By Francois Steichen
The other day, my old boss, Randy Caravella of Post Wine & Spirits in Cos Cob, invited me to taste a bottle of Opus One. It was a very generous offer that I accepted immediately. Even in the wine business, it’s not often you get to taste Opus.
Still, the wires of anxiety in me began to hum. One doesn’t like to go into a tasting with pre-conceived notions, yet memories of my last true professional experience with Opus – a hurried, unedifying tasting of 8 vintages in a cramped restaurant in October, 2010 – left me ambivalent. Words like “overrated,” and “cult wine” invaded my thoughts more than I cared to admit.
Randy sweetened the pot: France Posener, Eastern Division Sales Manager for Opus One over the past 33 years, would be joining us virtually from her home on the East End of Long Island. And so I decided it was only fair to give Opus a second shot. A first shot, really, given my earlier inchoate experience.
Opus One sells about 25,000 cases each year, from 42 lots of grapes. Keep in mind that the wine at Opus is meant to follow a Bordeaux formula, so Opus One usually picks earlier than others in the Napa Valley. Their aim is to make a food-friendly wine.
The 2016 Vintage
“2011 is the vintage everyone loves,” says France Posener, “but my personal favorite is the 2010.” She considers it a sort of wine-nerd’s vintage: “2010 was really tough for Viticulturalists. It is a drought wine, where the vines really had to dig their roots deep in order to find water resources. But they ended up producing much deeper wines with much more concentrated juice.”
2016 was the last vintage before some rather astounding climatological developments occurred in California, and France views it, along with 2012, ’13 and ’17, as a great vintage. The 2016 benefitted from classic conditions: despite punishing drought, rain fell on Oakville before March so the soil was well drenched going into the growing season. August and September had perfect temperatures and sun, so that picking was steady and undisturbed by rain or other elements, from September 9th to October 12th.
Tasting Opus One 2016
You might have guessed by now that I wouldn’t be writing all this if I hadn’t enjoyed the Opus One we tasted. In fact, the 2016 was outstanding. Five years after picking, it still shows a lot of youthful character. Yet that character is extraordinarily complex, with huge cassis (blackcurrant), plum and black licorice (France smelled and tasted red licorice – vive la difference!) on the nose. This was overlaid with leather, rose-hips and tobacco.
The wine had fine structure, with high acidity and average tannins that were somewhere between soft and unripe. This is a powerful wine, with higher than average alcohol. But you wouldn’t notice it because the alcohol is so well integrated.
Best of all was the palate: a full-bodied wine with pronounced flavors of cocoa, cassis and tart Italian plums. The wine flavors also stayed quite a long time in the mouth.
Opus 2016 is a wine of balance, concentration, length and complexity, and while I thoroughly enjoyed it as tasted, it is still nowhere near its aging peak. Truly superb.
Postscript: 2017 is the current vintage. Snap it up!
2017 was a very consequential vintage in Napa history. It was the year of the wildfires; sadly, a good number of wines have some smoke taint. As described above, Opus One tends to pick early. So in 2017, they avoided a lot of damage from smoke. It is generally considered the equal of 2016, if not superior.
An interesting corollary of 2017, however, is that the ash from the fires created a base resembling volcanic soil, a superlative substrate for grapes. In any case, volumes for 2018 and 2019 were double the ones for 2017, yet still maintained deep fruit flavors. Wine critics are raving about these vintages as some of the best in California history.
Since 2020 brought in only 15% of the regular yield due to the lost opportunities posed by Covid, the volumes of 2018/19 are very welcome to California winemakers indeed.
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François Steichen founded and owns Frenchy’s Wine Road, a Connecticut company that writes copy and content for the wine, spirits and cider industries.
He is a resident of Old Greenwich with 15 years’ experience in the Wine Industry. François started at Harry’s Wines in Fairfield; worked at Acker, Merrall and Condit, in New York, the oldest wine store in America; and has managed stores in Greenwich.
François holds the WSET Diploma, the gold standard in wine education. At 10 years of age, François took his first – chaperoned – sip of a sparkling wine. Since that moment, the magic of fermentation and spontaneously-produced bubbles has never truly relinquished its hold on his curiosity.