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Kenzo Tsujimoto's search for terroir in Napa which could produce wines to repeat the 1976 Judgement of Paris brought him to Wild Horse Valley, an almost wild mountain valley in Napa's south-east corner, on the slopes of Mt George.

A mini-Japan in Napa

Oct 14, 2016 5:50 AM

IT has been nine years since I was last in Napa Valley - 2007, the year before Robert Mondavi died. We had a quiet dinner in his home in Napa, with Margrit, his wife, in the kitchen. Bob was by then in a wheelchair but mentally as alert as always.

It was so good to see him, we had not seen him in years. We'd known Bob since our very first visit to Napa in 1985, and since then every time we visited Napa we were expected to visit and lunch with Bob and Margrit. It was a set routine each and every time! He would bring out his most recent vintage of Mondavi Private Reserve and we would drink it side-by-side with Ch√Ęteau Mouton Rothschild of the same vintage. Just for comparison!

Bob was just a great human being. I remember clearly too, the excitement in Napa when Opus One was built, the winery jointly created by Robert Mondavi and the then Baron Philippe de Rothschild. We visited Opus One in 1982, the year after it had opened, and Bob showed us around.

It was an exciting period, not only because it was the first significant new winery opened in Napa for decades, it was also a milestone for Napa: the first ever collaboration between Napa and Bordeaux. And not just any old Napa and any old Bordeaux. It was a marriage between Napa's First Growth and a Bordeaux First Growth! A historic milestone. It was a very exciting time!

Last month, September, we spent a couple of days in Napa, after a lapse of nine years. It was good to be back. Nothing much had changed; a few new wineries of course, including one, Freeman Winery, way up north in the town of Sebastopol, in Sonoma County. It produces chardonnay and pinot noir! It was an eye-opener. More of that later.

This week it is about another winery, Kenzo, owned by Kenzo Tsujimoto, founder of Capcom, a most successful developer and publisher of video games in Japan. In the early 1980s, he had become fascinated by the story of the 1976 Judgement of Paris, which had pitched Napa onto the world stage by comparing Napa wines with Bordeaux, a comparison in which Napa stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Bordeaux!

His search for terroir in Napa which could produce wines to repeat the 1976 Judgement of Paris brought him two decades later to Wild Horse Valley, an almost wild mountain valley in Napa's south-east corner, on the slopes of Mt George.

After acquiring the 4,000-acre property, preparation of the estate for replanting with Bordeaux varietals began and in 1999 the estate received its first rootstocks of Bordeaux varietals. David Abreu, famous viticulturist, accepted appointment as manager of the estate in 2001 on condition that he could replant the whole estate to utmost perfection. Two years later in 2003, renowned wine-maker Heidi Barrett joined the wine-making team. All the key players were in place. In 2008, the first vintage, 2005, of Rindo, Murasaki and Ai, was released at a debut party in the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo.

Visiting the Kenzo Estate last month was almost like being back in Japan. Everything, vineyards, grounds, landscape, winery, reception rooms, even the various plants and the vines, looked immaculately planned and maintained. Precise Japanese style. You could have been back in Hokkaido!

At the top of the hill where the reception and winery buildings were, you looked around at the surrounding hillslopes covered with fields of vines, all standing to attention almost like being on a parade ground. Immaculately kept vineyards, healthy (almost rosy-cheeked) vines still bearing ripening fruit. So neat, so meticulously planned and rigorously and precisely executed. It was not the Napa of the 1980s and 1990s. This was Napa 2016!

The wines

Asatsuyu 2015

Asatsusu, meaning "Morning Dew", is Kenzo's sole white wine, 100 per cent Sauvignon Blanc.

Brilliant, gleaming light golden colour, with the distinctive sauvignon blanc ("cat's pee") aroma, very good ripeness and balance, good length on the finish, the aroma light and certainly less commanding a presence. A lighter style of sauvignon blanc, very agreeable wine.

Rindo 2013

Cepage: Cabernet Sauvignon 50 per cent, Merlot 30 per cent, Petit Verdot 10 per cent, Malbec 10 per cent.

Deep opaque crimson, a light cigar-box and blackcurrant aroma preceded the rich flavour of perfectly ripe blackcurrant and red berry fruit, balanced by very good acidity. Wood flavours discernible but well integrated. Very nice wine, quite ready to drink.

Murasaki 2013

Cepage: Merlot (75.6 per cent), Cabernet Sauvignon (18.9 per cent), Cabernet Franc (2.4 per cent), Petit Verdot (3.1 per cent).

Very much a Bordeaux right-bank blend! Very opaque black-red colour, with a light cedary aroma. On the palate, still very tight, and closed. Good ripeness of fruit, underpinned with ripe tannins, coffee and chocolate flavours dominating the palate Very nice wine, still very youthful, but showing very good promise.

Muku 2013

Sauvignon Blanc 77 per cent, Semillon 23 per cent. 16 per cent alcohol.

A gleaming light yellow-golden colour, with a light aroma of ripe berry fruit. Sweet ripe citrusy fruit with hint of pear, good length. An appealing dessert wine, made in Sauterne style, but on a lighter scale. Very appealing.

These are well-made wines in Bordeaux style with the added ripeness conferred by the Napa Valley climate. The wines are still very young with good ageing potential. It would be very interesting to see them at 10 years of age. The potential is there.

What was most pleasing was the conspicuous absence of prominent oak flavours. It would be invidious to compare them with their Bordeaux counterparts. The climate is different; the terroir is different. They will age well, and I would look forward to seeing them at 10 years of age. Most interesting.

I am reminded of a tasting some years ago of Napa wines in which the oak was the flavour of the month! They were wholly unacceptable except for those who prefer oak to grape as base material. These wines are totally different. An impressive display, wines well worthy of serious attention.