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André Tchelistcheff

The Godfather of Napa Cabernet

by Tom Hyland, tnapawine@aol.com

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André Tchelistcheff
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Of all the winemakers who have toiled in California in the 20th century, noone has had the long-lasting influence of André Tchelistcheff. From 1938 to 1973, Tchelistcheff, a French-trained Russian aristocrat, crafted the wines at Beaulieu Vineyard in Rutherford in the heart of Napa Valley. Tchelistcheff would have been one hundred this December had he lived. He passed away in 1994, but the wines he made live on and are still delighting people today, which is a testament to how long-lived Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon can be.

Best known for the glorious Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon named in honor of the winery's owner, Georges de Latour, Tchelistcheff's cutting-edge Bordeaux winemaking techniques had a big impact on the California industry as a whole. Trained as a chemist in France, his first thoughts about BV were how unsanitary the winemaking facilities were and he set about to improve hygiene. These improvements were aimed at the winery buildings and the wines themselves.

Tchelistcheff also researched the benefits of cold fermentation, creating white wines that were fresher and more stable than what was prevalent in California in the 1930s and ’40s. He worked with small oak barrels to age the Cabernets, feeling that this could add a touch of spice as well as soften the rough edges of the wines.

To celebrate André Tchelistcheff's birthday Beaulieu Vineyard hosted a tasting of older Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignons and Pinot Noirs going back to 1941. One thing is clear, these wines have aged wonderfully. I wonder if today's crop of highly sought after Napa cabernets, mostly made for more immediate gratification, will be quite as durable?

1950 PINOT NOIR
Lovely garnet-brick color. Dried cherry fruit and a hint of sage. Quite concentrated—great texture with supple tannins. Long finish – in outstanding condition.

1951 PINOT NOIR
Nice color, slightly darker than 1950. Similar in style to the 1950, but not as concentrated. Still a touch of tannin- could hold for a few more years.

1946 PRIVATE RESERVE CABERNET SAUVIGNON
Beautiful ruby red color. Aroma of blackcurrants and black cherry cough drops- still vibrant fruit. Medium-full body with a long finish that has noticeable tannins and high acidity. Excellent—could hold for another 5 years or so.

1951 PRIVATE RESERVE CABERNET SAUVIGNON
Ruby-red with an aroma of dried blackcurrant, cedar, and a touch of clove. Full body with impressive concentration. Perfect balance with a long finish and moderate tannins. This is outstanding and could easily hold another decade.

1968 PRIVATE RESERVE CABERNET SAUVIGNON
Deep ruby red with an aroma of cherry and a hint of chocolate with herbal notes. Medium-full with impressive concentration. Lovely structure and texture- this glides across the palate. Textbook acidity with a very long finish. Showing beautifully now, this could hold for another 10-15 years.

1970 PRIVATE RESERVE CABERNET SAUVIGNON
Deep ruby-red with an aroma of very ripe cherry and the classic "Rutherford dust." Medium-full with great concentration of fruit on the palate. While a bit low in acid, this has great depth of flavor and is quite delicious. This has another decade of life ahead of it—maybe more?

George de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
A California First Growth

For the first few decades, the Private Reserve came from two vineyards surrounding the winery, BV#1 and #2. Realizing the strength and class of the wine from these vineyards, Tchelistcheff and the owners kept these lots separate. The ingredients were there for world-class wine, and to maintain the quality each year, Tchelistcheff used then current pruning techniques practiced in Bordeaux. He believed this would help ripen the grapes more evenly, and produce wines of greater depth of fruit and less herbaceousness.

Tchelistcheff continued as winemaker at BV until 1973, when he became upset with the direction of the new corporate owners. He consulted with other wineries for a decade and then came back to Beaulieu for a few years in the early 1980s. Current BV winemaker Joel Aiken had the chance to work with Tchelistcheff for a few years and was impressed.

Aiken was proud that his winemaking team was making the Private Reserves exactly as Tchelistcheff had and told him so. Aiken remembers Andre's reaction; instead of being flattered, Tchelistcheff wondered why. Aiken had continued to use American oak for aging purposes just as André had. But the reason Tchelistcheff had done so was practical, as French oak was not available for several years around the time of World War ll (he had used French oak for the first few vintages, prior to WWII).

Today's Private Reserve Cabernets are aged in a combination of French and American oak and still come from BV #1 and 2 along with BV #7, also in Rutherford. Replanting has meant that new clones of Cabernet are now the focus of this wine. The two dominant clones are Clone 4, which Aiken uses for its richness and velvety qualities (Aiken call it the "Merlot of Cabernet clones") and Clone 6, which is darker in color, richer and more tannic, according to Aiken. Clone 7, used for decades, represents most of the rest of the cuvée.

Another important change Aiken notes is that the fruit is being picked riper today than it was for four decades. This is in keeping with the current style of today's Napa Cabernets, as darker color and riper fruit seem to be the norm, while acidity is lower. Is this a change for the better?

Still Ageworthy?
Indeed, tasting through the wines of the 1940s, '50s and '60s, one finds a beautiful and very consistent level of acidity in these wines. No doubt this had an effect on the wines' aging potential; the 1946 is in excellent shape, while the 1951 was outstanding, offering excellent concentration and still lively tannins.

I find it interesting that two of the most written-about wines—the 1968 and 1970—represent two very different styles. Many writers have found the 1970 to be one of the finest Private Reserves ever made. It is easy to see why with its ripe fruit aromas and depth of concentration. Yet the acid is low, making this wine more in the style of a 1990s Napa Cabernet, albeit with a greater degree of finesse. The 1968, though slightly less concentrated has much better acidity and a longer finish. For my money, the 1968 is clearly the better of the two.

Would Tchelistcheff approve of today's Private Reserves? While it is impossible to know, one can certainly imagine he would applaud the use of French oak, although he probably would not favor the use of so much new oak (Aiken noted the percentage today is about 70% new). He would probably favor the use of new clones, if only for the complexity these would bring to the table, although again the shift toward the deeper tannins of Clone 6 might not be his first preference.

He might not think that picking the grapes riper would be a great thing. After all, his harvesting practices led to wines that have aged beautifully for 50 years. This is all speculation, of course

It should be noted that Tchelistcheff had no need to make a wine that would garner at least 90 points on release, as do today's winemakers. Times change, and marketing of wines today is very different and far more important than it was in Tchelistcheff's heyday. There are dozens of estates in Napa today that produce a luxury red wine; BV on the other hand had only one serious competitor through the 1940s and '50s, Inglenook Vineyards.

One thing is for sure; André Tchelistcheff created many of the greatest Cabernet Sauvignons ever made in the Napa Valley. His influence has been felt for decades and thanks to these wines, will never be forgotten. Joel Aiken summed up his thoughts and the thoughts of many winemakers when he said, "André was a mentor to us all."

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