Splendor, Mirth, and Good Cheer: Wine from Clos du Val
Until 1976, French wines were generally regarded as the best in the world. But that year a blind taste-test undermined their reputation. Called the "Judgment of Paris," the tasting involved a panel of expert French judges and a selection of whites and reds from both France and California. American wine producers were vindicated when the judges ranked both a California white and a California red as number one in quality and taste ahead of their French counterparts.
One of those California wines was a 1972 Cabernet Sauvignon (priced, incidentally, at $6 a bottle) by Clos du Val, a small estate winery founded that same year in the Stags Leap District of Napa Valley. The winery represented a unique collaboration between an American businessman named John Goelet and French winemaker Bernard Portet, who had been charged by Goelet with finding a new place to grow vines. The story goes that Portet traveled the world in search of just the right spot, and when he ended up in Napa Valley, he tested the climate of the place by driving around with his arm out the window. However unscientific his method, Portet’s hunch that the cool Stags Leap region would be an ideal place to cultivate grapes proved right.
These days, Portet is joined by John Clews, VP of Vineyards and Winery Operations, in overseeing Clos du Val and making blending decisions. I met with Clews on a warm evening in downtown Boston to sample a selection of five reserve wines. Clews told me that he spent his childhood in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) with parents who prepared meals direct from the land - his mother a gardener, his father a hunter. He credits their influence on his own preference for simple food and wine that pair well.
We began with a 2005 Chardonnay, a barrel-fermented wine with a rich flavor that paired nicely with a plate of lightly fried calamari. Because 2005 was a colder year, the flavor that predominates is citrusy, as opposed to the tropical fruit flavor of a warmer year. Chardonnay is consistently the highest selling wine in the US for the simple reason that it’s very easy to drink. I found the 2005 Chard, which retails at about $22 per bottle, pleasantly acidic and crisp - the sort of wine I’d like to sip on a roof deck in early July, waiting for the fireworks display to begin over the Charles River.
Clews called the 2005 Pinot Noir ($28) that we tried next his "house red." He prefers to serve it with salmon or swordfish and the fresh produce that is abundant near his home in Napa. Aged twelve months in French oak barrels, the Pinot Noir smells to me of blackberries and peppers. It’s an attractive wine but lighter than I prefer. The 2004 Merlot ($26) that followed suits me better. It’s ninety-six percent Merlot, tempered with only four percent Cabernet Sauvignon, which tells me that the Merlot is excellent quality, and it tastes of spices, fruit and herbs. I found it very smooth and agreeable with a plate of porcini ravioli in butter-sage sauce - the kind of meal in which the food and wine work to enhance the flavors of each other. Clews called the Merlot "serious but friendly," rather like himself.
We finished with two Cabernets - the 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon (retailing at about $32), and the 2002 Estate Cabernet ($62). The 2004 Cab was decent, but no match for the 2002 Estate bottle, which quickly became my favorite of the bunch. At five years old, the estate Cabernet was incredibly drinkable, a rich and full-bodied wine with an intense fruit flavor that Clews said will age well for at least ten years.
Clos du Val’s estate wines are limited in production and highly allocated, the kind of wine that speaks to the name "Clos du Val" - French for "small vineyard estate of a small valley." It is this wine that seems to best reflect the winery’s emphasis on classical balance. "When acid, tannin and wood are all in balance, the fruit can dominate," Clews told me.
Clews described Clos du Val as a winery "with a track record," and his focus on tradition is reflected in the image of the Three Graces that adorns the label of every bottle. Figures from Greek mythology, they are Aglaia (Splendor), Euphrosyne (Mirth) and Thalia (Good Cheer), and their spirit reflects the "sublety, elegance, and down-to-earth character of the wines," Clews said.
Indeed, the winery itself is a modest farm building, decked in ivy, that stands in contrast to the grand chateaux found elsewhere in Napa and Sonoma. Located on Silverado Trail, away from the more heavily touristed Route 29, it sits about five miles north of the city of Napa.
Though traditional in spirit, Clos du Val has earned a reputation as a progressive business, practicing sustainable farming methods and serving the community that houses it. Bottles appear not only in episodes of Sex and the City, The Sopranos, and The L Word, but also at fundraiser events for organizations like the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and The National Center for Lesbian Rights.
It’s hardly necessary to travel to California for a taste of Clos du Val’s award-winning wines. Boston restaurants like Abe & Louie’s, Icarus, and Sibling Rivalry, as well as Bauer Wine & Spirits on Newbury Street and Charles Street Liquors in Beacon Hill, offer a selection of Clos du Val wines, as does the winery’s website at www.closduval.com.