Discovery Tasting: Opus One

A tasting of one of California’s most famous wineries, presented by winemaker Michael Silacci was a special treat for the Collective’s members

Last week saw 30 lucky Sommelier Collective members log on for a one-hour masterclass with Opus One winemaker and head of viticulture, Michael Silacci.

As one of California’s most-established A-List wines, it was no surprise that we were heavily oversubscribed for  the event – and a further 20 members were keen enough to watch even without having access to the tasting samples.

Opus One was created by the coming together in 1978 of Baron Philippe de Rothschild (of Mouton Rothschild fame) and Robert Mondavi, probably the most important figure in modern Californian winemaking.

At a meeting at the Baron’s chateau in Bordeaux, it took these two wine world titans just one hour to outline the principles of Opus One.

  1. It should be a red wine made from Bordeaux varieties
  2. It should be a wine that people want to share with their friends and family
  3. It should be a place that people leave in better shape than they found it

The latter point is key. ‘Sustainability,’ as Michael Silacci put it, ‘is really ingrained into our system.’

The winemaker has even held off planting a six hectare plot near the winery because he wants to get every single element of the planting perfect: the trellising, the rootstocks, the row orientation – because he wants to be absolutely certain that the vines will still be around in 100 years’ time.

It’s a winery, in other words, where the long-term future is important, but that is still underpinned by an unshakeable ethos founded 40 years ago.

‘A journalist once asked me “who do you make wine for – Robert Parker? James Laube?”’ said Michael. ‘I said “I make wine for two people who aren’t alive anymore: Baron Philippe and Robert Mondavi.” My whole goal is to make a wine that gives you a sense of where it comes from.’

From To Kalon with love

For Opus One, that means 70 hectares of vineyard in Oakville, Napa Valley. The majority of the vines are in the hallowed To Kalon vineyards – reckoned to be the best site in Napa.

The winery experimented with biodynamism but rowed back on that because they felt it made the vines too vigorous. They still make preparations, however, which they use for compost.

Two of the last four years have been affected by wildfires. 2017, according to Michael, looked worse than it was since they had 90% of the crop picked before the fires arrived.

But 2020 could potentially be more awkward. The fires started in August and ran through the latter end of the growing season, though there was less smoke than in 2017.

‘It was long-time, low-impact,’ said Michael.

To safeguard against smoke taint, the team changed their growing philosophy of co-fermenting different varieties. Instead, they went back to picking, vinifying and (soon) ageing every block separately. Pressing was very gentle.

‘I’ll tell you what we have in 18 months,’ said Michael.

THE TASTING

The Discovery tasting included four vintages of Opus One and the current release of the Second Wine, Overture.

Opus One 2007

This was the year Michael had chosen to make the switch to full-on dry farming. ‘I wanted to encourage the vines to give a stronger expression of place, and I felt they could do that if the roots were down deeper,’ he said.

A warm, dry year made this difficult. And with plenty of Californian heat at play, Michael was keen to get some more Petit Verdot in the blend. The question was, how?

‘When we blended Cabernet and Petit Verdot as wine, it was like a dog meeting a cat in the street – they’d fight. Too aggressive, too harsh, too tannic.’

Then the answer came to him at 3am: co-fermentation.

‘It worked wonders,’ he said. ‘There was such an incredible harmony – and the layers were quite different. It was like kittens with puppies. They grew up loving each other, and this harmony came from there.’

Until 2020 (as explained above) they have co-fermented every year since.

Despite its age, Michael still sees plenty of ripe fruit – ‘baby fat’ as he calls it – in this wine.

Opus One 2011

California might be known for its sun – but not in 2011. It was a very cool, wet year.

‘We had learned so much from 2010 which was cool, but not as wet,’ says Michael. ‘We always tend to pick a bit earlier than others, and we learned from 2010 that we could go in early and capture a lot of the fresh fruit characteristics.’

Opus One is a very Cabernet-focused Bordeaux blend. And though it is never varietally labelled, this is the only vintage that did not have sufficient Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend (just 71%) that it could have been. The remainder is made up with 11% Merlot, 9% Petit verdot and 8% Cabernet Franc.

Stylistically, this wine was a lot more herbal, restrained and – for want of a better word – European. No surprise, perhaps that it came out top in our poll of tasters.

‘In the States, this vintage wasn’t really appreciated for what it is,’ said Michael. ‘I love the elegance of this wine – the silky texture – and it’s different.’

As a crib for blind-tasters, Michael says he can pick out ‘the fresh stems of red roses’ in both the 2007 and the 2011 before he swirls the glass.

Opus One 2015

From a warmer vintage, Michael and his team probably picked a few days later than they wanted to – by which time they were in the middle of a heat spike. As a result, they had to do a lot of ‘cherry-picking’ through the vineyards.

‘When we made the blend in January of 2016 I thought it was too intense,’ says Michael. ‘If it were a painting it would be like a self-portrait of Vincent van Gogh – just exploding!’

After 18 months in barrel, that intensity was still there, and the team felt the need to calm the wine down a little, so began adding in small amounts of less exuberant wine originally destined for Overture.

Stylistically Michael still says he finds it closer to the warm-year characteristics of 2007.

Opus One 2016

Michael began a programme of isolating wild yeasts in the vineyard in 2012, on the premise that it increases the sense of place in the wine. It was a long process. They began by finding 50 yeasts from the vineyards, narrowing that down to 35, then 15 and finally six which they liked the most and sent off for analysis.

The lab results were surprising.

‘We found we had three wolves, two coyotes and a dog,’ says Michael wryly. ‘The wolves being the wild yeasts, the coyotes being [semi-wild] yeasts that had certain genetic connections to commercial yeasts, and the dog was a [domesticated] commercial yeast from the Rhone.’

This was the first wine to be made with over 50% of wild yeasts. Current vintages are 100% wild yeast fermented. But what does this process bring to the actual wine?

‘The aromas are different,’ explains Michael. ‘They can be a little more earthy. But the mouthfeel is what I like. When we blend, that’s what we’re looking for, and I love the way [wild yeast] adds little nuances and layers of complexity. The aromas will always come around.’

Of the four Opus One wines on show here, this is the one that Michael felt best captured his grape-growing and winemaking philosophy. Perhaps because of the wild yeast element.

Overture 2020 release

Technically, Overture is, indeed, a second wine in that it comes from the same estate as the main wine. But its philosophy is quite different since it’s a multi-vintage blend, typically of three vintages. The current release is made up of 2014, 2015 and 2016.

‘If Opus is an expression of time over place, Overture is an expression of place over time because the seasons get muted out somewhat and you really see the place coming through more,’ says Michael. ‘The theory is that Overture is the wine that you drink while you’re waiting for Opus, but I’ve always found it to be a good candidate for ageing as well.’

Certainly, it was popular with our tasters, with bright fruit, powdery tannins and a few more years of ageing. Several commented on its relative affordability, too, for venues that might struggle to sell the grand vin.

I don’t make wine for Robert Parker or James Laube. I make wine for two people who aren’t alive anymore: Baron Philippe de Rothschild and Robert Mondavi

Michael Silacci

Members’ Q&A With Michael Silacci

There were too many members’ questions to include all of them here (sorry!).  But we’ve picked out a few of our favourites.

Do you get frustrated making just two wines? (Alexia Gallouet, Gymkhana)

I was making 17 wines at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars! I’ve always wanted to make a white wine at Opus. I’ve brought that idea up two or three times a year for 20 years and it hasn’t gone anywhere. But there’s so much going on with our five varieties and in the vineyard… there’s plenty of opportunity when you’re just making one wine.

Has your oak use changed? (Paul Robineau, 110 de Taillevent)

It’s been evolving over time. The barrel is a pedestal on which we support the wine. It needs to support the wine not mask it.

How do you think the 2007 and 2011 vintages will age and when does Opus One start to show its full potential? (Louise Gordon, Heckfield Place Hotel)

The general consensus is that the 2011 will not age as well as the 2007. But 1979 and 1980 are still ageing well and they were both picked earlier. I still get a lot of ‘baby fat’ on the 2007 – a lot of ripe fruit, and that has yet to fade away.

Regarding full potential: there’s a really nice window between 12 and 17 years. After 9 or 10 years they start to go into the tertiary stage.

You mentioned you use biochar in the vineyards. What does it achieve? (George Doyle, Fhior)

You put it near the root zone and it facilitates water uptake. [Because we dry farm] my hope is that it will help the vines out a bit.

What are your favourite vintages of Opus One? (Milena de Waele, Birley Club)

2010 without hesitation. It was the most challenging vintage I’ve ever been through. It was like being in a wrestling match with Mother Nature, trying to channel whatever she sent our way and turn it into something positive.

We stumbled on ripeness three weeks before we thought it would be ripe. It’s my all-time favourite. Though 1980, 1987, 1991 and 1995 are wines I like very much that I had nothing to do with.

Star wine: Opus One 2011

As voted for by The Sommelier Collective members that attended the tasting.

Tasting sheets to download

UK importer

The Opus One wines are available either through Waddesdon Wines or Bibendum. For further detailed information, contact European Export Manager, Charlie Matthews on +33 643 06 45 41; charlie.matthews@opusonewinery.com

Stars of Santa Rita

You might have seen Romain Bourger’s excellent earlier article on California’s Santa Rita Hills AVA. Here he picks out five wines that he thinks show why it’s so special.

MELVILLE, CHARDONNAY, CLONE 76-INOX, STA. RITA HILLS, 2018,

The Vineyard Cellars, £30-£35*

This wine comes from a cold and sandy spot on one of the western vineyards of the estate and is entirely made of Clone 76, one of the most planted clones, originating from Burgundy. It is only vinified on its lees in stainless steel tank without undergoing malolactic fermentation.

The result is a bright, pale green-yellow wine with delicate nose of fresh lemon, green apple and honeysuckle as well as a touch of fresh pineapple. It has a vibrant acidity and a slight, mouth-watering, iodine tone and a round palate. The wine shows great balance and purity.

I would suggest this wine with simply grilled plaice with lemon zest, all reminiscent of the saltiness and freshness found in this wine.

SANDHI, CHARDONNAY, SANDFORD & BENEDICT VINEYARD, STA. RITA HILLS, 2017

Roberson Wine, £45+*

An iconic vineyard indeed as it is the one that pioneered Sta. Rita Hills back in 1971. This is the ninth vintage for this highly acclaimed winery and shows an explosive minerality followed by fresh stone fruit and floral notes. It is an incredibly complex, textured and balanced wine, one that truly shows the level of Chardonnay in California.

I think that due to its complexity and texture, this wine would match with richer dishes such as lobster or poultry in a creamy sauce.

MELVILLE, PINOT NOIR, BLOCK M, STA. RITA HILLS, 2014

The Vineyard Cellars, £45+*

This vineyard is planted on clay soil on the top of a sun-exposed mesa. There is no new oak used in this wine (only neutral barrel from 5-20 years of age) and 70% is whole cluster.

The wine has a dark fruit component and more generous palate but keeps a great freshness and tannic structure. With great depth and complexity it is showing very well now but still has plenty of time to develop.

The ripeness of this wine would pair well with a pork belly served with roasted butternut squash (to which I’d suggest to add some rosemary) and balsamic roasted onions.

The Ojai Vineyard, Grenache, John Sebastiano Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills, 2017

Tiger Vines, £25-£30*

Grenache often can be found at a high degree of alcohol and be ripe and almost a bit flabby. This example is none of those things. Planted on a loamy-clay soil with limestone it makes an extremely juicy and seductive Grenache.

The wine has a bright garnet colour and a light intensity that could be reminiscent of Pinot Noir. It is an explosion of ripe red berries and red cherry underlined by a delicate flavor of licorice and violet. The palate is soft, crunchy and juicy with a refreshing savoury finish.

This wine is so delicate that I would definitely pair it with a meaty fish such as some roasted monkfish wrapped in pancetta (somehow now of a classic combination) with a Mediterranean twist; I’d add Provence herbs to it and serve it with a traditional tian of vegetable (aubergines, tomatoes and courgettes, with extra thyme).

STORM WINES, PINOT NOIR, DUVARITA VINEYARD, SANTA BARBARA COUNTY, 2015

Tiger Vines, £35-£40*

Although a relatively young vineyard (planted in 2000), this bio-dynamically grown Pinot Noir is made of three different Dijon clones (667, 115 and 113) and planted on sandy loam. The wine has a touch of whole clusters and only a kiss of new oak. The result is a robust Pinot Noir with an amazing forest floor complexity completed by ripe dark fruits, a light violet component and a long, savoury palate. It is not an extracted example of Pinot Noir and, to me, shows exactly what Pinot Noir is capable of.

Due to its great aromatics, I would suggest this wine with a gamey dish such as roasted pheasant with wild mushroom and a red wine reduction.

For more information about the wines of Santa Rita Hills region visit the website.

*All prices are quoted trade, ex VAT.

Santa Rita, Sideways and Sea Breezes

The Santa Rita Hills is one of the best cool-climate areas in the world. Located in the southern part of California, 148 miles north of Los Angeles it stretches for about 10 miles inland between the towns of Lompoc to the west and Buellton to the east.

What make this region so unique for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay especially are the transverse hills. Most of the hills in California run north/south parallel to the Pacific. But here they run east to west. So instead of acting as a barrier to the cool sea air, they channel it inland. As a result the vineyards have a great oceanic influence.

There are two east-west valleys between Lompoc and Buellton. The most northerly one runs along Highway 246 between Purisima Hills to the North and the Sta. Rita Hills. It has a loamy, shale-rich soil (part of the Monterey Formation) and generally makes more generous wines.

The other valley runs along Santa Rosa Road, between the Santa Rita Hills and the Santa Rosa Hills to the south. Its terroir is mainly made of clay, shale, alluvial soil (by the riverbed) and diatomaceous earth. The latter is an agglomeration of fossilised algae that resembles limestone and is where the Sandford & Benedict vineyard was first planted. (You’ve all seen Sideways, right?)

Map courtesy of Santa Rita Hills AVA/Sta. Rita Hills Winegrowers Alliance

Diatomaceous earth is composed of diatomite – sedimentary formation of fossilised diatoms (algae) – silica and clay and can be compared to limestone as it forms soft white rocks.

Limestone soils are famous worldwide for producing great wines for a number of reasons. Diatomaceous earth (such as limestone) has an alkaline pH due to their high calcium content; this helps the vines to absorb nutrients as well as promoting water retention.

It is particularly important in clay soils as it offers better soil structure and, in periods of dry weather, makes it easier for the roots to go deeper in search of the water and nutrients needed. Soils rich in calcium also lead to higher grape acidity late in the growing season (which is particularly crucial in the Santa Rita Hills as the latter is very long in the region) and lower wine pH.

Modern history

The region’s modern history started in 1970 when Richard Sandford searched the region to find somewhere to farm. He analysed weather records from the area and found that the further inland you go, the hotter it gets, with one mile roughly equal to one degree more of temperature.

With this information, he located a two to four miles wide micro-climate on which to establish his vineyard and in 1971 he planted the Sandford & Benedict vineyard, eight miles east of Lompoc, with his business partner Michael Benedict. It was a watershed moment for the history of winemaking in the Santa Rita Hills.

The 1980’s saw a growing interest in this vineyard with vintners such as Jim Clendenen (Au Bon Climat) buying grapes from there as well as the Santa Maria Valley.

However, the rise of the region took time and, by the 1990’s, the northern part of Santa Barbara County had become Chardonnay territory. The warmer Santa Ynez Valley had also become known for growing Rhône varietals.

It was only in 2001 that the western end of the Santa Ynez Valley became the Santa Rita Hills AVA.

The climate in the Santa Rita Hills is relatively warm and consistent all year long but rarely exceeds 27 degrees Celsius as it is cooled down during the growing season by the strong oceanic wind and fog from off the Pacific. The wind blows during the early afternoon sending the vine into a sort of “ripening dormancy” and allowing them to slowly mature and achieve the best phenolic ripeness without sugar spiking. Alcohol levels are, therefore, lower.

It never gets very cold. Even in January the average temperature in Lompoc is 19 degrees Celsius.

The climatic conditions (warm, not hot, cooling breezes and fogs) and soils make the region particularly suited for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. But though they do, indeed, thrive here other varietals are also grown, such as Syrah and Grenache.  

Manfred Krankl of Sine Qua Non planted his Eleven Confessions Vineyard just a few miles east of the Pinot Noir holy grail of the Sandford & Benedict Vineyard, for instance. The vineyard is planted to Syrah and Grenache primarily with the addition of Roussanne, Viognier and Petite Syrah as well as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Muscat. The cool climate allows for harvest around the end of October and sometimes even in November. It is densely planted and produces on average less than 600 grams of fruit per vine.

During the early 2000’s, the trend was towards bigger and plusher expressions of Pinot Noir. This was partly due to the long growing season that the region enjoys allowing a longer hang time on the vines and pushing the maturity of the grapes.

But since the mid-2000s, the region has seen a resurgence in term of style that seem to go back to its 1970’s roots as regards ripeness levels. Lots of wines nowadays have a true sense of place and terroirs with bright minerality, tension and lean fruit with this hint of ripeness as a backbone.

6 Names to look out for

1. Sandhi

(Roberson Wine)

2. Domaine de la Côte

(Roberson Wine)

3. Melville Winery

(The Vineyard Cellars)

4. Ojai Vineyard

(Tiger Vines)

5. Sine Qua Non

(Berry Bros & Rudd)

6. Au Bon Climat

(Fields, Morris & Verdin)

You can read and learn more about California in the LEARN section.