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Opus one, a report of a tour

  • q

High tech wine making with classic French grape varieties.The Opus One winery is situated in Oakville, Napa valley California. Driving on St. Helena highway it's not difficult to spot the surrealistic building of Opus One. The driveway is impressive, just like that of a transplanted French Manor, with grape vines and beautiful trees on both sides it leads up to the parking where a number of limousines indicates that this cannot be an ordinary winery.

The artistic building, designed by Scott Johnson, has a roof covered by grass, contrasting beautifully with the clear blue sky. It highlights the ecological character of winemaking and pairs well with the green vineyards that surround it. The materials used symbolise the joint venture of two men: Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild. The limestone is classically French, whereas redwood and stainless steel are of more modern Californian influence. Robert Mondavi, one of California’s most well known vintners met Baron Philippe de Rothschild, legendary proprietor of Chateau Mouton Rothschild in Hawaii in 1970. There Baron de Rothschild proposed a joint venture, which took eight years before even a framework of the plan was prepared. However, it turned out to be a unique 50-50 joint ownership. This even division still exists today, but between Rothschild and Constellation Brands, since the latter took over the Mondavi winery. Opus one was first produced in 1979, in the facilities of the Mondavi winery. Since 1991 Opus One opened it’s own winery, currently surrounded by 56 hectares of vineyards planted with only traditional Bordeaux varieties: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, malbec and petit verdot. Most wineries make several different wines, here they make just one: Opus one

Looking over the vineyards, you can see the plants are very densely planted, for minimal yield and optimal concentration. In mountain areas you need to plant vertically, to reach this density, which is tough for the workers in the vineyards. Here in the valley everything is flat and there is no such problem. Many technologies are used, like the spray systems to prevent the grapes from getting to 0 degrees Celsius (32 Fahrenheit) when there is risk of frost damage. Large ‘ventilators’ have the same purpose, but they mix the cold layer just above the ground with warmer air layers. A few feet under the vineyards an incredible drainage system is hidden for quick water drainage. In a high tech laboratory, bigger than some aging cellars in Napa, the grapes are frequently checked before harvest. The technique continues in the fermentation area, where gravity flow is used to prevent harsh tannins, caused by bruised seeds. Grapes were hand picked and hand sorted: Yes, you read ‘were’, because now they have a machine of which just a few exist in the world. An automatic grape sorting machine makes camera shots of every grape. Grapes are video analyzed according to selection criteria, such as size and shape. At the end all stems and undesired grapes are shot out with air pressure. This machine can handle up to 10 tons of grapes per hour. An amazing piece of Equipment! The best grapes are carefully bruised and transferred to the temperature controlled fermentation tanks. More technique you can find in the aging cellar, where several bacteria removing machines are positioned, to make sure no infections occur in the new French oak barriques. These barriques, made by an astonishing amount of 14 different producers all have their own characteristic wood and toastiness. Great to smell these empty new barrels!

A tasting table is prepared with a bottle of Opus One 2007 and generously filled glasses. The aroma’s blow out of the glass including: Cassis, Cola, chocolate and forest floor. Enough tannin for long aging, but they feel very soft and even at this young age, they don’t disturb at all.

A machine that takes over the traditional handwork might reduce the romantic image of the grapes being both picked and sorted by hand. With cultured yeast, flying wine doctors, and now automated sorting will the character of wine get lost? On the other hand the winemakers can reduce the risk of mistakes at the sorting table and maybe we have to keep our opinion for ourselves until we have tasted the results.

We have made great pictures of the tasting room, vineyard and everything we saw on the tour. It's on our blog www.qliweb.com

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  1. >>> The artistic building, designed by Scott Johnson, has a roof covered by grass, <<<
    Yes, well . . .

    The original thought was to "sink" the building into the ground and cover it with grass to save on cooling costs -- similar to the way a cave reduces the electrical bill for a winery. During the construction of the winery, however, the builders hit a thermal hot spring, and had to add extra insulation and cooling capacity. Construction and on-going electrical costs were significantly higher than if they had just placed the entire building above ground in the first place.

    1. What about the wine? Like it?

      5 Replies
      1. re: bob96

        Yes very much! This is one of the few (special) American wines you can buy in Europe so we are drinking a lot of Opus One. It's very well made with a lot of complexity.

          1. re: invinotheresverde

            invinotheresverde: See what I mean about "Worthiness"? :)

            1. re: kaleokahu

              I chalk this particular case up to inexperience.

          2. re: qli

            >>> you can buy in Europe so we are drinking a lot of Opus One <<<

            Just because it's AVAILABLE in Europe doesn't mean it is *selling* in Europe . . .

            I imported an awful lot of Opus One BACK into the United States.

        1. The original comment has been removed
          1. Does Opus still offer "Overture"? I've enjoyed that at a "bargain" price point.

            1. Overpriced, blah, blah, blah overhyped, overrated............................Nice winery.