It was one of the more unusual phone calls – that led to one of the more enjoyable evenings.
“Hi Giles. I have Brad Grimes [legendary winemaker for even more legendary winegrower David Abreu in the Napa Valley] over in London for a few days. He’d love to see you guys.”
“Sounds great – we’ll get him in for a tasting with the team.”
“Well that’s just the thing. He doesn’t just want to show you some wines. He wants to cook for you.”
“…I have an idea.”
20 years ago Brad Grimes was working as a chef in Seattle, spending weekends with his girlfriend, who was also a chef working for private clients, in the Napa Valley. He got bitten by the wine bug and in one of those ‘why didn’t I just think of that?’ moments asked the already famed viticulturalist David Abreu for a job – doing anything, at all. He worked across the spectrum of David’s business but his chef’s training and naturally calm, analytical but creative mind led him to winemaking. And whilst winemaking is never easy, Brad would, by his own admission, have it easier than most; the Napa Valley is a naturally benevolent place to grow ripe fruit and with David, what you get is pretty much perfect fruit year in, year out. Brad’s task is to make sure the finished wines express the unique sites on which the grapes grow.
Vinyeards at Abreu
Abreu farms around 80 acres of vines in 4 prime locations throughout the Valley: Madrona Ranch and Capella, both of which are found in and around the town of St Helena (around two-thirds of the way up the Valley), Thorevilos, which is a collection of hillside plots to the east of the other sites, and Las Posadas which is further up the hillside on Howell Mountain. Of these sites only a tiny fraction is actually reserved for David’s own label wines – the rest are sold to the biggest and greatest names of the region for the highest grape prices in Napa.
If it’s not clear already David Abreu is the absolute gold standard of viticultural practice. The majority of the great modern Napa wineries (planted from the 1980s onwards) have David’s name on them. If he were a car designer, he’d be Pininfarina; if he were an architect, he’d be Lord Foster.
“Sounds fun. Count me in.”
…was the response from top chef and great mate of BI, Mark Hix. Mark had agreed to host Brad, and a handful of valued clients, at his precious ‘Kitchen Library’ above Tramshed restaurant in London’s Shoreditch. If you haven’t had the pleasure Mark’s Kitchen Library is a small room upstairs through the back of the restaurant where Mark holds his collection of rare and vintage cook books. It also holds a dozen bar-style seats and an open kitchen where the chefs can prepare and cook in front of their guests.
Brad Grimes with Mark Hix
Mark and Brad, along with Mark’s head chef Sam White, would concoct and present a menuto us which would be served alongside a selection of the latest releases from Abreu – a handful of wines priced not for the faint hearted but blessed with potentially perfect (all sporting at least 96-100 points from Parker) scores from The Wine Advocate. We were in for a treat.
Neither the dinner nor the wines disappointed, as you might expect, and the intimate way in which the food was prepared before us – and all its individual provenances (the key to Mark’s cooking) and techniques explained – made for a truly special evening. Lyme Bay Prawns, an incredible Wild Garlic risotto (with the strangest mushrooms you’ve ever seen… winter fungi shaped like ears, called ‘scarlet elf cups’), the most perfect chateaubriand from famed Irish butcher Peter Hannan, followed by both rhubarb pavlova and enough Summer Solstice cheese to sink a ship… we certainly didn’t go hungry.
Brad takes the reins
And then, the wines. Having kicked off with some gorgeous Pol Roger 2012 en magnum and a very fine Chablis Boudriottes from Drouhin, we started with the ‘warm up act’ of Abreu’s Rothwell Hyde 2016. Being the most approachable of the wines, and from the unquestionably great 2016 vintage, this was as silky and delicious a way to benchmark what was to follow.
Madrona Ranch 2015
A wine of almost surreal richness and texture, and yet balanced by a purity and juicy brightness of fruit that utterly defies the first half of this description, Madrona is a head-spinning wine. It’s a reminder that you have to taste Napa Cabs very differently to Bordeaux – rather than tasting through structure to find fruit, and expecting flesh to come in time, you are tasting through puppy fat and looking for the structure and minerality that, as has been proven from tasting mature examples, the best sites will in time offer. This sports incredibly rich blackcurrant and ripe plum fruit surrounded by a dark, earthy minerality and topped with floral notes. Mind blowing.
photo by Paul Massey
The fruit for this wine comes from a vineyard just off the main street in St Helena which I accidentally stumbled across during a jet-lagged 6:30am run on my recent visit to Napa. It’s a tiny walled clos next to the town’s Catholic cemetery and it produces remarkably structured wines which balance smoky, rocky minerality and next-level plushness of fruit. Mouth-coating and utterly loaded with potential, I can hardly wait to see where this will go. The only worry is whether I will ever taste it again given the mere dribble of production.
Las Posadas 2015
As even Parker himself says “how do I go about describing these wines, which are so exciting and satisfying on both hedonistic and intellectual levels?”. I have to confess I am equally lost for words at the sheer depth, richness and intensity of this mountain wine. The tannins are so spectacularly handled, being both plump and supple yet precise and firm, and the acidity so mouth-wateringly fresh, that it hardly seems possible that the level of fruit is turned up way beyond 11 – and still somehow balance is achieved. Obviously it’s miles too young. It’s almost painful in its intensity. I think I need a lie down.
A wine as luxurious as the Harlan-owned Meadowood Resort, which sits just down the hill, Thorevilos has to be tasted to be believed. It is one of Robert Parker’s all-time favourite wines garnering multiple perfect scores. There is significantly more power here, thanks in part to a significant portion of Cabernet Franc and a bit of edgy ‘mountain’ character. Layer upon layer of ripe red, black and blue fruit, intermingled with complex dark and light minerality and a texture that defines ‘cashmere’, it has so much weight and intensity and yet is so nimble and fluid. What a ridiculous wine of unbelievable hedonism, purity and freshness.
Mark Hix in his element
We finished off with a bottle of Yquem ’88 which seemed only fitting. It was utterly classic Yquem, as fresh and mineral-laden as it was sweet, and the perfect foil for the rhubarb and ginger pavlova. All in all, not a bad show. These Abreu wines are beyond compare and deserve a place in the cellar of anyone who truly wants to explore the best of what Napa Valley can offer.
Enormous thanks to Mark and his team at Hix, Brad and the guys at Pol Roger UK for helping to make this remarkable night happen. Thanks also to the inimitable Paul Massey for the photographs.
Check out our current Abreu offerings HERE