New wineries often gain a measure of recognition when they explain how the founder had a vision, and then how hard work (usually involving small children) leads to a world-class property.
Clos du Val Winery has been in business nearly five decades, so no such heart-warming story applies, yet the tale of the “new” Clos du Val may be more compelling and certainly explains something interesting about the Napa Valley and how it developed its present fame.
Founded in 1972 by French expatriate Bernard Portet, the property was one of several that seemed to appear as if by magic at the very same time. Among those founded that same year were Stag’s Leap and Château Montelena, the two stars of the 1976 “Judgment of Paris” tasting and a number of others.
Portet’s influence was crucial to the development of Napa Valley red wine style since he had grown up the son of the technical director of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, and thus had an insider’s view of and a great appreciation for classic red Bordeaux.
What became clear (once the horrible 1972 harvest was out of his hair!) was that his choice of the Stag’s Leap District in which to place his winery was visionary.
Years later, Portet told me often he had no idea early on how silky and seductive cabernet sauvignons from that small region of southern Napa Valley could be.
Still, some of Clos du Val’s early red wines were criticized by some for their hardness of tannin, a result of Portet’s French training.
My experience with the wines was that they always had a Clos du Val-ness — made pretty much the way classic Bordeaux was made, to age for a decade or two.
It was this style, probably introduced by Beaulieu’s Andre Tchelitchefff about 1940, that motivated Robert Mondavi to design his cabernets from 1966, and gave the valley its first whiff of fame. Portet was probably its greatest adherent.
But that style began to change for many other wineries after about 1997. Soft was “in,” though Portet never wavered in his support of the classic, age-worthy style. That led two powerful wine critics to write devastating articles criticizing Clos du Val for failing to make “hedonistic” red wines.
In my view, both articles were flawed. Neither writer had done any journalistic investigation into the facts, but the clear message was: “Avoid these wines.”
The articles had an impact and the company foundered image-wise. But quality continued to improve and by the early 2000s sales had risen from 30,000 cases a year to triple that last year.
The growth provided good revenue, but the company saw its image at risk and the board of directors believed the company’s full potential had not been maximized.
A few years ago, a new management team was hired to shift Clos du Val’s style toward a slightly riper model.
A crucial decision was made by a team headed by former executives from Chappellet Vineyards, and implemented by wine maker Ted Henry.
Going through almost all of the Clos du Val wines last week, I could see the thread Portet initially imposed, as well as the more modern approach Henry was taking.
The new focus included the mandate to make less wine — back down to 40,000 cases a year, and to focus almost exclusively on estate-grown grapes.
The company has 125 acres in the prized Stag’s Leap District (100 planted to cabernet sauvignon), 120 acres in nearby Yountville, and 180 acres in Carneros.
As the line expands, it will also include a few new wines, including a return to the classic Merlot that the winery once made.
The current lineup is impressive.
2015 Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley ($24): Bordeaux-ish varietally with hints of tea and melon. Dry and food-oriented.
2016 Pinot Noir Rosé, Carneros ($35): Vin Gris in style, totally dry with strawberry and watermelon notes.
2015 Chardonnay, Napa Valley (Estate) ($32): Loads of citrus oil, subtle notes of barrel contact, delicate minerality, and excellent acidity.
2015 Pinot Noir, Carneros (Estate) ($60): Relatively dense and concentrated, but perfectly varietal. Very young, needs 2-4 more years to develop.
2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($52): A wine that surely pleases Portet since it retains the winery’s style (Bordeaux), though it is clearly a California wine with superb fruit, a trace of dried herbs, a subtle spicy note, partially from aging in barrels. Terrific structure for aging (3-12 more years). Although still quite young, tasty with the right foods and now.
2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, Hirondelle Vineyard ($120): This pricey wine is clearly a splurge, but made both to enjoy with char-grilled steak soon, or to age a decade or more. Blackberry, dried herbs, and delicate olive notes mark the aroma. As it gets air, the aroma opens to display a lot more of its Napa character (dust, sandalwood). The tannins are appropriate, not aggressive.
The new Clos du Val is a project worth re-investigating.
Wine of the Week: 2015 Les Dauphins Cotes du Rhone Reserve ($12): this is a lighter weight, Grenache based red wine has a faint hint of pepper to compliment ripe cherry and plum notes.