Saturday, January 31, 2009

Report from ... The Trefethen Dinner - January 18, 2009

I find myself at the Niagara Street Cafe in downtown Toronto where Loren Trefethen (no title, but obviously part of the family) is hosting, along with Nick Hirons of Merchant Vintners, a dinner to introduce many of us to the line of Trefethen wines: a winery that celebrated 40 years of a uninterrupted winemaking in 2008; and a winery whose history is as interesting as their wines.

Loren, who my father would term a "long hair" told those in attendance a brief history of the Napa Valley starting from the first grape plantings in 1850 by Krug, and the first planting on the now Trefethen property in 1856. He took us through the first Napa-boom in 1910, when 104 wineries were located in the valley; the bust period, when a combination of phyloxera, world war, prohibition and depression plunged the once burgeoning and robust Napa landscape into a series of “ghost wineries” - abandoned because there was no money and no market for wine. 1968, when the next great boom in Napa began, when the likes of his grandfather, Eugene (Gene for short), bought land and planted (or re-planted, as the case may be) grapes, starting with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, then moving into Riesling and Cabernet. In 1968, the Trefethen’s had 600-acres under vine, today they have a combination of 437 on the estate and 25 in the hills - the region's largest continuous grape acreage. You may have noticed, if you do the math, a loss of acreage here - that was due to a combination of factors: need for cash to replant the vineyard and a schucking of lands that no longer suited their needs. As winemakers they wanted to focus their attention on quality of grapes and not just mass tonnage; the feeling was that the terroir was more important, along with their positioning in the field (were they grew) in producing the best possible fruit for wine. Ironically, some of the lands they sold have been found to make award-winning Merlots.

Loren also focused our attention on the late seventies, in particular to the 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting (when the U.S. bested France in both the Chardonnay and Cabernet categories) and the eventual rematches in both 1979 and 1980. In 1979, France, feeling they had been hoodwinked in ’76, held the World Wine Olympics to prove their wine dominance, approximately 900 wines were entered - mainly from France and Italy with a smattering of U.S. products. Once again the U.S. prevailed, this time it was a Trefethen Chardonnay that took the white award. Crying foul play the Chardonnay judging was replayed in 1980 - again Trefethen won. But Loren was quick to point out that one (’76) could not exist without the other (‘79 and ’80): "without the ‘76 tasting there would be no ’79 and ‘80 face-off; while ‘79 and ’80 validated the ‘76 results."

We tasted through eight wines, of which only two are available in Ontario (pity), and the reason for a dinner, instead of just a structured tasting, was explained to us: "these wines are tied to food," Loren said, "we put them on our table at dinner and that's where they truly shine."

Before getting to the wine, I must send some kudos out to a couple of the food choices: the Pork Hock, Crispy Sweet and Sour course (appetizer) and a cured and hot smoked wild B.C. salmon (second course) - both were off-the-chart good; the panna cotta dessert was also something very special … - as for the wines, here are my top three choices of must try Trefethen wines:

1) 2007 Estate Dry Riesling (~$35.00 - not available in Ontario) … those who believe that Riesling cannot grow in Napa, think again; this one's awesome. The nose is loaded with flavors: poached pear, petrol, mineral and lime nuances. The palate follows the nose with big mineral, petrol and citrus/lime appeal; good crisp acidity on the finish, there’s a hint of botrytisized grapes which add depth of character … one fantastic Riesling, with or without food.

2) 2004 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($69.95 - available at Vintages) … a gold medal winner at the concourse Mondiale 2008, and no wonder … big fruit greets the nose, vibrant, lush and beautiful with spicy/herbal notes that carry the fruit. The palate does not disappoint either, chocolate notes on the mid-palate lead to a big cherry-blackberry finish along with good acidity and fine tannins … oooo mama. is this ever tasty.

3) Finally, the 2003 HaLo (~$254.00 - not available in Ontario) … forget the price for a moment, this wine is big and wild, robust and mouth-filling - with lots of age-ability. The grapes are grown on a 25-acre plot known as the Hillsprings vineyard and named after the children Haley and Loren. Loren actually got all misty-eyed describing the wine and it’s meaning to him. Bottom line, it's big and limited (only 5484 bottles produced - each individually numbered). The nose is incredibly spicy with blackberries, cassis, cinnamon, nutmeg and good oakiness, derived from the 30 months it spends in cask. Taste has herbal notes along with big blackberry, oak and spice with hefty tannins. This one should age exceptionally well over the next 10+ years.

Thanks to the Niagara Street Café for a great dinner, Merchant Vintners for inviting me and especially to that long-haired Loren Trefethen for bringing these incredible wines to our attention, and the table.

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