I’ve written more than once that I consider Beaulieu Vineyard’s Georges de Latour Cabernet Sauvignons (GDL, I’ll call them) the best red wines made in America. And a recent tasting with the vineyard’s young winemaker, Trevor Durling, did nothing to change my mind.
Beaulieu has been in the business for 117 years, and its “Private Reserve” was the family’s private wine. In 1938 the legendary wine consultant André Tchelistcheff joined Beaulieu Vineyard, and upon tasting the 1936 Reserve, he insisted it be bottled and sold as the winery’s flagship offering, with the first release in 1940, named in honor of Beaulieu’s French founder, Georges de Latour. Immediately it was ranked among the best Napa Valley reds then produced, long before Robert Mondavi in the 1960s prompted more wineries to make wines that might aim for the GDL style of power and elegance.
(Beaulieu Vineyard also makes dozens of other wines under its “BV” brand, starting at $25, while current vintages of GDL sell for $145 to $350 a bottle.)
Durling is only the fifth winemaker in BV’s history and second youngest. Tall and rangy, barely looking his 35 years, Durling had been winemaker at Provenance and Hewitt Vineyard, just opposite BV, and he recalls seeing people lining up to buy GDL on allocation. From 2008 he worked with BV’s previous winemaker, Jeffrey Stambor, learning the secrets and traditions of the legendary wine.
Since his appointment, Durling has been trying to return to a more traditional style by, ironically, investing in state-of-the-art technology, like the Dynamax Flow System that can read the water and nutrients in a vine to see if they are getting stressed so that BV can more closely target irrigation, which is becoming more important than ever owing to global warming.
Still, Durling believes that good winemaking occurs through trial and error, with science to back it up. “It is the sensory aspect of wine making where you find the art,” he says.
Today all the GDL vintages are aged in French, not American oak, and for fewer months (two years). The vintage selection is based on an initial 1,200 lots tasted and tested to come up with 500 barrels.
Over dinner at an Italian restaurant in New York, we tasted seven vintages of GDL. Unfortunately, the first, from 1968 —which Tschleistcheff once said was “the greatest vintage”—whose bottle had been opened earlier that day, had oxidized and smelled badly, although I could still detect the fruit.
The 1974, though 45 years old, was remarkable, having aged well, still with some acid and a real brick flavor of Bordeaux, which has always been a benchmark for a winery whose originator was French.
The 1995 was magnificent and everything I’ve always loved about GDL—rich, impeccably structured with luscious levels of fruit and soft tannins. It was a hot summer vintage made from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon and spent time in both French and American oak, released at 13.9% alcohol.
Big and somewhat plummy at the moment, the 2001, also a single varietal, had more of a California Cab style, but I’d let it age for a while until everything commingles into better balance, at 13.1% alcohol.
The 2007 was as fresh as a daisy, with moderate spices, superb fruit and backbone. Much younger but very, very good was 2013, made from 94% Cabernet Sauvignon and 6% Petit Verdot, not yet ready for a full assessment, and the 2016 had a density of fruit and sweetness that needs calming down from the influence of oak before release, which will be this fall. Its 15.2% alcohol is high, though, so I’m not placing any bets on its eventual outcome.
So, if anyone asks me again what I think the best Cab out of California is, GDL will be my kneejerk response, and I look forward to seeing what Durling adds to the reputation of the winery and himself in the years to come. I do hope he doesn’t let those alcohol levels climb.