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Harvest Q&A: Napa Valley

Colgin winemaker Mark Aubert likes the look of this year's Cabernet Sauvignon, but he thinks this could be the year for Merlot

Posted: October 5, 2006

Mark Aubert is a native of St. Helena, Calif. He's only 45, but already his winemaking career spans more than 20 years. He first worked at Rutherford Hill, and later went on to Monticello Cellars, then Peter Michael, where he worked with California winemaking icon Helen Turley--and took the reins after she left. Aubert is currently the winemaker at Napa Valley winery Colgin, where he makes 1,500 cases of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah which, year after year, are among the highest scoring on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale. Aubert and his wife, Teresa, also began releasing their own wines under the Aubert label beginning with the 2000 vintage, dedicated solely to 4,000 cases of Sonoma Coast Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. He spoke with Wine Spectator on Oct. 4, right after the first mild rain of harvest and during a rare break.

Wine Spectator: Describe this year's growing season.
Mark Aubert: It reminds me a lot of the 2001 growing season. I think the crop size is on the relatively small side for us. We had a very wet winter, and the heat that we had--that big heat wave in July--is just fine. The grapes had an incredible boost from that. Right now we're in that "sweet spot." The leaves are beginning to fall; the squirrels are putting their nuts away. We have great flavor, and I'm not worried. As long as the weather holds up.

WS: What is distinguishing about this vintage?
MA: Really high malic acids from the min-to-max temperature extremes. The lows are about 45 degrees, and the highs get up to 90. As soon as the sun sets, the temperature drops like a stone. The malic acids are indicative of these cold nights and hot days. I like the malic to be high--especially when in balance with sugar and ripeness like this vintage--because it makes the wines broad and fatter. It's significant because the temperature differential is not going from 70 to 100 degrees, it's going from 40 to 90. It's like putting the grapes in the refrigerator at night to keep them fresh.

WS: Any particular standouts?
MA: This is the vintage for Merlot. Cabernet is usually three weeks behind the Merlot. We're experiencing a lot of Right Bank nuance right now.

WS: Why do you say it's the vintage for Merlot?
MA: Merlot is very sensitive to heat. It's OK when a heat wave happens in July, like this year. But if it happens in September? We're in trouble. Those who are bottling Merlot will be greatly rewarded. I brought in some Merlot from Howell Mountain. There was a perfume just from the grapes sitting on the sorting table. Not even fermenting, just sitting there. They have this smell of fresh jam, blackberries and fresh cherry juice.

WS: How is Napa Valley Cabernet looking?
MA: I think that it's a lot like 2001. We have a smaller crop of intensely flavored grapes. The phenolics are much softer, the wines will be much more supple. Remember that 2004 was off the charts with ripeness? It looks like these wines will be much more elegant, with lower alcohols, and higher acid. We've only vinified three different cabs in vats so far, and they seem incredibly concentrated. There are wonderful flavors present--even just in the grapes. The seeds are crunchy and sweet.

WS: What kind of flavors?
MA: We're seeing bramble, cassis, a lot of jammy flavors, but no Porty flavors. It's going to be incredibly soft and supple. What's very interesting about some of the Cabernets is that the acidities are at a good place, for rich, hedonistic wines at lower sugars. It's playing with really good sugar-to-acid ratios. The malic acids are behaving like the Merlots did. I'm incredibly excited about the quality.

WS: What gave you the most cause for concern this year?
MA: It was a really hot July, so there was concern about the leaves getting scorched, but nothing got burned.

WS: What's the most exciting thing about harvest?
MA: The most exciting thing for me is the more cerebral thing: It is "What vintage does this remind you of?" and then trying to sculpt the wines based on decisions that way. Many of the fermentations from the first picks are complete, and I can see the results of my decisions. It energizes you midstream. It gives you a second wind.

WS: What's the scariest thing about harvest?
MA: Yesterday we put in 16 hours. I think it's that you lose track of reality. I haven't read a paper in over a week. And I haven't seen my daughter in a long time. I get up when it's dark, and I get home when it's dark. It's like living in the twilight zone. It's like having a sense of déjà vu over and over again. You need to keep a really good calendar.

WS: What are you living off of this time of year?
MA: My diet is not good. I'm eating hamburgers, burritos and pizza. I haven't eaten vegetables in quite some time. I'm living on coffee and beer.

WS: Is there anything you can do to relax?
MA: I haven't exercised in three weeks--there's no time. The best thing is the music. I listen to a lot of soothing jazz. New-age stuff. And blues. No rock 'n' roll music--it makes me crazy. And the Hispanic workers like the ranchero music, so there's lots of ranchero music blaring. If it makes them happy, it makes me happy.

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