Larkmead Black Labels: Block Designate Cabernet Sauvignon from Calistoga

Larkmead Block Designate Cabernet Sauvignon

Larkmead winemaker Dan Petroski

In 2013, winemaker Dan Petroski helped shift the winemaking program at Larkmead Vineyards to include what are essentially block designate Cabernet Sauvignon wines. Continuing to make the recognizable white label wines, the new program has added an additional black label tier with three Cabernet Sauvignons differentiated by block. Importantly, what differentiates the three blocks is the soil.

Until 2013, Larkmead Vineyard was dealing with relatively young vines thanks to a massive replant in the second half of the 1990s. The replant was a move common throughout Napa Valley as many sites faced uneven vineyard architecture thanks to the relatively young region sorting out its own best techniques and practices. Much of the Valley had also been hit by phylloxera thanks to the notoriously vulnerable AXR1 rootstock.

When Dan began his winemaking career at Larkmead in 2006, then, he was working with vines generally under 10 years of age. For the variety, younger vines tend to produce more tenacious, angular wines. For overall balance of structure to flavor, mouthfeel and pleasure, then, it can be necessary to allow young-vine fruit to hang longer on the vine to soften up the structure and create a more approachable wine. Bigger wines, then, are often arrive the result, especially in warmer subzones like north Napa Valley.

By 2013, however, vine age at Larkmead had surpassed the ten-year mark and the winery was ready to start getting to know the unique expression of their heritage site. With this in mind, Dan also instigated a winery expansion increasing the number of tanks in the cellar to allow for block specific fermentations. Prior to the winery expansion blocks were blended in the cellar and bottled as a general Larkmead Cabernet. By expanding the winery tank count it became possible to translate the honed block-by-block farming in the vineyard into tank-by-tank fermentation in the cellar. The change allowed greater synchronicity between vineyard focus and winemaking execution. In late 2016, the effort uncurled into the release of Larkmead Black Label Cabernet Sauvignons.

While the 2013 vintage of Larkmead’s black label Cabernets capture the soil specific blocks from the North Napa site, it also marks a larger shift in expression for the house. 2013 across the region carries the hallmarks of both a warmer, early harvest and the drought effect. Wines simultaneously express fruit and structure – a combination missing from the comparatively lighter tannin, more up front fruit and hollow-bodied 2012 vintage seen throughout California’s North Coast. At Larkmead, the 2013 wines carry the purity of the new block-designate practice while also delivering the thrust of the vintage. It means intriguing and attractive wines distinctive from each other with character that feels expressive of site. By 2014, the block-designate wines are very slightly lighter bodied and fresher. Barrel and then tank tasting with Dan through the 2016 wines, the trend continues lighter until by 2016 the Cabernets feel as though they show a purity and lightness for the variety delicious, while unexpected from Calistoga.

The lightness being unexpected, however, comes, perhaps, less from the innate long-term characteristics (or terroir, if we must) of North Napa Valley than the lumbering weight of young vines that have dominated many sites of the subzone. Additionally, until recently, it has been far too easy for Cabernet of Napa Valley to come in big, even sweet, and dominated by oak as the market allowed, or even encouraged, such a stylistic approach – not that Larkmead was expressing that stereotype.

With the increasing complexity in stylistic interest happening in the global wine industry – there is not just a greater interest in lighter bodied wines that many people talk about but instead an increasing plethora of stylistic interests – it has become more and more necessary for wineries to get clear on what stylistic interests are driving their winegrowing and winemaking choices. To stand out in the wine industry today, stylistic choices must be intentional. It is harder to just meet market demand when market demand has bifurcated into multiple styles. All of this is to say, the shift in style that Dan is executing at Larkmead speaks to a bold, while necessary choice, as well as one that is well executed. He and the Larkmead team have chosen to take this particular moment when their vineyards have finally come on line with necessary age to capture a level of freshness both admirable and timely in Napa Valley.

The new Black Label series from Larkmead includes three block designate wines – The Lark, Dr Olmo and Solari. The Lark takes a four year release cycle, placing 2012 as its current release vintage, while both Dr Olmo and Solari are currently 2013. Soil differences in the three blocks stand as important because of the textural and palate weight differences they bring to the wines.

The Lark grows from white rock, bale loam soils that offer a seductive textural palate resembling the fine-grained tannin of benchland soils that stretch from Oakville through St Helena. It is comparatively a more luxurious wine with the elevated presence of the best sites of Napa Valley. It also does justice to the vintage capturing the purity possible from a year with a more upfront profile while harnessing a greater seriousness through its aging regime.

Dr Olmo grows from gravel dominated soils with the high tone and fresher aromatics and style common to that soil type while also delivering comparatively more rustic tannin – I love the freshness combined with distinctive elevated black floral character of this wine. It feels like hallmark Calistoga with its overt black notes – black herbs and black rocks lifted by anise. The block behind Solari carries a mix of gravel and loam. It’s a combination that brings a natural density and power to the wine still lifted by aromatic, built to age and yet able to deliver in its youth.

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