Sunday, April 15, 2012

Tasting in Napa Valley: Groth Vineyards and Winery

Dennis and Judy Groth were lovers of Napa Valley wine when they invested some of the money Dennis had made as an executive at Atari in prime Napa Valley vineyards. It did not take them long to discover that they owned some of the best property on the Napa floor in Oakville.

I remember buying the 1982 Groth Cabernet and loving it. When the 1985 Groth Reserve Cabernet was released, Robert Parker gave it 100 points, the first perfect score he ever awarded to a California wine. The Groths, I was told at the winery, were not Parker point counters and were not particularly pleased with the attention that the perfect score gave them. They were overjoyed, however, at the taste and quality of the Cabernet wines that continued to emerge from their vineyards.

Nils Venge was the Groth winemaker at that time, and I remember buying his wines from Saddleback Cellars a few years later when the prices for Groth continued to escalate. Both he and Michael Weis, the current winemaker, are highly regarded.

My tasting included Groth Vineyards' four current releases: the Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, the Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon and the Oakville Reserve Cabernet.

The 2010 Sauvignon Blanc, which contains 3% Semillon, comes from both warmer and cooler areas of the valley. Whole cluster pressing was used to preserve the fresh fruit qualities--ripe melon and white peaches with a lively acid backbone. It's a flavorful wine with a bit of complexity--sure to win over both consumers and critics, but it is far too oaky and leesy for my taste.

The 2009 Chardonnay was made from estate vineyard fruit, mostly from the cooler Hillview parcel in the Oak Knoll District. As I was told at other wineries, the Chardonnay was not put through malolactic fermentation; the big, buttery qualities that wooed drinkers in the 1980s are now passe. But it was barrel fermented and aged on its lees for eight months in French oak barrels, 25% of which were new. That's a lot of oak and a lot of lees, and the result is a flavorful wine with tropical fruit, citrus and mineral notes. But I would not expect it to age for an extended period.

The two Cabernets, of course, are what Groth Vineyards is about. The 2009 Oakville Cabernet (20% Merlot) was fermented in temperature controlled stainless steel tanks (85 degrees F) and then aged for 22 months in small French oak barrels. It's a deep, purplish color and has all the lush smells and flavors you expect from a Napa Cab. Blackberries, black cherries, vanilla--very ripe and very supple. You wouldn't hesitate to enjoy this wine tonight with a good steak, but there are plenty of tannins for aging. The winery suggests 10 to 15 years, but the 1982 was beautiful after 20 plus years.

The 2008 Reserve Cabernet (9% Merlot) comes from the estate's finest, lowest-yielding vineyards and, I was told, it's given all the pampering needed to be a fine wine: thinning of clusters, night harvesting, hand sorting and de-stemming, making sure only the best berries go into the fermenters. Then it's aged for 22 months in 100% new French oak. The wine sells for $125 (versus $50 for the estate), and, considering the special treatment, it's probably worth it, given that you have that kind of disposable income. For me, $50 is too much. And to be honest, I prefer the regular Oakville bottling, at least at this point in time. Cabernet loves oak, but, in my view, 100% new French oak is a bit much, even given the prime fruit.

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