- Rating: 96 out of 100
- Tasting Fee: $75
- Accepts Reservations: Yes
- Reservation Required: Yes for Backstage Tasting, No for Tasting Bar
Yountville, CA 94599
Christopher Tynan is one of the hottest winemakers in Napa Valley right now. In addition to propelling wineries like Cliff Lede to centerstage in the wine world, he produces wines under his own label from sourced fruit that wine writers cannot stop gushing over (I think Jeb Dunnuck has given every one of his label’s wines 100pts each vintage). He and Tony Arcudi are the two newer winemakers I am closely following. So of course I had to take the opportunity to taste at Cliff Lede when I had the chance. I thought Shafer and Stags Leap Wine Cellars were the two kings of the AVA. But both of them better watch out because Cliff Lede is coming on very strong.
Other than knowing of the winemaker, I had no background on Cliff Lede before the tasting. I had neither read any articles about them nor tasted any of their wines before. Even today, I can’t find much of their wines in DC/Virginia, even though I see bottles of the One Point Five (Shafer) and Artemis (SLWC) everywhere. But now I am always paying attention to Cliff Lede’s website, waiting for the next sales on their Calistoga and Howell Mountain Cabernets as well as purchasing several bottles of their Beckstoffer To Kalon every new vintage. That is how much things have changed for me in a year…
Driving up to the winery and entering the front-door, I didn’t really see much that would’ve made me think “Cliff Lede is a winery I need to follow”. Their tasting list looked fairly average for a Napa Valley winery and the number of customers and ambiance were in line with that. Luckily, I had signed up for their Backstage Tasting. And as we entered the building behind the main tasting room, all of my perceptions changed. The room was filled, the conversations were louder and more serious, people were laughing, and one of the workers was continuously collecting filled-out order and membership forms. It was like I was at a different winery than before.
Since I was a group of one (yes, it’s lonely), I got a seat at the bar in the back, setup my laptop, and proceeded to taste through 6 very good to outstanding wines. I think the High Fidelity is not normally on their tasting menu, but some members had requested a taste earlier, so they were pouring the rest of the bottle for people until it ran out. Good timing for me indeed. I am still torn about not signing up for a membership here, but of the wines I were interested in, I’d have to purchase 6 of them each vintage and that would be tough, since I consider each of them special occasion wines (ie. ~$200-$300 a bottle). Though, you can also sign up for a membership and receive their FEL or normal Cabernets instead.
Each of these wines were among the best of their varietal (or blend) category. But that Beckstoffer left me dreaming of life 10-15 years from now. Even now, I catch myself staring at the bottles in my wine fridge, wondering how well they will round into form. Time will tell I guess…
- FEL Savoy Vineyard Chardonnay ($48)
- Light saline aromas on the nose paired with ripe lemon and lime on the palate (the wine was produced in steel tanks). I’m guessing either none or very little MLF because of the lack of butter/cream notes, but in its place you have a very good medium(+) balanced acid. This is a very easy drinking Chardonnay that is mellow and smooth. I’d like a little more character, but besides complexity, there is nothing you could point to as a flaw or imbalance in this wine. And if you like fruit flavors among all else, this will make you very happy…
- 2015 FEL Donnelly Creek Pinot Noir ($38)
- From the Anderson Valley, so there is lots of maritime influence, meaning the weather/temperature is pretty constant where these grapes come from. The first thing I thought of when I sniffed the wine was HdV (which sells its Pinots for $100+). On the palate, this wine is very smooth… Ripe fruit that isn’t candied, some degree of green that seems to be from whole cluster methods, great acidity, and smooth body. This is for all of those cranberry loves out there that appreciates tingling acidity in their Pinot Noir.
- 2010 Cliff Lede Poetry Cabernet Sauvignon ($310)
- One of their two Platinum wines from Stags Leap (other is Songbook). Ripe and cooked black/red fruit, a bit of green/pyrazine on the tasting profile, and very complex because of the blend percentages in this wine: 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot, 3% Cabernet Franc, and 1% Malbec. Good structure from the Cab Sauv, tertiary character (espresso, chocolate) and integration from the age, and a long finish. This is a very cerebral wine that has an expansive profile with tannin/acid levels that allow further aging. I think it’s drinking perfectly right now, as are most 2010s. This bottle is not for the traditional Cabernet drinker; this is a wine to ruminate on for an hour.
- 2015 High Fidelity ($85)
- 58% Merlot, 28% Cabernet Franc, 13% Cabernet Sauvignon, and the rest Petit Verdot. The ripe black fruit, cocoa, espresso and dustiness come out right away from the glass. There’s a spiciness at the end which is very interesting. The tannin is very present and needs some time to loosen its grip, which is different for a Merlot-driven wine. In fact, this bottle could compete with many flagship cabernets elsewhere! Too bad Merlot gets a bad rap. This is definitely a wine that could turn people around…
- 2015 Moon Fantasy ($110)
- Each block of their vineyards is named after a Rock and Roll song rather than being numbered like most places. Moon Fantasy is a blend of fruit from the “Dark Side of the Moon” plot in the Twin Peaks vineyard and the “Dear Mr. Fantasy” plot in the Poetry vineyard, hence the name Moon Fantasy. Big, rich blue and black fruit with some dust dominate the nose. The palate is more of the same with more perfumed fruit and big acid/tannin that could use some years of aging. There is a dustiness/cocoa/terroir component that is just really smoothly integrated into the wine and added another layer of complexity and deliciousness. If the High Fidelity shows the potential power of Merlot, this wine is about the big, brooding capability of Cabernet.
- 2015 Beckstoffer To Kalon ($185)
- If one considers the Moon Fantasy “brooding”, the Beckstoffer is a sleeping dragon. I was almost afraid of swirling the wine for fear of what it might be when it woke up… The wine explodes from the glass with perfumed blue/black fruit, white flowers, and cocoa. The palate is just as intense as the nose and emphasizes the fruit and the cocoa. This is just a brazen, out-of-control wine that needs to be drunk in the winter time. Also, there is so much acid and tannin that allows for (I take that back – it needs!) 15-25 years of aging. I don’t know if I can even call this a wine. I dare not touch this for 10 years (and yes, I bought 5 bottles).
I was struggling after this tasting as the Beckstoffer had consumed all of my taste buds. Overall, this was a very solid tasting that showcased several above average wines and a couple showstoppers. If you like dark, brooding wines like those of Mt. Veeder or other cult wines, you are really going to enjoy this tasting. I wonder if it’s coincidence that the winery happens to be next to my favorite winery in Napa (Kapcsandy)…
The next time you go out to Napa and think about tasting at Shafer and/or Stags Leap Wine Cellars, I ask that you consider including Cliff Lede as part of your itinerary. I promise you that you will not be disappointed. I for one was not… Cheers!!
Rating: 96 out of 100