Mondays are dull. Good fortune then that a handful of willing BI-ers were dispatched to the Mandarin Oriental at Hyde Park for a world-exclusive chance to taste the first four vintages of a wine which, in decades (and arguably centuries) to come, will be on the lips and in the cellars of the world’s greatest collectors and connoisseurs: Promontory. I have a feeling that in our vinous dotage we will look back and say ‘I was there’.
As if owning Harlan Estate and Bond were not already enough, Bill Harlan has now added a third ‘First Growth’ to his remarkable portfolio. And indeed Promontory is a labour of love which makes the work undertaken at most wineries look like taking candy from a (sleeping) baby. For this piece of land, which had gripped Bill since he first discovered it on a hike back in the 1980s, is best described as a wilderness which bears no resemblance to the image most of us hold of the primped and pruned estates of the Napa Valley. Not only is it totally hidden from view (by the outcrop of rock, or ‘Promontory’, that gives the estate its name) but there was previously only one dirt road in and out, and only a tiny proportion was actually given over to vinegrowing. But Bill was captivated by the ‘power’ and ‘undefinable allure’ of this particular spot.
One small problem: it wasn’t for sale. It took the near-collapse of the global economy to render its owners willing to part with it, and Bill took control in 2008. The project is being spearheaded by Bill’s son Will and boy does he seem energised by it.
But acquiring the land was just the start. Despite being only just a stone’s throw from Napa proper, and almost close enough to Harlan Estate that the original plan was to include it as part of that wine, it is a vastly different site, being of considerably higher altitude and experiencing very different air flows and fog systems to the vineyards further down-country. This wasn’t all. For underneath the ground, discovered through the process of digging over 200 ‘soil pits’, was one of the most complex rock formations that winegrower Cory Empting had ever seen. Most vineyards are planted on 2 types of rock: volcanic and/or sedimentary. However this piece of land also contained metamorphic rock, formed at the point where tectonic movements actually occur – and nobody had any idea what effect this would have on the vines and their fruit. The answer, as it transpires, is ‘significant’.
So one major land purchase, and one bespoke winery construction later, and they had a vintage on their hands: the 2009. We would try this alongside their subsequent three vintages, 2010, 2011 and 2012. What is clear, and they are the very first to accept the fact (indeed they are absolutely and unashamedly clear about it), is that they are still not 100% certain how to manifest the perfect expression of Promotory. Much of what they have learned from creating Harlan and the Bond wines is irrelevant to the fruit from this new estate. They are still coming to terms with ripeness levels and mineral expression, not to mention all the interventional things that come after; fermentation, maceration times, ageing time and vessels… but I have no doubt they will get there as they have almost limitless options built into their new facility, and the wines show absolutely masses of potential. Indeed, they are stunning already, so the notion that they have further to go is astonishing.
The wines, then:
Wow. The nose is turbo-charged First Growth. The baked earth minerality of Haut Brion, the perfume and allure of Margaux, the polished powerful fruit of Mouton. And all against a wallop of ripe, pure blue and black fruits. Huge, rich intensity, mouthcoating, almost thick blackberry and blackcurrant fruit. And yet it’s fresh! The tannins are pretty firm, quite grippy in fact, but sweet edged and succulent. The finish is held up well by the acidity but the overwhelming impression is one of absolute unrelenting power. What an entrance. 95pts
Now we are stepping into more classical territory. This shows more restraint, more minerality. This is more Lafite than Mouton! Evidence that they have reduced maceration times in the search for elegance above pure impact. This is quite tight still, a little muted on the fruit, but certainly showing more pronounced mineral character than the 2009. And the tannins, oh the tannins; so fine, so tiny, and yet explosive, packed with sweet fruit like little popping candy bursts. There’s so much dense matter here and yet the wine feels nimble. There is a freshness, almost a hint of greenness, that keeps the wine savoury and balanced despite the intense fruit. This is a special wine and I like it very much. I want to see what it can do… 97+pts
Another year, another shift; cooler conditions in this vintage and the effect is marked. Keeping to the theme, the impression here is more La Mission: high-toned, white-stone minerality, lifted and expressive. However the fruit is a little dumb again and what is coming through is a touch more of that greenness that was so welcome on the 2010, almost a bell pepper character, which indicates perhaps a little trouble reaching full, perfect ripeness. The fruit is succulent still, and while intense and almost meaty, it seems more narrow and linear, less broad. The structure is still very sound but the fruit is marginally less generous. Whether or not this is good or bad is arguably down to your preference. Personally if I want to drink Napa I want to taste the ripeness, so this drops just behind the others for me. 93pts
Arresting, powerful and more expressive on the nose than the 2010 – this is a big, bold wine which grabs you right from the off. It’s plush, it’s perfumed… but perhaps that minerality has now been slightly squashed? It’s early days so I wouldn’t be sure that it won’t come back again. The tannins are right back on track from the 2010, just gorgeous, sweet, juicy, densely packed – there is so much matter here – and yet there is still freshness from this additional altitude. It’s glossy but it’s structured and good news for my tastes, it feels like a wine from a warm place; a true expression of this amazing bit of unknown Napa. It’s round and packed with ripe blackcurrant, plum, blueberry and liquorice. After a little time in the glass that cool minerality begins to return, reassuringly... it is under there after all. This is a wine of huge character and confidence, however I marginally prefer the restraint of the 2010. 97pts
Thanks to Will and our hosts for a splendid tasting – and for the glass or two of DP afterwards…