“My wine making philosophy was carried over in my backpack when I came from France 40 years ago” explains iconic winemaker Bernard Portet over lunch in New York City. “Wine should go with food. I believe that the wine should work its way into the flavors of food and that as the flavors of the food melt away, the flavors of the wine should take over, so there is a pretty strong symbiosis between the wine and food. I want a wine that comes in and balances, that is able to play second fiddle to the food. I make elegant wines that are not explosive. I inherited that from my father.”
Portet’s father, was director at Chateau Lafite-Rothschild in Bordeaux and the family history in wine goes back to the 1600s. A firm believer in terroir, and wine being about a specific place, Portret’s winemaking and travels took him around the world — Australia, South Africa, South America — before he arrived in Napa Valley in the early 1970s. There he found similarities that reminded him of some of his favorite wine regions in France and it was there he settled. “My plan was to stay until 1978, when my son would turn 6, and then return to France. I wanted him educated in France” he explains “but we are all still there. The terroir and the climate — and the life — were just too good.”
In 1971 Portet co-founded Clos du Val in the then unsung Stag’s Leap wine district, with a plan to make Bordeaux-style wines. His first (1972) vintage of cabernet was chosen to be one of the half dozen California cabs to compete against Bordeaux in the now famous Judgment of Paris, and the rest is history. Portet retired from his famed winery in 2009, but retirement did not last long. “I got a little bored” he admits with a smile. So he got together with a former colleague from Clos du Val to launch Heritance, in 2011. He named it Heritance “to convey a sense of both heritage and inheritance from my family. I learned from my father — although I didn’t listen to him enough” he says with a laugh.
With no vineyards or winery of their own, Heritance sources fruit from various vineyards and makes wine in custom crush facilities. As Portet describes it “We have a virtual winery, we have a winery without walls.” As one of Napa’s premier winemakers for decades he has an unrivaled list of growers and winemakers to work with. And this suits his assemblage style of winemaking. “Instead of making the best Merlot or the best Cabernet, I want to make the best wine” he explains. “The assemblage method is perhaps as old as winemaking itself. I was raised in Bordeaux, where all of the wines are an assemblage of varietals, in different proportions for each chateau and each vintage. The emphasis is not on varietal character, but on balance and complexity.”
What we tasted:
Heritance 2010 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($24)
For the inaugural vintage, Portet created a Bordeaux-style blend of primarily Sauvignon Blanc (91%), with some Semillon (9%). For this vintage he bought already pressed juice, but for subsequent vintages her buys the grapes from growers directly. “This wine is in the Bordeaux style, the Graves style” explained Portet “but it is warmer in California, so the wines are a little more powerful.” The wine is aged in stainless steel, on the lees, but the lees are not stirred. This is a classic wine with a spun-gold hue, tinged with lime green. The Semillion adds some complexity and roundness. Lots of citrus with hints of fig and wisps of grass, a very elegant and accessible wine.
Heritance 2011 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($24)
88% Sauvignon Blanc sourced from vineyards in St Helena and the Soscol, where the soils are loamy and well drained. The Sauvignon is blended with 12% Rousanne, which was grown in the Paso Robles area. “It was a short year and I couldn’t get the quality of Semillion that I wanted” said Portet. “Then I remembered, from my time in France, that Rousanne will do a similar thing when blended with Sauvignon, which was to cover up some of those green bean notes that you get in a cooler climate. The blend 100% Stainless Steel tank fermented and kept on the lees to soften the acidity and add some creaminess. Good citrus, with some tropical notes. Portet suggests pairing with seafood and white meats.
Heritance 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon ($36)
This wine is an assemblage of Cabernet Sauvignon (92%) and Merlot (8%), aged in both new and mature medium toast French oak. Dark ruby with violet tones, lots of black fruit on the nose and palate.
Heritance 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon ($36)
The assemblage for this vintage is 94% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Merlot, 2% Petit Verdot. The 2010 growing season was an unusual one in Napa Valley — a particularly wet winter and a cool spring delayed things at the beginning of the season with bud break happening about 2 weeks late. Then an unusually cool summer meant a late harvest. The slow maturation period meant that the grapes were particularly deep in color with soft tannins at harvest. The resulting wine is deep ruby red, round and soft, with hints of cherry, currants and spices. Portet suggests pairing with grilled steak, goat cheeses and chocolate.
Heritance 2011 Stanly Ranch Pinot Noir ($45)
This wine is 100% Pinot Noir, made from grapes grown on the historic Stanly ranch in the south-eastern part of the Carneros region. With it’s alluvial and sedimentary soils and marine influenced environment, Carneros is considered one of the prime regions in the U.S. for growing finicky Pinot. 2011 was a cool growing season with another late harvest. The wine was aged in used French oak for gentle extraction of oak tannins. The resulting wine is intense, fruity, rich with great structure and a hint of mint and spices. Portet calls this “the perfect wine for Thanksgiving and the traditional turkey and stuffing.”