Sun 29 May 2011
The roots of The Hess Collection go back to 1844, when Johann Heinrich Hess founded a brewery in Berne, Switzerland. Beer remained the primary business for the company until Johann’s great-grandson Donald Hess took over the family concern at the age of 20 and, in the 1960s, took the business in the direction of bottled water, creating the Valser brand. Visiting California in the late 1970s, Donald Hess became fascinated by the Napa Valley wine industry, and in 1978, he acquired 550 acres at about 2,000 feet elevation on Mount Veeder, on the valley’s central-western perimeter, opposite Yountville. Hess spent the next few years gradually buying other vineyard acreage in Napa Valley and selling grapes to other wineries; another purchase was the old Christian Brothers’ Mount La Salle winery, which went through a complete renovation. The first wine under the Hess Collection label was not produced until 1988.
Twenty-three years later, Hess Family Estates, as the company’s group of wineries is known collectively, extend to Australia, Argentina and South Africa, and the Hess Collection itself encompasses the cabernet-blend wines produced under the Hess Collection label; Hess Napa Valley — the Allomi Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Petite Sirah as well as a chardonnay and late harvest charonnay; the ubiquitous Hess Select series of inexpensive wines that carry a California designation; 11 wines in the “Small Block” series; and the Artezin Zinfandel and the new Sequana pinot noir label. Not that there’s anything to worry about at this point, but many a producer has foundered on the shoals called “Being All Things to All People,” and perhaps the Hess Select wines face more rigorous (or at least wide-spread) competition in the $10 to $13 range than they used to; I’m just sayin’.
The Hess Collection represents, obviously, a collection of wines and labels, but the name also refers to Donald Hess’ excellent collection of modern and contemporary art, which is displayed at a museum on the property on Mount Veeder and at museums at Glen Carlou in South Africa and Bodegas Colomé in Argentina.
What I’m looking at today are the Hess Collection Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Mount Veeder; the Hess Collection 19 Block Cuvee 2007 and the Allomi Cabernet Sauvignon 2008. Director of winemaking is David Guffy. These wines were samples for review.
The grapes for the Hess Allomi Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Napa Valley, derive from the vineyard of that name in the benchlands of Howell Mountain, directly north of the town of Angwin and east of Calistoga, in the northern reaches of Napa Valley. The wine is a combination of 87 percent cabernet sauvigon grapes, 12 percent petite sirah and 1 percent petit verdot, the petite sirah being the wild card in what might otherwise be a standard Bordeaux-style blend, with, say, merlot or cabernet franc. The wine aged 18 months in American oak barrels, 25 percent new, and you feel the gravity of that American oak in a pointed spicy character and a tinge of austerity on the finish. The color is deep royal purple; the multi-layered bouquet smolders with aromas of tar, violets and tobacco, briers and brambles, cedar, walnut shell and beet-root, shale and graphite and, yes, intense and concentrated though fleshy black currants and plums. Let’s just say that you could spend some time getting to know this bouquet. The wine is powerfully tannic, earthy and minerally, yet it flows smoothly over tongue and palate, and those structural elements bear on their shoulders seductive flavors of blackberry cobbler with a hint of wild blueberries and a dusting of exotic spice; a few minutes in the glass bring in touches of dried fruit and potpourri. Quite a sleek and stylish performance, personality-wise, but the wine is prevented from leaning (too much) toward exaggeration by its tannic/mineral character and just-sufficient acidity. 14.4 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2013 or ’14. Excellent. About $28.
No American oak for the Hess Collection 19 Block Cuvee 2007, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley; this ages 16 months in French oak barrels, 50 percent new. The wine is a blend of 74 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes, 17 percent malbec, 4 percent merlot, 1 percent petit verdot and, in another wild card draw, 4 percent syrah; the grapes come from 19 specific blocks of vines in the winery’s Veeder Summit Vineyard, where the elevation ranges from 1,300 to 2,000 feet. The color is inky ruby purple; the wine is intense and concentrated, tightly focused, and yet black and blue fruit scents and flavors are ripe and a little fleshy. Pronounced density of finely-grained tannins, walnut-shell-like oak and slate-like minerality lend the wine powerful ballast, though if you give it a few minutes in the glass, irresistible aromas of lavender and licorice and violets, cedar, tobacco and bay emerge, along with touches of plums, fruit cake and an intriguing hint of fennel. No rich cobbler element here; this is a cabernet that expresses the rigorous, dusty earthy character of its steep altitude origin but with the suppleness of velvet and the verve of pinpoint acidity. 14.6 percent alcohol. Drink now (with medium rare steak) through 2017 or ’18. Excellent. About $36.
The Hess Collection Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Napa Valley, is a monument to tannin in all its underbrushy-forest floor-briery-brambly-dense-chewy-austere manifestations. Made from a blend of 83 percent cabernet sauvignon, 10 percent malbec and 7 percent merlot — no whimsical touches of syrah in this package — the wine ages 18 months in French oak, 50 percent new barrels, and you feel the shaping influence of that spicy, dusty wood throughout the experience; substantial also in its earthy-minerally character, the wine resonates with the brooding power of its lead pencil-graphite-shale qualities. Is there room for any other factor here? Yes, you intuit first and then smell and taste a modicum of cedary, slightly macerated black currant, black raspberry and plums aromas and flavors that require a little coaxing to unveil themselves. This is not an exotic or dramatic cabernet; it is, instead, solid, dignified, fully dimensioned, dynamic and pretty damned classic. best from 2012 or ’13 through 2018 to ’20. The alcohol content is 14.6 percent. Excellent. About $48.