A little bit of Bordeaux in the heart of Napa

Comparisons between Bordeaux and Napa are inevitable, they both enjoy a reputation for excellence, especially for the expression of Cabernet Sauvignon and the exchange of wine makers and techniques between the two regions seems to be making the distance between the two a lot shorter.

There’s nothing new about transatlantic relationships such as Opus One with Mouton and Mondavi or Christian Moueix with Dominus. And it continues; ex Chateau Margaux wine maker, Philippe Bascaules, has been making wonderfully elegant wines at Inglenook for the last few vintages, Chanel (owners of Rauzan Segla and Canon here in Bordeaux) recently acquired Saint Supery and Melanie and Alfred Tesseron of Pontet Canet, have great plans for the Robin Williams estate.

Chateau Latour owners, Groupe Artemis, joined this select transatlantic club in 2013, buying The Eisele vineyard from the Araujo family, adding another name to their wine portfolio, which includes Château Grillet in the Rhone and Domaine d’Eugenie in Burgundy.

Eisele has a long history; first planted with Zinfandel and Riesling vines back in the 1880s, it has been dedicated to Cabernet Sauvignon for the last fifty years.

Situated on an alluvial fan at the base of the Palisades Mountain, the property is divided by two, mostly dry, riverbeds that have deposited big pebbles giving great drainage, a reminder of the home terroir in Pauillac perhaps? Cool air brought by Northwesterly breezes from the Chalk Hill Gap sinks into these valleys giving the fresh microclimate that determines the concentrated elegance of these wines.

The pebbles in the dry river bed
The pebbles in the dry river bed

The property has a history generously sprinkled with the famous names of Napa. Although Jackson G. Randall and Charles Nathan Pickett, planted the first vines and they remained in the Pickett family until the Second World War, it was Milton and Barbara Eisele that gave their name to the vineyard in their 60s. Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards produced the first Eisele Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon starting the story of Cabernet at Eisele.

Conn Creek Winery produced the second vineyard-designated Eisele Cabernet in 1974, and from 1975 to 1991, Joseph Phelps continued the tradition, of producing excellent Cabernets from the Eisele Vineyard. In 1991 the vineyard produced its first Estate Cabernet Sauvignon alongside the final Phelps bottling from the property.

It was Daphne and Bart Araujo, who purchased the vineyard in 1990, that introduced winemaking, building a winery, including a 1km long tunnel through the mountainside to barrel age the wine. The tunnel, which links two parts of the vineyard, has to be air conditioned due to the hot subsoil of the region – we’re not far from the hot springs of Calistoga here remember.

The long tunnel barrel aging cellar
The long tunnel barrel aging cellar

Their 23-year tenure wasn’t just about the wine making; the Araujos introduced organic farming in 1998 and pioneered biodynamics in Napa becoming certified in 2002. It wasn’t just about Cabernet either; in 1990 they identified a small number of Syrah vines within a Cabernet block dating from 1978 and made a Syrah varietal and they planted Sauvignon Blanc on a cooler east-facing slope.

So has anything changed since the Groupe Artemis acquired the vineyard in 2013? Well they took their time, very aware of the prestigious and successful reputation of the vineyard. In2014, Hélène Mingot was appointed technical director, although she modestly calls herself the stewardess of the vineyard on her twitter account. Having worked with Stephane de Deronencourt in Bordeaux and in Napa she is very attuned to the environmental impact of vine growing.

Commitment to environmentally sensitive development is pretty obvious right down to the welcome clucking from the chickens in the beautiful grounds and herb garden for the biodynamic preparations. As well as the 500 ancient olive trees that produce organic olive oil – all part of biodiversity, perfect for Hélène given her previous experience as an olive taster in Italy!

Napa is known for the great complexity of its terroir, with over 100 different soil types in an area that is 5 miles wide and 30 miles long – smaller than the Médoc. With a desire to better understand and express these variations, the 38 acres are divided into 13 blocks and over 40 sub-blocks, based on soil and subsoil in a very similar approach to that seen at Latour.

The map of the plots that make up the Eisele Vineyard
The map of the plots that make up the Eisele Vineyard

There are just four labels for a total of about 5000 cases: 1500 cases of the Grand Vin, 300 cases of Syrah and 2500 cases of the ‘Second Wine’ Altagracia, and some Sauvignon Blanc. One change has been the oak treatment for the wines, they still use 100% new oak for the first wine but the barrels have a lighter toast than previously, sourced from 6 different French coopers with 80% new oak for the second wine and 50% for the Syrah.

Three quarters of the 38-acre Eisele Vineyard are dedicated to Cabernet Sauvignon and the other components of the Bordeaux blend: Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot for the Grand vin.

The ‘second wine’ is called Altagracia, also a Bordeaux-style blend mainly from the Eastern parcels of the Eisele Vineyard, but complemented by fruit sourced from other Napa Valley vineyards including some Malbec – a wine more accessible in style when young.

The Syrah, originally made from those vines identified in that plot of Cabernet back in the early 90s, now comes from new plantings sometimes co-fermented with Vigonier in the traditional Rhone style – a nod perhaps to Chateau Grillet, also in the groups’ portfolio.

The Sauvignon Blanc is simply delicious, served to us after the red in the underground, very chilly, tasting room at the heart of the estate. And the blend of 60% Sauvignon Musqué (the first time I think I have knowingly tasted this Sauvignon clone) with Sauvignon Blanc has the wonderful tropical flavours added to the super fresh Sauvignon Blanc. Barrel ageing on the lees, as of the 2013 vintage, just adds to the depth.

Tasting at Eisele
Tasting at Eisele

The most, obvious change is the recent change of name, (well less of a change and more of a ‘back to the future’ moment), using simply ‘Eisele Vineyard Estate’ for The ‘Grand Vin’ as of the release of the 2013 vintage this year; a reflection of the importance attached to the land or terroir. The names of the Eisele Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc and Altagracia have not changed.

The new Eisele Label
The new Eisele Label

I was stunned by the elegance of these wines. Having often struggled with the power of Cabernets from Napa in the past, these wines struck me as having the perfect blend of old and new world. The vines growing in these dry, rocky soils produce very small berries of thick-skinned, intensely flavoured grapes – again a parallel with Pauillac.

The wines develop increased complexity with age; friends were kind enough to serve me a 2004 a few days after my visit that clearly showed this. However I feel the vintages under the new ownership definitely show more of old world elegance.

Precision, texture, elegance and consistency are terms historically used to describe the wines from Eisele, terms not dissimilar for those used to describe Chateau Latour. The property continues to be in safe hands.


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