Valley 1995
(13.5% abv; 86% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Cabernet Franc, 5% Merlot, 1% Malbec)
Moderate colour, bright. Delicate nose, not very pronounced at first, but emerging to perfumed violets and red fruits. Palate also quite restrained and light, red rather than black fruits, plummy notes. Firmish tannins, but this has real delicacy and elegant maturity. Lighter style. Excellent, fruity length. Not fading at all. Slightly warmer alcohol. Delicious. Drink up to 2020. (18.5 points)
Opus One, Napa Valley 1987
(12.5% abv; 96% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Cabernet Franc, 1% Merlot)
Dark, moderately dense colour. Intense, smoky, leathery, mature nose (more mature than 79?). Palate has vigorous fruit, with mature, earthy, leathery notes and firm but integrated tannins. Less generous fruit apparent compared to 1979. Savoury, quite dry finish. Alcohol seems higher, though still in balance. Successful, very savoury, more austere style. Drink up to 2018. (17 points)
Opus One, Napa Valley 2005
(14% abv; 88% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Merlot, 3% Cabernet France, 3% Petit Verdot, 1 % Malbec)
Bright, glossy, purple-ruby colour. Nose meaty, complex and intense, bready, black fruited, pruney, figgy, and cassis. Some slight evolution evident. Palate sweet, warm and ripe, with cassis, primary fruit. Youthful and fresh in the mouth, with well rounded tannins. Warm, easy finish, long. Ripe, modern style with good balance. Drink 2015-2022. (18 points)
Opus One, Napa Valley 2006
(14.4% abv; 77% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc, 3% Petit Verdot, 3% Malbec)
Bright, glossy. Rich, fruitcake nose, complex, oaky. Silky-smooth mouthfeel, less obviously ripe and dense than 2005, elegant style. Tannins crisp, alcohol warm, but lovely freshness on the palate. Good, mineral, chocolatey length. Interesting and delicious wine. Drink 2013-2020. (18 points)
Opus One, Napa Valley 1997
(13.5% abv; 82% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Cabernet Franc, 5% Merlot, 4% Malbec, 1% Petit Verdot)
Mid-ruby purple. Nose evolved, pungent, new leather, black cherry fruit. Palate rich, ripe and tannic, with sweet, leathery structure and very good fruit concentration. Warm and ripe. Slight animal notes and spicy, long, ripe, confit black fruit, pruny finish. Very Good. Drink up to 2020. (18 points)
Opus One, Napa Valley (magnum) 1979
(12.9% abv; 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Cabernet Franc, 4% Merlot)
Still deep and ruby in colour, only moderately transparent. Nose evolved and complex, with rich, tobacco and ripe plum fruit and undergrowth aromas. Palate smooth and ripe, still fresh but fully mature. Mushroomy, earthy, savoury notes here, with crisp acidity. Still plenty of fruit left. Lovely freshness on the finish, which is long, persistent and complex. Not overripe – picked necessarily early, due to rain in September. Delicious. Drink up to 2015. (17.5 points)