Dinner with Winemaker Bernard Portet

Last week I was lucky enough to sit and taste wine over dinner with Bernard Portet at Union Square Cafe. He was one of the founders of Napa Valley stalwart Clos du Val. Bernard was with them in a variety of capacities until just a couple of years ago, when he retired. That retirement didn’t last very long and now he’s involved with a smaller, personal project called Heritance. It’s been my good fortune over the years to sit across numerous tables, tasting counters and barrels from a wide array of winemakers. These opportunities are always a pleasure and it is also quite educational to learn about and taste wines with the person responsible for their existence. The experience is all the better when what the winemaker describes and what I taste in the glass true up; somewhat remarkably this isn’t always the case. I’m happy to report that the wines that I tasted with Bernard were exactly what he was describing, well balanced, food friendly offerings that will age appropriately for their intended styles. What follows are my thoughts on a few of my favorites from the evening. Heritance 2010 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc. This offering is made utilizing mostly Sauvignon Blanc (91%), with a small amount of Semillon (9%) blended in. Aging of this wine took place in stainless steel. 2,000 cases were produced and it has a suggested retail price of $24. This is a fresh and lively Sauvignon Blanc with a mid-weight palate. The Semillon adds to that weight as well as to the complexity and roundness. The acidity here is firm but not aggressive. Citrus and orchard fruit characteristics are in evidence throughout and they’re buoyed by subtle wisps of grass. This is an absolutely awesome Sauvignon Blanc that can be described as pure elegance. If the only wine I tasted that evening was this Sauvignon Blanc I would have been happy to drink it all night. We also sampled the 2011 vintage and instead of Semillon it has a dollop of Roussanne blended in. It’s a nice wine as well that needs a few months before it really comes into its own.

Heritance 2011 Stanly Ranch Pinot Noir. All of the fruit for this wine was sourced in Carneros. Fermentation took place in open top, stainless steel tanks with twice daily punch downs. Barrel aging took place in previously used French oak 300 cases of this release were produced and it has a suggested retail price of $45. This wine opens with an enormously fragrant nose loaded with Bing cherry, spices and bits of leather. Cherry, strawberry and spice are in abundance through the palate which is even keeled and loaded with depth. Pomegranate and sour cherry are in evidence on the finish along with black pepper and mineral elements. This wine is loaded with varietal character and does a great job of showcasing what excellent Pinot Noir from Carneros is all about.

Heritance 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (94%), Merlot (4%) and Petit Verdot (2%). The fruit for this wine was hand harvested and fermentation took place over 10 days at high temperatures. Barrel aging occurred over 20 months in a combination of new and previously used French oak. 5,796 cases of this wine were produced and it has a suggested retail price of $36. Black fruit aromas lead the nose of this Cabernet Sauvignon. The palate is rich and velvety with plum and black raspberry flavors leading the charge. Chocolate and espresso notes are in evidence on the finish which has good length. Firm tannins yield with some air. This is a nicely structured Cabernet that works well today with richly flavored foods. Over time it will soften and become more elegant. The 2008 which I also had the opportunity to sample is a delicious, ready to drink now Cabernet. Its style and graceful elegance speak volumes to where the 2010 is likely to be in a year or so. $36 for Napa Cabernet of this quality is, to say the least, a terrific value.

In addition to these wines we tasted several others; one particular standout was a 1979 Cabernet Sauvignon that Bernard made at Clos du Val. It was delicious and loaded with lively fruit and excellent character. It still has several years, perhaps a decade of life ahead of it. I asked Bernard why he picked the 1979 in particular and he indicated that while the 1978 had been hailed critically, he had personally always been a bigger fan of the 1979 which he felt even back then showed great promise. Bernard has a long track record of producing well made, approachable, food friendly wines that will age gracefully. The bottom line is that all the wines I sampled at dinner, which fall under his new label, continue that tradition. In addition to being well crafted and taking advantage of his 40 + years of experience they are also excellent values in their respective categories.