Blankiet Estate. Passion for vineyards and wine spans the length of the world-famous Napa Valley but every so often we meet individuals whose passion and obsession for crafting world-class wine transcends to another level. Take Blankiet Estate for example; owners Claude and Katherine spent three years searching for specific hillside vineyards on the western side of Napa Valley. In 1996 they located and purchased hillside property near Yountville – land that previously was part of Domain Chandon’s holdings but was never planted to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay due the economics of farming these varieties on steeper slopes. Regardless, this is prime vineyard land; perhaps it is surprising that it was never developed as such considering it sits directly west of Dominus Estate and one of the Napa Valley’s most historic vineyard sites, Napanook Vineyard.
As with a number of vineyard sites in and around Yountville on the western slopes of the Mayacamas mountain range, there is a significant amount of rock that forms the hillsides. Some of their property contains volcanic ash, white and fairly porous – parts of Blankiet’s vineyards are literally covered with this white rock. As a result the vines have to certainly struggle for nutrients – 15 year old vines almost look stunted in places within a number of blocks. Contrast those with much more fertile growing conditions on the valley floor where the vines are significantly larger.
Several vertical soil profiles hang on one of the winery walls (each 5 feet in length). In order to create these, two excavation pits were dug next to each other leaving a ‘wall’ of soil standing between the two holes. These soil profiles were then carefully removed and treated with a special binding agent so they would remain intact. This is fascinating look into the upper reaches of their vineyard’s soil strata – one can quickly see their topsoil is fairly shallow.
Claude calls his vineyard “a puzzle of microclimates” and terroir; it is certainly that. It is surprising in such a small area how the temperature varies throughout the property. Various exposures and soil types also change dramatically. The entire site is 47 acres of which 16 acres are planted to vines – Jim Barbour originally developed 2 acres of the vineyard and David Abreu expanded, developed and managed the vineyards for a number of years. Today their vineyards are managed by their own in-house team.
Cabernet Sauvignon is their largest planted variety with Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot also growing on site.
“Always ask questions – do not become complacent, remain curious,” – these are mantra’s that Claude has followed throughout his career and has certainly applied to the development of his vineyard. He came to enjoy wine later in life (born in Switzerland, he was raised in Dijon, France). With a long career running a textile finishing company (stonewashed jeans) that was known for its innovation – Claude carried that innovation over to developing his vineyards and winery.
Several notable ideas were developed and implemented in his own vineyard. During very high heat spikes in the summer it is critical that the grapes do not reach certain temperatures as essentially they will begin “cooking”. Blankiet developed a misting system used during such heat spikes and this system can be controlled on a block by block basis. Claude had seen this idea used to keep people cool in places such as Palm Springs and essentially applied the same principle to his vineyards. This system does require some water use but he is fortunate to be located above one of the largest aquifers in the Napa Valley.
Looking for a way to protect the grapes from infrared energy during heat spikes and fruit with south or west facing exposures, they tested a wide variety of shading materials. After trying numerous options they found a material that worked well and each year during the later part of the summer strips of this material are rolled out and placed over the fruit zone only – depending on the individual blocks or vineyard exposure. They estimate during the peak of using this shade cloth – they roll out approximately 10 miles of this material.
The first vintage produced was in 1999. Each year harvest takes about 6 weeks due to all the “mini” harvests they make. Individual rows or parts of blocks are roped off based on when the fruit is ripe. Only that section is picked during each of these mini harvests. Every cluster is hand inspected several times – in the vineyard and when it reaches their sorting system within the winery. Over the years and with the use of additional technology – their sorting line has become one of the valley’s most impressive. Measuring some 85 feet in length – it includes two optical sorting machines.
Sorting is based on a cluster by cluster basis and only the most phenolic ripe berries drop off the end of the sorting table and make it to fermentation. This sorting requires patience; only 3/4 of a ton is usually processed per hour. Both Claude and Katherine work the sorting table each time grapes are brought into the winery. In a challenging year up to 25% of their fruit may not be used – in optimum growing years only a small percent of the rapes are separated. And the grapes that don’t go into their primary wines – are in part used for a fortified wine (port-style) which has never been released.
And the cave is kept immaculately clean – in part using a unique air refreshing system in which every night, the total volume of air contained within the cave is flushed out and replaced by cooler air that invariably appears due to the cooling influences of the San Pablo Bay to the south.
The attention to detail and micro management in the vineyards carries over into their winery operations. The winery is state of the art, clean and very functional. Maintaining cleanliness within the winery is a huge part of their operations. In addition, nothing goes to waste – even small 150 ml bottles of wine are kept for topping the barrels. Blankiet Estate focuses on a two flagship wines each year, both proprietary reds; their wines are neither fined nor filtered and 100% new French Oak is always used during the aging.
The 2007 Blankiet Estate Proprietary Red Wine Paradise Hills Vineyard (60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot) is an elegant wine with more red than dark fruit showing on the palate. The bouquet is clean with a nice floral component (lavender). It is a rich wine but has a beautiful balance to it. Expansive flavors of black fruits including blackberry and black current complete the rounded mouth feel. A balanced structure of moderate tannins forms the very pleasing finish.
The 2008 Blankiet Estate Proprietary Red Wine Paradise Hills Vineyard is predominately Cabernet Sauvignon with some Merlot and small amounts of Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. It is dark ruby in color with sweet vanilla, hints of browned sugar and rich black fruit on the bouquet. This wine is lively from both the bouquet to on the palate. Compared to the 2007 vintage which is more refined, this is a bigger and more voluptuous wine. It shows a rich expression of their vineyards’ fruit with a generous depth of flavor.
The Blankiet Estate 2009 vintage features a “Right Bank” styled predominantly Merlot called Rive Droite as well as a proprietary red, Medoc styled wine (mostly Cabernet Sauvignon with some Merlot). We tried a barrel sample of both wines – for young wines they are already well-integrated. And it should be strongly noted their Merlot produces some of the finest wines of this variety, coming from the Napa Valley.
An accompanying wine called the Prince of Hearts features two wines – a Bordeaux style blend and a very limited production, highly coveted rosé generally made from Merlot and Cabernet Franc. This wine features a cherub on the label. Claude and Katherine own the original unframed painting – painted by an Austrian artist in 1906.
Blankiet Estate also makes tiny quantities of a rosé, available at the winery or through their mailing list only; this is an atypical Napa Valley rosé. One of our favorite rosé’s in the valley is made by Notre Vin and it is no surprise that Notre Vin’s winemaker was also Blankiet’s winemaker (Denis Malbec, tragically passed away in 2016 in a late-night car accident in Yountville – his contributions to the valley will be sorely missed). Fourth generation Napa Valley winemaker, Graeme MacDonald is Blankiet’s current winemaker.
Blankiet’s 2009 Prince of Hearts Rosé is made from Merlot by saignée (bleeding juice from the tanks). This wine is aged entirely in new French oak. The oak is there but it’s not overwhelming as one might expect. The wine is dark salmon in the glass with a very slight amount of residual sugar left which is barely perceptible. This bouquet is clean and floral with notes of raspberry; for a rosé it is has plenty of weight and depth of flavor.
We have seen numerous vineyards and talked to many vintners throughout the Napa Valley as we’ve worked on building the Napa Wine Project. It is always refreshing to yet again be inspired by both the vintner (Claude) and what he and Katherine have accomplished (the estate & dedication to their vineyards and premium wines).
Total production is about 3,000 cases each year (varies from vintage to vintage of course) and much of the wine is sold through their mailing list. Each bottle is labeled with a Prooftag which guarantees its authenticity (use of microscopic bubbles generates a three-dimensional code unique to each bottle) which can then be verified online or with a smart phone. To join Blankiet’s wait list, to request a memorable and extremely detailed tour experience, or for more information visit: www.blankiet.com