The Star At Blankiet

Apr 18, 2006

I paid my first visit to Blankiet Estate last week, on one of the rare days this spring when the sun was shining brightly in Northern California.

This is the ambitious new vineyard and winery owned by Claude and Katherine Blankiet, with the viticulture and winemaking being overseen by Helen Turley and John Wetlaufer. Turley and Wetlaufer are the celebrated winemaking team renowned for their work with their own Marcassin Vineyard Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs in Sonoma, and earlier successes with Napa Valley Cabernet at Bryant Family and Colgin.

I've tasted the Blankiet wines--they bottle a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Merlot—informally on two prior occasions and noted the progress. But this was my first trip to their Paradise Hills Vineyard, a 16-acre spread located on a low-slung rolling hillside due west of Dominus in the Napa Valley township of Yountville.

The Blankiets are in the final stages of finishing their new winery, built in front of a knoll where they tunneled a barrel-aging cave. Their 2005 wines were made on a makeshift crush pad before the winery walls went up.

The last time I tasted the Blankiet wines I was most impressed by the 2003 Merlot. This time, after tasting all of the Cabernets, dating to 1999, and Merlots, back to 2002, I'm convinced the '03 Merlot is the breakout wine. It is also, to my taste, the stronger of the two wines produced. Counterpoint: Turley favors the Cabernet ever so slightly.

The wines are the opposite of what you might expect from these two Bordeaux varietals. The Merlot is the bigger, richer and more complex of the two. The Cabernet is excellent, too, and improving. But it is leaner and more austere, and not as compelling as the Merlot. The closest reference wine comes from Dominus Estate, Christian Moueix's winery. While Moueix's Dominus is a Cabernet-based Bordeaux blend, his property has yielded brilliant Merlots. One that comes to mind is the 1996 Pahlmeyer, made by Turley from Dominus grapes.

 
Claude Blankiet in front of his soon-to-be-finished winery  

Blankiet Estate is very much a work in progress. The Blankiets purchased the property in 1996 and began replanting it the next year. They pulled acres of Sangiovese and kept only a small plot of Cabernet. After hiring Turley and Wetlaufer, they decided to add more Cabernet acreage to the rockier, volcanic ash soils and plant Merlot on the clay portion that runs through the middle of the property.

The initial plan was to produce one estate wine. But after tasting the wines in various blends and as 100 varietals on their own, they opted for two wines, which makes sense. "We found the parts were more interesting than the whole," said Claude Blankiet, who is 63, a native of Burgundy and a recent transplant from Texas to Napa Valley. From this vineyard, "Merlot is special," he said, adding, "We are learning as the vines mature and we taste the wines. We can taste the differences in every block and we can see the differences in the wines."

 
The Blankiet property, purchased in 1996 and since replanted.  

Here are my notes from our non-blind tasting:

With Merlot, the 2005, tasted from barrel, exhibits a saturated color and aromas of kirsch, graphite and currant. It’s super rich, but also strikingly elegant. Potentially outstanding.

The 2004, also tasted from barrel, is another powerful vintage. Dense, massive and opulent, with amazing depth and concentration. Tightly focused, with layers of currant, wild berry and black cherry. Great length. Could be a classic.

The 2003, of which 800 cases were made, is being released now for $100 a bottle. It has the potential to be a classic. I look forward to blind tasting this wine. Last week it offered a wonderful berry and cassis aromas, mocha-laced oak flavors and hints of herb, black olive that coat the palate.

The 2002, on the other hand, is tough, herbaceous and leathery, falling into the good category.

With the Cabernets, I liked the 2004 the best. The barrel sample showed a dense, more extracted body of fruit, with loamy currant and plush berry flavors that featured a long, intense finish. It showed outstanding potential.

The 2002 is the least impressive, tighter and more restrained than when I reviewed it blind last year ($100, 82 points).

The other wines fall into the very good range. The 2005, tasted from barrel, featured tart blackberry and grapey flavors, but not the depth nor plushness of the '05 Merlot.

The 2003, which is being released now for $150 a bottle, with 900 cases, is sleeker than the '03 Merlot, with a streak of dried currant, herb and leather.

The rest I tasted from magnum. The 2001 is intense and woody, with cedar, pencil lead and graphite dominating the dried currant flavors. The 2000, which I gave 88 points in a blind tasting in 2003, offered grapey plum and wild berry fruit, turning sleek at mid-palate and finishing with a persistent aftertaste. The 1999 featured complex aromas of earth, mineral and currant that carried over to the palate.

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