(This article was updated on May 28, 2020 to correct an inaccuracy and add information supplied by Ehlers Estate. Changes are bolded. The author regrets the error.)
Bernard Ehlers’ stone mill barn that he built in 1886 for a winery is still in use today on the Ehlers Estate in the St. Helena appellation.
Ehlers original 10 vineyard acres, planted at the narrowest point of Napa Valley, prospered until 1920 when his widow Anna sold to new owners. The land changed hands several times – and struggled for consistency – over the next 60 years until it caught the eye of French entrepreneurs Jean and Sylviane Leducq. They bought the property in the mid-1980s. By then, however, the property was in need of an expert revival, so the Leducq’s turned to French eonologist Jacques Boissonet and charged him with creating a chateau-style estate for the production of fine Bordeaux-style wines.
It was a tall order: First, Boissonet had to acquire adjacent land to weave into a contiguous estate. The mission was accomplished by the late 1990s, resulting in an “Old World” 42-vineyard acre estate with the original 10 acres and stone mill at the center. Second, Boissonet planted new rootstock, implemented sustainable farming practices, and modernized production facilities.
The “new” Ehlers Estate released its first vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon at the start of the 21st century. Since then, the winery has gained recognition for producing high quality, limited production wines that are organically certified. (In 2008, Ehlers Estate was awarded organic certification from the California Certified Organic Farmers.) The Leducqs deserve credit for their vision and for maximizing the unique terroir (5 different soil types) and mesoclimate first identified by Bernard Ehlers 134 years ago.
The estate is situated between the Mayacamus Mountains to the west and Vaca Mountains to the east. The corridor creates a constant air flow through vineyards that brings morning fog and clearing, sunny afternoon skies. It’s ideal for growing grapes that develop slowly on the vine – Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Merlot,. Ehlers also has planted several blocks of Sauvignon Blanc on the estate.
What follows are summaries on three Ehlers Estate wines recently sampled.
Ehlers Sauvignon Blanc 2019, SRP $32 – Following nearly a decade working as an assistant winemaker at five Napa Valley wineries, Laura Diaz Munoz joined Ehlers in 2018 as winemaker/general manager and quickly made Sauvignon Blanc a favorite project. Two vineyard acres are devoted to the varietal. Munoz has crafted a bone-dry, translucent white that reminds me of a mineral-based Sancerre from the Loire Valley. She’s added a cement fermenter to the process, which includes stainless steel tanks and drums for fermentation and racking, respectively. The dryness is clean, crisp, lively, and sits on a soft, medium-plus bodied frame. I loved the seamless flow and the energy that carried from sip to swallow. Munoz says she ferments the juice in steel tanks until the desired dryness level is achieved. The Sauvignon Blanc also sees time in concrete eggs, a method introduced by Munoz.
Once racked into steel drums, the wine ages six months sur lie (one dead yeast cells) and is gently stirred weekly, adding softness and structure.
When you factor in aromas of fresh lemons and lime with the flavor of juicy pineapple, Ehlers Sauvignon Blanc (13.6% alcohol) is a mouthwatering sensation. Only 965 cases were produced. The best way to purchase this premium Sauvignon Blanc – and other Ehlers wines – is via the winery (www.ehlersestate.com).
Ehlers Estate Sylviane Rose` 2019, SRP $32 – Among premium-priced rose` wines, Ehlers Sylviane can stake a claim to being in the top tier of the bunch. Why? The Napa Valley grapes in the bottle. The estate blend is Cabernet Sauvignon (60%) and Cabernet Franc (40%) – normally a Bordeaux-style powerhouse if crafted as a still red wine.
Sylviane is an ideal companion as an aperitif, but I assure you that it’s got enough depth and firmness to accent a pork dinner or even a grilled steak.
Winemaker Munoz ferments the juice in both stainless steel drums and once-used oak barrels to develop a rose` of intense characteristics. The color is watermelon with orange highlights. Aromas swirl in a sunburst of raspberry, strawberry and melon. Flavors fill the palate with peach cobbler, nectarine and candied cherry drops. Yes, you pay more for this rose` but you get a whole lot more too in layers of medium-bodied texture and complexity. Only 550 cases were produced.
Sylviane (13.4% alcohol) is named for Mrs. Leducq, co-owner of Ehlers Estate with her husband Jean. Together they fund many philanthropic causes through the Leducq Foundation, including their own Cardiovascular Research Center.
Ehlers Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2017, SRP $65 – Ehlers’ “1886” Cabernet Sauvignon is the winery’s premium label and sells for $125 a bottle. It’s a 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon featuring grapes from four of the 11 blocks (25 acres total) planted to the king of Napa Valley varietals. Only 1,000 cases are produced annually. I have not tasted “1886” but it gets rave reviews for its sophisticated elegance. Which brings me to the winery’s “second label” Cabernet Sauvignon that I tasted with gusto and, in my view, stands very tall on its own (Ehlers also produces the small-lot,single vineyard J. Leducq Cabernet Sauvignon for $90).
Ehlers 2017 Napa Valley Cabernet is a Bordeaux-style blend of estate-grown Cabernet Sauvignon (80%) and Cabernet Franc (20%). It features plump flavors of blackberries, black licorice, black olives and dark cherries. The color is dark purple. I got a good feel about the intensity of Ehlers’ Cabernet the moment I popped the cork: a fragrance of violets, anise, and chocolate cherries emerged tightly. I poured a bit into a glass and let it sit for 30 seconds. A swirl or two later and boom – a renewed aromatic rush of California Dreamin’ wafting through the air.
Cabernet Franc is a splendid varietal and it makes a solid contribution of plum and spicy herbs to this Cabernet Sauvignon (14.5% alcohol). On the palate, the sensation is soft, smooth and harmonious. The power is there but it’s restrained. Maybe a better word is “refined.” Overall, the rich flavors find a way to penetrate all the taste buds leading to an extended, dry finish. The winery produced 3,050 cases in the vintage, which started rainy, turned mild in the spring, and ended up “normal” up to the Labor Day heatwave and harvest.