Chasing the Sun (Part 1) – Fine Wines from the Golden State: A Review of Napa Wines

The Napa Valley Vintners, the trade association promoting probably the finest wines of the state of California, was hosting a tasting at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London on 14 June 2011 as part of their early summer European roadshow culminating in their arrival at the biennial trade exhibition in France, VinExpo. A gloriously sunny day, the air was warm as it came in through the half-open French windows and the room was filled with a group of true Californians: hospitable, kind and charming. The wines were showing well, quite a few of them with a strong constitution, pronounced and intense fruits, generous oak and escalating alcohol levels. Yet, there are real gems to find, which show vibrancy, sophistication and an impressive personality. Let me make some remarks and observations here in a lucid manner and setting out from more basics to the stellar-sphere.

Darioush Winery with its eye-catching display of what seemed to be Greek pillars immediately caught the attention. In fact, it was a photo of the façade of the winery, which had been established by Darioush Khaledi. Being of Iranian descent, he recreated the ancient architecture of the Shiraz Valley in Iran, where Mr Khaledi originates from and a region known for the production of wine until the Islamic Revolution. The pillars stole the show, as they commanded more attention then the wines themselves. Well-made in Bordeaux-esque style, but nothing more to be excited about.

In terms of excitement, St Supery Winery made quite a similar impression, though Robert Skalli is known for producing the first single varietal wines in the Languedoc in France. In fairness, St Supery showed a lot more personality, I loved its luscious cassis on its Dollarhide Cabernet Sauvignon and the velvety texture of the ELU Cabernet Sauvignon, both from the 2006 vintage.

The superstar of the tasting – I had anticipated on my way to St James’s – would be Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, the winery whose Cabernet Sauvignon won the first place in the 1976 Paris Tasting beating top Bordeaux wines. The 2007 Artemis was fine, but had no sparkle. A shame, as I am convinced that winery set up by Warren Winiarski – who I met in March in Budapest – would be capable of producing far better than just good wines.

Hendry’s Wine Cellars brought some lovely Cabernet Sauvignon, where a touch of volatile acidity was giving an extra layer of enjoyment. What I missed was that they would have shown their Primitivo along their Zinfandel, two genetically identical varieties as shown by the DNA research conducted by Dr Carol Meredith of U.C. Davis and a friend of George Hendry’s.

The two wineries with the most impressive wines were Signorello and ROY Estate, but I need to add that I did not have the chance to taste from Schramsberg, Shafer, Viader and Waterstone. What a luck that Signorello decided in 1985 not only to sell grapes, but to crush for themselves and subsequently they planted red varietals in 1990. ROY Estate was represented by Shirley Roy who widowed in 2010, but carries on relentlessly with the estate she had set up with her husband after having purchased pro-golfer Johnny Miller’s estate. Both Signorello and ROY use around 70 – 80% of Cabernet Sauvignon in their Bordeaux-blends unlike quite a few other wineries, who use a very high proportion so as to be able to label the wine as ‘Cabernet Sauvignon’. The poetic question is whether it is more advisable to use a large portion of Cabernet Sauvignon, which allows for capitalising on the fame of Napa Cabernet or better to make blends, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts? The answer is not easy and by no means would I criticise Cabernet, especially because the 100% Cabernet Sauvignons can well be stunning, as was the 2009 Collaboration of Signorello.

The stars of the tasting, in my view, were the wines listed here, but see the tasting notes below:

Cakebread Cellars Chardonnay 2003 (16.3)

Darioush Viognier 2009 (16.4)

Hendry Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 (16.5)

Long Meadow Cabernet Sauvignon E.J. Churchill Reserve 2006 (16.9)

Signorello Cabernet Sauvignon Estate 2007 (17.5)

ROY Estate, Red Blend Proprietary Red Wine 2005 (17.8)

ROY Estate, Red Blend Proprietary Red Wine 2006 (17.8)

Signorello The Collaboration Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 (18.1)

Tasting Notes:

Cakebread Cellars Chardonnay 2003
US retail $37

Light gold in colour. Toffee, vanilla and apples. Dry and fresh, a mix of fleshy and baked apples, quite mineral. Rounded and long. 16.3

Cakebread Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 2007
87% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Franc, 2% Petit Verdot, 1% Malbec
US retail $61

Purple core, garnet rim. Cassis with ripe cherries, quite a bit of schist, smoky flintiness. Intensity over complexity. 16.1

Cakebread Cellars Chardonnay 2009
US retail $37

Light gold. Creamy apple, zesty lemon peel. Fresh, quite a lot of vanilla followed by fleshy apple and a schistous moutfeel. 15.7

Cakebread Cellars Sauvignon Blanc 2009
91% Sauvignon Blanc, 5% Semillon, 4% Sauvignon Musque. 10% barrel ageing, old oak, for 3 months.
US retail $24

Light lemon, green hue with watery rim. Lime and white grapefruit with a lean and mineral style. Medium finish, silky texture. 16.1

Darioush Cabernet Sauvignon Signature 2007
85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc, 3% Malbec
US retail $80

Deep core with some ruby affection and garnet rim. Pine, vanilla, cedar and cherry, some nutmeg. Complexity of spices, very smoothly textured tannins. 16.3

Darioush Merlot 2007
US retail $46

Ripe, fleshy cherry, soft strawberry, very tiny grains of tannins. Cinnamon, vanilla and acacia. 16.1

Darioush Viognier, Signature 2009
US retail $39

Light lemon. Zesty in the nose with delicate peach and rose petals. Dry, fresh, quite ripe, yet delicate. Soft mouth-feel. 16.4

Hendry Cabernet Sauvignon 2002
US retail $70

Deep ruby, thin garnet rim. Cassis, a bit of volatile acidity and a hint of black pepper-corn. Medium weight, excellent vibrancy. 16.5

Hendry Cabernet Sauvignon 2007
US retail $56

Deep purple. Lively cassis, black pepper-corn, lots of fruit, acacia, firm and rounded tannins. Medium length. 16.3

Hendry Oak Knoll District Chardonnay 2007
US retail $25

Light golden with green hue. Buttery, creamy, apple and vanilla with very good concentration. Elegant. 16

Hendry Zinfandel Blocks 7 & 22 2007
US retail $30

Raspberry, cherry with strawberry, vanilla and plum. Fresh, big fruity body, creamy mid-palate, high in alcohol and a spicy finish. 16.1

Honig Cabernet Sauvignon 2008
95.5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4.5% Petit Verdot
US retail $40

Purple. Highly fragrant palate with nutmeg, cassis and sour-cherry. Savoury, fresh, a bit spiky alcohol, but very smoothly textured tannins. 16

Honig Sauvignon Blanc 2010
US retail $16

Light lemon, generous green hue. Tiny grassy notes with gooseberry and asparagus wrapped around with grapefruit. Light and fresh at the start, develops weight on the mid-palate. Refreshing and easy. 15.7

Long Meadow Cabernet Sauvignon 1999
US retail $55

Brick core, garnet rim. Dry, cherry, strawberry and brick. Musky, leafy, quite like an old Bordeaux. Balanced acids and alcohol. 17.3

Long Meadow Cabernet Sauvignon 2006
98% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Cabernet Franc
US retail $42

Very herbaceous, cherry and mushroom with more red fruit beneath. Quite smooth texture with cedar on the finish. 16.2

Long Meadow Cabernet Sauvignon E.J. Church Reserve 2006
US retail $85

Tiny garnet rim around the ruby core. Herbaceous, mushroom, leather, earthy and strawberries. Some aged Bordeaux about it. 16.9

Long Meadow Sauvignon Blanc Rutherford 2010
US retail $18

Light lemon, watery rim. Gooseberry, zesty lemon and grapefruits. Fresh, quite limestony. Light and fresh. 15.9

ROY Estate, Red Blend Proprietary Red Wine 2005
77% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Merlot, 7% Petit Verdot

Ruby, tiny garnet rim. Broad, intense and luscious cherry fruit, quite ripe Strawberry, minty, leafy and meaty tones followed by cinnamon. Amazingly delicate texture for a big body, very soft tannins and long finish. 17.8

ROY Estate, Red Blend Proprietary Red Wine 2006
82% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, 3% Petit Verdot

Ruby, tiny garnet rim. Meaty, minty and a mix of cherry and strawberry. Fresh, elegant, tannins ripe. Less juicy than ’05. 17.8

ROY Estate, Cabernet Sauvignon 2006
93% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Petit Verdot

Ruby, thin rim of garnet. Lively, savour nose of cherry, raspberry, pine and liquorish with mid-grain tannins. A big body with intensity of flavours. 17.5

Signorello Estate, Fuse 2008
US retail $25
75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12.5% Merlot, 12.5% Syrah

Light purple, fresh red fruits with acacia and oak tones. Blue-berries and lots of acacia followed by ripe tannins and fresh acids. 15.9

Signorello Estate, Cabernet Sauvignon, Estate 2007
US retail $50
80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc

Crimson. Lively nose of French oak, pine, acacia and nutmeg with sour-cherry, cassis. Ripe and velvety tannins. Very good integration, bright and long finish. 17.5

Signorello Estate, Cabernet Sauvignon, Padrone 2007
US retail $110
84% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc

Quite grabbing tannins with soft and fresh fruits, a bit voluptuous though. Alcohol is quite a lot on it. 16.5

Signorello Estate, Cabernet Sauvignon, The Collaboration 2009
US retail $250

Lighter purple, quite restrained nose, soft fruits of sour-cherry, raspberry and cassis. Spices of black pepper-corn, nutmeg and pine with velvety yet firm frame of tannins, pointed fruit and sharp flavours with high alcohol. 18.1

Signorello Estate, White Blend, Seta 2009
60% Semillon, 40% Sauvignon Blanc
US retail $32

Lemon colour. Lovely sur lie nose with ripe grapefruits, lemon and lots of minerality. Silky, airy and light. Good concentration. Long finish. 16.4

Silver Oak Cellars, Cabernet Sauvignon 2006
81% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc, 3% Petit Verdot
US retail $100

25 months in US oak, 2 years bottle ageing before releasing
Thin garnet rim around ruby. Big ripe fruits, vanilla and leather, velvety tannins. Fruity and long finish, alcohol quite high. 16.2

Twomey Merlot 2006
94% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc
US retail $50

Medium deep, wide garnet rim. Medium intense, lovely French oak on ripe strawberry. Meaty tones with nutmeg, and dry cured meat followed by acacia. Soft tannins, medium long finish. 16.1

St Supery Estate, Cabernet Sauvignon, ELU 2006
87% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Petit Verdot, 6% Merlot
US retail $60

Crimson, tiny garnet rim. Fragrant yet restrained nose, lovely ripe red fruits, velvety mouth-feel and sweet spices of cinnamon and cedar. 16.2

St Supery Estate, Cabernet Sauvignon, Dollarhide 2006
US retail $85

Slightly garnet rim around ruby core. Lovely ripe and luscious cassis, medium body, good alcohol and acid balance. Cedar and tiny bit of vanilla. 16.3

St Supery Estate, White Blend, Virtu 2009
55% Semillon, 45% Sauvignon Blanc
US retail $29

Quite smokey, vanilla and buttery tones on ripe apples. Light in flavours, supple and fresh. Good medium body. 16.1

St Supery Sauvignon Blanc 2010
US retail $20

Light lemon with a green hue. Ripe grapefruits, grassy and lychee. Dry, alcohol a bit high, but crisp acids. Concentration a bit low. Good smooth mouth-feel. 15.5

Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon, Artemis 2007
90% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Merlot, 2% Syrah, 1% Petit Verdot
US retail $55

Deep core, crimson to garnet. Fruity nose: cherry and raspberry followed by soft acacia. A bit of ripeness on mid-palate, good long finish. 16

Stag’s Leap Chardonnay, KARIA 2008
US retail $35

Light golden with a lemon hue. Restrained nose with apples, zesty tones and tiny vanilla. Dry, creamy, buttery with apples and citrus. A bit of limestone on the finish. Good medium. 15.4

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