Opus one, a report of a tour
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
We stopped by Opus One last week before our dinner at the French Laundry for a tasting, not the full tour, as I was curious about the French-Napa experiment/collaboration. I enjoy west-bank Bourdeaux wines and Opus has a similar blend, ie the 2005 is a blend of 88% Cab, 5% Merlot, 3% Petit Verdot, 3% Cab Franc and 1% Malbec.
Instead of a tasting-size pour they were offering a normal sized glass of either the 2007 or 2005 vintages for $30 a pop and my wife and I got a glass of each. The 2005 was described as more elegant and softer, the 2007 as a bit more tannic and perhaps in need of some more aging.
After taking a couple sips of the 2007 and drinking a glass of the 2005 I'd agree with those assessments. I really liked the 2005, maybe the 2nd best wine we tasted this trip. My wife enjoys a bit more tannins and liked the 2007 better.
Wine Advocate has scored the 2005 as 95+ (Parker) and 95 (Lisa Perotti-Brown) and the 2007 also scored 95 (Parker) in the 2nd tasting (94-97 when tasted in the barrel).
Wine Spectator wasn't quite as smitten with the 2005, giving it a 90, but gave the 2007 a 94 (James Laube both times).
This winery has a nice open area on top with tables and a lovely view of the valley on both sides and you are encouraged to take your glass up there and enjoy the view. I can see picking up some light fare from Bouchon or from one of the small grocery stores for a picnic and taking this with you to the roof for a nice lunch while drinking your wine. You won't find a wine this good for $30 at most restaurants.
While I enjoyed the wine I think it's probably over-priced for most people (like me) at $200 for the '07 and $210 for the '05.
If I recall correctly the 2006 has not been released yet as they are either still fiddling with the blend or waiting for it to age some more. Parker has rated it 93+ and 94 on two tastings a year apart, but Wine Spectator gave it just an 88, a solid enough score for a much cheaper wine but of course a buzz-kill for a $200/bottle vintage. Parker wrote "a more muscular wine that begs for 2-3 years of cellaring" ...
Anyway, an interesting experience and very good wines ...
>>> 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.