2008 Ahnfeldt Merlot Napa Valley
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Winemaker Craig MacLean and Hardman Vineyards Crackly Clay at Hardman Vineyard

It's been a decade since Craig MacLean first turned out a Merlot that stopped most of Napa's Cabernet Sauvignons in their tracks. Drawn from a little valley of cracked clay in the heart of Oak Knoll's Golden Triangle, the 2002 Ahnfeldt Merlot garnered 94 points from Wine Spectator and was named the Best Merlot of The Year. We've been following MacLean's work ever since, both his brilliant Parker 96pt Cabernet Sauvignons over at Juslyn, as well as a series of exquisitely concentrated, masterfully supple Merlots that would turn heads on the square of St. Emilion.

So when Bruce Ahnfeldt sent us the bottle of 2008 Merlot, drawn from the proprietor's Hardman Vineyard, we had a pretty good sense of what we were getting into. MacLean is best known for his deft hand with tannins, always managing to nurse out plenty of blackberry juiciness while never tipping the balance towards astringency. Still, in 2008, we imagined that even MacLean would be put to the test.

In a largely cool growing season, punctuated by several torrid heat spikes, vineyards up and down the Silverado Trail grew thirsty. When the soils were too poor to store water reserves, plants shut down. Clusters became desiccated. Berries blistered. That high skin-to-juice ratio would often lead to hard, tannic backbones -- exactly what MacLean is so adept at avoiding.

The 2008 Ahnfeldt Merlot, as always, would be placed in a blind lineup of Oak Knoll, neighboring Coombsville, and Stag's Leap Cabernets. The flourish of MacLean's winemaking signature stood out. The nose was flashy, full of blackberries and violets, a dash of underbrush. The attack was massive, packed with full throttle ripe currant muscle. But, as always, it would be the soft, pliant finish of the Hardman Vineyard Merlot that was most stunning.

We called Craig to congratulate him on his effort. But MacLean brushed the personal accolades aside. "It would be nice to say that I made the Ahnfeldt Merlot in 2008 -- and sure, my approach played a part. But more than any wine I've ever made down here, this Merlot was made by the vineyard, not the winemaker." Then, the most self-effacing winemaker this side of Stag's Leap explained why.

Hardman Vineyard sits smack center in the Oak Knoll gold rush, a quadrant that has long attracted not only MacLean, but legendary Merlot producer Shafer. Set in what's really its own little valley, the soil here is crackly clay (you can literally hear it crack as you trek the rows). And while many deride the value of clay in the valley's vineyards, when the growing seasons are hot and dry, clay is the plant's best friend.

As most of the valley floor baked and vines gasped for water, down here where temperatures remained 12-15 degrees cooler than Calistoga, the Hardman clay retained moisture, shrugging off the inferno. The tail end of the 2008 growing season, you may recall, would be mild, extending hang time at Hardman. Ahnfeldt's vineyard crew harvested just three tons per acre of immaculate Merlot clusters, absent any sign of raisin-ing or desiccation, delivering all to MacLean. Craig would make no mistake.

Deep purple to the edge. Darkly concentrated aromas of blackberry, crème-de-cassis and underbrush, still marvelously restrained and balanced. Rich and dense on the attack -- far more Stag's Leap Cabernet than anything Merlot -- the core is packed with crushed blackberries, tinged with violets, all bracketed by the supplest 2008 tannins this side of the Oakville Grade.

Tasting Notes

2008 Ahnfeldt Merlot Napa Valley
"Deep purple/black to the edge. Darkly concentrated aromas of blackberry and cassis, a dash of underbrush, still marvelously restrained and foursquare. Rich and dense on the attack -- far more Stag's Leap Cabernet than anything Merlot -- the core is packed with crushed blackberries, tinged with violets, all bracketed by finest, supple tannins. Drink now for its still primary fruit juiciness, but don't be bashful about laying this one down for a nice, long slumber."
-- WineAccess Travel Log

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