Visiting Opus One
Wine is bottled history
Flashback to 1978.
Argentina hosted and won the FIFA World Cup. The first woman summitted Mount Everest. Spain voted to establish a democracy. The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to Israeli Prime Minister Menachim Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat for their progress towards a Middle East accord. Air travel had become more accessible. A manned air balloon crossed the Atlantic for the first time. Rapid technology development saw the birth of the world’s first test tube baby, the eradication of smallpox, and the release of arcade video game Space Invaders. Soundtrack hits included the Bee Gees “Stayin’ Alive”, Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are”, and The Rolling Stones “Miss You”.
The wine world was still reeling from the results of Steven Spurrier’s 1976 wine tasting, which came to be known as the Judgement of Paris, heralding a new era of California Wine. Nine top French judges, including the legendary Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanée Conti, tasted a selection of top French and Californian wines blind with unthinkable results; the Californian wines dominated the white wine category and, in the reds, a Stag’s Leap 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon narrowly edged out a 1970 Châteaux Mouton Rothschild from Bordeaux. The French judges were not impressed with the results.
There was an enterprising meeting of the minds in 1978 when Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Bordeaux First Growth, Château Mouton Rothschild joined forces with Robert Mondavi of Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa Valley, California, to create the iconic Opus One. They had been talking about it since 1970. Their vision to combine winemaking tradition and innovation to produce a single world-class wine in the Napa Valley led to a first vintage in 1979. This initial wine, known at the time as Napamedoc, was made jointly by Mouton’s then-winemaker, Lucien Sionneau and Tim Mondavi, one of Robert Mondavi’s sons. Along with the 1980 vintage, these were offered to the market in 1984. Up until the 1990 vintage, wines were produced at Robert Mondavi Winery, diagonally on the other side of Highway 29 in Oakville and construction on the current facility was completed in 1991. The composition of the unique Opus One logo is a profile image of Rothschild and Mondavi’s faces.
As a sidebar, Robert Mondavi Winery was sold in 2004 resulting in the sale of half of Opus One to wine industry giant, Constellation Brands. This agreement was reached by Baron Philippe’s only child, Baroness Phillipine de Rothschild (who passed in 2014). The unique arrangement granted Opus One autonomy over sales and distribution as well as, and arguably more importantly, over vineyard management and winemaking. Fifty percent of the ownership is still retained by the Rothschild family.
Fast forward back to the present.
I’ve had the privilege of visiting Chateau Mouton Rothschild several times over the years. About 30 years ago, I visited Robert Mondavi Winery, and it has been my pleasure to have tasted many vintages of Opus One on several continents. How fitting then, that my first official wine producer visit since joining the Restaurant Mosaic at Château des Tesnières team was also my first visit to the epic Opus One.
Driving North on Highway 29, the unique architecture of Opus One catches the eye. The mound, round shape and columns are unlike any of the nearby properties. The circular themes are echoed throughout the property and highly functional. For example, the grassy berms blend into the landscape, hide the winemaking space and shapes the roof of the barrel cellar; the earth providing both cooling and insulating effects. Visits are strictly by appointment with an intercom at the gate to announce arrival. Classical music plays in the courtyard walking up to the main entrance and rotunda and imposing limestone walls add gravitas to the environment. The architecture is Neo-Classical, echoing both modern Californian ambience and classic refined European elegance.
Greeted by Cory Hall, Opus One Guest Relations Supervisor and the consummate host, my visit began with a tour. From the moment I arrived, the spectacular attention to detail was evident in every facet from magnificent, scentless white orchids at reception to impeccable cellar hygiene, from exceptional original artwork and furnishings to the alignment of barrels in the Grand Chai and exquisite glassware.
Somewhat deceptively from the approach, one enters Opus One above ground. We walked down a majestic spiral staircase to reach the gravity fed cellar, where grapes are received in small picking bins, through two massive wooden doors that overlook the vineyards behind the cellar. All of the vineyards are within a one-mile radius of the cellar.
The tops of the fermentation tanks below glistening in the spotless floor grab one’s attention immediately. Next the eye is drawn to the pristine de-stemmer, optical sorter and other equipment, all of which is mobile and can be wheeled from tank to tank. Selection begins in the vineyard and continues as the grapes arrive in the cellar. Rejected grapes are returned to the earth as compost and one gets a sense that winemaker Michael Silacci and his team are merely stewards when it comes to these vineyards and facility, with a firm commitment to sustainability and a desire to leave something better for future generations.
One floor below, the gleaming stainless-steel tanks rise like soldiers; each bearing the Opus One logo. Having read about the isolation and cultivation of their own wild yeasts, the tanks that housed this project are pointed out to me. Presses dotted throughout the cellar echo the principles of gentle handling of the wine; they too are mobile. Two words popped into my head as we headed to the barrel cellar, efficiency and innovation.
The “Grand Chai” is spectacularly impressive. It was such a privilege and feast for the senses to stand amongst the 1000 oak barrels destined for roughly 300,000 bottles of Opus One during elevage. The wine spends seventeen to eighteen months in oak, the last year in this serene chamber. The architectural and barrel symmetry is remarkable. This certainly is hallowed wine ground. In the recessed shelves of the adjoining tasting chamber, with windows looking into the chai, the innovation and technology meets history and tradition in beautiful old photographs that feature the Mondavi and Rothschild families.
Next, I’m guided through the salon where some of the furnishings date back to the 18th century. Many of these items were hand selected by Robert Mondavi’s wife, Margrit, and the Baroness Phillipine Rothschild. Antiques sit alongside more modern art and sculpture. The room feels both Californian and quintessentially French; rich textures abound, and with every glance, new details reveal themselves. We view the new tasting room facility before I am ushered into a sanctuary of private space, and out onto the deck overlooking the vineyards on the property. This was part of a 40,000 foot expansion project completed in 2020 (the only change since completion in 1991). The beauty of the natural world is mirrored in the art, architecture, interior design and aesthetic of the winery.
Sitting down to a private tasting, I was welcomed with a palate cleansing Chrysanthemum and Goji Berry tea, before tasting the Opus One 2019, 2017 and 2012 vintages. Executive chef, Sara Scott, prepared a delectable canapé tasting to accompany each wine consisting of (1) a house made potato chip with cremini mushroom and black truffle puree, (2) a salad of Marcona almonds, Manchego cheese, green olives, frico and olive oil, and (3) a savoury black olive and parmesan shortbread. Each morsel packed so much intense flavour.
Throughout this incredible morning I’m struck by the similarities between the Opus One approach and that of Restaurant Mosaic. Opus One brings together Napa and Bordeaux while Restaurant Mosaic marries South Africa with France. Both entities share an unwavering approach to quality, sustainability and minute details. A passion for excellence, arts and culture runs through both, as does restrained elegance and finesse. As such, patrons can look forward to finding Opus One in our cellars.
Thank you Cory and Opus One for the educational and insightful visit, and we look forward to reciprocating and welcoming you at Restaurant Mosaic at Château des Tesnières in Brittany.
Enjoy what is in your glass! Santé!
Debi van Flymen
Restaurant Mosaic at Château des Tesnières
Opus One Tasting Notes:
Opus One 2019:
Abundant spring rains saturated the soil and provided ample water for the growing season. The first signs of budbreak were observed in the vineyard on March 27th; a full fifteen days later than usual. This delay led to later bloom and veraison. However, warmer temperatures toward the end of summer accelerated development and maturity. Harvest commenced on September 10th and concluded on October 12th.
The Opus One 2019 has intense aromas of black plum, blueberry, black currant, and dried rose petals, accentuated by mineral undertones. The creamy, satiny texture is framed by ﬁne-grained tannins. The freshness and soft glow of acidity create a subtle tension with dark fruit ﬂavors, savory herbs, espresso, and cocoa. A delicate dark chocolate bitterness lingers on the ﬁnish.
Cabernet Sauvignon 78%
Petit Verdot 6%
22 days of skin contact
19 months in new French oak
Opus One 2017:
The winter of 2017 ended a five-year drought with January recording the most rainfall in over 20 years. Despite Mother Nature’s variability, favourable weather in August provided optimal conditions for fruit development and maturation. Superb flavours and excellent ripening led to an earlier than expected harvest which commenced on the 5th of September.
The Opus One 2017 offers a harmonious aromatic balance of rich, dark fruit, stems of roses, and earthy forest floor. The juicy entry offers a round, silky mouthfeel with just enough acidity to complement the satin texture. This seductive wine shows flavours of black cassis, black cherry and a hint of cocoa powder. The fine-grained, plush tannins evolve into a long, supple finish.
Cabernet Sauvignon 80%
Petit Verdot 9%
Cabernet Franc 5%
20 days of skin contact
17 months in new French oak
Opus One 2012:
After a warm and dry winter, generous rains returned in March just in time for budbreak, and provided the water needed for the rest of the year. Mother Nature continued to favour the vintage with a superb growing season characterised by moderate temperatures and bountiful sunshine, resulting in one of the most exceptional vintages. Picked starting on September 21st, at the fresh fruit stage of ripeness to keep flavours bright and lively. Through precise management of the incoming fruit, harvest continued evenly until it was completed on October 20th.
The wine effuses dark fruit aromas accentuated by subtler notes of forest floor and graphite. The wine’s round mouthfeel and satiny tannins wrap around classic flavours of cassis, blackberry and black cherry. This refined and age-worthy wine offers lively acidity and a sturdy structure with a long, lingering finish.
Cabernet Sauvignon 790%
Petit Verdot 7%
Cabernet Franc 6%
18 days of skin contact
17.5 months in new French oak