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Trefethen Builds Greater Richness into Its Napa Wines

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Jul 31, 2008 4:41am ET

Last week I tasted a cross section of Trefethen varietals, chosen by owner Janet Trefethen, as means of showing how the wines from the winery in the Oak Knoll District of Napa have evolved in style.

The 1987 Riesling was amazingly fresh and vibrant, with tangy nectarine flavors. It tasted as fresh as a newly bottled wine.

And some of the older Chardonnays—the 1987 and 1977 vintages—were still in great shape, showcasing the vibrant acidity that is the signature of wines that don’t undergo any malolactic fermentation.

But the showstopper was the 2004 Malbec, a wine you don’t see much of in Napa Valley as a standalone varietal.

The Trefethens are celebrating their 40th anniversary in the wine business—they first sold grapes in 1968. Janet's husband, John, made their first Cabernet in the 1974 vintage, and it has held up nicely. He made the wine while reading and following directions from a book on winemaking written by Maynard Amerine, he recalled.

The winery has never purchased a grape from beyond its property, which lies just north of Napa and south of Yountville. Some 480 acres of vines are owned by the Trefethens and their philosophy represents a traditionalist perspective.

But things are changing. The vineyard has been replanted, with a better match of grape to soil types and the wines are all a bit richer and fuller bodied and I think they’re better as well, offering more depth and complexity.

The architecturally significant winery’s early Chardonnays, including the debut 1977, were made in the style popular in that era. The wines were fermented in stainless steel, didn’t undergo any malolactic and then aged in oak barrels. They aged well and held up. But they didn’t gain the kind of complexity and finesse that came when the winery began to employ some barrel fermentation (1991). Today the wines are 80 percent barrel fermented (20 percent still in stainless steel) with about 20-30 percent malolactic. That touch of malo gives the wine’s texture a smoother, silkier body. My favorite was the 1997, which combined that richer body yet retained a youthful mix of fresh, vibrant fruit. I also liked both the 2003 and 2006.

Both the Cabernets (including the Reserve) and Merlot showed similar stylistic changes, moving from a leaner, more austere style to a rounder, riper, fleshier style. (I didn’t taste any Pinot Noirs, nor the winery’s superpremium blend, Halo, named after John and Janet’s children Haley and Loren.)

Oak Knoll is a cool part of Napa Valley, so the grapes don’t get as ripe as they might in Rutherford. Still, the winemaking team at Trefethen—Peter Luthi (who is retiring soon) and Jon Ruel—preferred the newer versions.

Both the 2004 Merlot, which showed a sweet plum and wild berry ripeness not evident in early vintages, and 2004 Cabernets, including the Reserve, which exhibited a greater range of flavor, are steps up in quality.

Yet the biggest gains show in the Reserve, from 2004 to 2007, from a separate family-owned hillside vineyard away from the winery and closer to Yountville. It’s on a sloping alluvial fan and the grapes showed more density and concentration.

The final flight included the 2004 Malbec, which had the greatest concentration and depth of flavor of the bottled wines. It retails for $80.

Trefethen has many fans of its crisper, flintier Chardonnays and Rieslings. They are the kinds of wines that work well with many entrées. The winery's addition of some malolactic fermentation is a nice touch.

With the reds, the slightly riper, fuller-bodied flavors are more complex and fun to drink. They still reflect the cooler area where they’re grown, but there’s just more flavor and complexity and, in the end, they've become superior wines.

Bill Belkin
Minneapolis, MN —  July 31, 2008 2:58pm ET
Jim: I had the pleasure of sitting with Janet about two months ago along with a few other retailers and restaurant folks and sampled some of these same bottlings. Your assessment I think is spot on. The improvement in quality, especially in the Reserve level of wines is marked, but the real surprise was the 1986 Estate Cabernet. This wine was full of great color, fantastic fruit, perfect balance at 22 years of age. Coincidentally it is the birth year of my eldest son, and I want badly to secure a couple of bottles. Their Riesling and Chardonnays are of very high quality and a delight to drink. Janet and John really have it right! Kudos to you for bringing them to the fore.
Roy Piper
July 31, 2008 5:01pm ET
Their new hillside plantings make me drool as I drive to work in St. Helena everyday. You just look up at them and know they will produce excellent grapes.
John Fanaris
Venice, CA —  August 1, 2008 2:22pm ET
It's great to hear that Trefethen is evolving. Their Chardonnay was one of the first Chard's that I fell in love with (in the early '90's) and I immediately became a club member. After a few years though, I didnt get the same satisfaction out of their wines and I stopped my membership. Great memories though, especially from a few of their winery parties where they did wine & cheese pairings which was my 1st experience on how the food can really change and bring out different flavors in the wine. sounds like I will have to take a look at their wines again!
Harvey Posert
napa valley —  August 1, 2008 2:28pm ET
Jim -- i was happy to read these interesting new developments from an often overlooked winery -- and they're nice people, too!
Keller Ford
MO —  August 16, 2008 1:10am ET
The Trefethen Pinots are some of my Favorite!

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