Barrel Tasting at Arkenstone Vineyards


I was fortunate in my relationship choices of 2012, which have led me to the sunny slopes of Napa Valley (currently 75 degrees in mid February – sweet!!) and an incredible family-owned winery called Arkenstone on Howell Mountain.

arkentone_vineyard_howell_mountain_napa_valley

View over Arkenstone Vineyards

With 15 acres under vine on the estate, they currently grow primarily Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc & Syrah, with a smattering of Semillon and other varietals that go into their flagship Cabernet “Obsidian” blend.

The 2012 vintage is now in barrel and yesterday I was privileged to accompany Jake – my boyfriend & estate director here at Arkenstone – and winemaker Sam Kaplan on a little tasting excursion in the cave.

We started with rosé, which they bottle under a second label called Loupe.  Now, I was raised on French rosé which we used to buy at Monoprix in Nice to drink on the beach, and my standing tenets of rosé buying heretofore were to almost always buy the cheapest one and the one palest in color.  So when Jake first showed me the 2011 Loupe, which is a rich dark pink and retails at $26 a bottle, I was skeptical. But I have now been thoroughly converted. Unlike some other darker rosés, Loupe is bone dry with beautiful fruit & floral notes and a little oak to round it out.

arkenstone_vineyard_loupe_rose

Winemaker Sam Kaplan tastes the 2012 rosé

The 2012 Loupe will be paler in color – which Sam explained is a function of the grapes & this year’s harvest, versus any wine making technique.  It’s very young, but you can still start to taste the elements that will develop into what I plan to be drinking all summer.

Next up was Cabernet Sauvignon that will be used for one of their non-estate wines (eg, the grapes come from a different vineyard), called Coliseum Block, which is a 100% Cabernet.  You can feel the tannins dry out the inside of your mouth when you take the first sip, but it’s not so overpowering that you can’t taste anything else, and there’s a lot of potential for it to develop over the next 3 years before it’s released.  This contrasts sharply with my last barrel tasting experience in Piedmont, Italy in fall of 2011, where the wines are so tannic even for the first few years that you feel like the enamel may have just been completely eroded from your teeth and it’s hard to distinguish any flavor at all, at least for an amateur like me.

arkenstone_vineyard_howell_mountain_napa_valley_wine_thief

Thiefing wine

I’ll take a time out here and explain how one goes about barrel tasting.  Each wine barrel is plugged on top with a small hole a few inches in diameter.  You take out this plug and insert a glass “wine thief”, which is a rather phallic curved glass vial.  You hold your thumb over the top of it and then drip a small taste of wine into your glass.  If you’re tasting a lot – like we were – and you have to go back to work afterwards, you mostly spit into the drains that dot the cave after swirling the wine around your mouth and sucking air through it to make that weird gurgling noise wine people make.

Last but not least we tasted the 2012 Sauvignon Blanc, which they age in a combination of French oak & cement eggs.  The latter basically look like giant gray dinosaur eggs and due to their shape have a natural convection effect on the wine.  The concrete is porous, like wood, but doesn’t impart any flavor so you get the textural effects of barrel aging, without the oak taste.  The wine had just recently been stirred so it was very cloudy.  For me the overwhelming component on the nose was melon with a little bit of peach, but there is also a lot of minerality.

arkenstone_vineyard_sauvignon_blanc_2012

2012 Sauvignon Blanc

The 2010 Sauvignon Blanc, which is what we’re drinking now, pairs phenomenally with food, and can stand up to heartier fare such as pork chops or substantial poultry dishes.  It’s made in an old world style, so if you think New Zealand when you think Sauv Blanc, this is very different.  Where NZ SB is often very tropical fruit-forward – think lychee – or, as  wine writer Jancis Robinson says “cat pee on gooseberry bushes” (let us know if you test that one out in real life), Arkentone’s SB is more melon & lemon with floral notes and minerals.

Stay tuned for more thoughts & notes on Arkenstone and Napa Valley in the next few weeks!