Fri 15 Aug 2008
Forgive my play on words: The truth about truth. In truth, it’s a bold stroke to name a winery Vérité — “truth” — not only because of the reference to the familiar Latin tag In vino, veritas — “In wine, there is truth” — but because of its powerful implication: “This wine is the truth.”
Vérité, of course, is French, and the winery is, in a sense, an outpost of France, and Bordeaux specifically, in Sonoma County. Winemaker for Vérité is Pierre Seillan, who grew up on his family’s estate in Armagnac, worked in Saumur-Champigny in the Loire Valley and spent 20 years as technical director and winemaker for seven chateaux in various regions of Bordeaux. He came to California, as vigneron, that is, as vineyardist as well as winemaker, for Vérité in 1997.
The philosophy is simple: To use excellent grapes from small, climatically and geographically ideal vineyards to make red wines on the model of three of Bordeaux’s great red wine appellations: Pomerol, St. Emilion and Pauillac. Those areas correspond to the three labels that Vérité produces: La Muse (merlot-dominated Pomeral); Le Désir (merlot with more cabernet franc, as in St. Emilion); and La Joie (more cabernet sauvignon than merlot, as in Pauillac).
The wines receive the same oak treatment, 16 months in all new French barrels, and the alcohol levels stay consistently between 14 and 14.2 percent.
What you do not perceive in these classically structured and mainly reticent wines are toasty new oak, sweet alcohol, over-ripe jammy fruit, low acid and excessively velvety textures, the quintet of sins that permeate so many red wines made in California.
I tasted the Vérité wines from 2004 back to 2001 blind with a group of friends on a Sunday afternoon, people in wholesale and retail and fellow-blogger Benjamin Carter. I say “blind,” but of course I knew what the wines were; I told my friends only that they would be trying red wines. After the first flight, when I asked if anyone would hazard a guess as to the grapes or origins of the wines, all but one person said, “Cabernet and Bordeaux.” The dissenter, Angela Moon, who works in retail, said, “Cabernet, sure, but they’re California, in fact, I would say Sonoma.” I responded with a cool and measured “Interesting,” while the thought-cloud above my head said, “Holy shit, she’s good.”
We began with La Muse 2004 through 2001.
La Muse 2004. (Merlot 85.55%, cabernet franc 7.7%, cabernet sauvignon 4.1%, malbec 2.65%) Pungent bouquet, minerals, bittersweet chocolate, black raspberry, cedar and tobacco, touch of black olive and bell pepper. Awesome tone, structure and presence, a massive wine yet exquisitely balanced; the oak, tannin and acid feel as if they had been assembled and set in motion by the finest Swiss watchmakers. Wonderful purity and intensity of black fruit, etched with a keen and formidable line of iron that penetrates the long, cool, slightly austere finish. 759 cases. Best from 2009 through 2016 to ’20. Excellent.
La Muse 2003. (Merlot 84%, cabernet franc 10%, cabernet sauvignon 5%, malbec 1%) More tannins here, at least more in evidence, an earthier and more minerally wine than La Muse ’04; Very solid, very dense and chewy, packed with spice, grainy tannins and polished oak, quite dry and austere; all about structure. 884 cases. Try from 2010 to 2015 to ’20. Very good+ with a “patience required” attached.
La Muse 2002. (Merlot 92.5%, cabernet franc 7.2%, malbec 0.3%) Rates a “wow” right off. Big, embracing, ripe and roasted, meaty and fleshy, smoke, minerals. Spiced and macerated black currant and black cherry flavors are permeated by cedar and black olive. The bouquet keeps coming at you, while in the mouth the wine delivers huge, almost gritty tannins and a whole roster of earthy minerals. Tremendous vibrancy and resonance. 1,485 cases. Drink now through 2012 to ’17. Excellent.
La Muse 2001. (Merlot 87%, cabernet franc 12%, malbec 1%) A wine of paradox; cool, sweet, ripe and engaging on one hand; huge, earthy, close to rustic, almost a flurry of raw power on the other hand. And somehow these forces do not contend but are inextricably balanced in a gratifying display of dynamism married to elegance. Allow this a few minutes in the glass (or decant it) and give it a chance to harmonize. 1,252 cases. Drink now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent.
Remember that Désir, with its increase in percentage of cabernet franc, is Seillan’s emulation of the wines of St.-Emilion.
Le Désir 2004. (Merlot 49.2%, cabernet franc 46.9%, cabernet sauvignon 3.8%, malbec 0.1%) The first impression is of oak, then a sense that the wine is burly and beefy, ripe and fleshy; elements of wheatmeal, dried porcini and brambles brood in the mid-range over a background of iron-like tannins. This is, on my palate, a tough customer that needs five or six years to soften and then should drink well through 2018 to ’20. Production was 791 cases. Very good+ with the potential to reach an Excellent rating.
Le Désir 2003. (Merlot 44%, cabernet franc 41%, cabernet sauvignon 11%, malbec 4%) This was one of my favorite wines of the tasting. Ripe and fleshy black currant and black cherry scents can scarcely contain their complement of potpourri, sandalwood and that touch of snappy clean linen that only the most classic wines of St.-Emilion reveal. The wine is remarkably intense and concentrated, pent with energy waiting to unfurl itself, though for the present its weight of oak and tannin produces a very dry austere finish. 1,538 cases. Great potential from 2010 or ’11 through 2018 to ’21. Excellent.
Le Désir 2002. (Merlot 52.7%, cabernet franc 41.2%, cabernet sauvignon 5.1%, malbec 1%) Another classic wine, deep and resonant and vibrant, so clean, pure and intense that it feels alive in the glass. Fruit consists of vivid black currant and black cherry permeated by black olive and bell pepper and a touch of cedar, while tannin asserts itself in elements of beetroot, wheatmeal, dried porcini and minerals. 1,001 cases. A great wine for drinking now (with a steak) through 2016 to ’20. Excellent.
Le Désir 2001. (Merlot 48%, cabernet franc 42%, cabernet sauvignon 10%) An amazing wine! Cool, minerally, suave and elegant, all the elements in place and perfectly balanced, even poised; a black panther of a wine, deep, dense, muscular and supple; awesome purity and intensity of black fruit flavors, acid, oak and tannin, and then on the finish, a whiff of lilac. The wine gets more exotic in the glass, spicier, a little racier, opening to seductive possibilities. Tremendous presence and character. 1,458 cases. Drink now through 2016 to ’21. Exceptional.
The Joie wines, modeled on the wines of Pauillac, were uniformly tight and closed, intense and concentrated, requiring considerable coaxing to reveal their other virtues.
La Joie 2004. (Cabernet sauvignon 65.65%, merlot 19.65%, cabernet franc 9.8%, petit verdot 4.9) Well, 2004 is a slight exception to that statement, because it opened with a cloud of warm, ripe, spicy black fruit scents, but the wine’s raison d’etre is structure with all the attendant and classic features that derive from fruit intensity, oak, tannin and acid: dusty cedar, wheatmeal, dried porcini, underbrush, minerals, yet accompanied by liveliness and resonance, by a sort of animal presence of brooding hibernation. 764 cases. This needs until 2010 or ’12 and then should drink splendidly through 2020 or ’24. Excellent.
La Joie 2003. Cabernet sauvignon 72%, merlot 19%, cabernet franc 5%, petit verdot 4%) Really big, really concentrated, really dry and austere; swingeing tannins and burnished oak, but it has a core of dried black fruit, dried spices, cedar, potpourri and, cast overall, an iron grip of minerals. 1,696 cases. I wouldn’t touch this until 2010 or ’12, and then consume through 2018 or ’20. Excellent potential.
La Joie 2002. (Cabernet sauvignon 64.2%, merlot 28.5%, cabernet franc 7%, malbec 0.3%) Of these four Joie wines, the 2002 is the most intense, the most concentrated, the most massive, the most tannic and severe. One feels oneself in the presence of a stern taskmaster. Take a long “wait-and-see” attitude for this example, as in 2012 to 2020. Very good+ for now. 1,883 cases.
La Joie 2001. (Cabernet sauvignon 71%, merlot 19%, cabernet franc 10%) La Joie 2001 is a modicum less aggressively structured than its cousin of 2002; in fact, its emphasis on sleek muscularity and litheness, its total lack of waste and its frankly fabulous tone might remind you of the person at the gym whose body you envy most, the person who is serious and mysterious and doesn’t talk to anyone. This is a wine that is complete in every sense except one: approachability. Give it until 2011 and then drink through 2019 to ’21. Excellent potential. 1,889 cases.
It should be pretty evident that I consider these Vérité wines to be, indeed, expressions of truth about the grapes from which they were made and of the types of wines they embody. The colleagues with whom I tasted these wines were not as impressed as I was and consistently scored lower than I did. Of course I alone knew what the wines were, a fact that illustrates one of the disadvantages of a blind tasting at which all but one of the participants is “blind.” It’s a familiar syndrome: If you score high and the wines turn out to be clunkers, you’re a wuss; if you score low and the wines turn out to be great, well, you’re a gimlet-eyed, skeptical hardnose, and who wouldn’t want to be one of those?
Now to the matter upon which we have not touched.
At the conclusion of the tasting, when I informed my colleagues that we had just worked out way through $2,400-worth of wine — that’s right, $200 a bottle — there was a rolling of eyes so strenuous that you could hear the tendons snapping. Said my friends in wholesale and retail: “I could never sell these wines.” “No way.” “Forget it.”
Well, as with all of life’s consumer products, you pays yer money and you takes yer choice. Disagreeing humbly but unswervingly with my fellow tasters, I think the Vérité wines are magnificent, stupendous achievements, worthy of celebration and awed imbibing, at least for those who can afford them.
Oh, one more point. Neither in the detailed, informative technical material that I received from Vérité — all beautifully designed and printed on fine paper — nor on the winery’s handsome website is it mentioned that Vérité is one of the boutique properties, a pet project, of Jackson Family Wines, owned by Jess Jackson of Kendall-Jackson fame.