By Roshni Bajaj Sanghvi
"If you taste this wine and don't buy it, you will cry," the vintner said. It was my first trip to Napa Valley, my friend and I had been tasting wine all afternoon.Â But, we were spitting, not sipping, since the only way to get around Napa was to drive. So we were not about to fall for this emotional hard-sell. Two Dutchmen in dungarees and cowboy hats were robbing us blind in a dilapidated shack. After the fancy chairlifts above acres of vineyards, cellar tours and free samples of the day, the Van der Heyden brothers dared to charge $10 for a few drops of four of their wines. It was our last stop, we had already bought enough wine to fill a case from our trip up the Silverado trail. We almost turned away. And then decided, oh well, it was the last stop after all. Let's just get a taste.
Van der Hayden is the one of the few wineries in the world to make a late-harvest Cabernet Sauvignon. The rest of their wines are forgettable, but they touted this method with so much confidence. Late harvest, or vendange tardive, as it is known in French, is a method of leaving the grapes longer on the vines, so that they get a somewhat dehydrated. This concentration of flavor and sweetness in the vine. The French and the German style of late-harvest allow the grape to be infected with a rot that dehydrates it, or let the frost reduce the moisture content in the grapes. The Van Der Heyden brothers rely on Napa's late weather season to let the grapes dry naturally.
There are risks inherent in every late harvest crop. Cabernet Sauvignon which is already a late-harvesting varietal, is at the highest risk from frost, storm or mildew. To the entirely family-run Van der Hayden vineyard that is a risk of losing a large part of their investment. This is also why the late harvest wine is the most expensive of their repertoire. When I visited them in the fall of 2003, the full-sized bottles was $50, much more than we were willing to spend on a bottle at the time. This year, their website lists half-sized bottles for the same price and older vintages run to $200.
While most late-harvest wines around the world are treated as dessert wine, because of their higher sugar content, sometimes this can be controlled or reduced by longer fermentation times. When we tasted the wine at their beat-up little shack in Napa - with bottles on a rickety table, plastic chairs and pieces of notepaper on floor and pinned on the wall - and we paid for our most unglamorous tasting, it was all about the wine. They had clearly let the grapes showcase themselves in the glass, in the truest, purest expression of soil, climate, and varietal. These were sweet wines, fruit-forward, yes, with black berry, cherry on the top. But they had fabulous Old World back notes, with chocolate, wet earth, maybe even dust, and a je-ne-sais-quoi on the nose that we had never felt before. After our first sip we wanted one more. Or five.
We left that evening without buying the wine. It was way beyond our budget for that trip, for wines bought at the source.
The Van der Haydens were right about the wine making us sad. We spent the evening trying not to talk about the wine, because we'd made a joint decision to not buy it. The next morning, on the way out of Napa to New Orleans, we went back to their shack and bought a bottle. It was the perfect drink, overlooking the French Quarter, from our balcony in New Orleans.