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Transcendental Wine
By Mary Ewing-Mulligan
Apr 10, 2018
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Dalla Valle Vineyards, Napa Valley, “Collina Dalla Valle” 2015 ($85):  I tasted the wines of Dalla Valle Vineyards this week and immediately knew that I must share that experience, even as I struggled to determine what would be the single, salient point to make about them.  Great wine, admirable wine -- undoubtedly.  But many wines are great in their own way:  What is the seed of greatness in these wines?  Elegance of expression within the powerful Napa Valley Cabernet paradigm?  The voice of an estate that sings across three separate wines?  The importance of family as the guiding light of a property and its wines?  (Okay, I’m verging into sentimentality now, but the family is a mother-daughter team whose story makes “heart” a living element of terroir.)

The wines of Dalla Valle -- Collina Dalla Valle, Cabernet Sauvignon, and an icon wine called Maya -- embody all of these aspects of greatness.  They are beautiful Cabernet Sauvignon-based Napa Valley wines that do not overplay the power card and yet are built for long aging.

The Dalla Valle story began in 1982 when Naoko Dalla Valle and her late husband Gustav purchased their first piece of land on the eastern flank of hills in Oakville.  In 1986 they built a winery there, having purchased ten additional contiguous acres of land, and released their first commercial vintage.  In 1987, they planted a special five-acre Cabernet vineyard in honor of their newborn daughter, Maya.  When Gustav passed away in 1995, Naoko ran the winery herself, and last year Maya returned from her studies and experience abroad to become Director of Dalla Valle Vineyards.

The estate today includes 18 vineyard blocks across 26 acres of vines, planted mainly to Cabernet Sauvignon with five acres of Cabernet France and one of Petit Verdot.  The organically-farmed vineyards sit at 450 feet altitude and are predominantly western-facing on volcanic soils.  The western aspect brings long sunshine in the warm afternoon but constant breezes off San Pablo Bay temper the sun’s heat with a cooling influence. 

The entry-level Collina Dalla Valle is the only one of the three wines that sells for less than $200 and in fact its quality makes it a good value at $85.  In 2015, the wine is 65 percent Cabernet Sauvignon with 35 percent Cabernet Franc.  It is a selection made in the winery with the intention of producing a somewhat lighter wine that is ready to drink sooner than the other two wines.  Actually, you would call it “light” only in comparison to the other wines because it is a full-bodied red with excellent concentration of fruit and a firm structure of well-integrated tannins.  Its aromas and flavors suggest cedar, dark berries, coffee and (prompted by the winery’s tasting note, I certainly agree) upturned earth.  Savory mineral notes run through the aroma and flavor, a common chord in Dalla Valle’s wines.  Rather than bursting with fruit, this wine has a complex and harmonious expression that goes beyond fruitiness.  It has beautiful depth, velvety texture and wondrous length.  Although I love it now and could drink it all night, this wine has lots of potential to age.  Production is only 250 cases.

The current release of Dalla Valle Cabernet Sauvignon is 2014 ($200).  Made almost entirely from Cabernet Sauvignon with just a small amount of Petit Verdot, this is a richer wine with a soft, dense texture of ripe tannins that’s beautifully balanced by the natural acidity of the 2014 vintage.  It’s firmer and more structured than the Collina with spicy notes of cinnamon alongside red and black fruit notes, hints of fresh herbs, and chocolate.  As you hold the wine in your mouth, the compelling verticality of structure and the smoothly rich texture of tannins play against each other to perfection.  The wine finishes with echoes of coffee and chocolate.

The blend for Maya ($425), from the five-acre vineyard that’s the estate’s best site, is 60-40 Cabernet Sauvignon to Cabernet Franc in 2014.  This wine elicits the descriptor “powerful” -- and yet it has a soul of softness that could melt hearts.  Its aromas and flavors suggest cedar and lead pencil, a la Bordeaux, but it has deep notes of ripe, dark cherry and red fruit buried within and an array of exotic spices.  My tasting partner describes the wine’s tannins as strong and unevolved (“try it again in ten years”), and they are, but to me, the wine’s wondrous fabric of rich flavors renders the wine delicious even now (“it defines seamlessness”).  I did notice, however, that this wine closed up in the glass over the course of dinner, and its next phase might be much less approachable than now.

A library wine, Maya 2008, shed some light on the possible evolution of the 2014 Maya.  That wine at first was leaner and deeper than the 2014, and less expressive.  But with air, it became soft and creamy (a descriptor I rarely use for the texture of red wines), showing the sweet ripeness of fruit and warm notes that seem to come from the land itself.  The 2008 seemed to be emerging into its fullness, with a decade or two ahead of it, even as the 2014 was beginning to hibernate.

All three Dalla Valle wines are glorious wines that seem to tap into a dimension that transcends grape-growing and winemaking.  Try them, if you can.

2015 Collina Dalla Valle, 93 points
2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, 95 points
2014 Maya, 96 points