Saturday, June 18, 2011

Pierre Seillan of Verité

So many great winemakers, so few years – so I decided to name two skilled persons Winemaker of the Year every year. Pierre Seillan is the first one this year.

Pierre Seillan was born in Gascogne in France, and worked for some years at the family estate, before he in the late 1960s went to work as an exchange student in Temecula in the southern California. Back in France seven months later, he went to make wines from Cabernet Franc in the Loire Valley, followed by assignment at several estates in Bordeaux over the coming years.
In 1996 he met Jess Jackson, who asked him to come and work in California. Pierre Seillan wasn’t interested – he was too busy making wines in Bordeaux. Next year, Jess Jackson came back to Bordeaux, and asked him again. This time, Pierre accepted the invitation.

“Well, Jess asked me if I thought I could make a wine of equal quality as Château Petrus, and then I said, why not, but why don’t we try to make it even better”, Pierre recalls when we talk about the early years.

Together with Jackson’s vineyard team, Pierre planted the Jackson Park Estate to Merlot, and then started to make some wines under the Verité label in 1998.
Verité, “the truth”, are alongside the Lokoya label, the most impressive wines under the huge Jackson Family Wines umbrella. The idea was to craft a trio of great wines inspired by the sub regions Pomerol, Pauillac and St Emilion of Bordeaux, and the challenge was to make them even better.

The first vintage was the difficult 1998 vintage, and although there were troubles to get the grapes fully ripe, Pierre managed to produce two remarkably fine wines in that year. These wines still holds together, on the nose they behave like fine clarets from Bordeaux, and they even taste pretty well today, although they start to dry out a bit.
To make these fine wines, Pierre gets to select some of the finest lots, of even rows, of vines in the best of the Jackson family’s vineyards in predominately Sonoma. The Merlot grapes are mostly sourced from the outstanding 44.50 hectare Jackson Park Vineyard, situated at 165-186 meters of altitude on gently rolling slopes in the mountain above Benett Valley in Sonoma. It was planted exclusively to Merlot of Clone 181 taken from Château Petrus in Pomerol. To Pierre, that clone was essential to plant to be able to “compete” with the wine from Château Petrus.

Another very important vineyard source is the Alexander Mountain Estate in the eastern part of Alexander Valley, close to the home of the Jackson family. It’s an amazing vineyard, a patchwork of almost 200 smaller vineyard blocks stretching from 210 to 720 meters of altitude, planted to various varieties (Verité uses mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from here) in poor volcanic soils. Speaking about soils, Pierre Seillan just love the vide variation of soil types in Sonoma – which of course was one of the reasons for him to accept to work here with Jess Jackson.

“We have more different soils here than they have in total in France”, he says.

Pierre also buys grapes from Kellogg Estate at 150 to 280 meters altitude in poor volcanic soils in Knights Valley, where Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot of exceptional quality is grown.

The idea behind Verité is not to produce wines of true terroir from each mountain vineyard, but to create blends of the highest quality, inspired but the blends of Bordeaux. Although I find these wines to be, or at least mature into something very Bordeaux like, there’s one distinctive difference; I find more structure and energy (that’s due to the mineral qualities of these soils) in the Verité wines than in the bordelaise ones.

Three wines are made. La Muse is the Pomerol in the lineup, based on 82-92 percent Merlot depending on the vintage, with the balance of Cabernet Franc and just a dash of Cabernet Sauvignon. La Joie is the Pauillac blend, built on 64-75 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and therefore a bit more structured, whereas the Le Désir is the Saint Emilion in the trio, a lovely wine where Merlot and Cabernet Franc make up around 80-85 percent of the blend, most often in relatively equal parts.
All wines are crafted in more or less the same way, vinified in small lots and then transferred into brand new French oak barrels to spend 14-16 months including the time for malolactic fermentation. They are all bottled without fining or filtration.

The day I came to Verité on my latest visit, Robert Parker was on his way in to taste all wines and vintages ever made at Verité, so I guess his highly interesting report will be published quite soon as well. I look forward to – I’ve tasted all this wines over the years, but not all at the same time. The following wines were tasted over a couple of weeks in April and May (all wines of the same vintage at the same time), in the addition of the 2001 vintage that I tasted a year ago.  

Pierre Seillan also makes the fine wines under the labels Anakota and Archipel, as well as wines in St Emilion and Tuscany.

Vintage  2007

2007 La Muse / 98-100 p
If the initial challenge was to make a wine as good as the one from Château Petrus, this may well have been what both the late Jess Jackson and his winemaker Pierre Seillan had in mind. This is a spectacular wine, already today (whereas the pomerols normally needs at least a decade before the start to show their true caliber). It’s a blend of approximately 90 percent Merlot, all from Jackson Park Vineyard in Bennett Valley, which Pierre Seillan holds as the best site on this planet for Merlot. Well, if not the best, it’s still amazing!
The wine was decanted an hour prior to the tasting, and by then the nose had opened up and offered a rich, ripe and seductive but yet extremely elegant nose with loads of dark berries, but also more complex nuances such as graphite, cacao and mineral. The oak is perfectly integrated, hence not noted in my book (except from the cacao notes). On the palate, it still is young and at first a bit closed, the tannins are firm and hold the fruit body back a bit, and also on the palate the oak is just like a whisper. Compared to the cabernet based wines, this hangs on for longer, and therefore it’s a bit more charming to enjoy already today than there are. However, I would love to retaste this wine in five or eight years, and it’s also then the great potential starts to show.
Drink it 2012-2032

2007 La Joie / 98-100 p
This is just an outstanding wine! It is dark purple and youthful, and it offers a big, intense, deeply concentrated yet so perfumed and elegant nose. On the nose I find cassis and sweet cherries, nuances of rose petals and violets, but also a lovely spiciness, and as all of the wines from Verité, the oak is totally absorbed by the fruit flavors. In many ways, it reminds me of some of the greatest Bordeaux wines when they were just released (1990s, 2000s, and even 2005s), but to be honest I find this wine more elegant and perfectly well polished. It took an hour of aeration before it started to open up, but then it started to show its true potential. I don’t how I managed to keep a quarter of this great wine in the bottle for another day – but I’m glad I did. Over the 24 hours in the opened bottle, it evolved into something even more seductive. The tannins, which already from the beginning were huge but fine, had become a bit softer and now felt silky, but the perfumes and the fruit body was still the same. Without a doubt, this is one of the most profound young wines from Verité I have tasted … yet!
It’s a perfect as I can which for, but still I guess it will evolve into something even more seductive, complex and perfect over the coming years.
Drink it 2012-2032

2007 Le Désir / 97-98 p
There’s really something desirable over this wine. Again, tasted direct from the bottle it was at first a bit shy, very elegant, but a bit closed. But giving it some air, already after 30 minutes in the glass it started to open up and show more of its depths and concentration. At first the nose was much finer tuned and almost shy, but with the help of some air, the flavors turned deeper, darker, and more intense. Also here, Pierre Seillan shows what a master of oak he is – it’s just a shadow of the oak, if even that. I’d rather say the oak flavor is so fine, it’s more likely you wouldn’t write oak in your tasting note. Instead you’ll find a fine blueberry fruit, the fragrance of red berries, and even some grassiness. Om the palate it’s elegant in the way a Francophile would love, but with more intensity, and (pardon my French) a taste, body, intensity and texture most vignerons in Bordeaux could only dream of. It’s really a first growth of Sonoma!
Also with this wine, I kept the bottle a day, to see how well the wine performed after 24 hours of decanting. And it kept, and it evolved into even greater complexity. It’s really a great wine!
Drink it 2012-2030

Vintage  2006

2006 La Muse / 94-95 p
If the intention was to impress on, and convince those who have their doubts about, 1) Merlot is not a great grape variety, 2) Merlot from California is even worse, and 3) no one on earth can make better wines of Merlot the those of Pomerol, this wine would be one of my California choices in that competition. With 14.1 percent of alcohol, an impressively deep and dark fruit flavor that lingers for a minute in a fine balance with tannins and acidity, and as with all the other wines in the Verité family an almost hidden oak character, it’s actually quite French in style.  I really enjoy the energy in this wine, and although it takes an hour in the decanter for the finest balance to appear, it’s very elegant already from the bottle. The overall balance is one of the greatest assets in this gorgeous wine. As all Verité wines it should be decanted a good hour prior to serving it, if drunk young. But the best you can do, is to let it rest for some years in the cellars.
Drink it 2012-2026

2006 La Joie / 95-97 p
At first this wine showed a great concentration and intensity, yet a very fine tuned elegance with notes of graphite and cedar tree in addition to the perfectly ripe but not overripe and sweetish blueberry and cassis fruit. It took a while for wine to open up – actually, even the day after it stayed more or less the same in the opened bottle – but one thing that impressed on me, was the elegance. It’s really a beauty!
The structure is serious, tannins are firm but ripe and therefore on the elegant side. Even though the wine offers a ripe and to a certain extent sweet blueberry, cassis and cherry fruit, the tannins and the fresh acidity give the wine a very classic and complex taste, with a long and dry finish. There was a small bitter taste (from the oak?) during the first hours, but the air polished it and then the texture was more refined. Given the fact this wine kept so extremely well in the open bottle, there’s no hurry to drink it. It will keep!
Drink it 2012-2030

2006 Le Désir / 96-97 p
This vintage is almost as impressive as the 2007, slightly earthy with notes of chocolate (rather cacao) in combination with the ripe and somehow sweetish dark fruit body, with notes of cherries, blackberries and blueberries. Still it’s very elegant, even Bordeaux like, but young and at this stage more marked by fruit than what normally would be described as complexity. Nevertheless, so much finesse and elegance has been captured in this wine, it’ll just take a few more years of bottle age before we write “complexity” and all Bordeauxish adjectives in our tasting notes. More than the 2007 version, this gained from the one day decanting I gave the wine. On the palate, it tastes fresher and a bit more red fruit scented than expected, the acidity is lively and the tannins are young and quite firm, but mature. Still I’d give this wine at least one year more in the bottle. I guess it would keep as well as the 2007 version, but I doubt it will be the better one after ten years.
Drink it 2012-2030

Vintage  2004

2004 La Muse / 95 p
This wine was composed of 86 percent Merlot, seven percent of Cabernet Franc and the rest Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec. Although the vintage was unusual warm and the fruit is rich and dark scented, there are no overripe flavors at all, well, besides the ripe, almost sweetish blueberry like Merlot flavors that is. Even when I tasted this wine three years ago, it was silky and well balanced, and with some more years of bottle age, the fine minerality is now more present, which of course is a great asset for the overall finesse. Also, a slight note of chocolate (from the oak, I guess) and sous-bois has developed over the years. It’s a great example from a vintage that overall gave ripe, delicious but not always excellent and perfectly balanced wines. I recommend an hour in the decanter before serving it, and a serving temperature of around 18 degrees to enhance the finer and fresher notes in the wine.
Drink it 2011-2022

2004 La Joie / 95-96 p
In this wine, Pierre Seillan included some grapes that normally go into the Anakota wines, and the final blend was 66 percent of Cabernet Sauvignon, 19 percent of Merlot, ten of Cabernet Franc and the rest of Petit Verdot. It’s as good as the Le Désir, and again it’s not obvious (if tasted blind) that this wine come from a very warm vintage. On the nose, it’s still rich and intense, but with its higher proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon, the tannic structure is much more firm compared to the other wines, so it behaves a bit younger and a bit dryer. It also offers slightly sweetish dark berry aromas, both blueberries and cassis, also a fine note of cedar tree, which most likely comes from the oak. Compared to my tasting notes some years ago, the aftertaste seems to be longer and more refined, I guess that’s due to the more polished tannins today. Still I’d like to decant this wine and serve it in a large Bordeaux glass, at 18 degrees Celsius for the finest balance, and to rich dish of beef of venison. To integrated the tannins a bit more, and make the wine even more silky and seductive, I would add a component with a fat or creamy texture – that’s the easiest way to please you palate when you serve a young and very serious Cabernet Sauvignon wine.
Drink it 2011-2024

2004 Le Désir / 96 p
This is a lovely St Emilion interpretation!  It’s dense, dark fruit scented and concentrated, yet so elegant with a phenomenal complexity for being a 2004, and there’s enough structure of tannins to match the slightly richer fruit than average here at Verité. When I tasted it three years ago, it was a bit closed, but now it has opened up and reveals fine notes of ink, cedar and chocolate, but of these notes are finely integrated as small shadows in the purely fruity and almost silky body, that lingers for more than a minute.
This vintage was composed of 49 percent of Merlot, 47 percent of Cabernet Franc and just a few percent of Cabernet Sauvignon. It is definitely one of the finest Bordeaux inspired wines of the 2004 vintage from California’s north coast, Sonoma County and Napa Valley included. Since it continued to open up in the glass when I tasted it, I guess it’s a good idea to decant it a good hour before you serve it, at least if you’ll be drinking it in the coming few years. 
Drink it 2011-2024

Vintage  2001

2001 La Muse / 96 p
Please take into consideration that the lineup of 2001s were tasted a year ago. Then this wine was dark, still youthful with fully ripe, dense and concentrated fruit flavor, still young with a good grip from the tannins which made up a very fine structure together with a lively acidity and minerality. The structure is still there, and still as magnificent as before. As in all vintages of La Muse, there’s a great balance, where the concentrated fruit never gets too sweet, it just makes you believe there’s some sweetness. This wine can really rival the very finest wines of Pomerol.
It should be decanted, not only to remove the fine sediment that may be there, rather more for the aeration. I’d serve this wine to a dish (chicken, red meat or even white fish) with butter fried mushrooms or truffle – that’s the perfect flavor match to a great Merlot based wine in its early stage of maturity.
Drink it 2011-2021

2001 La Joie / 97 p
Of the three 2001s, this always was and still is the most structured, it was a closed a few years ago, but is now a more open, yet youthful with layers of intense primary fruit flavors and it is extremely elegant and complex. Oak is not really part of the wines from Verité, but there’s a fine note of walnuts and cedar tree that I find very attractive. On the palate, it’s medium to full bodied, still young and relatively firm, tannins are important but ripe and therefore rather velvet like, and in the very long finish, the fresh acidity is perfectly well in balance with the fruit and the tickling mineral notes. Seamless would be a good word to describe the texture of this great wine – the finest (to my knowledge) of Cabernet Sauvignon based wines of Sonoma County this vintage.
Give it an hour in the decanter before you enjoy it. It’s still young, and it will open up with some air.
Drink it 2011-2025

2001 Le Désir / 97 p
Again, another great and extremely seductive effort of the Le Désir – one of the most complex Bordeaux styled wines in Sonoma County. Color in this ten year old is still dark and youthful with a touch of purple. The nose is stunning, rich and loaded with dark berry fruit, a bit spicy with fine tuned nuances of cedar tree, almonds and walnuts, also some tobacco which indicates a certain level of maturity, still the wine is young and full of primary fruit flavors. It’s very elegant, although medium plus bodied with good intensity and concentration, still so elegant and well balanced. In the long, lingering finish, you’ll find some tickling minerality, and the acidity gives a great energy to it. 
As for the other two 2001s, decanting is recommended, also to serve it at around 18 degrees Celsius in a large Bordeaux glass.
Drink it 2011-2023

Vintage  1998

1998 Verité / 90 p
In this inaugural vintage, this wine was only called Verité, but later it would become La Muse. It was made of 90 percent Merlot and ten percent Cabernet Sauvignon. As for the 1998 La Joie, it’s a lovely wine with very much Bordeaux like aromas and flavors, and the right words to use as descriptors would be “complex”, “noble maturity”, “forest floor” and “truffle”, but overall there’s a great balance, a fine structure with polished but still vital tannins. When I tasted the wines two years ago, the aftertaste was sublime and long, today it have started to decline and dry out a bit – but what’s there, is very fine. Still I wouldn’t keep the wine much longer – it’s good as it is right now.
In my first tasting notes of this wine, I gave it 92-93 points.
Drink it 2011-2012

1998 Verité La Joie / 91 p
Wow, isn’t this fantastic! When every Cabernet Sauvignon winemaker in California complained over the wet and cool vintage, Pierre Seillan was quite happy about the climate in Sonoma, although he said it was a bit of a difficult vintage. I have tasted this wine, made of 70 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 30 percent Merlot, several times over the years, and it’s now fully mature and very elegant with that kind of magic secondary aromas that only time will create. Any good taster, American or French, would put this wine in Bordeaux in a blind tasting.
Color is still surprisingly dark, but the tawny rim reveals the maturity of the wine. On the nose, ultra complex notes of cigars, cedar tree, sous-bois and dried mushrooms tell you the same story. On the palate, its much lighter (due to its age, and the weaker vintage) compared to the younger vintages, but there’s enough complexity and structure to make it very drinkable. It shouldn’t be decanted too long in advance, actually I’d rather decant it just before serving it, just to remove the fine sediment.
In my notes from 2008, I gave the wine 92-93 points.
Drink it 2011-2014

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