Here on the Eurocentric East Coast -- remember we're nearly as close to France as to California -- I still am asked, albeit less frequently than two decades ago, whether America produces wines comparable to France. As my daughters would say, 'Duh.'
Even without tasting, consumers just need to scan the list of famous French wine producers who have invested in West Coast vineyards and put their names on the labels to see that the French themselves think highly of our vineyards.
In the 1970s, the French invasion started when Moët & Chandon established Domaine Chandon in the Napa Valley. Other Champagne companies, such as Roederer, Mumm and Taittinger, followed with Roederer Estate, Mumm Napa and Domaine Carneros. Soon Bordeaux luminaries, Baron Philippe Rothschild of Chateau Mouton Rothschild and Christian Moueix of Chateau Pétrus, arrived with Opus One and Dominus, respectively. And let's not forgot the prestigious Burgundy producer, Joseph Drouhin, who founded Domaine Drouhin Oregon.
One of the latest Frenchmen to partner with Californians presents the greatest irony. Aubert de Villaine, proprietor of his own Burgundy domaine, A & P de Villaine, and co-managing director of Burgundy's most famous estate, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, commonly known as DRC, has joined forces with Larry Hyde, a well-known California viticulturist to produce wines under the HdV label (The pair are pictured here, with de Villaine on the left).
Although DRC makes Le Montrachet and a tiny amount -- one barrel, about 300 bottles, per year -- of Bâtard-Montrachet (only for their consumption) from Chardonnay, they are best known for their spectacular red wines from the best grand cru sites in Burgundy, Romanée-Conti, La Tâche, Romanée-St.-Vivant, Richebourg, Grands-Echézeaux and Echézeaux. (They also produce a premier cru Vosne-Romanée in some years).
Despite de Villaine's experience with Pinot Noir (all red Burgundy is made from Pinot Noir) he is not making one in California. Ironically, Syrah is the most exciting wine in the HdV portfolio in my opinion, even though HdV's winemaker, Stéphane Vivier, hails from Burgundy where that grape is not grown.
De Villaine told me that he was not eager to make a Pinot Noir in California because of the 'inevitable comparisons.' He admits it was probably a commercial mistake because he is sure it would sell well. Instead, de Villaine and Hyde are making an excellent Chardonnay and a stylish red Bordeaux blend in addition to their stellar Syrah. They are also making another Chardonnay -- a second wine -- under the De La Guerra label.
The Hyde family has been farming in California for seven generations. The family traces its roots to Don José de la Guerra, who emigrated from Spain in the late 18th century and became an important resident of Santa Barbara. According to Rick Hyde, President of HdV and Larry's nephew, de la Guerra made wine, one of which won a Gold Medal at the Philadelphia Centennial Fair in 1876. He hopes HdV will be a 'rebirth of that tradition.' Judging from the results of the vertical tastings (notes below), there will be more medals in their future.
The Hyde family currently owns about 150 acres of vineyards in the Carneros region of southern Napa Valley. Rick notes, 'We are farmers.' Prior to the joint venture, the Hydes sold all their grapes to over 20 California wineries, including Kistler, Patz and Hall, Paul Hobbs, Ramey and Robert Mondavi. Now, they will keep fruit from about 25 acres for the HdV wines and continue to sell grapes from the remaining acreage.
De Villaine became familiar with California wines during a visit to Napa Valley in 1964, the same year DRC purchased its 1.5 acres of Le Montrachet and its miniscule piece of Bâtard-Montrachet. Five years later, in New York, he met his future wife, Pamela, Larry Hyde's first cousin. They were married in 1971 and live in the Burgundian village, Bouzeron, home to their domaine, A & P de Villaine. But it wasn't until 1998, when de Villaine was impressed with a Chardonnay made from grapes grown in Hyde vineyard, that he raised the idea of a joint venture. They made their first wines, a Chardonnay and a red Bordeaux blend, in 2000.
In their first vintage they made a total of about 2,000 cases and currently produce about 4,000 cases. They envision a maximum annual production of 5,000 cases: 2,000 cases each of Chardonnay and a red Bordeaux blend, and 1,000 cases of Syrah.
De Villaine freely admits that the HdV wines 'may not win the grandest marks' from some important critics because they lack flamboyance. But they make wines they like to drink, wines with finesse. For that, he says, 'you need great vineyards' and 'you need to pay attention to what is happening in the vineyard.' Vivier, working like a vigneron does in Burgundy, is responsible for the vineyard as well as the winemaking. Their winemaking philosophy in California echoes that of all the great winemakers, less is more. He is adamant, 'you never increase the quality of the wine by interfering.'
De Villaine admits he found it 'a little strange' coming from Burgundy, where only Pinot Noir and Chardonnay -- along with a little Aligoté and Pinot Blanc -- are planted to find so many different grape varieties growing so near one another in California.
He noted that there are many more slopes, exposures and variations in climate in Carneros than in Burgundy, which probably explains how both Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir, grapes that need different conditions for ripening, can thrive. Most importantly, according to de Villaine, is to follow the advice of Larry Hyde -- 'a great viticulturist' -- who knows what grapes grow best where.
It's clear from speaking with de Villaine that, despite how good his California wines are, and they are very good, he is never quite satisfied. He finds the challenges in California different from those in his native Burgundy. His mission in California is to figure out how to achieve mature tannins simultaneously with sugar maturity.
The problem in California is often the sugars levels in the grapes reach appropriate levels before the tannins are mature and supple. That disparity occurs because grapes make sugar faster than they mature tannins in the California climate.
Harvesting at that point produces wines with proper alcohol but astringent tannins. Waiting until the grape tannins are supple means delaying the harvest and making wines from grapes that have excessively high sugar levels. The resulting wines can be alcoholic and unbalanced, lacking finesse and subtlety.
Even though we spent most of our time talking about California, you can't write about de Villaine without mentioning Aligoté because he sets the standard for the wine made from that grape. In fact, the first question I asked him wasn't about HdV or DRC, it was, how do you make such superb Aligoté?
Aligoté is the clear stepchild grape in Burgundy, used mostly to make an acidic white wine. It's ideal for making Kir, a mixture of syrup of cassis and white wine, because the acid cuts the sweetness of the cassis. But A & P de Villaine's Aligoté has real depth and minerality that balances the acidity.
He modestly attributes the quality of the wine to Bouzeron, his hometown, which he says is unusually well suited to that grape. The French authorities clearly agree since it is the only place with its own Appellation Origin Controllée (AOC) for Aligoté -- Bourgogne Aligoté-Bouzeron -- instead of the more generic Bourgogne Aligoté. The poor soil in Bouzeron keeps the yields naturally low, which increases the quality of the wine, according to him. I suspect it's more than that because he is not the only producer of Aligoté in the town. But maybe he's the only one who doesn't interfere with it.
HdV's Chardonnays are refined, classy and balanced. They all have a minerality, as opposed to a tropical fruitiness, that makes them intriguing. The six vintages of Chardonnay we tasted showed how beautifully these wines develop. Tightly wound when young, their complexity blossoms after a couple of years in the bottle.
HdV, Carneros (Napa Valley, California) Chardonnay 2000 (Not available commercially): Opulent, but not overt, the 2000 Chardonnay had plenty of acid to support the richness. Still youthful, it was creamy and vibrant. 95
HdV, Carneros (Napa Valley, California) Chardonnay 2001 (Not available commercially): Crisper and much younger tasting than the 2000, the 2001 had good length and minerality, but was slightly hot. 89
HdV, Carneros (Napa Valley, California) Chardonnay 2002 (Not available commercially): Another stellar wine, the 2002 Chardonnay was tight and conveyed a Puligny-Montrachet-like minerality. Creamy, balanced and long, I suspect it will continue to evolve beautifully. 95
HdV, Carneros (Napa Valley, California) Chardonnay 2003 ($55, Wilson Daniels): The 2003, still tight, shows a promising combination of lushness and verve. 88
HdV, Carneros (Napa Valley, California) Chardonnay 2004 ($55, Wilson Daniels): Although very enjoyable now, the 2004 should evolve like the 2002 and 2000. Their signature creamy mineral-infused core peeks out through the vibrant citric acidity giving it a marvelous balance and length. 94
De la Guerra, (Napa Valley, California) Chardonnay 2005 ($30, Wilson Daniels): This, their 'second label,' is made from the fruit of young vines and bottled early. It has an Aligoté-like vibrancy atop a subtle creaminess. It's an excellent choice to match with shellfish or a fish napped in a cream sauce. 88
HdV's Bordeaux blend is composed of mostly Merlot (90 percent) with the remainder Cabernet Sauvignon. Like the Chardonnays, the Bordeaux blends evolve beautifully with bottle age. Starting with the 2004 vintage, it will be labeled, Belle Cousine, in recognition of the family ties that brought them together.
HdV, Carneros (Napa Valley, California) Red Wine 2000 (No longer available commercially): A lovely development of tobacco and cedar aromas and flavors complement the restrained fruitiness of this long, elegant wine. 90
HdV, Carneros (Napa Valley, California) Red Wine 2001 (No longer available commercially): A riper style, the 2001 still has the finesse that de Villaine prizes. Not nearly as evolved as the 2002, it's long, succulent and balanced. 92
HdV, Carneros (Napa Valley, California) Red Wine 2002 ($60, Wilson Daniels): Riper fruit predominates in this younger wine, but it's marred by a little heat from the alcohol at this stage. 87
HdV, Carneros (Napa Valley, California) Red Wine 2003 ($60, Wilson Daniels): Riper still, the 2003 still conveys tobacco and earthy flavors. The alcohol still shows a bit, but the complexity is captivating. 90
HdV, Carneros (Napa Valley, California) Belle Cousine 2004 (Not yet released, Wilson Daniels): Despite the power of this ripe, seductively oaky young wine, it is amazingly graceful. 91
While the above notes reflect my enthusiasm for HdV's Chardonnay and Bordeaux-blend, it's their Syrah, first produced in 2001, that I found most exhilarating. They opted not to bottle one in 2003 because it was not up to their standards. They obtain incredible complexity from Syrah with alcohol levels that are reasonable, below 14 percent.
HdV, Carneros (Napa Valley, California) Syrah 2001 (No longer available commercially): An extraordinarily complex Syrah, the 2001 has developed a luxurious meaty, beefy quality and a seemingly never-ending finish. Big, but balanced, it has nuances of bacon fat commonly seen in wines from the Northern Rhone to complement the ripe fruit flavors. 96
HdV, Carneros (Napa Valley, California) Syrah 2002 ($60, Wilson Daniels): Very similar to the 2001, just slightly less evolved, the 2002 is thankfully still available. It has brighter fruit and a less meaty quality, but is no less enjoyable. 95
HdV, Carneros (Napa Valley, California) Syrah 2004 ($60, Wilson Daniels): The only one of this trio with more than 14% alcohol (it weighs in at 14.3%), it conveys much more forward fruit flavor and less complexity at this stage. But it's balance and length suggests it too will evolve like the 2002 and 2001. 91