On day two of John’s USA trip he visited more of our own import labels, including some of California’s most historic estates. His first was one of the region’s original ‘big five’ estates, Freemark Abbey. Housed in a charmingly rustic stone chateau, it was a “beautiful” place to begin another day of tasting some of the most revered wines in the American hemisphere.
Built in 1898, the estate was already twelve years into its remarkable history. By its mid to late career — in 1976 — Freemark was still making history as the only local estate to have both red and white wines recorded as entrants in the defining “Judgement of Paris”, the famous blind panel tasting that recategorised Californian wine as second-to-none.
The winemaker has been here for 44 vintages. So John was able to taste single vineyards which are not only icons of Californian wine — the Bosche and the Sycamore — but are made by the very same traditional hands. With slighly less overt oak framing a massive and weighty fruit presence, these giants will be happy resting in their cave “forever”.
The next stop was a rather unusual location — a hilltop in the middle of the Napa valley floor — upon which is nestled the even more singlular estate of Cardinale.
Despite this prime location, this exclusive label is supplied by creaming off some of the most select fruit from across the Jackson Family holdings — mostly from mountain vineyards such as those in Howell Mountain, Mount Veeder, Stags Leap and the La Jota Vineyard.
Cardinale is so French in style and methology that it is not distributed like an American wine, but is instead routed through the Bordeaux market — sold by agents on the Place de Bordeaux, just like the Moutons and Latours of this world.
There is another Jackson wine which is sold in this very French way, and it too enjoys a stratspheric reputation: Verité. It is here that John began his third day in the region.
Made by the hand of a Frenchman, Pierre Seillan, there are three cuvees offered under under the name Verité — La Muse, La Joie and Le Désir. While each is a supreme expression of Californian style, their blends are also designed to provide a local reflection of the three great sub-regions of Bordeaux itself: Medoc, Pomerol and Saint Emilion.
Under Seillan’s control, the fruit selection regime for Verite is even more complex and precise. Likewise sourced from the best plots of the family’s mountain vineyard, Seillan oversees an ongoing control of no less than fifty “micro-cru” sites, which he vinifies separately and then carefully blends into these three supreme labels.
So profoundly concentrated are these micro-cru source wines that they can effortless absorb the impact in 100% new oak, coming out of barrel bursting with fruit vibrancy. John had the privilege of tasting a ten year old “La Muse” which was “fresh as a daisy” and “chiselled” in its profile, with “gorgeous plum cake” flavours and almost no sign of oak.
John’s next stop was at a Sonoma estate called Hartford, known for a range of premium Chardonnays that are sourced from “high risk, high reward” single vineyards.
While some are grown low on the foggy Russian River Valley, others reach a slow-ripened density of flavour upon exposed and elevated sites between Sonoma and the Pacific coast.
John’s final stop on day three was with Copain, another label based in the Russian River but which sources fruit from sites in Anderson Valley, Mendocino Valley and Sonoma Coast. Their notion is to present cool climate varieties, and their Chardonnay did indeed show the influence of both site and winemaking on local style.
While the more classic Hartford wines had been “lush and rich” — full of butterscoth and “mealy” deliciousness — the equal but antithetical Chardonnays of Copain managed to “keep all the acids” and so present a palate that was “super-elegant, dry and steely.”
It was an interesting two days in this diverse place — spanning from historic to stratispheric, from luscious to austere. The North Pacific hemisphere is still ascending in the wine world, and a very good place to be rubbing shoulders and swirling glasses. Subscribe or tune in soon for John’s adventures on day four, as well as a little jaunt further up the coast…