Visiting California's Napa Valley, part 6


My second full day in Napa began at Trefethen, in the Oak Knoll district. It was another beautiful morning, and I was meeting with John Ruel (above) – like me, another lapsed scientist (he'd done research on plant ecology in a previous life). John was a great host.

Trefethen is a large family-owned property of 440 acres of vineyard, planted on the valley floor. The family purchased the propety in 1968, with its run-down three storey, gravity flow winery that was built in 1886. It’s a big vineyard, and produces more than is needed for the Trefethen wines, so around a third of the crop is sold each year. Located in the southern part of the valley, the afternoons are quite cool here because of the proximity of the bay. ‘We’re in between Cabernet country and Pinot Noir country,’ explains John.

As well as this main ranch, Trefethen have a 140 acre property (with 40 acres of vines) in the foothills of the Mayacamas mountains, not far away. This is Hillspring.

‘On the main ranch there isn’t much climatic variation,’ says John, ‘butv there are lots of differences with soil types.’ The more gravelly bits from alluvial fans are better suited to Cabernet, while Chardonnay prefers the more fertile sections with deeper clay loam soils. There's also a fair bit of Riesling here (some was still on the vine with botrytis, for making a sweet wine), as well as some Pinot Noir that is sold to sparkling producers. John is quite excited about the prospects for Malbec here.

The Hillspring property (above), tucked into the hills, has more rocky, less fertile soils and is also warmer by a few degrees. It's really beautiful. The soils are of mixed origin: mostly volcanic, but also sandstone and shale.

Sustainability is a big issue for John, and he's working hard to make the vineyards as naturally farmed as possible. As well as a large compost heap, there's a large array of 572 solar panels supplying 20% of the winery's needs.

‘Each vine is touched by hand nine times a year,’ says John. ‘Our employees are an important resource, and they get a full benefit package. We try to take good care of them.’

There’s an owl post. John points out that a family of owls can munch their way through 2500 damage-causing gophers in a year. They have also installed bat boxes, with 250 bats in each, to help keep the moth population down. The European grape vine moth has just arrived in Napa, which is potentially a big problem. It was probably introduced by someone trying to smuggle something in.

Botrytised Riesling

The wines? They're solidly good. The Riesling is attractive, fresh and limey, and the Chardonnay is restrained and appealing, with a light touch of oak. The Merlot is well defined and supple, while the Cabernet is a bit richer, but still made in a bright, digestible and fruit-focused style. There's no hint of over-ripeness or excess here, and the wines are better for it. The 2005 Reserve is largely from the Hillspring property and shows lovely rich aromatics with a concentrated, ripe forward palate. It's a big wine, but it shows restraint with it. 


Trefethen Dry Riesling 2008
Quite fresh and bright with nice lemony fruit. Crisp and appealing. The palate is bright and lemony with nice crispness, and a hint of mineral on the finish. 87/100

Trefethen Chardonnay 2007
20 000 cases produced. Nice rich fruit on the nose with a hint of fig, as well as peach and pear notes. The palate is generous, rich and fruit with just a hint of toasty oak. Creamy and soft-textured. 88/100

Trefethen Merlot 2005
$30 retail. Attractive sweet, focused nose with lovely blackberry and blackcurrant fruit. Focused, fresh palate is smooth but well defined with black fruits and a nice spicy edge. Supple, ripe and balanced. 89/100

Trefethen Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 (library release)
Fruit is all from main ranch. Very attractive, intense dark fruits on the nose with hints of mint and olive, as well as a brooding earthy character. The palate is fresh with lovely depth of blackcurrant fruit and a hint of mint. Showing a bit of evolution with nice tannins and some complexity. 92/100

Trefethen Cabernet Sauvignon 2005
$50 retail, 7000 cases. Beautifully focused blackcurrant fruit nose is attractive and pure with freshness and some spicy depth. The palate shows appealing fresh blackcurrant fruit with lovely supporting tannins. Structured but approachable with nice fruit focus. 92/100

Trefethen Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2005
$100, 1000 cases, predominantly from the Hillspring property. Lovely aromatics: complex, sweet, spicy fruit with some floral notes. Really enticing with savoury complexity. The palate is concentrated and rich with warm, spicy blackcurrant fruit as well as richness and intensity. There is some oak, but it is well integrated. An intense, ripe, warm spicy style with firm tannic structure offsetting the sweet fruit well. 93/100


Photos from Napa Valley
Part 1, Cain
Part 2, Schramsberg

Part 3, Corison

Part 4, Saintsbury
Part 5, Lagier Meredith
Part 6, Trefethen
Part 7, Trinchero
Part 8, Grgich Hills
Part 9, Cakebread

Wines tasted as 11/09  
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