Having dispatched the USA rugby team in the morning at the Rugby World Cup, it was England’s turn in the afternoon to be shown the sheer power and majesty of the US – or the Californian wine scene to be more precise. Two of the hottest wine tasting events in London were being held at the US Embassy – Collectible California and Covetable Napa – and our man with the ‘golden tickets’, David Kermode, braved apocalyptic weather conditions to get there. Once inside he discovered a treasure trove of wines, including 14 of Napa’s most iconic wine estates each showing two vintages, a decade apart.
Harlan Estate’s director Don Weaver confided that London was a key destination for the winery, helping it secure international standing and brand-longevity.
The tasting season is in full swing, perhaps busier than ever, but an invitation that includes the names Harlan Estate, Inglenook, Scarecrow and Tor, amongst others, is one of those that just screams “yes please, thank you, when?”.
Throw in a great venue – the imposing new Embassy of the United States of America in Nine Elms – well over 200 wines of distinction, or at least serious merit, and add a few of Napa’s great names, there in person to chat, and the invitation takes on a virtual gilt edge. What’s not to love?
Well… California is famous for its sunshine. London is not. And so it was that this exciting day began with a queue, in driving rain. Security is necessarily tight at this fortress of a building, complete with its own modern take on a moat, so I have never been happier to bump into the Wine Society buyer Sarah Knowles and her trusty brolly.
This was the second big tasting event of the season to boast a significant queue for entry; the California Wine Institute has set the bar high when it comes to bold, ambitious, ‘must do’ tastings and this was no exception. The event was divided into the much bigger ‘Collectible California’ upstairs, with the more exclusive ‘Covetable Napa’ – a smokin’ hot ticket – a floor below.
Overall, for those lucky enough to be invited to both, this was a brilliant opportunity to experience the often under-estimated breadth and diversity of California’s wine regions and also zoom in on 14 of Napa’s finest estates, each showing two wines, ten years apart.
With Westminster in turmoil just across the river and Sterling taking yet another battering, California’s wines have – mostly just through circumstance – become more expensive in recent times. Among those pouring wines was the President of Inglenook, Todd DeVincenzi, current chair of the international committee for Napa Valley Vintners. He acknowledged the Pound’s weakness, but insisted it didn’t seem to be impacting sales at the top end: “London is on fire for us”, he told me, “in 2017, the UK overtook Canada as our biggest export market and we have been growing further since.”
For ‘Covetable Napa’, DeVincenzi was offering the 2006 and 2016 vintages of its flagship Rubicon Bordeaux blend. Overseen by Chateau Margaux’s managing director Philippe Bascaules (“we get him six weeks a year”) its evolution in style was more significant than any of the other wines on show, with a reduction in alcohol and a more elegant focus. “Philippe sets the vision,” according to DeVincenzi, “but he didn’t just come to us and force a Bordeaux style. He said ‘we’ll do what works best’ and focused on the terroir.”
The wet weather wasn’t dampening the spirits of Harlan Estate’s director Don Weaver either: “we’re farmers, so rain doesn’t bother us,” he insisted, as he explained why London remains such an important place to be seen, whatever the weather: “I don’t have an opportunity to do things like this very often. Usually we’re in a sort of sales prevention mode, so it’s good to show up to say please and thank you. This city is like New York in terms of significance.”
With a total production of around 20,000 bottles, Harlan’s wines are famously devilishly difficult to find, so why stand pouring samples when he could just sell the lot directly, probably twice over, through a private client list?
“We could sell everything we have that way, but we want to be around for 200 years and to do that, you need firm foundations and an international standing. We set an ambitious target to be on great wine lists all over the world. We are not just a toy soldier collectors item. I have people who have bought our wine for a decade and never tasted it, so it’s really nice to have some wine open today.”
Weaver was offering the fantastic 2005 and 2015 vintages of its proprietary red, from the fabled hillside vineyard to the west of Oakville. “Generally there’s not that much vintage variation in Napa, but these wines come from two pretty different years with 05 a cooler year, our latest ever harvest, and 15 a warmer year,” he told me, “because ripeness comes so easily, our challenge is preserving freshness and tension in the wine. Dry farming and canopy management are key to that. I think we get a better maturity and lower alcohol with dry farming. Occasionally we have to give the vines a drink, but water shows the plants bad habits. Our drip irrigation is primarily used to give the vines organic teas.”
As to the future, Weaver had a few metaphorical drops of rain for the parade: “Climate change is for real, but it’s not working in quite the same way as Bordeaux. We are seeing more freak events. Everything is getting more extreme. It’s certainly a worry.”
The Top Wines from the ‘Covetable Napa’ selection:
Harlan Estate, 2005 (Imported by Thorman Hunt) With delicate violets, wild blackberries, blueberries, gentle spice, graphite and a note of forest floor, combined with an assured mineral streak, to deliver an outstanding wine that’s perfectly poised, offering freshly foraged fruit in a velvet glove.
Inglenook, Rubicon Red, 2016 (Negociant traded) with youthful joie de vivre from its bright fruit, this is ripe with cassis and black cherry. There’s incredible concentration here, but also real elegance with plush tannins and herbal, wild-fruited charm.
Scarecrow, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2005 (imported by James Hocking Wine), described by Robert Parker as one of the wines of the vintage, this is ageing with grace. Powerful blackberry, cassis, red liquorice and mushroom lead into a silky, intense, but never overbearing wine with smooth, mouth-coating tannins and precision through to the finish.
Corra, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2016 (imported by James Hocking Wine), the solo project from celebrated Napa consultant and Scarecrow winemaker, Celia Welch, this is a study in the art of balance. Bursting with black cherry, blueberry and foraged blackberry, there’s sweet spice and also a subtle savoury streak, with notes of black olive pissaladière. The structure suggests many years of cellar time lie ahead.
Favia, Cerro Sur, 2005 (imported by Four Corners Wine), from husband and wife duo Andy Erickson and Annie Favia, this includes some Cabernet Franc which subtly reveals itself with a beguiling earthiness on the nose, wild red berries, herbs and forest floor aromas. Intense, with rich sweet tannins and a long finish.
Tor Wines, Beckstoffer To Kalon, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2006 (Imported by Vineyard Cellars), named after a Napa legend, the vineyard owner Andy Beckstoffer, a complex nose of bright red fruit, black cherry, dried herbs, graphite and wood-smoked bacon lead into a wine of great concentration and purity.
Cardinale, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2005 (imported by Fells), this felt closest to First Growth Bordeaux in terms of nose, with layers of precise red cherries and berries, forest floor and hints of soft leather and mocha. Full-bodied, with a mountain-fruit purity and opulent tannin structure.
The Top Wines from the ‘Collectible California’ selection:
Storm Wines Syrah, Slide Hill Vineyard, Edna Valley, 2014 (imported by Tiger Vines, RRP £55), I was so happy to see these wines again, after meeting Ernst Storm at a California Wine Institute lunch earlier this year. Perfectly poised, with tantalising typicity, this offers dark cherry, wild herbs and cracked black pepper. A delicious demonstration of how Syrah shines in the right hands in the Edna Valley.
The Ojai Vineyard Syrah, John Sebastiano Special Bottling, 2015 (imported by Tiger Vines, RRP£60), a really unusual wine, with something of the souk about it. Sandalwood, rose harissa and toasted pepper complement the vibrant black fruit to deliver a Syrah of great elegance and finesse.
Williams Selyem, Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, 2014 (imported by Berkmann Wine Cellars, RRP £101), with a complex nose of rose petals, cinnamon, nutmeg and wild mushroom, the palate opens into bright red fruit and precise, polished tannins. Both fascinating and fabulous.
Au Bon Climat, “Isabelle” Blue Series Pinot Noir, 2015 (imported by Fields, Morris and Verdin), named after Jim Clendenen’s daughter, born in 1995, this top cuvée has bright red fruit, floral charm and a dusting of Provence herbs over a succulent mineral core.
Silenus, Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, Oak Knoll District Estate, 2015 (imported by James Hocking Wine, RRP £110), a feast of black and red fruit with an earthy but elegant charm. Rich layers of plush blackberry, blackcurrants and cinnamon spice combine with velvet tannins to deliver a hugely moreish wine.
Black Stallion Estate Winery, Limited Release Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, 2016 (imported by Bancroft Wines, RRP £90), ripe and generous with black fruit, coffee, dark chocolate and pencil lead, this has concentration but also restraint (for Napa) at 14.5% ABV. Delicious.
Louis M. Martini, Lot 1 Cabernet Sauvignon, 2014 (imported by E&J Gallo, RRP £140), powerful black fruit, graphite, mint chocolate, menthol and cedar aromas lead into a concentrated wine with intensity, depth and a velvety plushness. Deserves fillet steak.
St Supery Estate, Dollarhide Estate Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2014 (imported by Laytons Wine Merchants, RRP £90), showcasing the brilliant, bright berry fruit flavours that the Dollarhide delivers, this has a wild note, with a wonderful freshness, combined with depth and intensity. Even with a plummeting Pound, it’s actually a lot of wine for the money.
Ashes & Diamonds, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2015 (imported by Nekter Wines, RRP £145), something refreshingly different, a Napa Cab at 12.5% ABV! With lower extraction and less alcohol, this offers a delightful perfumed red fruit charm, vibrant acidity and a real sense of dialled back elegance. Less is definitely more, when it’s done well.
Paul Lato, “Le Souvenir” Chardonnay, 2016 (imported by Tiger Vines, RRP £85), another gem from Santa Barbara County, offering juicy grapefruit, white peach and lemon curd wrapped around a wet stone core, with well integrated oak adding sumptuous texture, there’s a yummy saline finish.
David Kermode is a consultant, writer and broadcaster on BBC radio, with his own website