Earlier this year, one of Napa’s starriest names put on a vertical tasting of its entire 27 vintages for luxury wine, spirits and lifestyle magazine Club Oenologique. Adam Lechmere reflects on the wines, and hears from Bill Harlan himself as he prepares to hand over the reins to his children. Words by Adam Lechmere. Photography by Alexander Rubin.
As perhaps befits a man on the brink of his 9th decade, Bill Harlan measures time not in weeks, months or even years, but decades, half-centuries, centuries. It seems natural, sitting as we are among the grand oak fermenters at Harlan, having finished a tasting of 27 vintages of this most renowned of wines, to look at the broad sweep of time both forward and back.
Harlan, who turns 80 in September, has talked before about his “200-year plan” for the great Napa estate. “This is a work in progress. If you have a long-term plan it makes short-term decisions easier – is this the best decision for the long term? So we ask, how many times a century will we be replanting? Then interplanting of rows and vines – should that be every 40 years or every 50 years?”
Longevity has always been the plan, ever since 1984, when Harlan, Ric Forman and David Abreu identified six acres of hillside above Oakville as land with the potential to make first-class wine. It was a heavily-wooded parcel, chiefly volcanic and sedimentary soil bedrock, which over time would be expanded to the 100ha (240 acre) horse-shoe of ridge, shallow valley and mountainside, with aspects to all points of the compass, that the winery sits on today. To stand on the terrace and look east over Napa is to get a sense of the extraordinary vastness and beauty of the land.
Harlan Estate © Alexander Rubin
Harlan’s goal is simple: “we need to know how better to express the character of the property”
The soil is key, of course, but there’s a certain poetry to this slight, grizzled adventurer (something of a daredevil in his youth, he founded the Pacific Union real estate company in 1984 and went on to develop upscale resort Meadowood and co-found Merryvale winery before realising his dream in Harlan Estate. He’s said to be a ferocious negotiator. “You wouldn’t want to get into a poker game with him,” one observer has noted). “Most of the estate is wild land. You still have the animals, the fresh smell of the air, the forest floor. All these things make up the character of the wines.”
Harlan has no intention of expanding the 16ha (40acre) vineyard, which produces an average 2,000 bottles a year – just making it “better, and stronger”. He considers that the period of “stabilising” is over, and they are now into a process of “establishing”.
It’s a subtle difference, and when Harlan hands over full responsibility to his son Will and daughter Amanda later this year (“an 80-year-old oughtn’t to be running anything”), they will have decades of experience to draw on. Bob Levy, the director of winegrowing, joined full-time in 1990, winemaker Cory Empting has been there 20 years, estate director Don Weaver since 1986 – two generations of treading the dirt. This is not to mention the “vinemasters” – veteran vineyard workers who are given total responsibility for sections of vineyard, in order to “get to know each vine,” as Harlan puts it. “The continuity is understanding the land.”
Will Harlan © Alexander Rubin
The tasting took place at a long table in the fermentation room at Harlan Estate in early March 2020. As well as Bill and Will Harlan, Levy, Empting and Weaver were present, Harlan educator Kelli White, Jamie Ritchie, head of Sotheby’s fine wine, Jim Walker (a long-standing Harlan collector) and critic Elaine Chukan Brown.
The vintages were tasted young to old, 2016 to 1990, in three flights of nine wines. Harlan talked of a work in progress: this was to see it in operation, a clear progression as vines get older, the estate increases in size and parcel selection gets more targeted. Today a blending session comprises up to 150 wines, taken from multiple different vineyard samples, tanks and barrels.
This was, without doubt, one of the signature tastings of my career. These are some of the most expensive and sought-after wines in the world, and to spend a day tasting them – out of magnum – was a remarkable experience. This is not to say that the wines were approached with undue reverence. Harlan, his longstanding team, and the few guests examined each flight with concentration but not awe.
The Harlan style runs through the vintages, getting stronger towards the present. The finest wines are brightly perfumed in youth and mellowing to dried petals and dried herb as they age; there is earth, blue fruit ageing to dark, a certain savouriness and sometimes an animal tang (“most of the estate is wild land”). Another hallmark is understated energy, a pure and clear line that runs through each wine and through the decades. The wines have weight and heft – you know where you are with them – but only once was alcohol, or over-ripeness, mentioned. There is marked vintage variation – the notoriously cool and wet 2011, or the famously warm 1997, for example, are unmistakable.
The Lineup © Alexander Rubin
From Bordeaux to Napa, wines of great renown are sometimes described as “smart”, which means they are in some way tailored; they may be delicious, but they are made with an audience in mind. Harlan Estate doesn’t give that impression: you rather understand that here is a winemaker and a team searching for an interpretation of a terroir that is not fixed but changing as the vines age. Bill Harlan returns to this theme again and again. He talks of having “captured” the land, of its protean nature – “as the roots go deeper, the shapes of your blocks move and evolve like amoebas. It’s organic – you don’t lay out the blocks for good, you learn how they change, by being out there in the field.”
As the land changes so do its stewards. The official handover to the next generation is imminent and Harlan is happy. “Everything seems to be in place,” he says. “They’ve never done this before, and I’ve never done it before, but it’s working well.”
Harlan winemaker Cory Empting © Alexander Rubin
NB: All wines are Bordeaux blends of approximately 15% alcohol, with an average 75% Cabernet Sauvignon plus varying proportions of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.
Click here to view all Harlan Estate vintages currently available at FINE+RARE.
"Nose fresh and bright, creamy blueberry, sweet bramble, luscious palate, acidity hits instantly, mineral and bright, powerful, leather and earth and a deep layer of perfumed earth. The texture is very fine, grainy, the finish long. Primary fruits and youthful tannins."
"Lovely – a savoury intensity building on the palate, very bright and fresh, so concentrated, dark leafy fruit, bramble, earth, juicy acidity washing through the whole. Very precise, the tannins soft and ripe, perfumed, mouthfilling."
"Dark, almost purple core with lighter ruby rim. Shy nose giving a hint of wet stone and baked earth, then old hay barn. The palate concentrated, developing, there’s hay here, and herb, a mineral undertow, fresh with superb earthy black fruit, perfumed soft mouthcoating tannins and always juicy acidity, one for keeping."
"I love the nose on this – creamy, full, generous plummy aromas, hint of oak here. The tannins now robust and insistent and pulling apart from the acidity – six years on and the components are finding their place, tension working all ways, the finish dry and intense, juice fighting against the tannins. Young and not nearly ready – this will be mighty in a few years and will last for decades."
"Shy nose, savoury, fascinating to detect the aromas as they lift lightly out – tannins kick in instantly – present, correct, insistent, dryness washed with shots of juice, acidity finding its way through, fruit (dark), minerality, violet perfume, amazing concentration and precision, chewy, even sappy at end, and always the bright acicity pushing through to the finish."
"Wow. The character of 2011 shines out, the bright herbaceous nose, sage and leather and an animal aroma, skin and muscle, barnyard, hay in the stable. Palate with minerally blackcurrant, fresh, precise, very juicy, charming, the tannins green rather than sappy. No fat to this at all, it’s lean, serious, slightly angular. The quality of the tannins is very different to its sister wines, at first taste they are dry, mitigated by drops of juice, but as the wine opens in the glass they soften and charm. An outlier, of course, and probably not with the ageing potential of its sister wines."
"Inky dark core, shot through with red velvet. Nose with hints of bitumen, chaparral (Napa garrigue), sweet dark fruit developing a sloe-like concentration. So young in profile, the tannins kicking in, staying, lovely concentration and heft, impression of dryness, an austerity about this. l love the bed of tannins that underpins the whole structure, the juice coming through, allowing a certain fatness."
"What an absolutely lovely nose, shy and reserved but showing delicate red fruit, charming. The palate dense and tightly wound, a sense of coiled energy, reserved, slightly closed, the fruit on the palate is sweet, blueberry and ripe plum, the tannins with a powerful grip, old-fashioned beasts to be left alone for a good few years. The finish endless, the juice sappy. This is a superb example of finesse and power."
"Graphite, mineral, herbaceous waft of leaf. Suddenly the tannins are softening, you feel this uncoiling, fruit rides with the tannins in harmony rather than fighting for a place – the acidity is melded now, everything integrated and there’s a lovely intimacy to the perfume, a lavendar-scented oak drawer opened for a second, then fine floral notes and savoury dark fruit. Still hints of austerity here, the tannins soft in the mid palate but gripping to the end."
"Such a charming nose, floral perfume – rose water– luscious sweet fruit, bramble, blackberry more than blueberry, some mint and graphite. Delicious. Tannins incredibly soft and fine-grained, acidity fresh and sweet."
"Very deep purple, core the colour of fresh liver. Fresh, open very generous nose, dried sage, full of life, the palate ripe, luscious, sappy, tannins fresh and ripe, length generous, woody, brambly mid-palate, tannins still fresh and grainy. Complex and ripe with juicy acidity and a lovely persistent finish."
"Dark opaque blood-red colour with broad, light ruby rim. Amazing savoury nose, ferrous, old cracked leather and plum skin. Palate light and fresh, very charming, hint of salted plum and blackberry, salinity, cataracts of juice washing over the whole. Absolutely ready."
"Wonderful perfumed old armoire nose, lovely, fresh open palate, savoury and mineral, dense, fresh, dark savoury fruit, acidity releasing juice, the tannins have a dry dusty grip, the juice comes later, eucalypt and varietal character very strong."
"Very high sweet perfumed dark damson and violet notes on the nose (or as it might be tar and roses). Really luscious and charming, the garrigue now mellowing to dried rose petals with hints of dried sage. The palate has more rose petal perfume, allied with dark fruit and fine juice, and soft tannins which nevertheless have superb grip. Ready now and evolved to a stage that would suggest ageing will be shorter than its sister wines. Quite evolved for a magnum."
"Wow. Intense tarry nose, very deep with secondary character coming through – tar, molasses, dark treacle, burnt muscovado sugar, almost PX. Palate awash with juice, so irrigated, mouthwatering and generous, an oasis, delicate and precise but luscious all at once with that pot pourri and dusty rose petal and fine grained tannins to the end."
"The nose has a tinge of dried blood, a ferrous edge. The palate is soft and generous, lovely sweet dark fruit and dried petals, high notes of cooked earth, garrigue, tannins gripping but soft, velvet-coated, finish long and delicate."
"Very different to its peers. The most elusive perfume. Savoury nose, dried herbs. More immediately tannic, linear, an impression the mid-palate is missing, hollow at the core, tannins dry for a wine this age. A sommelier would look to move this on."
"Lovely complex savoury nose with hay and sage. Dark, rather brooding, powerful tannins kicking in early, soft mid palate with dark fresh fruit and fine acidity and tannins, really fine length, tannins bright and alive and well integrated."
"Very fine fresh nose with unmistakeable savoury, animal tang. The acidity is ripe and full. Very fresh, light and soft in the mid palate with earthy tannins but tightening later. Giving very little away at this stage, though I can’t see the tannins loosening their grip or releasing any more juice as it ages."
"Luscious, fresh, intense nose. Bright juice and acidity and still that amazing fruit – ripe blackberry and dark cherry, texture of black chocolate. And with that, It’s approachable and fresh, and warm, if not too warm: for the first time the alcohol is apparent. The great 97 as you’ve never seen it, a big, fine and voluptuous wine. "
"There’s a fine linen aroma here on the nose, it’s fresh and bright on the palate with good tannic heft and lovely power to the acidity. As the palate progresses it remains dense and bright, the tannins dry and washed with juice. This is a venerable, aged wine, absolutely ready, some lovely fruit still evident but gradually receding."
"Really lovely nose and evolving just as you’d expect, mint and bramble, blackberry jam on the palate, soft tannins with edge, perfume carries through on the mid palate to the end, then the tannins strengthen and grip and you fear they are dry. The finish is complex and long, and evolved. "
"The nose is sweet and perfumed – classic Napa garrigue with hints of elegant rot. On the palate the first impression is of juice, a wonderfully irrigated mouthful with notes of dark fruit, a saline tang which sets off the juice; really venerable old wine, sweet and tannic, very pure, the tannins still robust and present but without an edge of any sort; they melt into the wine."
"Wow – the 93 is utterly Napa – that woody slightly carnal perfume of the Bay and some sappy snapped twig. The palate is quite evolved – perfume and freshness, full of life but also passing into a second stage with fruit that is slightly raisined, the tannins dusty, acidity and juice carry through to the end. Still luscious and with potential."
"Deep damson dark fruit nose – charming palate, fresh and long and juicy with lovely hints of herb and sage in the mid-palate, then river mud and soft dark fruit, the tannins are very insistent and the juice fresh, not enough of it at the end but that’s a minor cavil – this is a really lovely old wine, absolutely ready to drink. "
"This is fresh but the tannins are almost fierce – where are they going to go? Fine raisiny fruit and still a sweet hint of raspberry leaf, and some good acidity, fine old tannins going dry, the whole mouthful slightly lacking in energy, heading into the final straight, going strong still."
"Elegant Burgundian rot on the nose: compost and estuary mud. It’s fresh and soft, the tannins bright alongside very evolved fruit, all plum and damson but stewed with sugar, a fine evolved sweetness, a little bit of green on the end palate, the whole elegant, utterly charming, viable and moving to a long, long old age."
Published with the kind permission of luxury wine, spirits and lifestyle brand Club Oenologique - an exclusive community for those who enjoy the rarer pleasures of life.
Read more about Harlan and the wines of Napa Valley at ClubOenologique.com.
Image credits: © Alexander Rubin