The world of wine is constantly changing, with shifts in style and updated winemaking techniques creating new vinous avenues, while journalists, critics and sommeliers are all looking for the ‘next big thing’. The current trend on global winemaking is away from broad, powerful, tannic wines that take years to ‘come around’ and focused more on wines which are not only approachable but downright enjoyable at almost every stage of their lives. If you like primary fruit, drink ‘em young; if you like secondary and tertiary flavours and melted tannins, keep ‘em in the cellar. But more importantly than that, if you open a bottle and find it’s not quite at the stage of development you prefer, it will still be pleasant enough to finish. There’s nothing more disappointing that taking a bottle from a full, precious case and finding that it’s so underdeveloped that you don’t even want to finish it.
This of course doesn’t take into account regional preferences. By its very nature, the process of generalising is ridiculous as it removes the all-important nuance – but if forced to generalise, the American palate typically prefers its wine in the rumbustiousness of youth whilst the European palate tends to lean towards wines with more maturity on their side.
Where is this ramble heading, you might ask? It was inspired by a comprehensive masterclass and tasting of the top wines of the Jackson Family Estates: Vérité and Cardinale.
Take Vérité as a starting point. There are three wines in this collection: Le Désir, La Muse, and La Joie. I confess that despite their often epic scores (since 2001, 14 vintages of the three wines of Vérité have been scored 100 points in The Wine Advocate, most frequently by Parker himself) I have struggled to understand these wines in the past.
The wines’ origins are the first stumbling block. Most wines at this level, with the exception perhaps of Penfolds Grange (and the obvious exception of most Prestige Cuvee Champagnes), are at least single-estate wines, if not single-vineyard wines. The wines of Vérité are created from fruit from up to 40 ‘micro-crus’, sometimes tiny plots within larger vineyards, which ‘Vigneron’ (he dislikes the term winemaker as he is in fact so much more significant than that in the existence of Vérité) Pierre Seillan blends carefully to create his three cuvees: the Merlot-based La Muse, a Cabernet Sauvignon-based wine (La Joie) and a Cabernet Franc-based wine (Le Désir). Some might therefore argue that these are not terroir wines as they do not express a single place.
I also have concerns over the name and concept as a whole. French winemaker, Bordelais grape varieties used in unashamedly ‘Bordeaux Appellation’ blends, French names… and yet made to express the true beauty and power of Sonoma County and the incredible fruit it can produce.
The third aspect, and unquestionably the most important, is how the wines have performed in tastings. This was also the reason I was so keen to attend this tasting, which I knew would feature some more mature vintages; I have only ever tasted the wines on release and put simply, I have always found them to be overly glossy, rich, and top-weighted with luxurious new oak influence. Made for ‘the American palate’.
Over the course of the masterclass my concerns were questioned, and met, head on – with a refreshing passion, honesty and frankness. It’s important to point out that also present were Jackson Family Estates co-founder and owner, wine industry legend Barbara R Banke, and her daughter Julia Jackson, the next generation of the family working in the business. So we weren’t just dealing with agents or flunkies: this was the real deal.
On my first concern: Pierre’s view is that they are the ULTIMATE terroir wine as they provide the true layers of personality of the dominant grape variety, as can only be written by the different soils and territories which so deeply influence the final fruit. When the sheer level of detail is investigated, when the vineyard sites and their effects on the fruit are explained and understood, it is possible to understand this view. Pierre knows individual vines within rows within corners within micro-crus within vineyards within AVAs (the American equivalent of appellations); there is no questioning that he is a terroir man through and through.
Re: the question of ‘Frenchness’. It transpires that the company’s late founder, Barbara’s husband Jess Jackson, was himself of “around 40% French” origins (work that one out Ancestry.com) and loved the country and its culture so much, that he never wavered from his ‘Bordelais’ vision of what his top wine would be. Pierre was at pains to point out that even the name Vérité was established before he came on board over 20 years ago! I pressed the point that it really gave consumers a challenge in that the wines were so overtly French-inspired and yet so clearly and powerfully expressive of California – would they know what they are getting? Would they make incorrect comparisons and thus be disappointed? This was robustly countered by both Barbara and Julia (at one point I feared I might be forcibly removed from the Dorchester, which would have been awkward) who had “no regrets at all” about the Francophile naming and inspiration behind their wines. Fair enough.
On the final point: well, it turns out these wines have something else in common with Bordeaux. And that is that when they hit 10 years of age, magic starts to happen. And I really do mean magic – some of these wines were deeply, seriously impressive.
We began with the current release – 2015 – of each of the three wines. We then progressed to a mini-vertical of the Merlot-based, Pomerol-inspired, La Muse.
2015 Vérité La Muse
Powerful, pure, ripe red and black fruits with a hint of caramel and toasted, even honey-coated pecans and hazelnuts. Also a pleasant savoury, herbal, green character – but no sense of unripeness. Rather like a top 2009 Bordeaux. Despite showing considerable oak influence, with plush vanilla and mocha, the palate is replete with energy and freshness. Soft, silken tannins carry warm spices onto the long finish. A wine of real density and weight if a little ‘solid’ at this stage. 95pts
2015 Vérité La Joie
With its clear, pure Cabernet Sauvignon profile of blackcurrant, cassis, all freshened by a hint of blackcurrant leaf, this speaks to pure California sunshine with the added benefit of the cool, high altitude Alexander Valley conditions. The ‘2009 Bordeaux’ caramel note is also there but supported by ground ginger, allspice and clove. The palate is linear and pure, with dark chocolate and black olive tapenade notes available – but only once you delve under the charred toast, almost bitter notes of intense oak character. Potential but a little disjointed. 94+pts
2015 Vérité Le Désir
This blend is Barbara’s favourite and on this showing it’s not hard to see why. Even at this nascent stage it’s both backward and alluring, pure and complex. There is so much spice and energy here. The tannins are super-fine, carrying sweet-edged notes of ripe red and black fruit, balanced with bitter chocolate and mocha. With time in the glass this develops yet further with pea pod, black olive and espresso notes emerging. This is the pick of the three in terms of sheer allure and interest. 96pts
Now into the vertical of La Muse…
2012 Vérité La Muse
With three more years in bottle, this is both softening and yet becoming more precise, with pure cherry, black plum, marzipan, violet and milk chocolate on the nose. Lovely fresh acidity gives clarity and energy. The tannins, which are still very evident, have softened and broadened the palate, bringing more flavour complexity. The oak is still too dominant for my liking but behind this wall, fruit cake and confit red fruit are developing alongside the clear, ripe plum and blueberry flavours. It feels like we’re getting somewhere. 96pts
2009 Vérité La Muse
Hmm. A step backwards in my understanding here. On the nose this smells really quite ripe; it gives a real sensation of heat. It reminds me of a really hot Bordeaux year like 2003. Likewise the palate, whilst ostensibly pure, powerful and ripe, falls away a little in the middle. It seems like true phenolic ripeness wasn’t reached – there just isn’t quite the balance. And yet, unlike Bordeaux 2003, 2009 was an abnormally cool year, with a heat spike that jumpstarted the harvest before delivering forth a deluge of rain. Whatever the circumstances, it hasn’t quite come together here. 93pts
2007 Vérité La Muse
Oh, now we’re getting good. Something has happened here. The fruit has really softened and added an Autumnal edge to its bright purity. Hints of forest floor and black truffle thrum alongside blackberry, plum and confit black cherry. Unlike the 2009 there is a soaring, dense and complete mid-palate, with such richness and energy, the acidity still bright and carrying great glugs of intense fruit. So linear and pure all the way through to the long, fresh finish. The oak flavour and aroma characters have been completely absorbed and the resulting wine is pure harmony. Fantastic. 98pts
2004 Vérité La Muse
Another beauty, this is really drinking well now. A Bordelais blend of minerality, linear freshness and mature fruit. The tannins are ultra-fine, and carry waves of sweet, dense fruit matter. It’s almost chewy but in no way overly dry or bitter; neither is it at all overblown or confected. It stays fresh all the way to the finish. Another ‘wow’ wine if not quite – quite – at the level of the magnificent ‘7’. 97pts
2002 Vérité La Muse
Sadly I was a little underwhelmed by the highly-rated 2002. It rather lacked the precision and intensity of the 2004 and 2007, being slightly dilute and a little ‘tomato-y’. There are still multiple layers of fine, ripe fruit and a pleasing dryness despite the quite rich extract – but the finish lacked ‘vim’ and other overall effect was just a bit off the pace. 92pts
The final phase of the tasting was an exploration of Cardinale, the Jackson family’s top expression of Napa vineyards. Again a multi-site blend, this time using exclusively ‘Mountain’ vineyards such as Mount Veeder and Howell Mountain, the team lead by Christopher Carpenter look to express the character of Cabernet Sauvignon in a particular vintage in the Napa Valley, rather than a specific site. As with Vérité the claim is that this does not prevent it from being a terroir wine; it is the combination of multiple sites, like soloists, that come together to create a great orchestra.
This was my first experience of Cardinale and alongside the new 2015 was a very interesting ‘comparative’ tasting: the 2008 Mouton Rothschild, 2008 Vega Sicilia Unico and 2008 ‘B20’ from Sine Qua Non would all do battle with the 2008 Cardinale. The theory being, quite wisely, that from a consumer point of view these are the kind of choices that are available when looking to spend GBP 300-ish on a bottle of wine. That and of course the fact they are all 10 years old. And so:
If you like Napa Cabernet, you’ll love this – plain and simple. Certainly the wine has balance but it is unashamedly on the opulent side. Great purity of fruit, power and length. Fresh, round, and smooth, driven by lashings of fresh blueberries, ripe plums and blackcurrants. It’s a true expression of Napa – it’s unlikely to change the minds of non-believers – but no worse for that. If you like the style… 94+pts
2008 Mouton Rothschild
Whilst there is certainly class, elegance, complexity and minerality here, it’s struggling in the context, to be quite frank. The richness of the previous wines renders the perception of the Bordeaux a little lean and hard. Linear, pure and bright with a touch of spiced cola, blackcurrant coulis and baked redcurrants, although lacking a little flesh in the mid palate. Obviously a fine Mouton but not the best context in which to enjoy it. 93pts
2008 Vega Sicilia Unico
Ah, jeez. This isn’t really fair on any other wine. Incredible breadth and complexity, ripe fruit blended seamlessly with fruit cake and forest floor. There is just so much density and richness, sweet tannins giving bags and bags of fruit and flavour, it makes your head spin. The finish is so harmonious and balanced – really gets the digestion going! You automatically start thinking about what you want to eat with it – which I confess hasn’t been the case for the other wines (although maybe it’s just that by this stage I have been drinking wine for almost 3 hours). Any which way, it’s utterly delicious, and whilst gorgeous now, so SO young. Decades ahead of it. Stunning. WOTD. 99pts
From back in the day when the legendary To Kalon vineyard was still contributing fruit to the Cardinale blend. This is a great wine at a very happy stage of its development; rich, black and blue fruit with dark, volcanic minerality. The freshness is still there but the fruit is giving way to blueberry compote and fruit cake, with a hint of cocoa powder. Great energy and breadth! Plush and mouthfilling yet still focused, linear and fresh. Opulent but very drinkable. My pick for ‘right now’. 95pts
2008 Sine Qua Non B20
WTF. It’s so hard to describe a wine that defies all convention. Piercingly fresh blueberry sits directly alongside candy floss and spun sugar. Ripe, bright cherries vie with confected cherry drops. And yet both extremes live in total harmony, neither obscuring the other. Even the texture is a work of genius contrasts – thick and unctuous and still fresh and clean. Long, pure, powerful, graceful. Pure art. And yet… yet… do I want another glass? Yes, to see if I got the flavours right. But another after that? Would I finish the bottle? I’m not sure. Score reflects the specific ‘competition’ not how much I want to own and drink it with any regularity. 98pts
So back to my ramble. These are wines that rather defy the current convention for ‘any time, any place’. Like the great Bordeaux of old, they really need time – preferably a decade – to come together. Or to suit my palate, at least. But when they do, boy do they show quite how exceptional these hillside and mountain vineyards really are – and what an extraordinary talent the Jackson family have had in selecting these vineyards, not to mention the skill of Pierre Seillan in bringing them together into something deeply impressive.
Thanks to Barbara Banke, Julia Jackson, Pierre Seillan and Jess Bryans for the invitation and generous hosting.