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Napa Valley Vintners

by Tom Cannavan, 11/00

The Napa Valley Vintners Association European tour came to London recently. Some of the biggest and most desirable wines of Napa came to town, along with their winemakers, to present a rare tasting opportunity to the UK wine trade.

These are my notes. The three Schramsberg sparkling wines were featured in an earlier report but are repeated here for completeness. The tasting was not blind. Use the Wine Searcher facility to find stockists and prices for these wines.

sparkling wines

Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs 1997
Mostly Chardonnay, with a little Pinot Blanc, this has a fine nose of green apples, lemon and a little earthy, berry-fruited note. It is clean, crisp and fresh on the palate, with an orange tang and a creamy, quite luxurious mousse. It has good length, and stays nicely balanced. Youthful, and would benefit from a few years in bottle perhaps.

Schramsberg Blanc de Noirs 1996
Using the Champagne black grapes of Pinots Noir and Meunier, this is a much more robust style of wine; a real counterpoint to the Blancs. The nose is immediately more yeasty and rich, and the hints of spice surround crunchy berry fruitiness and a nutty complexity. On the palate it lacks the finesse of the Blancs perhaps, but makes up for it with a weight of soft, ripe fruit and fuller body, and a reasonably long balanced finish showing good acidity.

J. Schram 1993
Schramsberg use tunnels carved into the mountainside by long-dead immigrant miners to age their wines, and this top cuvee spends five years maturing there before release. Utilising only the top 2% of the best Chardonnay and Pinot Noir of the vintage, the fermentation is partly in oak barrels: now very unusual even in Champagne. The deep burnished gold colour hints at maturity, and the lovely nose is herbal and complex, with autolytic notes and orchard fruits softened by nutty aromas. The rich mousse fills the mouth and again there is fine complexity with notes of fig and honey as well as peachy fruit. Very ripe, a balancing citrus acidity lengthens the finish. A seriously good wine and delicious too.

Cuvee Napa Mumm Blanc de Blancs NV
30% Pinot Gris must help give this pale gold wine an extremely nettly nose: like freshly crushed nettles or nettle beer. Sweetness of fruit follows, though maybe a tad confected like pear-drops rather than pear. Lots of clean, ripe fruit on the palate too, a luscious texture and full mousse, a certain yeastiness and nuttiness. Good citrus acidity and a long, flavourful mouthful of wine. Rather good.

white wines

Clos Pegase Mitsuko's Vineyard Chardonnay 1998
Rich, full toastiness. Lots of liquorice and nuts, ripe, full, buttered pecan and apricot fruit. Good body and balance with tingling acidity and though still plenty of oak, a nice fresh finish and good length. Good.

Cuvaison Carneros Chardonnay 1998
Nettly and fresh on the nose, there's a definite herbal quality to orchard fruits and background oak. Palate is nicely fruited with a sweetness too ripe pear fruit, smokiness and plenty of toast adding a savoury depth. Not terribly complex, but tasty. Good.

Duckhorn Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 1999
Crisp gooseberry notes in a fairly reserved style, with a certain leafiness. On the palate quite dry and a little vegetal, waxy quality. Lots of lemony acidity in the finish. Quite good.

Far Niente Chardonnay 1999
Lovely nose of richly-toasted and buttered brioche. Complex nuances of hazelnut, brazil nut and lemony fruit. The palate has fine freshness and a savoury quality of citrus fruit and grapefruit acidity. Quite nervy and steely fruit that is pure and quite serious. Needs time. Good.

Flora Springs Barrel Fermented Chardonnay 1999
Soft, appealing nose of nuts and downy peaches, a little floral note and almost spearmint purity. Quite clean and crisp on the palate. Savoury with pear fruit and delicate acidity. Some restrained toasty oak shows up only in the finish.

Harrison Vineyards Chardonnay Reserve 1998
Very seductive nose with a lovely freshly-baked bread quality over juicy orchard fruit. The Palate has soft, giving fruit which is deep and chewy with body and good acidity. Quite long. Very good.

Heitz Cellar Napa Valley Chardonnay 1998
A herbal freshness about this, quite minerally with clean fruit. Palate is dominated by pristine pear and citrus flavours, decent acidity and overall good balance. Finishes with a little savoury edge of oak. Good/Very good.

Joseph Phelps Le Mistral Viognier 1999
Good varietal nose; lots of piercing peach and floral aromas, a little buttery background. Big, dry, fruity palate with lots of crunchy pear and peach fruit, medium-body and good balance. Quite long. Not too overbearing (as is much premium viognier) and rather good.

Shafer Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay 1998
Another clean and crisply-fruited nose, with just a classy sweet toffee note of smoky oak to steely apple fruit. Lots more rich, buttery, toasty weight on the palate and plenty of lemony acidity. Good ripeness and fine length, I thought this might still need a little time. Best Chardonnay of the day.

red wines

Cain Five 1996
Very Bordeaux-like on the nose; bags of cedary and pencil-shaving quality with juicy plum and blackcurrant fruit. A little note of chocolate. Savoury and rich on the palate, there are really mouth-coating tannins giving grip, but a lovely quality of black fruits and fine balance. Full, flavoursome mid-palate and fine length. Impressive. Very good indeed.

Cuvaison Pinot Noir 1998
Quite a big nose of toasty oak, sweet herbal aromas and cherry fruit. The palate has a sourness of cherry and plum skins and it's a little lean, but avoids jamminess. Quite good.

Edgewood Malbec 1997
A new name for me. This has ripe, rich black fruits on the nose, though not at all jammy; restrained by a firm blue/black edge and a slightly lifted, floral note. Palate shows a touch of greenness, maybe a little hollow on the mid-palate. Doesn't live up to the promise of the nose.

Far Niente Cabernet Sauvignon 1997
A definite cedary quality on the nose with herbal, leafy blackcurrant fruit and just a suggestion of rich chocolate depth. The palate is dry and dusty with fine tannins over subdued black fruit. Good length, and a sense there is a really fine wine struggling to emerge. Not quite there yet, but very good.

Heitz Cellar Trailside Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 1995
At first rather dumb, but with working some sweet, rounded black fruit emerges. Somehow the palate seems the same. It is tannic and there is a pure fruitiness in there, but it is somewhat lacking. Quite good.

Joseph Phelps Insignia 1997
This has a lovely tight, bright focus of cherry and berry fruit with little complex nuances of truffle and vanilla, some plummier notes. The palate is very sweet through creamy ripe fruit, with a background of charry oak. Very focused and ripe, this has terrific tannins that are sweet and silky and give very good definition into a long finish. Excellent.

Robert Mondavi Zinfandel 1997
Weighty and sweet fruit on the nose; a hint of spice and berry fruits. On the palate a real burst of ripe berry fruit and a little dusting of pepper into a long, pure finish where tannins and oak add grip. Big, bold and very good.

St. Supery Red Meritage 1996
A classy nose here, with cool fruit that is restrained yet sweet, bolstered by notes of smoke, vanilla and a hint of chocolate and plum darkness. Sweet fruit on the palate too and really good concentration. There's support from vanillin, toasty, creamy oak that is flashy, but balanced with rich fruit and fine tannins. Good length. Very good.

Viader Cabernet Blend 1997
I'm presuming this is the same wine that I've enjoyed in many previous vintages labelled as 'Proprietary Red'? Really nice quality of fruit here; lots of earthy berry and leafy blackcurrant, hinting at cassis and even mint. The palate has fine, ripe tannins and that earthy quality of fruit again that is quite Bordeaux-like. Long and structured, this is very good.