Araujo and Opus One
Monday, 25 November 2013 by Sam Browett
One of the perks of having connections with the wine trade is that it’s generally not hard for me to sort out a vineyard tour. Fresh from my stint at Domaine de Chevalier, I decided that my current trip around the States would be lacking without a quick trip to Napa to sample some of the Valley’s most celebrated wine. I was even able to stick to my Bordeaux roots, securing tours at Araujo Estate (recently acquired by François Pinault of Chateau Latour) and Opus One (co-founded in 1980 by Baron Philippe of Mouton Rothschild). The issue with going the “don’t you know who I am?” route though is that the wineries did know who I was, so I couldn’t use my thus far successful alter ego of Julian from Dulwich to convince them I was 21. At the tender age of 18, it is illegal for me to drink alcohol in the state of California and so as not to implicate the wineries in the serving of a minor, let me make it clear that any tasting notes in this blog are merely wild suppositions on my part on what I imagine the wine would taste like, however specific and empirical they seem.
After a tortuous trip of 5 hours door to door on the confusing and limited Northern Californian public transport system, I arrived from San Francisco at Araujo Estate. There’s something of a rustic, bucolic charm to the vineyard; the amber glow of the autumn leaves complement perfectly the quaint, log cabin-style winery. Meanwhile, the sublime mountain backdrop and cobbly soil give some indication of how this wine has become lauded as a much more refined take on the traditional Californian style. Araujo’s soil is very rich in minerals whilst also providing excellent drainage to the vines. The temperatures can reach 37 degrees celsius or so in the day but then can plummet to around 10 degrees as the sun goes down, which I’m told provides the grapes with a more moderate climate overall. The Cabernet Sauvignon vines seem to get most of this full-on daytime heat whilst the white grapes are in a much shadier area of the vineyard. The white grapes grown at Araujo are Sauvignon blanc, Sauvignon musqué and a small amount of Viognier (usually only used in co-fermentation with the small amount of Syrah that Araujo also grows but occasionally made into its own wine when yields are higher).
Inside the winery is just as pleasing to the eye: modern yet not over the top. The barrels are kept in a beautiful cave dug out into the hillside. Previously cooled completely naturally, a recent rise in temperature led to a subtle cooling system being introduced. The vineyard was certified as biodynamic in 2005 and they seem keen to remain authentic and natural in their production of wine while still being progressive when necessary. After a quick tour, there were some glasses of Araujo wine waiting in the tasting room. The first was the estate’s second wine, “Altagracia” (2010), a solid Bordeaux-style blend that I thought did a somewhat convincing job of emulating a Bordeaux table wine, at least in light of its 14.8% abv. The next wine was the famous Eisele Cabernet Sauvignon (2010). At its fairly high market-value I was expecting to be impressed and indeed I was.
Beautifully structured with hills of rich fruit and valleys of dark chocolate and espresso, its rich flavour and distinctive mouthfeel provided an immersive experience. Having never had a white wine from America before, I didn’t know what to expect with the Sauvignon blanc (2010). The wine is 64% Sauvignon musqué, a spicier and less crisp clone of Sauvignon blanc. The result is a wine that is certainly flabbier than any Sauvignon blanc wine I’ve tasted but with an interesting spiciness and notes of pear and peach. Certainly not for everyone but I did find myself enjoying it, perhaps because it reminded me a little of the 70% Semillon Clos de Lune wine I had been drinking at Domaine de Chevalier.
Opus One proved a stark contrast to Araujo. The winery is incredible aesthetically, both inside and outside but this time in a more flamboyant manner. As you approach the building you are met with classical violin emanating from speakers hidden in rocks. Having checked in at the marbled reception area, one sits in a drawing room of sorts and is given a monologue on the history and inception of the vineyard. Everything is very state-of-the-art at Opus. There are water lines running along the vines so new vines can get more water than others as well as a complex draining system as they feel it is important to starve the active vines of water to increase the skin to flesh ratio of their grapes. They’ve also traded in their secondary sorting line for a new machine that takes high definition video footage of the grapes and then uses air jets to remove unwanted ones. For some reason this invoked in me a kind of “in my day…” nostalgic reaction as if it was bastardising a bastion of traditional winemaking, but I think I was really just annoyed that the tedium of grape-sorting could have been avoided while I was at Chevalier.
The tasting room is located in the stunning cellar underneath the winery. Opus uses only new oak imported from France on which they spend 1 million dollars each year. The only wine on offer was their first wine “Opus One” from 2010. At $235 dollars per bottle from their store, I was expecting good things. The wine is indeed excellent; it seemed incredibly open with a really amazing structure. The fruit was rich but not too jammy and there were some amazing spicy undertones of cigar box and mocha. Approachable now, but I would love to see how it’s tasting in 5-10 years. I'd actually be allowed to drink it in California then.
Both vineyards seem like they’re running very tight ships with great end products. Whilst a little different in style to Bordeaux wines, they can certainly contend in terms of quality, and Napa’s last few vintages have been fantastic as opposed to Bordeaux’s recent run of climatic misfortune. I certainly feel lucky to have been able to take in yet another example of high-quality winemaking and meet the friendly and driven people of Araujo and Opus One.