Sixty feet below the grinding clatter of modern Paris’ streets—deep within the warrenlike recesses of an old quarry from which the blocks of the Arc de Triomphe were taken—lies a remarkable wine cellar, even in a city renowned for its regal oenological caches. Accessed by means of a sarcophagus-size lift that descends from the kitchen of the Four Seasons George V’s three-starred restaurant, Le Cinq, into the stony abyss, this costly assemblage is the direct descendant of the collection first established in 1928. Though its original vintages have long since been replaced by more recent ones (currently the oldest is a 1959 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti La Tache), the cellar’s Francocentric composition remains intact: Shelf after shelf bears the mellowing bounty of Burgundy, the Côtes du Rhône, the Loire Valley, and, of course, Bordeaux. Concessions have naturally been made to Italian achievements, but California eludes the searching eye—until one’s gaze reaches a remote cubby in which stands a lone pyramid of bottles. Here, one observes with interest the wines the cellar master has chosen to epitomize the far west: Harlan Estate 1994, 1995, 1996, and 1997.
The significance of this solitary presence will not be lost on the fortunate few to have tasted the wines of Harlan Estate—arguably California’s closest equivalent to a first growth vineyard—situated discreetly among the foothills of Oakville on the west side of Napa Valley. Founded in 1984 by developer H. William Harlan and family, the estate’s charter was, from its beginning, not only to set new standards for Cabernet-based winemaking in the region but also to establish abiding traditions of artisanship that bridge Old World and New.
Harlan’s modus operandi has been to acquire the best land, best advice, and best team. These factors, in combination with Harlan’s formidable personality, contribute to what is perhaps the most painstakingly produced wine in northern California. Each grape is hand-selected, sorted, and de-stemmed before undergoing a whole-berry fermentation and extended maceration, in which grapes remain in prolonged contact with their skins. Recently, Harlan Estate introduced oak tanks to its winery, and the 1999 Proprietary Red underwent partial fermentation in these. While some contend that oak tanks (also adopted by Mondavi for its reserve wines) represent a step backward from the precision attained with steel tanks, the enormous concentration of flavor in the 1999 vintage, merging with silky details of black cherry, currant, plum, coffee, and oak, thoroughly evinces Director of Winemaking Robert Levy’s and Harlan’s decision.
Though difficult to obtain (Harlan Estate’s annual production of about 1,500 cases is sold to a private list), the 1999 will have a place in the cellar of every serious Cabernet connoisseur—as no doubt it will find one, again, in that illustrious cellar beneath the Champs-Elysées.
Harlan Estate, 707.944.1441, www.harlanestate.com, $250