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Ric arrives at Harlan Estate

July 17, 2018

DSC_1988It has been long overdue, on my part, to reciprocate with a visit to Harlan Estate in Napa Valley for Don Weaver, Director, has always made it a point to fly all the way to Singapore annually just to meet up with his old friends. It finally came through on 13 June 2018 through the kind courtesy of Don and his associate Francois Vignaud. Making your way to Harlan Estate, on the other hand, isn’t that simple. I ought to have heeded Don’s advice not to rely on GPS. Due to mobile signals that are almost non-existent in the open Napa country, the GPS trail simply fades off and disappears as you think you are almost nearing Harlan Estate, leaving you high and dry on a dirt trail. Happening to chance upon a car driving down the hill, we were told Harlan Estate was just up yonder. True enough, right at the hill top was a rustic-looking building that would have suited my impression of Harlan Estate. As we happily got down from the car, the groundkeeper informed us we had arrived instead at BOND Estates, a winery set up by Harlan in 1997 on the grounds of the old Harlan Estate (focusing on single varietal cabernet sauvignon from very select plots). A representative from BOND pointed across to the next hill where Harlan Estate was just within sight and, most helpfully, drove us across to our intended destination which is totally unmarked along the dirt road. But I suppose that’s the way it has to be. If you make one of the most highly sought-after wines in the world, your address has to be just as difficult to locate.

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The pioneering vines in the foreground overlooking the floor of Napa Valley

After generously tipping off our Uber driver for joining us in our pursuit, I was warmly greeted by Francois as I stepped into Harlan’s verandah that peered downed on the floor of Napa Valley, facing east and south-east. Francois still recalled our recent meeting back in Singapore in April and he wasted no time bringing out a bottle of Krug Grand Annee, already sitting on ice. This is what I really call a welcome drink particularly after a long and stressful search for the property, its lifted bouquet of almonds and honeyed toast well matched with a lovely complex of dense clear citrus and crystalline minerals that refreshed the palate with great vigour and detail, replete with traces of bitter lemon and yeasty undertones, not too dry. As we sipped this excellent champagne, Francois proceeded to fill me in on the estate.

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Newer plantings of Harlan Estate

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Harlan Estate stands truly at the pinnacle of all Californian cabernet, not just because of its very limited production made available only to those on its mailing list but, more importantly, the grand vin of Harlan Estate is really a wine of great sophistication, precision, elegance and power all sheathed within the proverbial velvet glove. Its founder William Harlan had been sufficiently impressed by the Cote d’Or of Burgundy such that when the first vines were planted at Harlan back in 1984, he had insisted on the same basics: vines planted at altitude on slopes facing the morning sun (whereas much of Napa is grown on the flat valley floor). In those days, the slopes were covered in dense vegetation which had to be de-forested before the vines could be planted. The pioneer plots still exist and, in fact, are now at their prime close to 35 years of age, planted at a low density of 4,000 vines per hectare across the slope in accordance with state laws (primarily to prevent soil erosion) rather than the preferred downslope orientation which would facilitate drainage in wet conditions. The first vintage that was declared and bottled was the 1990. Since then, Harlan Estate has expanded with more plots on the hills, now totalling 17 hectares planted at a higher density of about 10,000 vines per hectare in downslope fashion. Thankfully, the devastating wildfire of December 2017 did not touch Harlan at all. Severe grape selection criteria ensure that only a third of the grapes harvested make it into the prestigious grand vin while another third is designated for its so-called second label “The Maiden”. The remainder is declassified and sold off as ordinary Napa cabernet on condition that the name Harlan Estate would not appear anywhere on its eventual bottling.

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Francois aspirating the 2016 Harlan Estate from barrel

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Given such low yields, it is not surprising that the chai of Harlan Estate is rather modest with just two rows of wooden vats, each of which is filled with hot water for about two weeks prior to vinification in order to expand the wood to ensure perfect seal. I was reminded of Chateau Petrus which is similarly-sized and employs the same technique as well. The cellar, passively-cooled deep with the rocky hills, is fairly sizeable, within which the 2017 and 2016 wines are resting quietly in 50% new French oak with variable aging periods depending on vintage quality and the character of specific plots. Some of the wine is also aged in larger-than-usual barrels to enhance its freshness as the large volume further reduces the extent of oxygen contact, much akin to the advantage of magnum versus standard bottling. The same people who made the first vintages of Harlan, namely Bill Harlan and Bob Levy, are still around to ensure that the wines of Harlan Estate are consistent in every aspect of craftsmanship: wines of concentration, depth, layering and linearity with reined-in power, cushioned in velvety tones of great sophistication and detail. These qualities were easily apparent in the two vintages of Harlan grand vin that we enjoyed as we adjourned to the drawing room:

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Clean, immaculate, stylish and appealing: the chai of Harlan Estate reflects the wine within

 2016 Harlan Estate, tasted from barrel. Displaying a deep garnet red, this wine is already highly seamless and precocious even at its infantile stage, boasting a developing bouquet of Asian spices, nutmeg, ash and herbs, dryish in texture with very good concentration and quiet intensity that produced excellent precision and linearity, very fresh and succulent, structured with very finely-grained tannins at its gentle minty finish. Clearly a wine of huge potential.

2014 Harlan Estate, decanted from bottle. Glorious deep inky red, expectedly more developed on the nose with forest characters and a forward balance of dark cherries, dark plums and rye, rather bright and fleshy. Distinctly rounded, softer and more transparent, developing characters of pencil shavings that imparted a slightly dryish backdrop on a cedary floor, structured with very fine seamless tannins that shaped up to a gentle glowing finish. Excellent, a wine that should grow from strength to strength.

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The 2014 Harlan Estate being decanted and poured

That concludes our morning at Harlan Estate on a most satisfactory note. When Francois enquired about our plans for lunch and I replied, somewhat sheepishly, that I’d booked this place called Mustards Grill, he said that was the de facto lunch destination for himself and the big boys from Harlan! Francois was kind enough to drop us off at the diner where, indeed, half bottles of Harlan Estate grand vin are available on the list! Thank you very much, Francois and Don, for taking such great care of us. We shall meet again soon.

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