Special To The Washington Post
Philippe Bascaules is going home again.
After five vintages as chief winemaker at Napa Valley's historic Inglenook winery, Bascaules was named in October to become managing director of Château Margaux, one of Bordeaux's top five wineries. And, in a rather unique arrangement, he will remain director of winemaking for Inglenook. This could be the start of a long and beautiful friendship.
To be precise, the friendship between Inglenook and Château Margaux can be traced to 2011, when Inglenook owner Francis Ford Coppola hired Bascaules, who had worked at Margaux for 21 years and risen to assistant winemaker under famed director Paul Pontallier. Coppola gave Bascaules a mandate to restore Inglenook's wines to a classic California style, away from the heady, high-alcohol trend of the 1990s and 2000s.
At the time, Coppola had just completed a 25-year quest to reunify Inglenook, a winery that was founded by Gustav Niebaum in 1879 and split up through corporate sales and brand-swapping in the 1960s. Coppola bought Niebaum's house and some vineyards in 1976, and later the winery building, while drinks conglomerate Canandaigua (now Constellation Brands) retained the Inglenook name for jug wines. In 2011, Coppola bought the brand and completed the unification of the estate. Since then, wines previously sold as Niebaum-Coppola have been labeled Inglenook.
I visited Bascaules at Inglenook in March 2012, when he had been at his new job for just a few months. He was still getting acquainted with the vineyards and with California, and he spoke modestly of his mandate to instill more elegance into the wines. We caught up recently when he came to Washington to promote the release of two wines from 2012: his first vintage, Rubicon, Inglenook's flagship Bordeaux-style blend, and the cabernet sauvignon, once boldly called "Cask" and now given that name in small type on the label.
Bascaules's impact was obvious. Although previous vintages of Niebaum-Coppola wines were characterized by power, upfront fruit and a slight alcoholic burn on the finish, these were restrained at first but quite expressive after a few hours. The Rubicon, which I had decanted, developed a beguiling citrus note of dried orange peel three hours later. The cabernet had denser dark-fruit flavors with a savory mid-palate and finish. It also featured a subtle grittiness, the character known as "Rutherford dust" after the terroir of Napa Valley's Rutherford appellation. Two wines from 2013, a cabernet sauvignon called 1882 and a zinfandel called Edizione Pennino, were also outstanding. The zin showed remarkable sophistication for a variety more associated with rough-and-tumble pleasure.
The wines were also 14.5 percent alcohol; Niebaum-Coppola wines of just a few years ago frequently reached 15 percent or more. Bascaules says younger vintages, still resting in barrel, are even lighter, and he says 13.5 to 14.5 percent is the optimum range for Napa reds today.
He has accomplished that by harvesting earlier, when acidity levels in the grapes remain higher in relation to the sugar, which becomes alcohol in fermentation. Bascaules has also brought some Bordeaux techniques to Inglenook. When he arrived, the vineyard was demarcated into 80 blocks. Today, he counts 128, based on geologic studies of vineyard soils and his own observations of how the grapes ripen from sector to sector. He is also overseeing the construction of a new winery, which he hopes will be available for the 2019 harvest. It will feature up to 150 fermentation tanks of varying sizes, to allow more precision in vinification and blending. Many Bordeaux wineries have renovated their cellars in recent years to adopt a similar approach.
Pontallier, Bascaules's mentor at Margaux, died this year after a brief battle with cancer. When the 54-year-old Bascaules takes over next March at Margaux, one of Bordeaux's top five châteaux, he will be returning to his roots but also taking along some insights from his half-decade in the New World. He will spend six weeks a year at Inglenook.
"In California, we have a lot of tools to correct problems, tools we are not allowed to use in Bordeaux," Bascaules says. "We can correct for volatile acidity or too much alcohol, for instance. Or we can irrigate to reduce stress on the vines. People say, 'No problem, we can correct that.' But in Bordeaux, our focus is on preventing the problem in the first place." That more careful approach ultimately leads to better wine, he says.
He also questions California's move over the past two decades to mimic Bordeaux in dense planting of vineyards. Bordeaux vines often are planted meter by meter, or about 4,000 vines per acre. That helps compensate for the region's frequent rains during the growing season, as the vines suck the water from the soil and evaporate it through their leaves, he says.
"In California, it rarely rains from May to October, so such dense planting only creates greater stress on the vines, and we have to irrigate more often," Bascaules says. Some newly planted Napa Valley vineyards approach that density, though Inglenook's average about 900 vines per acre, or eight feet by six feet. (Density, or at least the distance between rows, is often determined by tractor size.) Bascaules is experimenting in different blocks with 435, 907 and 1,815 vines per acre to see what works best with his vineyard soils and climate.
Bascaules says he expects to tweak the way Margaux manages the vine canopy. The height at which the leaves are trimmed influences the respiration of the vines and the evaporation of water from the vineyard.
"I will definitely see the vineyards at Margaux with different eyes," he says.
McIntyre blogs at dmwineline.com. On Twitter: @dmwine.