Vertical Tasting of Arietta Red Wine H Block Hudson Vineyards Napa Valley

The finest California red wines undergo a graceful evolution in bottle much like the best ageworthy reds from France and Italy do, gaining in aromatic complexity, depth, texture and harmoniousness over a period of years.  While they often go through this process faster than the best clarets, Burgundies, Northern Rhone wines, Barolos, Barbarescos and Brunellos do, some California wines can evolve at an even slower pace.  It's the journey that counts, not how long it takes, and I've learned from painful experience that one cannot take this "classic" aging curve for granted.

In the '60s and '70s, too many California wines from Bordeaux varieties went into bottle stunted, and although many of these wines are alive decades later, they never improved with bottle age or became fun to drink.  Whether because they were picked underripe with very low pHs, or excessively acidified, or not racked frequently enough during their élevage, they never really blossomed in the cellar.  And frequently their greenness only became more apparent with time in bottle.

Since the mid-'90s, many big cabernet-based California reds have been made from raisined fruit with freakishly elevated potential alcohol levels, dangerously high pHs and, in some cases, residual sugar.  While these wines can be impressive upon release, this is not the best formula for making wines that will age gracefully, no matter what some critics maintain.  

All this is preamble to my notes on a wine that has established a track record for evolving with charm and style:  the Arietta Red Wine H Block Hudson Vineyards Napa Valley.  At a vertical tasting held in New York City in early May, fully half of the vintages we tasted (and we went back to the first one) were utterly splendid, and there wasn't a weak wine in the bunch.  The H Block has never been a true cult wine, but happy owners of this wine know that it gives great pleasure virtually from day one and gains in richness, complexity and suavity with 8 to 10 years of bottle aging.  In recent vintages, the wine has been priced at $150.

Arietta was established in 1996 as a 50/50 venture between rare wine specialist and wine auctioneer Fritz Hatton, and winemaker John Kongsgaard, who had made wine at Newton Vineyards from 1983 through 1995, working closely with superconsultant Michel Rolland through most of that period.  In '96, Kongsgaard asked Lee Hudson if he could buy the H Block cabernet franc, from the last Carneros vineyard in Napa Valley against the Sonoma line. The fruit from this 2.3-acre parcel had previously been a blending component in the Newton program, but Kongsgaard thought it was of high enough quality to serve as the foundation for a new wine.  The vineyard enjoys a warm southwest exposure and is one of the rare places in Carneros with volcanic ash in the soil (it's actually a foothill of Mount Veeder).  Kongsgaard chose to blend in some merlot from the Hudson N Block, just a couple hundred yards to the south, planted on moister clay soil at lower altitude and subject to more fog and cooled by ocean breezes in the afternoon.  Through the years, the wine has typically been about 60% cabernet franc and 40% merlot (not unlike Cheval Blanc), with some notable exceptions.

Kongsgaard, who also began his own eponymous label on a small scale in 1996, picks late for ideal ripeness (the finished wines are consistently between 14% and 15% alcohol) but is less obsessed with selection of fruit at harvest time.  "Sorting has become too much of a fetish in Napa Valley," he told me.  "If you farm the vines properly it should not be necessary."  Kongsgaard does what he describes as "a radical deleafing" on the morning side of the vines right after fruit set, which he says gets the grapes accustomed to morning light and ultimately toughens their skins.  At the veraison, he eliminates the less-ripe bunches to narrow the range of ripeness.  And the day before the harvest he removes all the leaves in the fruit zone, tossing out the bad clusters in the process.  The objective of this step is to keep the dry, crumbling leaves out of the lug box, so that the wines don't pick up dusty, high-tannin, tea-like flavors.  Essentially, what comes into the winery has already been pre-sorted.
Kongsgaard is a minimal-intervention winemaker, vinifying at cool temperatures with indigenous yeasts.  "Even with the nearly perfect 1997 fruit, we kept the fermentation temperature to 85 degrees," he said.  "We don't like to go up into the 90s.  The wines are racked frequently, on close to a Bordeaux schedule, aged in all new oak, and bottled without fining or filtration the second June or July after the harvest.  

Kongsgaard, who was also a partner in the Luna venture and made the wines there from 1996 through 2000, had a clause in his contract that allowed him to make the Arietta wines as well as his own label in the Luna winery through 2000.  Since 2001 the Arietta wines have been made at Chateau Boswell.

After purchasing a large property and beginning to build a winery on Atlas Peak, Kongsgaard sold his share of Arietta back to Hatton in 2005, though he stayed on for a while as a consultant.  The talented Andy Erickson, who is also responsible for making Screaming Eagle, Ovid and Dalla Valle, and served as Kongsgaard's assistant for several years at Newton, officially took over as Arietta's winemaker with the 2006 vintage.  Thus far he has stuck with a formula that works, although he has slightly reduced the percentage of new oak used in a couple recent vintages.

I should note that this was a true vertical tasting in that all the wines came from the same vineyards.  And the vertical tasting featured every vintage of this wine released to date, including the lesser vintages.  I doubt that even a Bordeaux first growth could match this wine for consistency over a 12-year period, even though Bordeaux's top wines have been on a roll in recent years.