After 40 Years as Clos du Val’s Winemaker, Bernard Portet Debuts Heritance, His New Winemaking Project
Recently I had the opportunity to meet with Bernard Portet, renowned Napa Valley vintner, and talk with him about his new winemaking project, Heritance. I had met Bernard years ago when he was co-founder and winemaker at Clos du Val Winery in Napa Valley’s Stags Leap District. Bernard was among the pioneering vintners who revitalized the American wine industry during the 1970s while helping transform Napa Valley from a sleepy agricultural backwater into a wealthy, world-renowned wine region. Amazingly, he is celebrating 40 years as a winemaker but he is even more handsome now than he was then.
Bernard retired from Clos du Val Winery in 2009 but his retirement was short-lived and he is now applying his legendary style of Heritance, which focuses on Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc. These are the signature varietals of France’s Bordeaux region, where Bernard was raised and schooled in wine.
Derivation of the Name Heritance And Founding of Polaris Wines
The name Heritance is an amalgam of heritage and inheritance. Bernard comes from a French family that has been growing grapes and making wine since 1698. He builds on the experience handed down from eight generations of French winemakers before him to make his Napa Valley wines – one family, nine generations and making wines on four continents. The inheritance part refers to his father, André, who was the régisseur of Chateau Lafite and taught Bernard much of what he know about growing grapes and making wine.
Shortly after leaving Clos du Val, Bernard encountered an old friend, Don Chase. Chase, who had held executive level positions with Beringer, Rutherford Hill, Quintessa and Kunde Estate, was also at loose ends so he and Bernard decided to form a new company called Polaris Wines, whose initial brand is Heritance. Polaris Wines also imports Ñandú, an Argentinian Malbec produced by Portet. Between them, Chase and Portet have 75 years experience in the wine business. Bernard’s son, Olivier Portet, is National Sales Manager for Polaris.
Bernard sources grapes for Heritance from leading Napa Valley growers located between St. Helena in the middle of the valley and cooler districts to the south near the town of Napa. Having enjoyed a long relationship with most of these growers, Bernard is able to specify how he wants the fruit grown. After harvest, the grapes are delivered to the custom crush facilities where Bernard makes the wines of Heritance, overseeing every aspect of the winemaking process, personally blending the various vineyard lots.
Bernard Portet’s Winemaking Style
Bernard’s signature winemaking style emphasizes balance, elegance and complexity, so that the finished wines show only a subtle use of oak and less than 14% alcohol. Bernard relies upon his grower-partners using sustainable farming practices to source the highest quality fruit from Napa Valley. Using his assemblage winemaking approach, he blends small lot wines from different varieties and terroirs to create finished wines that are greater than the sum of their parts. He aims for food-friendly wines, an outstanding quality price ratio and refined wines that offer round, elegant flavors, exemplary balance and a fresh, lingering finish.
Bernard calls the Polaris operation a “winery without walls,” a concept that allows him the flexibility to make, in addition to his core varietals of Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon, distinctive, small production wines when exceptional lots are available. The first of these special wines is a small lot Pinot Noir from Stanly Ranch, a premium grower in Carneros, Napa Valley.
We at The Underground have always appreciated Bernard’s winemaking style, evidenced in the Clos du Val wines from 1972, to the Heritance wines today, a style he has consistently maintained through the years, despite a trend beginning in the 90s for many wineries to make super-ripe, heavily extracted, high alcohol wines. Bernard refused to remain in step with the marketplace. “Those wines are not my style,” he says. They “overpower the palate,” sacrificing varietal and regional typicity, as well as complexity. Portet believes that terroir is one of the two key components of a fine wine. The other is its style, which, he says, “derives from the personality of its winemaker.”
According to Olivier, Bernard’s son and the 10th generation of Portets in the wine business, “My father didn’t sell out on his winemaking heritage, he stuck to his guns.” Don Chase says, “The trade has definitely become more receptive in the past few years to refined wines that complement food well…Heritance is enjoying a very good reception, especially in restaurants.”
Bernard’s Roots At Chateau Lafite Rothschild
Descended from a long line of winemakers, Bernard Portet was born in 1944 in Cognac, but as a boy moved with his parents and younger brother Dominique (today a distinguished winemaker in Australia) to Bordeaux in 1955, when his father, André became the Régisseur for Chateau Lafite Rothschild (a position he held for over 20 years).
The Portet family lived on the Lafite property until 1975. Bernard played in the vineyards as a child and accompanied his father on vineyard walks, during which Andre taught Bernard about the importance of the land since that is what nurtures the grapes, explaining why particular grape varieties were planted where they were and why certain soil types were beneficial to those varieties. One of his fondest memories at that time was going into the cellar with his father and tasting the wines while his father discussed the evolution of the vintages.
Bernard believes that the time of his youth spent at Lafite was largely responsible for sparking his desire to produce the style of wines he would eventually produce at Clos du Val and now at Polaris. He feels that if he had lived at Latour or Mouton, he might have been making more powerful wines, rather than wines of finesse and elegance styled after Lafite.
After studying Agronomy, Viticulture and Enology at Schools of Agronomy of Toulouse and Montpellier, Bernard wanted to see vineyard and winemaking practices in other wine regions, which let to his first visit to California in 1968. Two years later, Bernard was hired by John Goelet, an American businessman and a descendant of the Guestier wine merchant family of Bordeaux, to find the best region outside France to establish a chateau dedicated to making world-class wines.
Founding of Clos du Val in Napa Valley’s Stags Leap District
Bernard spent two years searching the major growing regions of Europe, North Africa, Australia, Argentina, Chile and California before selecting vineyards in Victoria, Australia and the Stags Leap District in Napa Valley. Portet and Goelet selected a 140-acre site in Stags Leap because they were impressed by the excellent wines they tasted from there, and by the geological and climatic features differentiating it from the rest of the Napa Valley. In 1972, Portet produced Clos du Val’s first vintage, Cabernet Sauvignon. Over the years, his Cabernets were made following a refined, elegant approach, blending with Cabernet’s natural partner, Merlot, instructing his growers to pick at relatively low sugar levels and deciding on harvest dates when he felt the fruit had reached perfect maturity. Portet added a Zinfandel, subsequently a Chardonnay, followed by Pinot Noir, then Merlot and finally Semillon, increasing his retinue of stylish varietal wines from two to six, made from owned and purchased Napa grapes.
Portet believes it is most important that a wine be balanced, and in harmony, which he achieves through blending, and through different techniques in fermentation and aging. Clos du Val’s elegant, classically-styled wines reflect the harmonious combination of Portet’s French training and the robust, rich California fruit.
Reviews of Clos du Val Wines in The Underground Wine Journal and Rarities
The Underground Wine Journal, since its inception in mid 1979, had been tasting the Clos du Val wines from their beginning and reviewing both their Cabernets and Zinfandels in the Journal’s first issues. In 1992, The Underground’s other publication, Rarities, held a series of vertical tastings of the Clos du Val Zinfandel from 1972 to 1988. At that time, we wrote that “ we were especially pleased to see how well the early vintages are holding up, how good the later vintages are, and how remarkably consistent in quality and style are these wines. We found them, in general, to be wines of elegance and finesse…complexity and balance…a depth and harmony of flavors.”
For a complete review of the Rarities vertical Zinfandel tastings, some of The Underground’s earlier evaluations of Zinfandel, an interview with Bernard Portet and a history of Zinfandel, please see Rarities, Volume 1, Number 3.
Tasting Notes of Heritance Wines
During my meeting with Bernard, I tasted his new wines, the notes of which follow:
2011 Heritance Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley.
This wine is a blend of 88% Sauvignon Blanc from three vineyards, DeCarle in Rutherford, Milliken in Oak Knoll and Silverado Suscol south of Coombsville. To increase richness, 12% of Roussanne from eastern Paso Robles was added. The wine is crisp, bright and refreshing, with typical Sauvignon Blanc varietal aromas of citrus, with a hint of grapefruit. The palate offers tropical flavors of passion fruit and guava, with a citrus undertone. It is full, rich, fresh and round in the mouth, with good acidity, balance and complexity, ending in a lingering finish. According to Bernard, he added Roussanne rather than Semillon, the normal partner with Sauvignon Blanc, because Semillon can be a bit austere and Roussanne helps the wine to explode. This wine should pair beautifully with seafood, chicken and pork — Outstanding.  $24
2010 Heritance Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley.
This wine is a blend of 94% Cabernet Sauvignon from the vineyards of Red Hen and Jaeger in Oak Knoll, Silverado Suscol and Oro Puro in Napa Valley. The 4% Merlot is sourced from Skellenger Vineyard in Oakville and 2% Petit Verdot is from Huichica Ranch Vineyard in Napa Carneros. Deep ruby in color, the wine is beautifully perfumed, with fresh notes of red fruit, followed by blackberry fruit and a hint of spice. The palate offers flavors echoing the aromas, with added notes of currant, tar, leather and subtle oak. It is round, smooth, soft, full and rich, with good structure, depth, balance and complexity. Tannins are well-integrated and the finish is long. Match this wine with grilled meat, cheese and chocolate desserts – Outstanding.  $36
2011 Heritance Pinot Noir Stanly Ranch–Carneros Napa Valley.
This wine is 100% Pinot Noir from historic Stanly Ranch which has a vine age of 12 years. The deep ruby-colored wine reveals intense aromas of red cherry and berry, spice and a hint of violets, carrying through to the palate, with added nuances of mint, oak, earth, wood and underbrush. The wine is big, full, rich, generous and smooth, with firm backbone, underlying tannins and a long, lovely finish. It is delicious to drink now but cellaring of another 2-3 years will only enhance. This wine will complement fish, poultry, lamb, pork and veal as well as mushroom dishes and cheese – Outstanding.  $45
2010 Ñandú Malbec Mendoza Argentina.
Ñandú, named for a large flightless bird native to Argentina, represents the region where the grapes are grown. The wine has been described as an Argentine Malbec with a French spirit. The composition of this wine is 98% Malbec and 2% Cabernet Sauvignon. Average vine age in the Maípu area is 18 years. Bright ruby in color, the wine is fresh and fruity, with complex aromas of plum, cranberry, blueberry and blackberry, laced with cedar. Flavors are similar and are round, supple, rich and vibrant, with soft tannins and good acidity, culminating in a long, briary, black fruit finish. Enjoy this wine with a variety of cuisines from French onion soup and empanadas to barbecued steak – Highly Recommended Plus.  $21
2008 Heritance Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley.
An assemblage of 92% Cabernet Sauvignon and 8% Merlot, the deep ruby-hued wine is perfumed with light oak-etched black fruit and spice. Flavors mirror the aromas and it is complex, elegant, round, structured and full-bodied, with soft tannins and a long finish. Delicious to enjoy now, it is age-worthy – Outstanding.  $36
Bernard Portet has a long track record of making excellent wines and these Heritance wines showcase his extensive experience. The wines are lovely, balanced and elegant and look to have an ability to improve and age. If you are not familiar with the Heritance wines, we encourage you to try them. You will not be disappointed. Visit his website for more information and the availability of the wines in your area – http://www.heritancewines.com