Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

A tasting of California’s most famous Red

A tasting of eight of the best-ever vintages of Opus One, California’s most celebrated red wine, was recently hosted in London by the Masters of Wine. Including the 1979, the very first vintage, the eight wines were personally chosen by Michael Silacci, who has been in charge of wine-making since 2004.


The holder of a master’s degree in viticulture from the University of California, Davis, he has made wines in Oregon, France, and Chile; and closer to home was for six years wine-maker at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, also in California. He adopted his present career in 1978, when “I fell in love with wine and two-hour lunches!”


Opus One was jointly launched in the late 1970s by Philippe de Rothschild, proprietor of Mouton-Rothschild in Pauillac, and Robert Mondavi, pioneer wine maker in the Napa Valley. The two had known each other since 1970.


The first fruit of the project was the 1979 Opus One, which predictably attracted worldwide attention. Two years later a case of that vintage was sold at auction for US$ 24,000 – reportedly the highest price ever paid for a California wine. One can imagine that quite a bit of “promotion” preceded the sale – the current price for the wine is around $300 the bottle.

The Grand Chai - Opus One maturing in the wood.

Michael Silacci is an unassuming, scholarly-Iooking man with square shoulders (and jaw) and dark-rimmed spectacles. The estate’s main tenets are that “grape quality determines wine quality; and pruning determines grape quality”. (As Christian Moueix once said to me – about the ‘88 clarets – “you can’t make great wines without great grapes”).


Irrigation is allowed in California, where precipitation follows a different pattern from most of Europe. But there are different approaches to it. At Opus One, Mr Silacci says, they found that the vines’ roots could be made to go deeper by “increasing the intervals between irrigations and by increasing the volume of each irrigation”. This, he added, created a slight but beneficial degree of stress. It was also found that irrigation at night got better results, as the process was more effective at lower temperatures.


What emerged from Mr Silacci’s address is that every single aspect of viticulture and viniculture is monitored and analyzed from every conceivable angle, making full use of computer technology in all its many forms. But human ingenuity is not forgotten: staff are encouraged to become fully involved at every stage, suggesting possible improvements based on their own personal insights at vineroots level.


The tasting, which spanned four decades, showed that the wine was very good at the very outset but that the style has gradually changed, starting out as very Pauillac in approach (the early vintages could easily have been taken for Médocs if tasted blind) and growing increasingly Californian as the years rolled by. Alcohol levels showed a similar tendency. In the early years they hovered around a typically Médocain 12.5 – 12.9°, rose to 13.5° and above in the 1990s, and are now at between 14 and 15°. The smell and taste of the more modern vintages are also much more overtly new world.


Interestingly, the great Saint-Emilion property Château Ausone has gone through a similar evolution in terms of alcoholic strength but still smells and tastes like a claret.


The grape mix has also changed subtly over the years. In the very first vintage the wine is composed of 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Cabernet Franc, and 4% Merlot. In succeeding years the proportions of the three naturally varied, as each would inevitably perform differently in each and every vintage. However, a deliberate alteration was made over the decades, with some Malbec being used for the first time in 1994 and that most singular of red varieties, the Petit Verdot, coming into the picture in 1997, though that year’s wine only contained 1%. It has, however, edged up by an additional 1% every few years and ‘in both ‘05 and ‘06 stood at 3%. This may not seem much; but the Petit Verdot is a unique variety, of unparalleled concentration and intensity, and can be picked out in blind tastings when only at 1-3%. The Merlot has seldom gone above 6-7% – though many Médocs contain 20-40%: “I don’t really like the Merlot in the Napa Valley,” says Mr Silacci. However, it went up to 12% in 2006, when it performed exceptionally well.


Michael Silacci examines an old vine of the sort that imparts extra depth and complexity to Opus One wines.

One last word on alcohol levels. A senior member of the trade present at the tasting made the observation: “When I started my career wines with this sort of level” – he was referring to the more recent vintages, at 14.5 – 15° alcohol – “would not have qualified as table wines, they would have come into the fortified wine category.”


The point about alcohol is not just that it is alcoholic: it is also inherently sweet and viscous. A high level gives thicker wines : it is harder to discern the contours of a shapely human figure when it is dressed in a fur coat but easy to do so when clad in silk. It can be argued that high alcohol can mask a wine’s more complex qualities.


Mr Silacci asked the assembled tasters if they preferred to taste from the youngest to the oldest (the usual approach in Europe) or from the oldest to the youngest. He himself thought that the latter approach would be the more instructive, as we would get a clearer picture of the ageing process. We followed his advice.


OPUS ONE 1979 (magnum) *** 12.9° alcohol

This looks about its age (very little browning) while the aroma, not unlike that of a mature Haut-Brion, is balsamic and velvety, emitting swirling scents of chocolate, resin, and autumn berries. The flavour is soft and inviting, with oaky spice, and the longish, elegant finish turns faintly gritty. After a while in the glass it’s not unlike a light Mouton, though a little lacking in viscosity. Eucalyptus and tea show on the finish after an hour or so. An attractive, very natural wine that’s fully ready.


OPUS ONE 1987 (magnum) *** 12.5° alcohol

A bit darker, this has a vital, almost crunchy aroma of some depth, of plum jam, prunes, chocolate, and smoke. There’s soon a touch of fig too. The advanced ripeness of some of the grapes shows in a slightly farmyardy flavour, with some volatile acidity. The wine continues to expand, with the emergence of truffle, damson, and prune. The acidity abates somewhat on contact with the air. The tannins are still a bit on the rasping side and I again find a hint of tea on the finish. 4-5 years to peak.


OPUS ONE 1991 (magnum) **** 13.5° alcohol

The solid purple-black colour is in the Pauillac mode and the full, velvety aroma is vinous and restrained. The Cabernet Sauvignon”, at fully 93%, gives a homogeneous aroma of sweet autumn berries and violet. It’s a smell of old world subtlety. The flavour is balanced and incisive, of optimal intensity. There’s something tea-like on the aftertaste but this time more harmony. One of my favourites in the tasting, it still needs 6-8 years to peak.


OPUS ONE 1995 ***(*) 13.5°alcohol

Weightier and smokier than the ‘91, this has an aroma that welds damson jam, truffle, and roast chestnut into a harmonious whole. The fine, poised flavour is quite Graves-like and is balanced and persistent. The delicious aftertaste is also the fullest so far. The finish gives a stony impression and is a touch dry – I find myself wishing for more fatness, viscosity. Still needing time, it should be at best around 2017-22.


OPUS ONE 1997 *** 13.5° alcohol

Another dusky wine with a big soft aroma of plum jam, blackcurrant, and violet. It’s a lovely nose, very round, with a core of ripe sweet fruit. There’s a chalky hint too. The vinous flavour, all of a piece, is closed to start with but expands in contact with the air. After an hour or so it grows longer, more complex. A customary hint of tea (Assam) shows on the finish. This needs time: drink around 2018-26.


OPUS ONE 2001 *** 14.2° alcohol

The deep and lustrous colour gets its blackish tinge from the Cabernet Sauvignon, and the mingled aromas of cherry and black fruits are likewise typical of that variety. Noticeably more alcoholic, it also shows signs of toastier oak, which gives a hint of shoe polish. This is the most new world in style so far – high alcohol and emphatic flavours. But there’s also an echo of Latour at its most assertive on the forceful, very Cabernet flavour with its gritty, stony aftertaste. It does open somewhat in the glass but it’s no closer to maturity than a human of the same age. Drink around 2018-28.


Harvest scene at one of the Opus One vineyards.

OPUS ONE 2005 ***(*) 14° alcohol

This is the darkest so far, the first to be fully opaque. The nose of black cherry, chocolate, truffle, and smoke can only have come from the ripest of grapes and has a Pauillac-like weight and concentration. New aromas soon arrive: prune, cocoa, molasses. You can detect the special density of the Petit Verdot at the centre. The flowing, expressive flavour is delicious, conjuring up damson, truffle, and coffee-and-chicory. The aftertaste is firm, with wiry but ripe tannins. There’s less finesse than in older vintages but more flesh. You can feel a definite move away from Bordeaux and towards a more overtly Napa approach – dense, fat, full of personality. For long keeping.


OPUS ONE 2006 **** 14.4° alcohol

Just as black but more sumptuous on the nose, which is round, smoky; and crammed with fruit: damson jam, black fruits in general, leather, and eucalyptus. The flavour is emphatic, with what is probably a lighter-toasted oak producing a subtler impression. Oaky spice and coffee soon merge with a plethora of black fruits. A second sampling coaxes forth a delicious ripe-grape sweetness allied to a subtle spiciness, and the aftertaste turns towards raspberry and cinnamon. At present, the sheer power and volume of the wine masks its innate complexity, and it needs a good 7-8 years to round out before developing well for another decade at least.


© Frank Ward 2010

Photos : courtesy Opus One Winery, Napa Valley, USA.

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