Philippe Melka maintains vintage 2011 will be described as one with “great personality.”
While such a terse descriptor could mask any or all of that harvest’s defects, winemaker Melka uses it instead to underscore the brightness, the depth, the balance of the wines from that cool, quirky growing season.
He admits that early October rains in 2011 were not welcome. Yet he was buoyed by the warm sun that “dried things out and concentrated flavors” in the early November that followed.
“If you know what you’re doing and your vineyards were in the right spot, you now have some really good wine aging in barrels,” the winemaker and consultant to many of the valley’s small brands readily snapped up in today’s marketplace.
Melka talked about harvest 2011 during a run-up tasting to Premiere Napa Valley, the mid-winter futures auction for the trade conducted by Napa Valley Vintners at CIA Greystone last weekend.
He maintains a considerable number of the valley’s wines from harvest 2011 have “excellent structure and good acidity,” let alone the depth of flavor one expects when popping the cork on a bottle of Napa Valley wine.
Melka admits that Mother Nature didn’t treat all of the valley’s microclimates equally the harvest before last. “Some sections of the valley fared better than others ... like Pritchard Hill, Howell Mountain and some sections of Coombsville.” Granted, he makes wine from grapes grown in those areas. But he refrained from generalizations, good or bad, about other areas of the valley where he isn’t taking fruit.
“This year, the truth was in the tasting,” declared Master of Wine Peter Marks, vice president of wine education for Constellation Brands. He felt most attendees would agree “the 2011s are lovely, elegant wines with pristine fruit, impeccable balance and structure to last a decade or two.”
“I love the 2011s — they are elegant, with a beautiful mid-palate … just my style,” noted Steven Spurrier, award-winning author, educator and organizer of the seminal 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting.
It appears the trade was in general agreement with their assessments of vintage 2011.
Restaurateurs, retailers, wholesalers and wine club gurus snapped up 211 lots in a little over three hours Saturday afternoon, spending $3 million-plus dollars doing so, just shy of last year’s record $3.1 million.
In fact, the well-attended event got off on the right foot when John Wade, of Little Rock, Ark., picked up 20 cases of auction chair Steve Reynolds’ special auction cabernet blend for $50,000. The Reynolds Family Winery offered an elegant blend of Stags Leap District fruit (92 percent cabernet sauvignon, 5 percent merlot and 3 percent cabernet franc) with the region’s signature silky tannins.
Auctioneers Fritz Hatton and Ursula Hermacinski didn’t have to coax attendees to part with their money. A team of regulars from Total Wine & More offered top bid of $75,000 for 10 cases of a cabernet sauvignon/cabernet franc/merlot blend from Bevan Cellars and Chateau Boswell Winery. It seemed appropriate that the winemaking team had tagged this wine, “We Will Rock You.” It had that effect on the crowd, when that much was spent about midway through the affair.
Tasting through the vintage
I found Melka’s assessment of the vintage spot-on after tasting through a lot of the one-of-a-kind offerings last weekend. Here are a few thoughts on the wines that impressed me:
Ed Fitts and Deb Whitman have a dozen acres of vines planted in the red volcanic soils up on Pritchard Hill. They also have Melka advising them on production of the 400-500 cases of their new brand of cabernet sauvignon called Brand. This remarkable blend of cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc (75/25) explodes with oodles of fresh black fruit, namely blackberries and plums, and finishes with toasty notes of oak and anise lingering on the berry-coated palate. The five-case lot of this debut Brand went for $26,000.
Another stellar wine demonstrated once again that Stéphane Derenoncourt also knows a thing or two about challenging harvests. He took mostly cabernet sauvignon and a little cabernet franc from a hillside vineyard in a sea of Los Posadas redwood up on Howell Mountain for his PNV lot. A beautiful dark crimson, the wine is lush and concentrated, layers of rich blackberries tinged with spice and a lovely finish that goes on and on and on. The 10 case lot went for $36,000.
Freemark Abbey winemaker Ted Edwards can be proud of his 100 percent cabernet sauvignon offering from St. Helena’s Van Z Ranch, a juicy wine with considerable backbone, an inviting, spicy nose and a long finish that shows off it ripe black fruit. His 10 case lot brought a top bid of $9,000.
Winemakers Rob Lawson and Kimberlee Nicholls teamed up to produce the blend offered by Ghost Block and Markham Vineyards, a joint effort of the Del Bondio and Pelissa families. This Bordeaux blend consisted of cabernet sauvignon (80 percent) from both parties, some Markham merlot and a dash or two of petit verdot and malbec from Ghost Block in Yountville. It’s a delicious expression of cabernet sauvignon, with a complementary splash of spice on the mid-palate. The top bidder paid $24,000 for the 20-case lot.
France-born Genevieve Janssens did the Robert Mondavi winemaking team proud with her incredibly elegant Bordeaux blend — 75 percent cabernet sauvignon, 10 percent petit verdot (a favorite of the winemaker), 10 percent cabernet franc, 3 percent merlot and 2 percent malbec — offering intense blackberries on the mid-palate, a wine with oodles of finesse made from fruit coming from the winery’s Monastery block in Oakville. Someone else liked the wine as well, offering $30,000 for the 20 case lot.
Another native of France, Frederic Delivert consistently produces wines that belong on the top shelf. Now at Tamber Bey, he presented a Deux Chavaux Vineyard Sandbox blend of cabernet sauvignon and merlot (60/30), with a little seasoning of cab franc and petit verdot, each varietal aged in separate and distinct oak barrels. His effort resulted in a lush blend of ripe fruit with a lovely finish, an elegant wine. The 10-case lot brought a top bid of $9,000.
Tonnage that weighed in at half of what usually comes through the cellar door figures into the quality profile of the Roy Estate Voix Basse lot from 2011. Palate-coating and lush, this 100 percent clone 337 cabernet sauvignon from Soda Canyon is the handiwork of Melka and Aaron Buoncristiani. The wine has great structure, intense blackberries coating the mouth and lingering cassis on the palate. The five-case lot went for $24,000, making “caretaker”/marketer Shirley Roy smile.
Melka also had a hand in putting together the blends for several other outstanding lots:
• A five-case lot from Vineyard 29, a blend of cabernet sauvignon and merlot (90 percent) exhibiting great depth of flavor, a voluptuous cab. $27,000
• A five-case lot from Seavey Vineyard, a blend of cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot (90 percent) from Masochist’s Hill, a virtually inaccessible southern-facing hillside above Lake Hennessey in Conn Valley. The mountain fruit from this rocky terrain — where in some places the soil is only 10 inches deep — produced a well-integrated wine of great depth, intense blackberries and a touch of black pepper on the finish. $9,000
• A five-case lot from Gandona Estate, a blend from from two hand-seleted barrels of Pritchard Hill cabernet sauvignon, with inviting floral notes and blackberries on the palate, an outstanding juicy wine from 2011. $28,000
• One of the few white wines offered, five cases of sauvignon blanc from Lail Vineyards. The Henry IV lot is produced from the fruit harvested on three Yountville acres near Napa Valley Lodge. It displays plenty of lemon zest, bracing acidity and a palate-pleasing honeyed finish that follows a mouth-filling flavor of fresh peaches. $19,000
A few more outstanding wines included:
• Robert Foley’s
10-case blend of cabernet sauvignon from his own Howell Mountain vineyard and Kelly Peterson’s Switchback Ridge Vineyard in Calistoga. This ripe, delicious cab has plenty of backbone, is beautifully integrated and offers the drinker a blackberry feast on both mid-palate and lingering finish. The wine will stay in Napa as Bounty Hunter snapped it up for $22,000.
• Winemaker Christopher Vandendriessche put together a blend of cabernet franc and merlot (60/40) for Hudson Vineyards, a soft, lush yet substantial mouthful of black fruit that offers a finesse finish. The five-case lot is going to New Jersey as Gary Frisch paid $11,000 for the five-case lot.
• Vandendriessche is also responsible for the five cases of cabernet sauvignon from his family’s White Rock Vineyards, a blockbuster from Soda Canyon, a layered cab with a lush, long finish that displays all the right reasons for loving this grape variety. $6,000
• Nils Venge offered a cabernet sauvignon/petite sirah blend (95/5) for his Envy Wines project, a lush wine full of ripe black fruit (blackberries and plums) with an incredibly long finish. Five cases, $8,000
• Round, ripe and refreshing describes the superior blend of cabernet sauvignon from Morlet Family Vineyards and Vineyard 7 & 8. A wine with depth and finesse, the collaboration brought a top bid of $28,000 for 10 cases.
• A rich, ripe cabernet sauvignon from Charnu Winery clearly demonstrated the truth in what winemaker Melka said about the vintage. Here, winemaker Mark Porembski offers a blend from three vineyards with loads of blackberries and plums that melts into a long, lush finish. Five cases, $9,000
• Sam Kaplan used fruit from the vineyard block with the best valley view, up there on Howell Mountain, for the five-case lot of cabernet sauvignon from Arkenstone Vineyards. A wine with plenty of grip and a backbone of intense black fruit. Another winner from Arkenstone. $22,000
• Aaron Pott brought another exceptional blend to the party — a five-case blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc (50/30/20) from Blackbird Vineyards. The cab came from Blackbird, the cab franc from Stagecoach and Crocker & Starr, the merlot from estate and Hudson vineyards. A layered wine rife with black fruit that washes over the palate. A great wine from a winemaker’s vintage.