Tue 9 Feb 2010
Remember, Readers, that this series is devoted to recent releases from classic California wineries founded in 1980 or before.
The story has been told and written many times — I heard it first from Portet at the Napa Valley Wine Auction in 1987 — of how Bernard Portet was looking for appropriate sites in Napa for growing Bordeaux red grapes, and as he was driving along the Silverado Trail in 1970 he felt a cool breeze wafting through a cut in the landscape, and he knew that he had found a microclimate that was tempered by a flow of air from the Pacific. That site is where he and John Goelet founded Clos du Val in 1972. Portet’s roots in Bordeaux go deep; he was born there, and his father was the regisseur, the technical director, at Chateau Lafite-Rothschild. Portet is now vice chairman of Clos du Val; John Clews is winemaker and chief operating officer.
Clos du Val’s red wines, which include cabernet sauvignon, merlot and pinot noir (from Carneros), are often condemned in the press with the faint praise of being “elegant.” To which I reply, “Thank goodness.” After tasting some of Napa’s high-alcohol, over-ripe, over-oaked, unbalanced cabernets, one turns to Clos du Val’s consistent harmony and elegance for relief and gratification. Not that the wines don’t display depth and complexity.
The Clos du Val Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Napa Valley, a blend of 85 percent cabernet sauvignon, 6 percent cabernet franc, 5 percent merlot and 4 percent petit verdot, offers heady ripeness and succulence leavened by grainy tannins, elements of briers and brambles and walnut shell, by cedar with a touch of bell pepper and dried sage, by a dusty-gravelly factor that’s almost ecclesiastical in effect. Fruit? Yes, in the form of black and red currants and black cherry with undertones of dried currants. The wine spent 17 months in French oak, 25 percent new barrels, so there’s no taint of toasty wood or vanilla, just a smooth, supple texture and subtle spice. With its vibrant acidity (and reasonable alcohol content of 13.5 percent), this wine cut through the fat of a seared and roasted magret of duck with a mustard-tapenade glaze. I would far rather drink this wine than any of the cult Napa Cabernets that sell for three or four times as much. Drink from now or 2011 through 2015 to ’17. Excellent. About $35.
Whence and whither Clos du Bois?
Founded in 1974 by Frank Woods, Clos du Bois Winery has been a perennial underachiever at the level of its prestige proprietary red wines Briarcrest and Marlstone. The greatest period for Marlstone — the wine under consideration today — was the mid-1980s, though I also liked the 1990 and ’91.
Woods sold Clos du Bois in 1988, and the winery entered the portfolio of The Wine Alliance, a subsidiary of Hiram Walker. The other properties owned by The Wine Alliance were William Hill, Atlas Peak and Callaway. Wine Alliance became Allied Domecq in 1998 and then Beam Wine Estates, a division of Fortune Brands, in 2006. Fortune Brands was swept up by Constellation Wine U.S. in November 2007. Clos du Bois produces wine in three categories; the “Classics,” an inexpensive line often seen in restaurants, carry a Sonoma County designation; Sonoma Reserve wines are from Russian River Valley, Alexander Valley and Dry Creek Valley; and, at the flagship level, the proprietary Briarcrest and Marlstone and the Calcaire chardonnay. Winemaker is Erik Olsen.
Clos du Bois Marlstone 2005, Alexander Valley, a blend of 89 percent cabernet sauvignon, 5 percent malbec and 3 percent each cabernet franc and merlot, aged 18 months in French oak barrels, 87 percent new, and the process shows in the wine’s excessive smoky, toasty character. The oak dominates aromas of lavender, mint and granite-like minerals and ripe black currants and black raspberries. I found the oaky nature of the wine off-putting, so I slammed the cork back in the bottle and went back to it the next morning, probably 12 hours later. Now Marlstone 2005 displayed notes of pencil shavings and sandalwood and more lavender with hints of licorice and celery seed. In the mouth, though, the lean and sinewy wine was still all about acidity, tannin and oak; about a dense, chewy, almost gritty texture; about wheatmeal and walnut shell-like austerity that was close to astringent. Good details are present here, but the sum of the parts does not add up to an expressive, satisfying whole. Will time help? Try from 2011 or ’12 through 2015 or ’17. Very Good+. About $50.
A review sample.
Here are reviews and notes on previous vintages of Marlstone, culled from the electronic archives of The Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis, for which I wrote a weekly, nationally distributed wine column from 1984 to 2004. (These archives go back only to 1990.) Notice how the proportion of cabernet sauvignon in the blend used to be much less — and the price.
<>The Clos du Bois Marlstone 1997, Alexander Valley, blended from 52 percent cabernet sauvignon, 44 percent merlot and 4 percent petit verdot, is slightly disappointing for California’s best red wine vintage of a glorious decade. True, the wine is clean and minerally, with cedar and tobacco, smoke and black olive in an attractive bouquet, but despite its big, ripe, juicy flavors, polished oak and tannin dominate to the wine’s detriment. There’s nothing really wrong here, but the Marlstone ’97 lacks the vibrant intensity and deep resonance the vintage should have imparted. Very good+. About $38.
<>The Clos du Bois Marlstone 1995, Alexander Valley, emphasizes structure and size now. A gloss of dried herbs and black olive gives color to concentrated cassis and black cherry scents and flavors touched with cedar, tobacco and dried porcini. It requires two to four years aging. Very good+. About $25.
<>The classic Clos du Bois Marlstone 1991, Alexander Valley (54 percent cabernet sauvignon, 35 percent merlot, 6 percent malbec and 5 percent cabernet franc), grows deeper and more complex in the glass, though its impeccable balance is never out of whack; it’s certainly concentrated on the plummy and curranty front, while medium tannins and brisk minerals give it a powerful backbone. Swirl and sip for a few minutes and see how it expands with tar and smoke and berry essence. Excellent. About $18-$20.
<>For 1990, the Marlstone consists of 52 percent cabernet sauvignon, 33 percent merlot, 7 percent malbec, 6 percent cabernet franc and 2 percent petite verdot This is a Beauty and the Beast of a wine, lovely but with a tough core; the intense raspberry and black currant fruit is enticing and so is the plush oaky, dusty texture, but layers of inky minerals, smoke and ash suggest three to five years aging. About $20.
<>More serious, a wine with more subject and structure, is the Clos du Bois Marlstone 1989, Alexander Valley, made from 61 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes, 26 percent merlot and 13 percent malbec; because the wine contains less than 75 percent of one grape variety, it cannot bear a varietal name. Under a proprietary name, of course, the winery can vary the blend as befits the year and quality of the grapes. This is a wine of permanence and power, deeply earthy and rooty with prominent oak and acid, yet the plum-raspberry fruit also penetrates nose and mouth; it grows rounder and more spicy in the glass, touched with licorice but with plenty of depth and darkness. About $20.
<>The Clos du Bois Marlstone 1987, Alexander Valley, is happily the best Marlstone in years. Predominantly cabernet and merlot, this wine displays tons of oak, with fruit in the black cherry-black currant range, hints of cedar and undertones of spice and olive; it’s quite tannic now, needing five to eight years to soften. About $19.