Napa's Next First Growth
In 1935, Clarence Dillon dropped what was thought to be a fortune on one of Bordeaux's five First Growth Chateaux. Over the course of the next forty years, the Dillons continued to invest in Chateau Haut-Brion, earning five perfect 100pt scores from Robert Parker, Jr. In retrospect, the fortune paid now looks like a pittance. Our rough calculation suggests that Haut-Brion's profit in 2011 (from sales of the 100pt 2009) is several hundred times what Mr. Dillon paid for the entire property forty years ago.
Most of Nicholas Allen's childhood was spent on his great-grandfather Clarence's sprawling family ranch in Bedminster, New Jersey. But every so often, a wedding or family gathering would take Nicolas first to Bordeaux and Pessac-Leognan. As teenagers, when we attended family affairs, our beverage of choice was Pepsi. As to young Nicolas? He preferred his great grandfather's Haut-Brion.
Decades later, in 2007, Nicolas had an itch that he just couldn't seem to scratch. He was determined to follow in his great-grandfather's footsteps, albeit on a far smaller scale. But the more he searched for a vineyard property, the more he came to understand just how high Clarence had set the bar. Forget Bordeaux: classified growth chateaux are wildly overpriced. Top Burgundian estates rarely change hands, and when they do, the Grand Cru parcels are measured by the quarter acre. Finally, Nicolas turned his attention stateside, and in the vein of his great-grandfather, determined to make his mark in Napa Valley.
The entrance to Napa Valley is wide and flat, before narrowing in Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford and St. Helena. As the layman cruises up Highway 29, he sees a green blanket of vineyards with nothing to distinguish one from another. But the story of Napa Valley isn't told on the surface, but in the substrata. As Nicolas would quickly learn, it's best to think of the valley floor as a disparate patchwork of rock and clay. Napa's First Growths are drawn from the poorest, rockiest patches, often from specific rows within a single big-name vineyard. If Allen was going to take a run at Haut Brion, he'd need access to those rows. He needed help. It wouldn't take long to figure out whom to call.
In 2001, Luc Morlet left Champagne for Napa Valley. Many out here contend the Valley's never been the same. After five years cranking out a steady stream of 95-99 pointers at Peter Michael, Morlet cautiously hung up his own shingle and selectively took on a few well-heeled clients. Morlet's approach to Cabernet Sauvignon falls somewhere between the sculpted luster of Philippe Melka and the extravagant opulence of Harlan Estate. From Nicholas Allen's perspective, Morlet had a unique touch with Napa Cabernet, nursing out tremendous opulence, while infusing just a touch of the Old World with the New. But Morlet had something else. He had every top grower in Napa Valley knocking down his door!
The 2008 Carte Blanche Cabernet Sauvignon was one of the most talked about first releases in recent Napa Valley history. Drawn from hand-selected rows of Andy Beckstoffer's 45-acre Missouri Hopper Vineyard in Oakville and an equal dose of one of Morlet's favored Calistoga parcels. Of the 40 barrels made, just sixteen would make the final cut. Soon after the Wine Spectator's 96pt review hit the stands, every drop was gone.
In 2009, Nicolas refused temptation. Rather than increase production, he stood pat, again producing just 400 cases of the richly-layered 2009 Carte Blanche. This time it would be Robert Parker's Wine Advocate ("deep layers of dark red fruit, rose petals, smoke and espresso") who carried the torch, alerting his 40,000 collector subscriber list to the emergence of Napa's next First Growth.
The 2010 Carte Blanche Cabernet Sauvignon is far and away the finest to date from Allen and Morlet. Saturated purple-black in color, the aromas are pure and beautifully delineated, a luscious gumbo of crushed black fruits, laced with new wood cedar. The attack is rich, dense and compact, Parker's cool "epic" vintage keeping the cards close to the vest, slowly peeling away fine layers of extravagant black fruit and red cassis, all that Harlan-esque opulence bracketed by sleek, ripe tannins.
Again, Parker came on like wildfire, calling it "incredibly dense and virtually impenetrable." Again, just 16 barrels made the cut, true to First Growth protocol. One more time, the entire production is already spoken for before release -- except what we've eked out today for a handful of WineAccess high rollers like you.