What: When many people think about Bordeaux wine they often think of a red blend dominated by cabernet sauvignon. That is the case for many of the Left Bank estates, but if you go to the Right Bank of the Gironde, merlot usually dominates.
One of the most famous and expensive red wines in the world comes from the Right Bank: Chateau Petrus. It is all merlot and sells for $2,500 a bottle or more.
But if you want to taste a California wine made in the style of the iconic Petrus, you could try Ehlers Estate Merlot. I have tasted the Petrus, and while it is a spectacular wine, I think I would get more pleasure out of drinking the Ehlers Estate regularly, even if I could afford the Petrus.
There are several French connections at Ehlers. The winemaker started his career interning at Petrus, and the winery was revived by French entrepreneurs who then turned it over to a foundation. All profits from the winery support international efforts to combat cardiovascular and neurovascular disease.
The wine itself is perfect for red wine lovers who want a muscular drink that doesn’t whack them over the head with oak. In the glass it is a gorgeous ruby red, with a lively nose of cherry and spice. The first sip is warm and complex, with layers of red raspberry, chocolate and licorice.
It has a silky mouthfeel, full of smooth tannins and juicy fruit. It continues to evolve in the glass long after it is poured. This wine has such good structure you could cellar it for at least a decade and probably much longer.
The grapes (95 percent merlot, 5 percent cabernet franc) all come from estate vineyards. They are hand-picked, de-stemmed and fed, whole berry, into stainless steel fermentation tanks. The juice is pumped over three to four times a day. After fermentation, the wine is aged in French oak barrels, 50 percent new.
Everything about Ehlers Estates speaks to high quality. The 42 acres owned by the winery sit in the far northern area of the St. Helena appellation, in the narrowest part of Napa Valley, between the Mayacamas Mountains to the west and the Vaca Mountains to the east.
The estate benefits from a unique local microclimate. This location allows for constant airflow through the vineyard, which brings fog in the morning, but clears out in the afternoon, burnt off by bright, full sun at midday. Moderating on-shore breezes in the afternoon ensure slow, steady, and even ripening for the grapes.
All the grapes are farmed organically and biodynamically, with no pesticides or commercial fertilizers.
The labels point to the Ehlers’ commitment to heart research. If you look at the “E” in the Ehlers’ logo sidewise you can see the shape of a heart. On one of their cabernet sauvignon labels you find “One Twenty Over Eighty Cabernet Sauvignon.” That’s the ideal blood pressure for the human heart (120/80).
Winery: The Ehlers Estate story is about the passion and patience of two couples separated by 100 years.
Bernard Ehlers got the ball rolling by buying a small, dying vineyard in 1886 in the northern part of the St. Helena appellation. He replanted his 10 acres, started an olive grove that still produces today, and built a stone barn that is the current winery and tasting room.
When he died, his wife, Anne, ran their Bale Mill Winery until the 1920s. After that, a series of new owners each saw the potential of the prime Napa Valley location and the unique terroir.
French entrepreneurs and philanthropists Jean and Sylviane Leducq began acquiring small parcels of vineyard land in Napa Valley in 1985 after establishing the Prince Michel Vineyards and Winery in Virginia in 1982.
Leducq wanted to build a classic contiguous French estate in Napa, where wineries often buy widely separated parcels all over the valley. He worked with renowned enologist Jacques Boissenot to find land with the characteristics to grow grapes that could build powerful, complex wines with the grace and elegance of Bordeaux reds.
They bought seven acres in 1987 and then in 2001 bought the original stone winery and estate home built by Bernard Ehlers. When they finished, the Leducqs had 42 acres of prime vineyards with the stone winery in the middle. No point on the property is more than 600 yards from the winery, allowing the Ehlers team to have complete control over every aspect of the viticulture program, leading to greater focus and quality.
As a tribute to the site’s long winemaking history, the Leducqs revived the original Ehlers Estate name beginning with the winery’s inaugural 2000 vintage cabernet sauvignon. The following year, Ehlers Estate produced its first merlot, and with the 2002 vintage, the winery added its flagship, estate-grown “1886” cabernet sauvignon bottling to its portfolio of handcrafted Bordeaux-varietal wines.
The family created the Leducq Foundation to improve human health through cardiovascular and neurovascular research. Jean Leducq died in 2002, but Sylviane continues as president of the foundation’s board of directors. All the profits from the winery go to the foundation, making this the only nonprofit winery in Napa Valley.
In 2009, Sylviane Leducq was awarded the French Légion d’Honneur in recognition of her generosity and leadership of the foundation.
The Ehlers Estate vineyard offers a remarkable diversity of soils, clones and rootstocks, and is approached as a mosaic of small vineyard blocks. The vineyard is divided into five main blocks (based primarily on soil type) and 25 sub-blocks, which are largely defined by unique combinations of clone and rootstock.
Eleven of these blocks (totaling 25 acres) are dedicated to six clones of cabernet sauvignon planted on multiple rootstocks, allowing the winemaking team an expansive palette of fruit during the blending process. The vineyard also features seven sub-blocks of merlot, four of cabernet franc, two of sauvignon blanc and a block of petit verdot.
“There’s no better expression of who I am, what I stand for, what I believe in, my experience, passions and practice than what goes into our bottles,” says winemaker and general manager Kevin Morrisey. “Making wines that express our terroir is the goal,” he says. “You can’t always articulate it exactly. But when you taste it, you know it.”
Goes With: This wine was perfect one night during the holidays when my son Michael decided he would cook dinner for us. It was a hearty meal that essentially was beef tacos made with big hunks of meat instead of ground beef.
The complex flavors of this powerful wine were great with the rich flavors of the beef and all the taco ingredients such as tomatoes, lettuce, cheese, onions and salsa. As with all well-paired meals, the wine made the food better and the food brought out the best in the wine.
The Ehlers merlot also would pair well with roast chicken, steak, homemade lasagne or just about any red meat on the grill.
Recipe: Michael called this Chipotle style Barbacoa braised beef. He said it is a work in progress.
1⁄6 cup apple cider vinegar
2 teaspoons minced garlic cloves
2 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoons oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
1⁄4 teaspoon ground cloves
3⁄4 cup chicken broth
2 tablespoons lime juice
2 teaspoons chipotle powder
1.5- to 2-pound chuck roast
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
Mix the vinegar, lime juice, garlic, clove, salt, chipotle, oregano, cumin, and black pepper.
Add the roast and oil to a pan and sear over medium-high heat just long enough to brown the meat.
Transfer the roast to a stewing pan and add the spice mixture and chicken broth. Cover and cook over very low heat for about two hours until the meat can be shredded easily with a fork.
Wine tasting: 5-7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 6, Kroger, 435 Lewiston Road, Grovetown; new wines presented weekly; free; (706) 619-3420
Wine and beer tasting: 4:30-6:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 6, 3-6 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 7, Vineyard Wine Market, 4414 Evans to Locks Road, Evans; (706) 922-9463
Wine tasting: 5-8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 6, Whole Foods, 2907 Washington Road.; five wines with snacks; $5; (762) 333-0260
Wine tasting: 5-8 p.m. Friday, January 6, Wine World, 133 Georgia Ave., North Augusta; three whites, three reds and cheeses; $5; (803) 279-9522