To celebrate 50 years of Napa Valley producer Trefethen Family Vineyards, Janet and Lorenzo Trefethen decided to put on a retrospective tasting in London showing predominantly Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon from their first ever vintages until the present day. Chris Wilson was at the tasting and was bowled over by how important personal relationships are when it comes to ‘selling’ wine in all its different ‘guises.
In addition to Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, Wilson was treated to two very special Rieslings, the first of which was like hearing The Clash’s ‘Janie Jones’ on vinyl for the very first time.
People buy wine from people. Never has this idiom rang truer than when walking out of last week’s stupidly good retrospective tasting to celebrate 50 years of Napa Valley producer Trefethen Family Vineyards.
The clue’s in the name… family. This is a special kind of wine business, one that should be celebrated not just in half-century years such as this and not just because of the brilliant wines, but just as much for the brilliant people behind them, and the stories they tell. It’s these stories and these people that have put Trefethen on the map over the past 50 years and helped to sell all that wine.
If someone can make you laugh and smile while giving you a history of their wine business then they are on to something. Janet Trefethen and her son Lorenzo are raconteurs of the highest order, the tales they tell of Trefethen – how it came to be, the hard times, winning international wine competitions they didn’t even know they’d entered, running out of wine, being unexpectedly listed on the QEII – are all shot through with humour and humility, and a twinkle in the eye.
The mother-son relationship on show during the tasting made everyone feel comfortable, feel at home, feel that they wanted to love the wines from this famous, but by no means gigantic, Napa producer. To be frank the wines didn’t need talking up, and they weren’t, they were explained and the stories of their history were told then they were left to speak for themselves, and they all rose to the occasion.
All Trefethen wines are estate grown and they concentrate on two key varieties (Chardonnay and Cabernet) but within their numerous plots there is plenty of experimentation too, as well as other varieties, such as Riesling and Petit Verdot.
In the States their wines are very much an on-trade thing. “We sell more wine in restaurants than we do in retail stores,” says Lorenzo, and it’s this market that seems a perfect fit for Trefethen in the UK too… these are wines with heritage and clout that speak not only of the Oak Knoll ward of Napa where they are from but also of the family behind them. There’s a story in every sip.
The tasting comprised six Chardonnays and six Cabernets, going back to 1976 and 1975 respectively, but was opened with two Rieslings, the first from the late 1980s.
As opening statements go this is up there with ‘Janie Jones’ by The Clash from The Clash or ‘Welcome To The Jungle’ by Guns N’ Roses from Appetite For Destruction, it’s truly epic and the perfect start to sublime tasting. Pulling a 30-year-old Riesling from the vaults to kick off certainly gets everyone’s attention, and the wine doesn’t disappoint.
As you’d expect it has a golden, Ibizan sunset hue and despite such a long time in bottle it remains so bright. The nose is of toffee, lychee and set honey while in the mouth it’s supple and lively with lilies, nectarines, beeswax and tropical fruit. So light-footed, pure and incredibly long.
Trefethen Dry Riesling 2017
The reason Trefethen names its Riesling ‘Dry’, explains Janet, is because when they started growing and making Riesling the style in Napa Valley was for sweeter wines, many labelled Johannisberg Riesling. Theirs was dry so they wanted to make that a point of difference on the label and first experimented with ‘White Riesling’ as on the 1988 before opting for ‘dry’ to be less ambiguous.
As you would expect this is a real contrast to the 1988, but has a similar freshness and verve. There’s a punchy lime acidity as well as tropical and mineral characters. Vigorous and defined this will live on for a long time, maybe another 29 years…?
After the two Rieslings, we tasted a flight of Chardonnays from 1976 to the current 2016 vintage. There’s a real difference in character between the wines, but the style and providence is undeniable, these wines all share a common DNA.
With numerous plots of Chardonnay vines to choose from, the wines here are essentially multiple-plot blends. “All the Chardonnays are ‘blends’,” confirms Janet. “The different lots express themselves differently each year.”
The 1976 has a gorgeous nose of treacle and ripe melon that’s almost enough on its own to satisfy. In the mouth it certainly satisfies; it’s smooth, rich and dense with stone fruit and a salty crackle. Still so playful on the palate after 42 years with a cheeky and alluring sweetness that’s foiled by a savoury finish of Marmite and toast and lingering acidity.
Trefethen Chardonnay 1988
This is from the same year as the first Riesling but very different in colour, less golden, more deep yellow. It’s incredibly developed and tangy with red apple and guava fruit and a smidgen of apple blossom. The acidity is bold and crisp.
Trefethen Chardonnay 1994
An oxidised nose is offset by caramel and burnt pineapple. On the palate there’s bruised apple and a noticeable sherry character as well as a spicy kick on the back of the throat. This is big and muscular but still refined.
Trefethen Chardonnay 2005
The 2005 is big on flavour from the off, which chimes with the trend and mentality at the time for more oak and MLF characters in the wine. While the Trefethens have always ploughed their own furrow, they did concede that during the mid-00s the Chardonnay in particular was experimented with a little to promote this style of flavour. The nose is developed with straw and nectarine characters and there’s a keen lime acidity on the palate as well as pineapple and more straw. The finish is clean with the wine drifting off gracefully.
Trefethen Chardonnay 2011
Clearly a younger wine, the nose is green and vegetal before the wine opens up in the mouth to ripe stone fruit and herby characters. It’s round and lush with a waxiness and honeyed sweetness on the long, smooth finish.
Trefethen Chardonnay 2016
A fleshy nose gives way to tropical fruit, tinned mandarins and a delicious sweetness of fruit. There’s a dash of creaminess too, which also has sweetness to it like condensed milk. This is a very considered, beautifully textured wine that will age just as well as some of the older Chardonnays tasted.
Trefethen Cabernet Sauvignon 1975
The oldest wine on show at the tasting still has it where it counts and was a pleasure to taste. Some 41 years ago this blend of 75% Cabernet and 25% Merlot (the lowest percentage of Cabernet in any red wine we tasted) was produced following one of Napa’s coolest growing seasons on record. It has a flinty, savoury nose that’s fully developed. On the palate there are dusty tannins which play harmoniously with the dried raspberry, prune and violet characters. There’s liquorice and black olive on the finish to round things off nicely.
Trefethen Cabernet Sauvignon 1986
Rounded, with wet stone, Alpine meltwater and black cherry on the nose. Has a serious savoury note of Vegemite in the mouth as well as juicy cherries, raspberry and black pepper. Super integration and length.
Trefethen Cabernet Sauvignon 1999
Let’s party like it’s 1999, and I’d be happy to attend any party where this is being poured. Of the Cabernets tasted so far this is where you can taste and feel the balance starting to favour fruit over tertiary characters. It’s developed, but bright and punchy with redcurrant and blackberry fruit and a lovely lick of mint.
Trefethen Cabernet Sauvignon 2006
Seven years on from the 1999 and this is riper and juicer still with warming red and black fruit. Its freshness is juxtaposed by an earthy, savoury (mushroom) character and a hint of green pepper spice. Rich, refined and rewarding.
Trefethen Cabernet Sauvignon 2011
This is herby with prominent eucalyptus characters and a punch of blackcurrant and black cherry fruit. There are some woody and developed notes too of leather and black olive. Round, bold and succulent.
Trefethen Cabernet Sauvignon 2015
Wow. A big splash of ripe upfront that’s ripe and sweet; blackcurrant and juicy red cherry. It’s silky with hints of cherryade and soft tannins showing on the finish. Still just a baby (drinking this is like ‘robbing the cradle’, remarks Lorenzo) but has what it needs to grow and grow.
It was lovely to meet you in London, Chris. So glad to hear you enjoyed our stories and that the wines really spoke to you. I’m so grateful that Mom and Dad had the foresight to keep a few cases held back – I know they’re just thrilled to be able to share our history in such a delicious fashion.
Please don’t hesitate to reach out during your next trip to Napa – we’ll turn on The Clash and enjoy some more Riesling!