Cliff Lede Vineyards Tasting at Union Square Cafe

This was my first visit to Union Square Café since its move to East 19th Street. I was really looking forward to the lunch and to tasting the Lede Family wines. The two are a well-matched pair, classy, luxurious yet without pretense. The tall ceilings of USC, matched with the contemporary art throughout the restaurant, speak to the bright, modern atmosphere it conveys. The same can be said of the food, while classic in approach, it is fresher, brighter, and with an added touch of polish. 

We began our tasting with the 2017 Cliff Lede Sauvignon Blanc from Napa Valley. Remi Cohen, the Lede Family Wines COO who led the tasting, spoke of the thought process behind this wine. Like the white wines of Bordeaux, this wine is about brightness; a fresh, mineral approach but with a layer of polish brought by the careful use of oak and stainless steel. While the roots of the wine are clearly old world, with its blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, the fruit clearly speaks of Napa. The bright citrus on the nose is contrasted with hints of coconut and stone fruit. The palate open with grapefruit, green mango and lime, but then turns to show a lusher side of custard and sweet pineapple. The wine finishes cleanly, with a dry, spicy finish of basil and citrus zest. 

In addition to the Cliff Lede Vineyards, the Family also includes FEL Wines, with a focus on Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris. FEL Wines (a tribute to Cliff’s mother – Florence Elsie Lede) is situated on 44 acres in Anderson Valley and include the famous Savoy Vineyard, planted in 1991. We tasted the 2017 FEL Anderson Valley Chardonnay first, a whole cluster pressed wine, aged sur lie for ten months with limited malolactic fermentation. While clearly full of ripe sweet California fruit, the wine showed beautiful white flowers on the nose with hints of vanilla. The palate was ripe, with lemon curd and melon, but underlines by a fresher, zestier streak that kept one coming back for another sip. The wine finished with a hint of green peach and citrus rind. 

We also tasted the 2016 FEL Anderson Valley Pinot Noir as well as the 2016 FEL Savoy Vineyard Pinot Noir. Both wines see a similar vinification, with cold soak and maceration (the Savoy receives a longer maceration period of ten days) and are aged for 16 months in 60-gallon French Oak (about 40% new). Both wines are rich and powerful, showing the darker fruit and sweeter cherry tones one would expect in California Pinot. The Savoy Vineyard Pinot thou was clearly my favorite; while it too opened with blackberry and blueberry on the nose, there were hints of mint and sweet herb as well. The palate was redder, brighter of the two wines, with strawberry and pomegranate along for the ride. While a very young wine, this had a streak of minerality hiding under the lush fruit, perhaps hinting at the ageing potential. Long silky finish brings savory herb notes and a touch of coffee. Quite intriguing. 

We then moved on to the Cliff Lede Vineyards red wines. Cliff’s initial interest in Napa wines came both from his visits to the area and his interest in the great wines of Bordeaux. Thus, the inspiration for the red wines is, in its essence, Old-World. However, this inspiration is filtered through a fresh, modern look of Napa Valley and, with a layer of classical rock, present to the drinker a new vision of taste and of beauty. He acquired the estate, situated in the famous Stags Leap District, in 2002, and the winery, completed in 2005, was designed by Howard Becken. We began with the 2016 Cliff Lede High Fidelity, a Cabernet Franc dominated Bordeaux blend (51% Cab Franc, 34% Merlot, 14% Cab Sauv and 1% Petit Verdot). I was happy to see that the wines showed the classical notes of Cab Franc on the nose, tobacco with savory herb and a touch of pepper. The oak is well balanced here by the lush, sweet red and black fruit, with black cherry and plum dominating. The wine shows a powerful core and structure, for all its breadth, with plush, polished tannin and a streak of savory herb that keeps the wine fresh. This is already a pleasure to drink, a luxurious armchair of a wine but with clear aging potential as well. 

The 2016 Cliff Lede Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon was likely my favorite wine of the tasting. A true California Cabernet, it opens with ripe, rich blackberry and cassis, as well as a clear milk chocolate note. However, just take one sip, and you will quickly discover the more structured, medium bodied wine underneath. Smoky spices, red fruit and a classic chewy palate. Herbs and tobacco round off the back palate, leading to a tannic, grippy finish that speaks to the bright future of this wine. I believe the ripe fruit will subside, giving more room to the more classic tones of this wine. I would love to revisit it in a decade. 

We concluded the tasting with the 2015 Moon Fantasy and the 2012 Poetry Cabernet Sauvignons. The Moon Fantasy name comes from Cliff’s love for classical rock – Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” and Cream’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy”. This is a big, brash wine, luxurious and self-involved, as a good rock star should be. Rich sweet fruit on the nose, dripping with lilacs and violets. Cigar box, cassis and black cherry on the palate, ripe and sweet, wrapping one’s palate in velvet. It is a powerhouse of a wine, but unlike the two previous reds, it is more approachable immediately. If you find yourself in a rich, soft armchair, as the sun is setting in the background, with a good book in hand, this may be your wine. The 2012 Poetry Cabernet Sauvignon plays many of the same notes as the Moon Fantasy, but in a silkier, less obvious way. This isn’t a rock star per se, but perhaps a look back to the glamor days of Hollywood. Wood, tea, pepper notes speak of luxury, but the fruit tones are softened, less sweet, cleaner and brighter. They contrast the richness of the tannin and wood notes, creating a complex and powerful symphony. This is a wine to age, to let all the players find their tune. 

I want to thank both Remi Cohen and Katherine Jarvis for such an intriguing tasting. Remi’s knowledge of the wines and of Napa gave us a deeper understanding of Cliff’s vision for both Cliff Lede Vineyards and FEL Wines.  

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