An Argentine in Napa: a Viader Vertical

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I rarely drink Napa wine these days. The prices are high and my preferences lean towards wines with greater acids and a different profile. Nonetheless, the valley remains one of the world’s best for Cabernet Sauvignon. As such there are several wineries in Napa that still attract my attention, particularly those making wine in a more restrained style. Though this is beginning to change somewhat, Viader has long been on my radar as a winery that focuses on elegance over power and extraction. I recently had an opportunity to taste through a significant vertical of their wines, back to their sophomore 1990 vintage at Vancouver’s Hawksworth restaurant and found several of the older vintages quite strong examples of elegant mountain fruit from Napa.

Cab Franc and a Serious Slope

Unlike most Napa wineries, Viader has long had a significant focus on Cabernet Franc, which makes up a much higher percentage of the blend of their proprietary red than any other Napa winery I can think of. Perhaps this is just another expression of founder Delia Viader’s independent spirit. An immigrant from Argentina in the 1980’s, Delia Viader decided she wanted to pursue a radical approach to grape growing and wine making in the then quite conseravtive Napa Valley. Using a loan from her Father, she purchased a plot of land on Howell Mountain that was essentially an all rock cliff. At the time, no one thought it possible to plant grapes on such a steep slope and many dismissed Delia as crazy. Indeed, she had to fight with various Napa boards to even get approval to build the vineyard.

Dynamite was the only means by which Delia could make enough space for a vineyard. The resulting slope at a grade of 32% is quite steep and dramatic and offers the vines some of the best exposure in the valley. Viader was one of the first in Napa to train vines on such a steep slope using Bordeaux style spacing, orienting the vines straight up and down the vineyard (rather than horizontally). This increases the sun exposure and has since been copied by other wineries.

While Viader experimented with biodynamics from 2001-2007 they did not feel the increased cost was justified and returned to organic farming following 2007. Alan Viader said the biodynamic farming did not seem to result in a higher quality wine at their estate.

The Wines

The flight of wines dating back to 1990 was a pleasure to taste. Not all showed equally, but the fundamental core of finesse, elegance and freshness remained a theme throughout the night. I do wish the food pairings were better as many were somewhat off the mark. I think it is a case of the Hawksworth style not pairing so well with Napa Cabernet, even elegant ones. Today Viader’s wines are moving forward in a more modern, more extracted style. I preferred the old school approach, but several at the dinner chose the most recent 2009 vintage as the best. Whichever way you cut it, Viader is the real deal in a valley where so many pretenders have planted their shallow roots.

1990: This is the second vintage Viader made. Green and leafy on the nose, though not under ripe just aromatic. Cedar and menthol on the palate. Very well balanced. Fully developed and integrated smooth tannin. Very Good+

1993: Similar aroma profile to the 1990 but more subtle and less green. Riper tasting. Less interesting than the 90. Slightly lesser balance. It is also a bit more iron-like and savory. Very Good.

1994: Plummier, fruitier wine. Chocolate. Dense. More ripeness and power again than the 90 but unlike the 93 there is real finesse and elegance here. Nice length. Excellent to Excellent+.

1995: More chocolate and ripeness still compared to the 1994. The wine can still develop. Plum and blackberry. Very fresh and mouthwatering. Lovely texture. Finish falls off sooner than I expected, which notches this down a little. Very Good+

1996: More briary and toasted than all the previous wines. Brambles and blackberry fruit. Nicely aromatic. Nose is impressive – one of the most expressive so far. Again fresh and lifted. Elegant, impressive wine with brilliant, powerful mid palate and excellent finish. Complete. Excellent.

1997: Fruity and dense. Highly structured – still very tannic and needs 7-10 years. However I think once it opens it could be great. Needs decanting. Very Good+ but closed now and I question whether it will fully round out and open.

1998: Lifted and floral. Lavender. Nice elegance and body. Balanced but a bit short on concentration of the finish. Very good+

1999: Bramble and chocolate in this rich wine. Quite dense and opulent. If you like the big style of Napa wine but want finesse too this is a vintage to go for. Very Good+

2004: Youthful and rich, but very fresh and juicy. Impressive for the young vintage and can even be consumed now. Excellent to Excellent+.

2006: Tight right now. Very dense. Chocolate again – needs time to develop hard to fully evaluate now. Very good+

2007: Briary sweet fruit. Very chocolatey and dense. Rich tannic excellent structure. Very Good+ to Excellent and should be aged

2009: Most modern of the wines and the first wine to show oak influence, which proves how great the oak treatment is at this winery. Very creamy and sexy wine. Very Good+.

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