Thursday, 6 December 2012

CUWS M12 - Opus One

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

A tasting of Opus One wines for the Cambridge University Wine Society, led by David Pearson, CEO of Opus One. I had the good fortune of being seated opposite David Pearson at this tasting, and I must say he was both generous and thoughtful in all his answers to my questions; we only tasted five wines on the night, which left plenty of time for discussions. I'll try to summarise what I have learnt about Opus One in a few paragraphs below (feel free to jump straight to the tasting notes...).

Started in 1979 (first vintage) as a joint venture between Robert Mondavi (of Napa fame) and Baron Phillippe de Rothschild (of Ch Mouton Rothschild fame), Opus One was conceived with the aim of creating the best red wine that reflected California. To this day, Opus One only makes one wine, a blend of the classical Bordeaux varietals dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon (80-90%), Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec. They also produce a small amount of second wine called 'Overture' which is only available for purchase at their cellar door or through their website. Out of the annual production of approximately 20,000 cases, half of Opus One production is exported - unusually high for premium US wines.

In terms of of winemaking, Opus One has been gradually shifting away from the know-how initially gained from both Ch Mouton Rothschild and Robert Mondavi. David Pearson likens this to a child growing up, whilst appreciating and undoubtedly learning from and listening to the advice from both parents, is nevertheless forging its own character and its own way of doing things. An example he cited was in water management in the vineyard. Typical US wineries would irrigate often but in small volumes (basically drip irrigation), keeping the vines relatively stress-free and resulting in roots which have no need to dig deep into the soil. Opus One irrigates less often but in larger volumes, ensuring that the water percolates through the soil and in effect makes the roots chase after the water (more akin to the huge showers you get in Bordeaux, followed by long periods of dryness). While this might stress the vines, it would force the roots to dig deeper into the soil and in turn yield much better grapes.

Given the Californian climate, Opus has no problems in achieving the sugar ripeness in the grapes, so the aim has been to get the phenolic ripeness right without letting the alcohol levels go unchecked. The wines are aged in 100% new French oak for approximately 18 months with several rackings. An interesting, though admittedly not unique, feature of Opus One is that their wines can seem rather closed and lean in its adolescence (between 5-10 years), so the insider's scoop would be to enjoy Opus rather young (pretty much on release, which I would personally advise against) or wait after its awkward adolescence (much more sensible).

Five wines were tasted on the night and they are presented here in the order they were tasted. The 1980 (as it were, ex-chateau) was tasted at a separate event.

1996 Opus One (en magnum)
A | drink now - 2020+

Green bell pepper, leafy / stalky notes was rather dominant (but it blew away with some time in the glass), mingling with some leather and tobacco, smoky / baked earth notes too. The fruit was sweet, dark and very ripe, with some hints of vanilla. On the palate, the fruit was distinctly sweet and ripe; blackberries and dark plums; very plush and generous; tannins were sweet and yielding, perfectly integrated into the wine; enough acidity to keep things going. Incredibly composed and well knit, a beautiful wine with much life ahead. To be perfectly honest, served blind, I would have guessed it as a high quality aged claret (perhaps St Julien or Pauillac) from a very ripe year.

2000 Opus One
A-(+) | drink now - 2020+

Sweet cassis on the nose; opulent and forward, jammy and cooked dark fruit compote, incredible port-like nose; framboise and cherry liquer too, with vanilla, some mint and hints of truffley undergrowth. Very interesting aromas indeed. Fruit on the palate is generous and large; a heady concoction of ripe dark fruits again; notable length and persistence on the palate; it doesnt feel overly extracted yet has good power; tannins are ripe and needs a bit more time to resolve. Perhaps lacks the finesse and precision of the '96, but still very good; more Californian blockbuster in style.

2004 Opus One
A-(+) | drink 2015 - 2025+

Dark fruit compote on the nose, with cassis and port / liquer like nose; theres a sweetness, even confected note here, wine gums and sweet licorice, with a hint of mint - almost makes me think this is an Australian. On the palate, lots of dark fruit, blackberry dominates; quite a lot of extraction, the tannins are ripe but still muscular and does grip on the finish; flavours do last, feels quite hefty and alcoholic on the palate. Low acidity, plenty of fruit, bold, forward fruity style - even more unmistakably new world.

2008 Opus One
A-(++) | drink 2018 - 2030+

Dark fruit, even more brooding than the previous ones, with some hints of floral notes of violets and roses. On the palate, everything is masked by the huge fruit; properly thick and extracted, this is a fruit bomb, quite explosive on entry; dark berries all the way, almost port-like spice on the finish. Whilst the fruit is very juicy, the tannins are also untempered; needs time to resolve. A big wine that could do with a few years.

2009 Opus One
A-(++) | drink 2017 - 2030+

Dark fruit, quite brooding; theres licorice and some woody aromas; the toasty fragrant oak still comes through on the nose, vanilla pods; also some undergrowth notes too. On the palate, blueberries and blackberries are the dominant characters; feels quite edgy on the palate, theres fruit and concentration but it really isnt fully expressing itself. Ripe and muscular tannins too with good length on the palate. Needs time to integrate.

1980 Opus One
A- | drink now

The second vintage ever of Opus One, this bottle came straight from their cellars. On the nose, some green varietal characters, leafy and bellpepper along with some stalky and woody notes, also hints of leather and undergrowth truffle notes. On the palate, the fruit is just about hanging on, boysenberry and blueberry, but its more faded than bright; decent acidity, tannins have faded away. Still drinking nicely, but I'd class it as 'faded glory'; such a rare treat though. Again, reminded me of an aged but very fine Pauillac / St Julien. 

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