On the team since 1982, Dirk Hampson now heads the operation as Director of Winemaking (for both Far Niente and Dolce). I was invited to meet up with Dirk on Far Niente's stunning stand at
Vinexpo, Bordeaux. With acres of polished wood, brass and leather, the clubby stand was a very obvious sign that these are wines made with a single-minded focus on luxury; premium wines with little room for compromise. Indeed, the high cost of Far Niente's wines is often commented upon by critics.
Much of Far Niente's Chardonnay was re-planted after the phylloxera infestation that struck Napa in the 80's. Dirk is philosophical, saying that this was an opportunity to choose the five or six vine clones he thought would afford most complexity. The vineyards have so far escaped the two more recent scourges of the Napa Valley, Pierce's Disease and the Glassy-Winged Sharpshooter bug. Unusually in the New World, the Far Niente Chardonnay does not undergo malolactic fermentation, which helps give the wines suppleness and freshness.
The Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards in Oakville and Coombsville are in prime sites, next to Opus One and the Mondavi Reserve vineyards for example. The Estate Cabernet contains
small percentages of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. The wine has a long maceration to soften its tannins, and spends around 20 months in either 100% new French barriques, or a lower percentage according to the vintage properties.
In 1997 a new winery was established by Dirk, Larry Maguire and Gil Nickel (owner and founder of Far Niente). The winery, called Nickel & Nickel, produces small amounts of single-vineyard varietal wines. Though initially working with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, the model for Nickel & Nickel is in fact Burgundy; or rather the ability of vineyard sites to impart a definite thumbprint on wines they produce.
|It is true these wines are expensive. But they are made from prime fruit and "grand cru" vineyard sites, with lavish attention to detail. In the end, it is how they taste that counts and the wines do not falter on that score.
Guide prices are given in Pounds Sterling (£10=$US15). UK importer is Hallgarten Wines (01582 722538) who can advise of stockists, but these include
virginwines.com, casevalue.com and discover-wines. Far Niente has a web site at www.farniente.com which includes sales of their "cave collection" - wines of older vintages.
WhitesFar Niente Chardonnay 1999 - £39
||Dolce has fallen foul of import restrictions that prevent certain New World dessert wines from being sold in the UK. Those
restrictions are being lifted, so I hope Dolce will be available soon. It retails in the US at $75 per 37.5cl. The '98 has an alluring peach, apricot and creamy botrytis nose of fig,
quince and honey. There is plenty of power and concentration on the palate, with apricot kernel notes and sweet, tropical fruit flavours, orange and marmalade. This has good
citrussy acidity, and a rounded, generous mouthfeel. It finishes with lovely integration and should develop well. Very good indeed.
I also tasted the 1997 vintage in February 2001.
|Nickel & Nickel Merlot Suscol Ranch 1998
This is only the second release of this wine, which retails at around $70US, and is thus far unavailable in the UK. Less than 300 cases are produced. It has a briary nose of tobacco, woodsmoke and herbs, with sweet black fruits and an overlay of toasty oak. On the palate that lovely lush, sweetness of ripe fruit washes over the palate, with expansive and gentle acidity adding bite as well as a push of spicy oak that gives plenty of stuffing. Finishes stylishly, with some grip from ripe tannins, and well-focused fruit. Very good indeed.