Wednesday Wines – Episode 220 – Outpost Wines, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley

Outpost Wines with General Manager Frank Dotzler & AXA Millésimes MD Christian Seely

Outpost Range

Outpost Wines joined the family of vineyards owned and managed by AXA Millésimes: Châteaux Pichon Baron, Pibran and Suduiraut in Bordeaux, Domaine de l’Arlot in Burgundy, Quinta do Noval in the Douro Valley and Disnókó in Hungary.

Until now, Outpost has sold all its production to its faithful mailing list of private clients.  With new plantings coming on stream, it is time for them to seek new markets, so Frank and Christian presented these wines in Lond for the first time a fortnight ago.

A quick vintage overview, plus other details gleaned from the chat – 2021 was a drought year with very little rainfall (16 inches, not 40), and in 2020 they only had 22 inches.  This led to tiny crops.   2019 had a very wet winter with a couple of years of rain leading up to it.  It was a large crop with bigger berries and generosity everywhere.  These two years had similar conditions during their growing seasons but completely different precipitation statistics leading up to these vintages.  Average production at Outpost is 3500 cases, so this is a very small property.  When a new site, called Henry, comes along, they will make a further 1500 cases.  They also produce Chardonnay from another site.  2016 was an early start and early finish with an average size (a little like a blend of 2012 and 2016).  2015 was a small crop and another drought year with harder tannins.  2014 had an early start, early finish, and a little less than average crop, resulting in wines with gorgeous fruit sweetness and structure.  The 2012s are very fruit sweet.

The prices noted are the US dollar recommended retail prices.

The Wines

2021 Outpost Zinfandel (75USD)

100% Wente clone of Zinfandel.  13 months in 30% new French barrels, 662 cases.  Discreet spice and blue fruit are here, and a strangely powerful earthy undertone is all-pervasive.  It comes right from the back of the palate and swarms forward.  There is a hard edge to this Zin that is unlike others, and it seems like this might soften in due course, underpinning this Zin with some genuine terroir.  It is closer to 16% alc., and a parched/minty feel at the back of the palate reminds me of Joseph Swan Zin!  Overall, this is too ‘hot’ for my palate.  17.5+?/20

2021 Outpost Cabernet Sauvignon (135USD)

100% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18 months in 85% new French oak barrels, 1140 cases.  Classy, forward, very easy, and somewhat attacking, this is much more red-fruited than expected, and it is a considerably lighter wine than I thought it might be following the Zin.  The fruit is silky, a little drying and a little coarse on the finish, and while much of this is genuine tannin, the oak hangs around in a filmy, grainy way that seems a little out of place.  This starts as an impressive wine, but I am unsure how it will age, given the slightly awkward tannins and the coarse oak.  Interestingly, the fruit is already surprisingly fluid, so there is a good chance it might even out, hence my positive score.  18+/20

2021 Outpost, True Vineyard Immigrant (165USD)

38% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Merlot, 29% Cabernet Franc, 18 months in 75% new French oak barrels, 247 cases.  The same oaky, raw feeling on the back of the palate is present, and this is slightly annoying.  The graininess is drying and not particularly juicy or attractive, and it takes away from the fruit, which is complex and layered.  Perhaps there is a little more intrigue here than in the straight Cabernet, but there is no obvious tri-varietal signature embedded in the flavour.  Once again, given this will be a long-lived creation, I am giving it the benefit of the doubt.  18+/20

2021 Outpost, True Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (200USD)

100% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19 months in 90% new French oak barrels, 676 cases.  This is much more like it!  With more clearly identifiable Cabernet depth and a more profound and perfumed cassis attack, the back end seems to sit cooperatively with the aromatics and the fruit this time.  The drying finish backs into the fruit and seems to bring some of the juiciness, which greatly helps the finish achieve a genuine sense of equilibrium.  There is none of the ‘truck and trailer’ I found in the first couple of wines, and it is easily the most successful wine so far.  18.5+/20

2019 Outpost Zinfandel

100% Wente clone of Zinfandel.  13 months in 30% new French barrels, 492 cases.  A couple of years older and with a different vintage profile, this is a much more identifiably classic Zin, with spice and sweetness and none of the baked fruit I found in the 2021.  The oak feels nearly integrated, and there is some exoticism here, and it works.  The finish is decent and balanced, and while it is a creamy style and lacks true complexity, it somehow hits the mark.  17.5/20

2019 Outpost Cabernet Sauvignon

100% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19 months in 85% new French oak barrels, 2345 cases.  This is a somewhat predictable and relatively straightforward Cabernet.  I cannot see the price reflected in the flavour, and while there is a cool, grainy finish, which seems to reflect a degree of classiness, it is, in effect, just a well-timed cold soak and a decent oak budget!  17.5/20

2019 Outpost, True Vineyard Immigrant

45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Cabernet Franc, 25% Merlot, 18 months in 75% new French oak barrels, 2435 cases.  Well, this is a rather interesting wine, and I can taste the three varieties and their careful weave.  It seems more balanced and more relaxed.  In this larger cropping vintage, there is a freshness and openness that works extremely well.  It is quite different to the more intense years that reveal more aggression and a more parched style of wine.  Convivial, smooth and welcoming, this is an interesting wine with accuracy and charm.  18/20

2019 Outpost, True Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon

100% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19 months in 90% new French oak barrels, 775 cases.  This is a more complete wine, and at five years old, secondary notes are coming on board, making this a more elegant and balanced style.  We are starting a period where the fragrance and velvety texture are beginning to harmonise nicely.  This is a fine example of a wine that has subsumed the oak notes into its core while the tannins are softening and mellowing.  18.5/20

2016 Outpost Cabernet Sauvignon

100% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18 months in 85% new French oak barrels, 1198 cases.  This is a touch leathery and sweet, and its age is definitely on display, giving it a hint of frailty.   There is still a hard edge of oak, which will not melt away, and some signs of over-extraction, which brings an unwanted extra dimension of brawn.  Having said this, it is certainly a decent effort, even if the oak remains too powerful.  Once again, it appears to come from another fairly concentrated vintage, marking the wine down half a point.  17.5/20

2016 Outpost, True Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon

100% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19 months in 90% new French oak barrels, 676 cases.  This wine is a classic example that will appeal to fans of rich, heady, muscular creations, and at eight years old, it is hitting its stride.  It is too forced and tough for my tastes, given its prodigious structure, and the fruit is too muscular and brawny, which means it lacks detail.  There is no doubting the extract and richness, but this is not my style.  My score reflects this wine’s appeal to lovers of bigger Napa Cabs.  18+/20

2015 Outpost Zinfandel

100% Wente clone of Zinfandel.  16 months in 34% new French barrels, 1391 cases.  This is getting too old, and it is fragmenting.  The fruit is jammy, oxidised and losing shape, which is a shame!  Frank called for a second bottle – which was a relief because the first clearly had a ‘leaky cork’.  This is a much more focused and defined Zin, and it is my favourite Zin in this tasting.  With much more complexity than I found in the younger wines, it is less ice-creamy and more terroir-driven.  Perhaps these wines just need age.  Either way, I feel this is more of a Cabernet property than a Zin one, but this wine is a gem, so there is no doubt that one should keep one eye on this variety at Outpost.  18/20

2014 Outpost Immigrant

2014 Outpost, True Vineyard Immigrant

44% Cabernet Sauvignon, 29% Cabernet Franc, 27% Merlot, 20 months in 70% new French oak barrels, 450 cases.  Hoorah.  They saved the best for last.  At a decade of age and coming from an ‘average-shaped’ vintage, there is clear class and integration here, and the three varieties work extremely well, jigsawing into place with precision.  Firstly, the nose is complete and complex.  It seems ripe and smooth, with no unwanted carpentry tones up front.  The fruit is silky and buoyant, and it flows with ease across the palate.  The exuberance carries on, and while oak is present, it doesn’t detract from the overall balance.  In fact, it does a perfect job of augmenting the fruit.  I wonder if the oak regime back then is the same today!  It certainly doesn’t taste like it.  The tannins are genuine, bright, and fine, cradling the wine well.  This is the finest wine of the bunch, and there is no hurry to consume it.    19/20

Outpost appears to make wines that blossom after a decade, and I feel the blended cuvées are the way forward.  Now that introductions have been made, I can report whether my thoughts are correct.

My Scores – I have attached my scores out of 20 for every wine. In addition, I have included my score conversion chart for those of you who are into medals, stars or 100-point scores. If a score has no ‘+’, this indicates a wine that is in balance and can be drunk relatively young thanks to its precocity and charm. One ‘+’ indicates a wine that will benefit from medium-term ageing (following the style of the wine), while two ‘++’ suggests a wine that should manage to make the long haul, softening and evolving as it goes. Very occasionally, I use three ‘+++’ to signal a wine that needs an eternity to soften or will last forever; such is its power. A ‘?’ means that I am unsure about an element within the wine – this will be explained in my note.