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Test Driving a Napa Vineyard


Test has also introduced three limited bottlings of single-vineyard Merryvale Cabernets from the heart of the Napa Valley, beginning with the 1999 vintage (to be released in late 2002). All three are from vineyards owned by prominent Napa Valley grower Andy Beckstoffer: Vineyard X Cabernet Sauvignon (Oakville), Las Amigas Merlot (Carneros) and Beckstoffer Clone 6 (Rutherford).

The single-site, single-clone Rutherford Cabernet is particularly exciting. Clone 6 is thought to be an old Bordeaux selection, although its exact origin in the Medoc has been lost. It surfaced as a "new" clone during the 1980s after a few vines were found languishing in a UC Davis experimental vineyard in the Sierra foothills.

During trials conducted over several years by Beaulieu Vineyards, wines made from Clone 6 grapes consistently showed superior qualities. It was quickly embraced by high-end growers such as Beckstoffer and is becoming the Cabernet clone of choice in Napa Valley, particularly for so-called cult wines. As new plantings come on line, Clone 6 promises to be an ever more important factor in the increasingly distinctive character of Napa Valley Cabernet.

A typical Clone 6 Cabernet is densely concentrated and yet clear and open on the palate, with silky texture and classical Cabernet flavor. The '99 Merryvale I tasted from barrel with Test was all that and more, with the beautiful reconciliation of apparently opposing values that marks the finest wines: opulence and richness versus definition, clarity and focus.

The '99 Vineyard X has the same powerful, elegant style with succulent black-fruit flavors. The '99 Las Amigas Merlot has a core of luscious cherry flavor, a supple, chewy texture and a lovely green note (typical of fine Merlot) pointing up the finish.

That's not all. In a rare move for a Napa Valley winery, Merryvale will take advantage of Test's long experience on the other side of the mountains to bottle two Sonoma County wines. One is a vintage 2000 Syrah from the Unti Vineyard in Dry Creek Valley. Another is a 2000 Pinot Noir from the Klopp Vineyard in Russian River Valley (Klopp also supplies fruit to Pinot star Merry Edwards).

Though it was not quite through malolactic fermentation when we dipped into the barrel for a taste, the young Klopp Pinot Noir already showed brilliant high-toned fruit with earthy undertones and fine-grained tannin, a beauty in the making.

Steve Test has even managed to produce a small bottling of that increasingly rare creature, a Napa Valley Zinfandel from 30-year-old vines in St. Helena. Ah, now, that wine just sails across the palate like--well, like a scrumptious Zin. There's nothing quite like that.


Smith is writer-at-large for Wine & Spirits magazine.

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