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Vertical Tasting of Arietta Red Wine H Block Hudson Vineyards Napa Valley

Stephen Tanzer - International Wine Cellar
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June 2011

The finest California red wines undergo a graceful evolution in bottle much like the best ageworthy reds from France and Italy do, gaining in aromatic complexity, depth, texture and harmoniousness over a period of years. While they often go through this process faster than the best clarets, Burgundies, Northern Rhone wines, Barolos, Barbarescos and Brunellos do, some California wines can evolve at an even slower pace. It's the journey that counts, not how long it takes, and I've learned from painful experience that one cannot take this “classic” aging curve for granted.

In the ‘60s and ‘70s, too many California wines from Bordeaux varieties went into bottle stunted, and although many of these wines are alive decades later, they never improved with bottle age or became fun to drink. Whether because they were picked underripe with very low pHs, or excessively acidified, or not racked frequently enough during their Úlevage, they never really blossomed in the cellar. And frequently their greenness only became more apparent with time in bottle.

Since the mid-‘90s, many big cabernet-based California reds have been made from raisined fruit with freakishly elevated potential alcohol levels, dangerously high pHs and, in some cases, residual sugar. While these wines can be impressive upon release, this is not the best formula for making wines that will age gracefully, no matter what some critics maintain.

All this is preamble to my notes on a wine that has established a track record for evolving with charm and style: the Arietta Red Wine H Block Hudson Vineyards Napa Valley. At a vertical tasting held in New York City in early May, fully half of the vintages we tasted (and we went back to the first one) were utterly splendid, and there wasn’t a weak wine in the bunch. The H Block has never been a true cult wine, but happy owners of this wine know that it gives great pleasure virtually from day one and gains in richness, complexity and suavity with 8 to 10 years of bottle aging. In recent vintages, the wine has been priced at $150.

Arietta was established in 1996 as a 50/50 venture between rare wine specialist and wine auctioneer Fritz Hatton, and winemaker John Kongsgaard, who had made wine at Newton Vineyards from 1983 through 1995, working closely with superconsultant Michel Rolland through most of that period. In ‘96, Kongsgaard asked Lee Hudson if he could buy the H Block cabernet franc, from the last Carneros vineyard in Napa Valley against the Sonoma line. The fruit from this 2.3-acre parcel had previously been a blending component in the Newton program, but Kongsgaard thought it was of high enough quality to serve as the foundation for a new wine. The vineyard enjoys a warm southwest exposure and is one of the rare places in Carneros with volcanic ash in the soil (it’s actually a foothill of Mount Veeder). Kongsgaard chose to blend in some merlot from the Hudson N Block, just a couple hundred yards to the south, planted on moister clay soil at lower altitude and subject to more fog and cooled by ocean breezes in the afternoon. Through the years, the wine has typically been about 60% cabernet franc and 40% merlot (not unlike Cheval Blanc), with some notable exceptions.

Kongsgaard, who also began his own eponymous label on a small scale in 1996, picks late for ideal ripeness (the finished wines are consistently between 14% and 15% alcohol) but is less obsessed with selection of fruit at harvest time. “Sorting has become too much of a fetish in Napa Valley,” he told me. “If you farm the vines properly it should not be necessary.” Kongsgaard does what he describes as “a radical deleafing” on the morning side of the vines right after fruit set, which he says gets the grapes accustomed to morning light and ultimately toughens their skins. At the veraison, he eliminates the less-ripe bunches to narrow the range of ripeness. And the day before the harvest he removes all the leaves in the fruit zone, tossing out the bad clusters in the process. The objective of this step is to keep the dry, crumbling leaves out of the lug box, so that the wines don’t pick up dusty, high-tannin, tea-like flavors. Essentially, what comes into the winery has already been pre-sorted.

Kongsgaard is a minimal-intervention winemaker, vinifying at cool temperatures with indigenous yeasts. “Even with the nearly perfect 1997 fruit, we kept the fermentation temperature to 85 degrees,” he said. “We don’t like to go up into the 90s. The wines are racked frequently, on close to a Bordeaux schedule, aged in all new oak, and bottled without fining or filtration the second June or July after the harvest.

Kongsgaard, who was also a partner in the Luna venture and made the wines there from 1996 through 2000, had a clause in his contract that allowed him to make the Arietta wines as well as his own label in the Luna winery through 2000. Since 2001 the Arietta wines have been made at Chateau Boswell.

After purchasing a large property and beginning to build a winery on Atlas Peak, Kongsgaard sold his share of Arietta back to Hatton in 2005, though he stayed on for a while as a consultant. The talented Andy Erickson, who is also responsible for making Screaming Eagle, Ovid and Dalla Valle, and served as Kongsgaard’s assistant for several years at Newton, officially took over as Arietta’s winemaker with the 2006 vintage. Thus far he has stuck with a formula that works, although he has slightly reduced the percentage of new oak used in a couple recent vintages.

I should note that this was a true vertical tasting in that all the wines came from the same vineyards. And the vertical tasting featured every vintage of this wine released to date, including the lesser vintages. I doubt that even a Bordeaux first growth could match this wine for consistency over a 12-year period, even though Bordeaux’s top wines have been on a roll in recent years.

2008 Arietta H Block Hudson Vineyards Red Wine Napa Valley, 93 points
(the only one of these wines that’s 100% cabernet franc, owing to the high quality of the franc and to severe frost damage to the merlot in 2008): Deep, bright ruby-red. Vibrant but tight nose offers medicinal blackberry, black cherry, minerals and violet, along with a high-pitched minty note. Juicy and energetic, with excellent cut and precision to the dark fruit and chocolate flavors. A distinctly firm style of this wine: I miss the mid-palate pliancy and plumminess that’s normally contributed by the merlot.

2007 Arietta H Block Hudson Vineyards Red Wine Napa Valley, 94 points
(55% cabernet franc, 45% merlot): Bright medium ruby. Expressive, very ripe aromas of black raspberry and smoke. Rich, broad and fat with fruit; compellingly thick and deep in the style of the vintage but with its ultimate character still hidden behind baby fat. Quite dense and fine-grained wine with enough juiciness and sweet tannins to give it the guts to age. This very nicely balanced blend is most impressive today on the long, building, thick finish.

2006 Arietta H Block Hudson Vineyards Red Wine Napa Valley, 93(+?) points
(a 60/40 blend of cabernet franc and merlot): Bright full ruby-red. Brooding aromas of black cherry, licorice and bitter chocolate, complicated by graphite minerality and black olive. Lusher in texture than the nose suggests but also vinous and precise, with dark fruit, coffee and espresso notes that reminded me a bit of St. Emilion. The substantial dusty, building tannins avoid coming off as dry; in fact, they’re quite plush even if this wine still calls for at least three or four more years in the cellar. Very 2006 in style.

2005 Arietta H Block Hudson Vineyards Red Wine Napa Valley, 94 (+?) points
(80% cabernet franc and 20% merlot): Bright medium ruby. Wonderfully minerally, complex aromas and flavors of black raspberry, violet, graphite, mocha and truffle. Then plush, dense and smooth but very young, even a bit ungiving, in the mouth, with terrific intensity and energy promising a very slow evolution in bottle. This has the firm tannin/acid spine of a great Brunello. Still a baby.

2004 Arietta H Block Hudson Vineyards Red Wine Napa Valley, 90 (+?) points
(a 60/40 blend of cabernet franc and merlot): Medium ruby-red. More balsamic and less primary on the nose than the 2005, offering an essence of currant and smoky earth and a whiff of cabernet franc leafiness. Slightly edgy acidity and serious, somewhat drying tannins suppress the wine’s underlying sweetness of fruit today, making it tough going. This very backward wine is ultimately dominated by its broad, powerful tannins.

2003 Arietta H Block Hudson Vineyards Red Wine Napa Valley, 92 points
(a 60/40 blend of cabernet franc and merlot): Good full ruby-red. Sweet aromas of balsamic plum, currant, mocha and licorice; I would have picked this as a Right Bank wine. Broad, plush and sweet, but with nothing cooked about it. A lightly herbal quality and some slightly edgy acidity contribute to an impression of vinosity. Finishes with firm but nicely supported tannins and sneaky persistence. This kind of wine is often overlooked in a vertical tasting, but this is very good.

2002 Arietta H Block Hudson Vineyards Red Wine Napa Valley, 96 points
(a 60/40 blend of cabernet franc and merlot): Full ruby-red. Very pure aromas of black raspberry, blueberry, licorice, violet and graphite. Plush and sweet but with real energy and inner-mouth floral lift. Wonderfully youthful and consistent from start to finish. This boasts fruit of steel, and the powerful tannic spine for a long and graceful evolution in bottle. Utterly palate-saturating on the aftertaste.

2001 Arietta H Block Hudson Vineyards Red Wine Napa Valley, 94 (+?) points
(40% cabernet franc and 60% merlot): Deep ruby-red. Aromas of plum, currant, black raspberry, cedar, graphite and licorice; as Cheval-Blanc like on the nose as any wine in the range. Then vinous and claret-like on the palate, showing less obvious sweetness than the 2002 but terrific grip. Not at all a plush style but superb structure and a firm spine of acidity give it great penetration. This very tight wine still needs at least a few years of patience and should prove to be among the longest-lived vintages of this bottling to date.

2000 Arietta H Block Hudson Vineyards Red Wine Napa Valley, 90 points
(a 50/50 blend of cabernet franc and merlot): Moderately saturated ruby-red. Wild aromas of game, espresso, tobacco leaf and five-spice powder. Pliant in the mouth but not as expansive or deep as the riper vintages, displaying modest sweetness and finishing with slightly drying tannins. Still very well made and appealing, but this somewhat chunky wine probably will not improve.

1999 Arietta H Block Hudson Vineyards Red Wine Napa Valley, 94(+?) points
(a 60/40 blend of cabernet franc and merlot): Good full ruby-red. Captivating, expressive, vibrant aromas of plum, graphite and leather. At once lush and penetrating, with excellent inner-mouth energy and a very fine-grained texture. This powerfully structured wine seems still to be evolving in a positive way. Finishes very long, with superb firm tannins and building intensity. Very Right Bank in style, showing the energy of this late, cool year.

1998 Arietta H Block Hudson Vineyards Red Wine Napa Valley, 89 points
(a 60/40 blend of cabernet franc and merlot): Medium red-ruby. Plum, maple syrup and a whiff of leather on the rather subdued nose, with just a trace of incipient maderization. A juicy, attractively sweet midweight that avoids the greenness that plagues most North Coast reds in 1998 yet shows the difficult vintage in its rather narrow shape. I’d drink up in the next year or two.

1997 Arietta H Block Hudson Vineyards Red Wine Napa Valley, 95 points
(81% cabernet franc and 19% merlot): Medium red-ruby; still bright. Explosive, lively aromas of raspberry and redcurrant lifted by a floral element; impressively fruit-driven for a 14-year-old red. Then wonderfully sweet and seamless on the palate, boasting outstanding breadth and vinosity. There’s some leathery funk here, as there is in the ‘96, ‘98, ‘99, and ‘00 (all these vintages were made at Luna), but here it’s just another element of a very complex wine. Finishes with superb length and uncommon structure for the year.

1996 Arietta H Block Hudson Vineyards Red Wine Napa Valley, 88 points
(a 65/35 blend of cabernet franc and merlot): Full red-ruby. Plum, currant and a whiff of herbs on the rather subdued nose. The first of these vintages that’s past its plane of peak drinkability, and the most herbal of all these bottlings. There’s a hint of plummy sweetness here, and very good vinosity, but the leathery finish betrays a slight dryness.