Thursday, February 3, 2011

The story of an American grand cru; Harlan Estate 1992-2006

There’s so much to tell about Harlan Estate. I could easily write a book on the topic, and perhaps I’ll do that in the future. This time I’ll focus on the wines and leave the history and the in depth facts for future writings.
The vineyard of Harlan Estate covers 15.40 hectares, split over 24 small blocks located at 100 to 170 meters of altitude on slopes with various exposures in the western side of Oakville- Close neighbours are Far Niente Winery and Martha’s Vineyard of Heitz Cellars. The most predominant soil type here is called Franciscan Shale, a kind of volcanic slate mixed with a dark, brownish clay soil with alluvial components.
Initially, David Abreu was in charge of the vineyards, but today Harlan Estate has their own vineyard manager as well as three full time vineyard workers. David Abreu still brings his crew for harvest, which sometimes stretches into mid November. No details are to small or two expensive for the team to overlook. The sorting of grapes is strict, and sometimes yields after green harvest and the rigourous sorting in the winery is ridicoulously low, which, of course, results in wines with great intensity – and, to be honest, quite high alcohol. If you don’t like that, you’re most likely will not love these wines as I do.
Alreay in 1998 world renowned consultant Michel Rolland was hired, primarily for the blending and according to Don Weaver, the manager of the estate, his contribution is of great importance.
”Travelling around 300 days per year and working with several of the greatest estates worldwide, hes knowlegde is a great asset for us – no one in the world have the same overview of the best wines in the world than Michel Rolland”, Don says. ”Also, Michel has a unique talent for blending”, he adds.
At Harlan Estate, they can afford the detailed work in the vineyards and winery, the strict sorting and the costs that comes with great consultants like Abreu and Rolland. The price of the wine has steadily increased from 250 dollars in the early 2000s, to 350 dollars, and from 2005 vintage 500 dollars. Still it’s not the most expensive wine in the valley.

The first vintages to be made here was 1987, 1988 and 1989, but it wasn’t until 1990 that Bill Harlan and winemaker Bob Levy found the wines from the young vineyard to be at the desired quality level. It was sex years since I tasted the inaugural 1990 vintage of Harlan Estate, so I’ve chosen not to review it here, although it tasted fabulous back then and I know most wines at this level, especially from this great vintage, will still be very good to drink today. However, it should be mentioned that the 1990 vintage have a high percentage of Merlot, for that simple reason Merlot was more widely planted in the first vineyard blocks to be established. Those bottles left from this 300 cases inaugural vintage should be drunk relatively soon.
For some reason I haven’t (yet) tasted the 1991 vintage, so the review will start with the 1992 vintage.
1992 Harlan Estate / 98 p
Tasted three times over the last year, of which two were in vertical tastings with at least five vintages each time. During these tastings, the 1992 Harlan Estate behaved as one of the most complete and complex wines, and – which is important to mention – one of the most Bordeaux like of all vintages ever made here. The nose it just stunning, still rich and deep, but with a wide spectrum of dried berries, leather, tobacco and sous bois (rather than barn yard). When tasted completely blind, I could swear it was either Château Latour or Château Haut Brion (1989 or 1990), even though there’s still a dash of sweetness in the end of the long finish. In my five to six year old notes, I gave the wine a perfect 100 point score – the reason for not doing that now it that the fruit has started to dry out a bit in the finish, while the structure still firm, but noble. I’d love to drink this wine again, in the years to come.
Drink it 2011-2017.

1993 Harlan Estate / 93 p
This wine is a statement of how not depend on overall vintage comments. Although the 1993 Harlan Estate is the weakest in the history of the estate, it has now turned into a wonderful och quite surprising wine. Making a wine like this in a vintage like 1993 (a warm spring with some rains that disturbed the flowering, followed by a cool summer that finally resulted in grapes with good sugars but not a perfect phenolic ripeness), shows either a great terroir or fantastic viticultural and winemaking skills. Or both! Only those who dared to wait for the perfect ripeness made good wines. This is one of the best, if not the best wine, I’ve ever tasted from 1993. Today it’s perfectly matured with a nuanced and elegant nose with fine notes of cedar, tobacco and that typicall grassiness that so often is found in the wines from this estate. Since this vintage is a bit lighter than the others, the minerality shows quite well here, and that’s positive to me. One could have expected the tannins to be weak, and while not firm, they are are still present.
Drink it 2011-2012.

1994 Harlan Estate / 100 p
Since the first time I tasted this wine a decade ago, I have in all tastings – blind or open – given it a perfect 100 point score. This was also the case the two times I tasted it during the research for this report. There’s just one difference – it now shows more of the classic and Bordeaux like greatness than some years ago. It is of course more intense, richer and deeper, and to be honest, also slightly more youthful than great Bordeaux wines of the same age.
“For us as growers, everything during the growing season was pretty much perfect”, Don Weaver said to me when we talked about the outstanding quality of this wine.
Even though the wine now has turned 16 years old, one will still find some of its primary fruit qualities, and today I would describe its texture as velvet like. There’s still enough acidity, tannins and tickeling mineral notes to make the wine taste relatively young, and if not for the slightly matured notes in the fruit, I would never have guessed the age of the wine. I normally describe this stage of maturity like the combination of a wise old man, and the curiosity and energy of a young boy. This is for sure a grand vin, and I guess that a wine like this was what Bill Harlan had in mind when he started to develop Harlan Estate. To me, this wine is at its peak, it’s absolutely perfect to drink, but I do belive it will keep well for some more years.
Drink it 2011-2020.

1995 Harlan Estate / 98 p
Well, there’s actually nothing to complain about here – 1995 in general has given me many memorable wines in Napa Valley – the only reason for not giving this a perfect score, is because I’ve had it next to the glorious 1994 vintage twice. For some reason, the 1995 vintage is a forgotten one, and I can only explain it with the fact it came within great strike of vintages of 1990, 1991, 1992 and 1994, and then the 1997 and 1999. The 1995 growing season was warm, which is noted in the wine’s ripe and dark fruitiness (cassis, blueberries and blackberries), which shows a hint of sweetness, as well as in the slightly higher alcohol. With age, this wine have now developed more noble aromas of cedar, graphite and sous bois, and that fine grassy harlanesque note I find so attractive.
This is a splendid wine, one of the best I’ve tasted from this surprisingly underrated vintage. Given its structure and still vital fruit, it will hold up for many more years in the cellar. I would actually decant it at least 30 minutes (or more) prior to serving it today.
Drink it 2011-2020.

1996 Harlan Estate / 95 p
From the release and the following years, I found the 1996 vintage to be gorgeous. It still is, but I have reduced my score a few points only because the intensity of fruit has started to fade a bit (not too much, though – it’s still a very good wine) and therefore disclosed just a hint of bitterness. There’s not too much to say about the nose, other than that it used to be more voluptuous – today it’s more mature (fine tobacco, cedar and walnuts), yet with a lush and almost sweetish black currant note. However, it is the aftertaste that shows that this isn’t one of the greatest vintages of Harlan Estate – not really that it lacks concentration, it just doesn’t offer the same purity, intensity, length and texture. I wouldn’t keep my bottles more than a few more years. And why should I, when it tastes so good to today … more age will not improve it.
Drink it 2011-2016.

1997 Harlan Estate / 98 p
Already at harvest, the1997 vintage was called the “vintage of the century”, and at Harlan Estate they made one of the most impressive wines ever made in this part of the valley. Some critics gave it a perfect 100 point score – other rejected the wine and called it “too much”. And too much it was. When I tasted it the first time just after release, the overly high alcohol and super ripe fruit (almost sweet) reminded me of a vintage port från Taylor’s. Not too bad to be a “regular wine”, but to be honest, not so complex. Still I liked it, in a way.
Over the last four or five years, I have tasted it a couple of times, and to my surprise the wine have become more and more complex (although I liked the wine from the beginning, I didn’t believe it could evolve in this direction – it was too ripe for that I thought). The ripe and lush fruit is still there, but it has calmed down a bit and I actually found the wine to be elegant. To a certain extent it can be explained by the fact that some of the sweetness started to dry out a few years ago, but most of all because there’s an almost perfect balance of primary fruit flavors and seductive secondary aromas. There’s enough tannin to add some structure to promise some more years of bottle age, but rather would rather describe the taste as silky than structured. Some sommeliers I poured this wine to at a dinner party, told me it was their “wine of the year”. It’s easy to see what they liked about it. Based on the fact that I have had it side by side with other great vintages of Harlan Estate, I will not give it a perfect score, just almost that!
Drink it 2011-2017.

1998 Harlan Estate / 95 p
So much has been said about 1998, and much of it wasn’t too good. This was the El Niño year, cool and damp – and late, very late. For many growers, Cabernet Sauvignon didn’t ripen until November! But was it a bad vintage? Were the wines unripe and green? At least that was the general verdict when the wines were tasted back in 1999 and 2000. Well, a lot of wines showed unripe flavors, but the growers who made a strict green harvest, waited for the grapes to ripen, and then made a rigorous selection of grapes, were able to make wines of truly good and even great quality. At Harlan Estate, no mistakes were made.
When I asked, I was was told that 1998 as the only one ever, was made entirely of Cabernet Sauvignon, and that the yields were down to 13 hectoliters per hectare to get the grapes ripe. “We also worked with the lees during the ageing in barrels, to add texture”, Don Weaver said.
When I tasted it in the early 2000s, it didn’t show any signs of green and unripe flavor, but I remember it as closed, hard to taste, hard to like. It took several years for it to show its true personality. Now, many years later, it does, and I have to say it’s a fantastic effort from this difficult vintage. The fruit is dark, pure and surprisingly intense (compared to other estates 1998s), but not as impressive as in greater vintages. However, you’ll find some secondary aromas that add complexity. After tasting several dozens of red 1998s from Napa Valley and Sonoma over the last years, this is one of the very best! Even though it may keep well over the next decade, it has reached its peak now.
Drink it 2011-2020.

1999 Harlan Estate / 98 p
I have always been a great fan of the 1999 vintage, in which the wines combines a classic structure and flavor profile with a great body. I remember how I many years ago looked forward to see how well these wines would age, and now – almost a decade later – I know I was right in what I once just predicted. The 1999 vintage is one of the finest of the last decade. With almost ten years of bottle age, the 1999 Harlan Estate is just wonderful. So it has always been, but now it has turned into some more nuanced, more developed and much more complex. Although in the beginning of its first maturation, you’ll still find quite intense primary fruit flavors of cassis and blackberries and discreet and typical notes of grass, but these flavors are now partners with the finest cigars, lead pencils, walnuts and dark chocolate. The oak is now perfectly well integrated and the tannins, although important, are now much more polished. It’s still so young you need to decant the wine at least half an hour before serving it. In that sense, the wine is still young, and I’ll keep my last bottles for another 5-10 years, although they will keep for longer than that.
Drink it 2011-2029.

2000 Harlan Estate / 94-95 p
With a cooler vintage, the 2000 Harlan Estate is a more elegant and classical structured wine than the 1997, 1999, 2001 and 2002. It’s also a wine which in a vertical tasting will fall in between, with slightly lower scores. Still, it’s a damn good wine! Don Weaver told me that he recommend consumers to drink this vintage before the riper and more intense wines of the mentioned vintages. “Normally I recommend people to wait to open our wines at least until they’re seven or eight years old, when they start to show their first maturation, but in this case, I prefer to drink it earlier”, Don Weaver says.
The nose is a bit lighter compared to that of other vintages and it offers the typical dark berries like black currants and blackberries, as well as a very elegant grassiness. There are also some fine notes of cedar tree, almonds and corinths, which indicate maturation, and I find it to be very elegant och complex without being great and impressive. It’s very easy to use the description “Bordeaux like” and I guess that note will be used even more in the years to come.
When I tasted this wine in the vertical tasting, and one time a couple of months earlier, the wine had been decanted for one and a half hour, and that’s a very good recommendation. To me, this wine is great now, but it will keep beautifully another five to ten years.
Drink it 2011-2020.

2001 Harlan Estate / 100 p
Since the first time I had this vintage, and every single time I’ve tasted this wine since, I’ve always loved it an given it somewhere between 98 and 100 points, and most of the time a perfect 100 point score! It’s just a fantastic wine, a benchmark wine for Napa Valley cabernets!
The color is still dark, almost opaque and the nose is intense but very elegant and there’s a substantial concentration of ripe dark berries (dark cherries, blackberries, and cassis) to add body, depths and lengths to the taste. The overall balance is what makes this wine impressive, it’s really an amazing wine with great finesse, and although nine years old, I would describe it as youthful. In all aspects I can think of, this is a perfect wine. Not even the fact that winemaker Bob Levy kept the wine in brand new oak for 21 months (a record at Harlan Estate), gave too much oak impact on the wine. The ripe och lush fruit has absorbed the oak in a great way. At this stage you’ll only find some sweetness and spiciness, there’s no bitterness at all, therefore the typical mineral notes shows just beautiful!
The 2001 vintage has been described as almost perfect for the winegrowers and winemakers all over California, and there’s plenty of wines at all price points to prove that.
Drink it 2011-2031.

2002 Harlan Estate / 98-100 p
If any vintage of the complete range of wines made at Harlan Estate can claim to be as perfect as the 1994, 2001 and 2005 vintage, 2002 would be my choice. I’ve been lucky enough to taste it several times, open at the estate and on dinners, and blind in tastings. I always gave it a perfect or almost perfect score. It’s still a very young wine, dark, and huge, concentrated and dense, yet remarkably well calibrated and elegant, with loads of ripe and very pure dark fruit. The oak is still present with nuances of vanilla and dark chocolate, but it’s so well integrated you’ll still find the typical earthy qualities of prime land in the Oakville region, and the black olives so often found in great cabernets from this part of Napa Valley.
One of the most fascinating things about this wine is the texture. Although there’s a substantial power and concentration, and tannins are huge (but ripe), I’ve always described the wine as viscous and silky, which in other words means perfectly well balanced. If there’s one thing about the wine one could discuss, the 15.5 percent of alcohol would be it. It’s there for sure, and you taste it, but I expect it to diminish over the coming years – normally it does. And I have no problems with waiting – this is a profound wine that will improve its taste and complexity with further bottle age.
Already after one hour in the decanter, more and more of the Bordeaux like silkiness and complexity starts to show, and to be very honest, apart from the riper style and higher alcohol, it’s not very different from the very best wines of 2000, 2003 and 2005 vintages in Bordeaux. If you didn’t fall in love with the nose and taste of 2002 Harlan Estate, you will in its aftertaste. It lingers for minutes, and minutes, and it’s just gorgeous. My prediction is that this will be one of the greatest wines from this Californian grand cru ever!
Drink it 2012-2032.

2003 Harlan Estate / 96-97 p
I wonder why there’s so little said about the 2003 Harlan Estate. I guess the answer lies in the fact that 2003 is sandwiched in between superb vintages like 2001, 2002 and 2005. With the not yet released and super hyped vintages of 2001 and 2002, the 2003 vintage had to accept to be kind of forgotten when it was harvested and fermented. It’s a bit sad, though. To me, even a little less reputed vintage of Bill Harlan and his team, is still a great wine and most likely a dream to any other vintner and winemaker with ambitions.
Both the spring and the following growing season were slightly cooler than average, and therefore the wines became lighter but in general a bit more elegant. For me, as a European sommelier and writer, I value the finesse over absolute power and concentration, which is why I give this wine a high score.
The nose is just lovely, not as deep and concentrated as in the top vintages, but elegant with class and that lovely grassiness that I find so typical for Cabernet Sauvignon when ripe, but note overripe. (I know some tasters refer to that flavor as unripe, but grassiness is a typical personality of Cabernet Sauvigon, as its parents are Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc.) Thanks to the slightly ligther body, the fine acidity and thickeling saltiness of minerals appears a little bit more, which I find very interesting. That’s one of the assets of this fine but not impressive vintage. Still there’s enough fruit and concentration to give the wine a good body, and to flirt with any critical taster. Compared to the other vintages of the 2000s, I would drink this vintage earlier since it’s already starts to show some maturity.
Drink it 2011-2023.

2004 Harlan Estate / 95 p
If 2003 was a cooler vintage, 2004 was warm! That’s obvious when you compare the two vintages – the 2004 offers a much riper and fruitdriven body, a somehow sweetish fruit with ripe notes of cassis, blueberries and blackbarries, and as often found in wines from warmer vintages, the oak is a bit more upfront and toasted. (Giving the wine more oak, and a bit more toasted oak, seems to be a common way to balance the riper fruit in a warmer year.) If one should take a standpoint, slightly cooler vintages are normally the better ones in warmer wine growing regions such as Napa Valley. Still the 2004 Harlan Estate is a very fine wine – although not the top of the range in a historical ranges of vertical tasting this article is based on.
No surprise the alcohol is on the warmer side, just above 15 percent, which at the moment is notable. At both vertical tastings, a few tasters complained about this wine and said the alcohol was over the top. I don’t really care about that too much, at least not at the in a long term. With the now wonderful 1997 vintage in my fresh memory, I know that this kind of warmth will calm down with some years of bottle age. Also, I find the 2004 to be more elegant now compared to how I felt about the 1997 at the same age. My conclusion is that there’s no reason to worry. Just give the wine a few more years of bottle age to make it more harlanesque.
Drink it 2014-2022.

2005 Harlan Estate / 99-100 p
I’m not surprised over all positive words used to describe the vintage and wines of the 2005 vintage, most growers and winemakers seems to have been very happy about the weather conditions. And at Harlan Estate, again, they did no do any mistakes – this is one of the finest wines of the the vinetage. Of course this vintage is far too young to really enjoy today, it’s so loaded with ripe dark fruit, but also notes of cedar lead pencil (which makes the wine quite Bordeaux like). Although it’s massive in its rich primary fruit flavors, it’s just astonishing. On the palate it’s medium to fullbodied with a good acidity, a serious but ripe and fine tannin structure which includes a mineral saltiness. If the first impression is lovely and impressive, the midpalate is gorgeous, but it is in the lingering and perfectly balanced aftertaste the true greatness of this wine reveals. It’s really a textbook example of the unique terroir and skillful winemaking that makes Harlan Estate one of the very finest wines in Napa Valley, California and – to be honest – the whole New World.
Of course it’s still a baby, and based on me early notes of great vintages like 1994 and 2001, I don’t feel like touching the 2005 Harlan Estate for another five years or so. What will happen after that, only the most patience winelovers will know. I expect this vintage to age for many decades, and it will most likely be one of the most memorable vintages ever from Harlan Estate.
Drink it 2015-2040.

2006 Harlan Estate / 96-97 p
I first tasted 2006 Harlan Estate at the winery, just before release. My tasting notes then were based on a very young wine, and to be more correct, a much too young wine. At that time, the oak wasn’t perfectly integrated in the ripe, lush and young, very intense primary fruitforward body. Tasted again last year, all components had finally married, and even still young and dense, it offered a great finesse and even though it’s much riper, much more concentrated, deeper and with more oak and more silky texture, it’s fashioned in a Bordeaux like way.
The taste is mediumbodied with a dense and very intense dark berry like fruit, ripe and rich as expected, yet a bit restrained in a classic way. Of the once obvious oak flavor, there’s only a fine note of vanilla, ceder tree and bacon. My first impression when I tasted the wine, was that it due to the balance of astringency, structure, acidity and and intensity, reminds me of what a blend of the great 1994 and the lighter and fresher 1996 would have been. It’s lileky to assume that the wine will evolve in the same way as the 1996 vintage. So, in ten years from now, I guess this will be a very fine and complex wine, extremely well drinkable but not with the same depth and concentration as the 1994. I will not touch my rare bottles of this baby for some years, and when I do, I’ll decant the wine a good hour prior to serving it.
This may be an interesting reflection: when I tasted the 2006 Harlan Estate at the estate, I also tasted the full range of 2006 wines from Bond. At that time, I found two of the Bond wines to be as good or even “better” than Harlan Estate (those were Vecina and Pluribus). That was, at least for me, the first time I rated Bond higher than Harlan.
Drink it 2013-2026.


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