What happens when one of France's great wine families unites with one of the most well-known and respected names in American winemaking? If the family is the Rothschilds and the winemaker is Robert Mondovi, then what you get is Opus One. In the early 1980s, Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Bordeaux giant Château Mouton Rothschild joined forces with California wine pioneer, Robert Mondavi. The result was the best of both Old World and New World winemaking.
In the 1970s, Baron Phillippe de Rothschild and Robert Mondavi had an interesting idea. What if someone brought Bordeaux winemaking techniques to California to build an Old World-style wine around the spectacular Cabernet Sauvignon grapes grown in the state? The two men planned for years, before the Château Mouton Rothschild winemaker, Lucien Sionneau and Timothy Mondavi, son of Robert, made the first vintage. The first vintage, made from 1979 grapes, was released in 1981, and a single case gleaned the highest price ever for a case of California wine sold at auction, $24,000. An instant classic was born.
Opus One operates in the tradition of many of France's great Bordeaux estates, releasing a flagship wine and a second label rather than a line of varietals. While this tradition is unusual in California, many Bordeaux estates release an eponymous first label wine, such as Château Mouton Rothschild or Château Lafite Rothschild, from their handpicked select grapes, as well as a much less expensive second label from the remaining grapes. Because of this, Opus One offers only two wines - Opus One and its second label Overture.
In true Bordeaux style, the self-named flagship wine consists of a single-vintage blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. The grapes are selectively harvested, mostly at night. This night harvest ensures that fermentation does not begin before the grapes reach the winery. During winemaking, the juice remains in contact with the skin for about 20 days, leading to strong tannins with great aging potential. The winery also ages the wines in new French oak, which imparts toasty flavors. The result is a powerful red that, in excellent vintages, can age for up to 20 years. Flavors in Opus One include cassis, berries, cola, and dark chocolate, among many others.
Opus One is one of America's most well-known and respected wines. It consistently earns praise from critics, frequently gleaning ratings well above 90 points from Wine Spectator, Robert Parker, and other wine critics. Particularly good vintages include 1997, 1999, 2004, 2005, and 2007. Because of the selective grape processes, as well as high demand for this wine, a bottle can cost well in excess of $175 depending on the vintage. Opus One is considered to be one of America's collectible wines by many wine aficionados.
Opus One's secondary wine is called Opus One NV Overture, or simply Overture. The wine is made from a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot from multiple vintages. It is aged in new French oak. Because of the blend of vintages, the wine drinks younger than Opus One, and does not age nearly as well. It has mild, integrated tannins and strong fruit flavors, especially berries and cassis. Wine drinkers rate the wine at an average of around 90 points, citing luscious dark fruits and a smoothness on the palate. The wine is far less expensive than Opus One, costing around $75 per bottle.
Like other great Bordeaux-style reds, Opus One's wines work well with roasted red meat, particularly beef and lamb. The tannins in the wine smooth out when consumed with fattier foods.
Where to Buy
You can find Opus One in many fine wine shops, often in their locked displays of "special" wines. It is also available on the Internet, and you can find many aged bottles on the secondary market. Wine Searcher can help you find bottles in both shops and auctions. The Opus One website also sells the wine in the current and recent vintages.
Because Overture is manufactured infrequently, it is only available through the website. It is not available via distribution or resale, although you may occasionally find a bottle on the secondary market. Check Wine Searcher to discover any current auctions.
An American Tradition
Opus One has become a powerhouse in American winemaking, exciting collectors and wine lovers. For those people, it is well worth the hefty price tag, as the bottles from excellent vintages almost always increase in value. If you have a chance to try Opus One or Overture, give it a try to discover what a classic "Old World" New World wine tastes like.