By The Glass
Superiority of Opus was years in the making
LAST WEEKEND I was among a handful of the wine trade invited to a sneak peek at the newest vintage of Opus One.
Since its inception in 1979, Opus has garnered both praise and criticism for its style, yet the wines are continually recognized for their exceptional value and quality.
Opus maintains a fluid state of evolution. The winery is under the reins of Michael Silacci, who joined Opus in 2001 as director of viticulture and oenology. He focused on improving vineyard practices before becoming winemaker three years later. The 2004 Opus One, to be released Oct. 1, is a culmination of Silacci's tenure.
I found the 2004 to be deep with ripe cherry, cassis, anise, toffee, cocoa, and floral aromatic notes. The texture was firm yet well-rounded, with bright acidity, a long finish and a rich core of fruit that hasn't fully integrated into the wine. I can see how the sum of parts will contribute to the whole as the wine ages. Some believe this vintage is one of the most structured and better balanced offerings in 10 years.
Silacci's influence may be observed by a gradual transformation in the Opus wines. Herbaceous nuances of the past are now richer, riper and more supple, without sacrificing longevity and balance. Some of Silacci's behind-the-scenes modifications:
» Maceration time (the period that juice is in contact with skins to extract flavor and color) has changed from 10 days in 1979, to as many as 43 days in the 1990s and early 2000, to 25 days in 2004.
» Opus' early wines were about 90 percent cabernet sauvignon. These days they fluctuate between the high-80s to lower-90s. Also, since 1997 the wines incorporate five grape varieties compared with three in the past.
» Barrel aging has been reduced from the typical 22 to 25 months to a less intrusive 17 months.
TAKING all of these factors into account, one must ask how a wine as rich and structured as the 2004 Opus One is achieved with less maceration and aging in oak. In my opinion, you need high quality fruit that requires less manipulation in the winery.
One must not forget that every wine is subject to the whims of Mother Nature and the unique characteristics each vintage brings. The year 2004 started out dry and warm, encouraging the earliest flower bloom in Opus' 26-year history and the lowest yield per acre since 1987. This may sound bad, but it's actually good. The fewer grapes on the vine, the more intensely flavored these grapes will be. The harvest was quick, only 33 days from August to October.
That said, will Opus One ever garner the praise to push its quantitative ratings from the lowly 80s to the upper-90 stratosphere? Some might begin to appreciate the style in which Opus is evolving, but Opus has always made its own statement. With Silacci at the helm, I believe ratings are not the desired goal. It's all about a commitment to put the best of everything inside the glass.
Silacci did not attend this weekend's preview, but he did visit the islands last December. While hosting a luncheon at the Halekulani, he noticed a wedding party nearby. He sent a gift to the bride and groom -- a bottle of Opus 2003. Needless to say, the couple were ecstatic.
Kevin Toyama is a sommelier at the Halekulani and an advanced certificate holder from the Court of Master Sommeliers.
This column is a weekly lesson in wine pairing written by a rotating panel of wine professionals. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org