Back To USA III. The enthusiastic Napa Valley, 19 years later
Napa Valley, 19 years later. It’s been 19 years since I did my harvest at Franciscan in 2013. This was when I set for myself on a four-month American adventure with friends and colleagues from the University. The goal was to witness all the boiling enthusiasm of the great wineries in the valley. And now, I am back in Napa Valley, which would be the last part of this recent American trip. And Napa still feels enthusiastic, and it is always to return to a place you were happy. Really happy!!
Quintessa is my favourite winery in Napa. For the architecture, the landscape, the biodynamic viticulture and, especially, the wines. It was an organic project from its creation in 1989. And that shows in the biodiversity of the landscape around it. The winery is on a hilltop, perfectly balancing construction, and landscape. In the cellar, everything is done through gravity, and you witness absolute respect for the fruit and its potential.
In 2003 they only produced one wine, the Quintessa Red. Today there is one more, the Illumination white, 100% Sauvignon Blanc that is a dream.
The head winemaker, Rebekah Wineburg, welcomes us. We could only be in good hands with a person with wine in her name. Rebekah showed us the entire property. We toured the vineyards in a golf cart, and the landscape was just stunning. Then we went into the cellar and noticed how they work and how everything is done to respect each plot character. Today we see more concrete eggs than oak – and you feel that in the wines. They are no longer a concentration and oak barrel bomb but rather elegant while keeping the Napa character.
The white comes from new plots where they tried growing Sauvignon Blanc, fermented partially in concrete eggs and the remaining in French oak barrels. It is pure class, nothing exotic, complex and with plenty of finesse. But the star was the Quintessa. We tasted three seasons: 2016, 2018 and 2019. Clearly, 2019 was superior, and we have been experiencing that in all the different tastings we did here. Pure Cabernet, with the usual nerve but with great acidity, giving it immense profoundness. It is a huge wine!
Maybe the most iconic winery in Napa Valley, the fruit of a partnership between two legendary families of the wine industry: Mondavi and Rothschild. Here everything is grand, from the stone blocks to the cellar greatness. Everything was done to impress. There are tourist hordes here from all nationalities. The tasting room is gigantic to welcome all its visitors. We tasted the new Overture, a wine made with three different seasons. And then three Opus, 2012, 2016 and 2018. Great wines are born like this, in the little details and with great stories behind them.
When we go up Pritchard Hill, we get to Lake Berryessa. The landscape feels familiar and reminds me of Beira Alta in Portugal, with the Meimão dam next to it. We are heading to Gandona, a recent Napa cellar owned by Manuel Pires, a fellow Portuguese. Originally from Douro Valley, he fell in love with this estate and decided to stay and start making his wines. He has a famous consultant, winemaker Philipe Melka and a modern and well-equipped cellar to take the best out of Cabernet. Beautiful wines, intense and with a sense of place. He also planted a few lines of Touriga Nacional – let’s see what the future holds for them. They produce a Chardonnay with Sonoma fruit that is fresh and vibrant; Encosta, a red wine, made with secondary grapes and Gandona, the wine that always gets the best grapes and strives to be among the best wines in Napa Valley soon.
Today we are heading into Carneros, the fresher sub-region of Napa Valley and where Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are kings. It’s the Artesa cellar, constructed by the Spanish group Codorníu, Cava specialists, designed initially to produce just that sparkling wine. These days they are still doing them, and they are pretty good, but the individual plot wines they are producing are what makes them stand out the most. Ana Draper welcomes us, a Portuguese winemaker who has been in Napa since 2004. We visited the grounds and were stunned by the landscape. The Carneros area is full of hills, and the way vineyards cover them is pretty incredible to see.
We tasted the entire range, thanks to the incredible Ana, a surprising Alvarinho, and a very fresh Aragonez. You can see the Portuguese influence on a universe dominated by French grape varieties. But the wines that left me speechless were the single vineyards: Chardonnay Hyde Vineyard, one of the most legendary Chardonnay plots in the US, and the Pinot Noir Block 12, silky and elegant with a long finish. For last, a pre-release tasting of the 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from Mount Veeder, a bomb. Intense, structured with beautiful acidity, making it a live and restless wine. What a great visit Ana. Thank you and see you soon.
Philipe Melka is a French winemaker who moved to the US long ago. He is one of the most sought-after consultant winemakers. With his wife, Cherie, an American and a winemaker, created Melka Estates. A beautiful boutique winery right on Silverado Road. Here, with the knowledge of 26 years of experience, they make terroir wines looking for the grape origins that they like the most. Here Sylvie Laly welcomes us, the Head of Sales and Marketing and an extraordinary host. She showed us everything and gave us a detailed explanation of the origin of every single grape that went into the wines. I feel at home, we had a warm welcome, and the conversation was rich. These guys have studied soils for years and the single vineyards that make Napa an exceptional terroir. They are tireless. They say they still don’t know much and that there is still much to learn and do to deepen their knowledge of the area. They are a great inspiration. Excellent job, Philipe!!
And at the Table…
We stop in the middle of the valley at Oakville Grocery at lunchtime. A must of the region, besides having all the great Napa wines, they have a wood fire oven where they make awesome pizza and a Rubens sandwich to die for. All this in a storefront just across the street from the famous To Kalon vineyard. At dinner, the Dominus 2019 we drank is still a good memory. This wine is one of the Napa greats, and the 2018 was considered the wine of the year by Wine Spectator. The Dominus 2019 comes to confirm everything we felt from all the wines we tasted of this Vintage. It was a perfect harvest in Napa; fruit, concentration, and acidity were all in outstanding balance. Great wine, thank you, Miguel!
And yes, I must finish with a huge thank you note to Miguel Charters, my travelling partner this time around. Legit stuff!!!