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Stéphane Derenoncourt's Impressive New Wines

French consulting winemaker finds creative outlet in Napa
Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Feb 11, 2010 12:00am ET

Stéphane Derenoncourt stopped by my office in Napa this week to show me his new wines under the Derenoncourt label.

It's an ambitious project for a most ambitious winemaker.

Winemaker barely defines the breadth and scope of his work. He consults for nearly 70 wineries in 10 countries, including his native France (where he has 27 clients in St.-Emilion alone), but also in such faraway places as Turkey, China, Lebanon, India and Chile. His next stop after leaving Napa is Chile, for a Pinot Noir project.

Derenoncourt, 48, came up through the ranks. The son of a steel-mill worker, he never finished high school, working odd jobs and having never seen a vine until hitchhiking to Bordeaux. Today, however, he is a highly regarded vigneron.

And he couldn't resist branching out into California. For Derenoncourt (as well as for many other foreign winemakers), the state's appeal lies in the simple reason that here you can start from scratch and not be bound by traditions.

His California venture is anchored in Napa Valley, where four of his five new wines come from. He was hired last year to work with Francis & Eleanor Coppola's Rubicon Estate in Rutherford, which he also visited this week.

Derenoncourt's lineup of 2006 wines, made in partnership with the Montesquieu wine group, is about as uniformly consistent stylistically as any I've ever tasted.

All five share dark red colors, rich, extracted flavors, density, texture, focus, concentration, depth and complexity. All have pleasantly loamy earthy flavors and ripe tannins.

The wines are also rather expensive once you get past the $40 Lake Country Cabernet Sauvignon. The Syrah sells for $60, the Merlot and Cabernet Franc for $140, and the Cabernet for $220.

The best bet is the Derenoncourt Lake County Red Hills Cabernet, which is perhaps the finest red wine I've tasted from this appellation north of Napa Valley. Derenoncourt said the allure of the red soils there attracted him and the wine is rich and loamy, with dusty cedar and red cherry fruit. Some 575 cases were produced.

The Derenoncourt Napa Valley Syrah is from Hudson Vineyard, but includes 15 percent Merlot from elsewhere, hence no vineyard designation. It was less sharply defined than the other wines, yet still gutsy, complex, tight and concentrated. 600 cases were made.

The Derenoncourt Merlot from Stagecoach Vineyard is pure, rich and concentrated, dense and chewy, with great depth, balance and concentration. Only 100 cases were made.

The Cabernet Franc was perhaps the most impressive. It offers wonderful aromatics and is rich and structured, with tight tobacco leaf, currant, berry and spice notes. It comes from Caldwell Vineyard. 225 cases were produced.

"The Cabernet Franc was a dream for me," he said, since that's the grape he is most familiar with, adding, "I always try to get some sensuality into the wines."

The Derenoncourt Cabernet Sauvignon is also from Caldwell. Pure, rich and polished, dense and concentrated, it exhibits a touch more creamy oak than the other wines, ending with great length and persistence. 100 cases made.

With 2007, Derenoncourt is adding a Cabernet from Inkgrade in Napa and a trio of reds—Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah—from Cotturi in Sonoma

Vince Liotta
Elmhurst Illinois —  February 11, 2010 3:09pm ET

Wow. It's scary good to think of what a Bordelais could do with Rubicon Estate. I just had the 2005 (which you rated 93 points) the other day in a blind tasting and was really impressed with the size, structure and dark fruits in the wine, 94 to 95 points for me, a level above the few other vintages I have tried. The wine fell just short about 2/3 through the finish as some either immature or unripe tannins interfered with the fruit's balance. At five years old, it was perhaps just past its most vibrant fruit expression, but had not yet achieved secondary flavors or complete finesse.

Although personally, I probably would prefer this wine in 3 to 5 years down the road, most California Cabernet's show well in their youth--in fact, it is a necessity to drink them young to experience the full impact of their often considerable fruit character. Yet this brings me to a point I have brought up here before that I believe the Wine Spectator editorial staff should take more risks with their recommended drink windows, not playing it quite so safe.

In the case of the 2005 Rubicon, your recommended drink window begins at 2009. I fail to see what advantage or transformation has occurred by aging this wine 4 years? On the contrary, the wine, while showing well, may actually be in a bit of an awkward phase at present.

To your impressive credit, you have influenced many to appreciate the bold fruit flavors of young California wines. But for those wines which have the ability to develop and improve with age, why not attempt to recommend a drink window which fully expresses that development? (To your credit you have recommended a 6 year time frame for Pinot Noir with which I agree--5 to 7 years for well structured Pinots as well as Zinfandels). Drinking California wine young is rarely a bad idea, but as your colleague Marianne W. pointed out yesterday, if one is going to cellar a wine, it's important to get it right (although admittedly not always possible!!)

Michael Bruce Todd
Salisbury, MD —  February 11, 2010 11:34pm ET
I have a question that I would love to know how this can be, V. Sattui in Nappa just sent out a video showing that there 2006 Merlot Won the entire division of about 200 merlot's in the San Fransico wine festival, a double gold medal winner(what ever that means, is there a triple winner). However this wine was rated by Wine Spectator(TS) as being a 79. So my question is how can a wine win such an honor be rated a 79. It seems like to large a disconnect to me. Also If a bottle is corked when you taste it do you have others available to try?
Apj Powers
Dallas, TX —  February 12, 2010 2:33am ET
Michael - Having judged state wine competitions, I put zero value on Gold Medals! How's that for controversy. We rushed thru so many 5-glass flights in 2 days, 4-6 judges at each table, maybe 15-20 tables of judges, least offensive (not the best or gold) choice in less than 5 minutes, moves on to the next level. Consensus judging usually ends up with the middle-ground choice. Unique, elegant,subtle, etc, always loses out in this format. Too many wines, too many flights, lets move on. Maybe, a strong personality at a table sways opinions. Also, rare, highly rated, wineries have nothing to gain and lots to lose entering these things - they win, so what? they get 2nd or worse, then the winner uses that in their marketing. So competition is usually diluted. Some wineries enter everything and then are more likely to win at least some silver
Hugh L Sutherland Jr-m
miramar beach, fl —  February 12, 2010 1:07pm ET
This shows the problem of having one WS person judging the wine. I find it impossible for the wine judges to give a wine a rating that is so far of base than what WS gave it. For fairness a wine that is judged to have faults should be blind tasted by more than one person. I would hate to have the ability to destroy a wine as a grade of 78 will do without another impression.
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  February 12, 2010 2:04pm ET

Thanks for the note. I reviewed the 2006 Merlot and I tasted it blind twice with similar results. We taste a good many V. Sattui wines and often give them excellent scores. I had some experience with wine competitions before I joined the magazine. I have a great deal of respect for many of the judges but I have to agree with Apj Powers.
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento, CA —  February 12, 2010 6:52pm ET
James -- you've been part of the blogs regarding the "new world" or "overripe/over extracted" vs "old world" (more austere / restrained / food friendly )style of wines. From your tasting notes, it seems like these wines might be more of the former than the latter. Any comments on this--specifically, does an "old world winemaker" make a more new world style of wine simply because our terrior here veers towards that style? Personally, I am not directly familar with his wines so I do not know what his style is. And thanks for the tip -- I will search out the Lake County Cab!
Patrick Cook
San Mateo, CA —  February 13, 2010 12:35pm ET
Great, just what we need. Another $200+ Napa Cab.
Ron Johnson
Clearwater,FL —  February 15, 2010 7:20pm ET
A Grand Sommelier once told me, after $50 (wholesale) it is a diminishing return on your wine dollar investment. Insanity pays Conti, Petrus, Eagle, etc prices that insult our intelligence. I once paid $25 for a 67 Petrus at a Gas station in Tallahasse,FL in 1971 long before the rating system...My advice is stay under $100 for the best as paying more will not guarantee Nirvana....Caymus 07 Special Select is worth the adjusted price of $100.....WOW now that's a wine deal

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