Wednesday, February 28, 2007

BNO: In Search of Excellence in California Cabernet Sauvignon

It is probably safe to say that outside of Bordeaux there is no Medoc-centric winegrowing region as much as Napa. Production of Cabernet-based wines has dominated in Napa for the past several decades. Given this viticultural preoccupation and the U.S. wine media's relentless promotion of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon wines, both quality expectations and prices of Napa Cabernet Sauvignons have soared. But lately there is growing concern among California Cabernet collectors that much of the expectations could be largely hype.

A cornerstone of wine quality at the highest levels is ageworthiness. Though a handful of Napa Cabernet Sauvignons has been proven to age as well as top classed-growth Bordeaux (notably in the recent reenactment of the 1976 Judgment in Paris), it is still uncertain how much this trait extends to the rest of the field.

An even more sensitive issue I believe is the so-called cult-Cabernets, which emerged largely in the 1990s, and their huge success. These super-expensive, highly sought-after California Cabernets have been very influential in radically changing the winemaking style of California wines today towards high ripeness, high alcohol, low acid, and soft tannins. But the ageworthiness of these wines, as well as that of their horde of imitators, has not yet really been established.

Well now that these new style of California Cabernets from the mid-1990s (supposedly the golden age for this ripe-style of California wines) are finally passing their tenth anniversaries (pre-adolescent by Bordeaux standards) the honeymoon is over and they are starting to be seriously tested. But so far, publicized horizontal tastings of vintages such as 1994, 1996, and 1997, by leading wine publications have been disappointing.

California Cabernet Sauvignons made in the 1990s are some of the most collected wines in this country. I anticipate that many collectors, eager to find out how their wines are aging ten years or more on would be uncorking some bottles soon and organizing tastings of these vintages. I really urge you to do so.

Our BNO (boys’ night out) tasting group, always ready to jump on the next wine adventure, recently popped some of these top-rated California Cabernet Sauvignons from the mid-1990s, as well as some real oldies from the 1980s and 1960s. The results were eye-opening.

We treated the wines with the highest respect they deserve. Foremost in our elaborate preparation was Gary's incredible food pairing from start to finish. Hey, the man can cook and knows his food. We started with a cheese tray and a selection of black olives: perfect with the preliminary “glass coaters” and the blind tasting that followed. But his piece de resistance was the lamb shish kebab, a recipe handed down from his grandmother. More on this later.

It was only fitting that Kevin brought some of the evening’s glass coaters because he stopped collecting California wines after the 1970s vintages. To quote his glee after learning that we will be opening 1990s California Cabernets: “Wow! Fabulous! All the wines I never bought and collected!”

So, to start the evening two bottles were cracked: a 1966 Inglenook “Cask” Cabernet Sauvignon and a 1976 Beaulieu Vineyards Georges de Latour Cabernet Sauvignon. I was late to arrive and by then both bottles’ remnants already showed some oxidation. My colleagues, though, were very pleased with both wines. It is amazing to consider how impressive they tasted in their maturity after decades of cellaring. Both have a modest alcohol level of 12% like the old Bordeaux. The Inglenook was given a group score of 3 puffs and the BV 2 ½ puffs.







We progressed up the years in the preliminaries, opening next a 1984 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon from Dunn. Now this has a complex, perfumy bouquet of forest floor and herbs like mint and bay leaf. In the mouth, the tartness of the fruit wakes up the palate, and then the cassis flavors become clear as the taste turns riper and sweeter through the lengthy finish. This Dunn has integrated well, with the tannins smooth and immersed with the fruit. I would say it is drinking at its best right now. Aging it for another decade would be missing the boat. Our group was split with the score. 2 ½-3 puffs.



Matt brought a couple of 1997 Cabernets for a warm-up blindtasting. The first one unveiled was a totally impressive, youthful tasting Cardinale, a Napa/Sonoma blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. It had gorgeous scents of concentrated blackberries, coffee beans, and sweet herbs. The rich tannins and good acid structure give this powerful, concentrated wine a delicious lift and energy on the palate, highlighting its cassis flavors. It does tend to get a bit overripe, with a noticeable harshness from the heat. Still, the fleshy extract compensates and it finishes very nicely. It would be interesting to age this for another 3 years or so in the hopes of gaining a bit more finesse and complexity, but maybe not much beyond that as the heat may get too noticeable. 2 ½-3 puffs.

The other 1997 turned out to be the modern-day version of Beaulieu Vineyards’ Georges de Latour Cabernet Sauvignon. Unlike the Cardinale, this had a flat nose, and on the palate the dense fruit dominates with its lush, ripe, sweet flavors and velvety texture. The flavors don’t linger much and the finish is short. The wine remains attractive for its soft, ripe blackberry flavors but don’t offer much beyond that. Group score is 2 ½ puffs.

Our mini-blindtasting that following included six of California’s fabled Cabernet Sauvignons. They are the crème de la crème. They got humongous points from the top U.S. wine critics and their respective producers charge very dearly for these wines, not to mention that in the secondary market these wines fetch multiples of their original prices.

There were two last place wines that were almost in dead-heat. These two wines were not only last place they were very disappointing. Without their labels, just based on how they tasted, you would not dare serve a glass of either one to your boss. One of them was the biggest disappointment of the evening: the 1997 Harlan Estate Proprietary Red. It is rated a perfect 100 points by Robert Parker and is one of the most expensive California wines. Parker has compared Harlan to a hypothetical blend of Bordeaux’ finest: equal parts La Mission Haut-Brion, Cheval Blanc, and Mouton-Rothschild. For the current going price of a bottle of 1997 Harlan Estate you can purchase at today’s prices two bottles each of those three top Bordeaux from the excellent 2001 vintage to build a special six-pack!



The combination of overripeness, low acidity, firm tannins, and excessive volatile acidity on the Harlan made it taste weird and funky to all the tasters. “Cherry cough syrup” said Matt and Eric; “latex paint” blurted Lenny. The Harlan has clearly not aged well mainly because of the increased volatile acidity on the wine. But apart from this the wine also suffers from excessive ripeness, making it taste syrupy, instead of fruity, in the mouth. Steve and Matt agreed that it was “all on the front, no mid-palate at all.” Gary summed it up succinctly: “where in the f—k is the 100-point wine?!” Our generous host offered to open another bottle, but we all politely declined as it was clear it was the wine not the bottle.

The other last place wine was the 1996 Ridge Monte Bello. Another big surprise as, unlike the Harlan, the Monte Bello at least has an established track record for aging well. Even after decanting, this wine still came off as being funky. “Motor oil” said Lenny. Some detected cardboard smells, potentially a sign of TCA. Though cassis flavors were clearly evident, the taste was flat and just seemed off. Altogether, it was not pleasant to drink. Frankly, this was one of my favorite Cabernets on release and I still have several bottles in my storage. Not able to take the disappointment, I opened another bottle a few days later with Eric. We both immediately concluded that this was quite good and clearly not even remotely similar to the one we previously opened; therefore, one must conclude that there was a TCA problem with the first bottle. But to be honest, I was not blown away by this second bottle. I thought the wine is too forward for its age and that it has matured faster than I expected. I’m not sure if this wine could age another decade or if there is any need to do so. Better to drink up soon. Spoiler Warning: this will be a recurring theme in this tasting.

By the way, I’m not describing these six blindtasted wines in the order they were poured, but in the order of the group ranking of last place to first. The next four wines were all deemed very well by the group. Fourth place was the 1991 Dominus “Christian Moueix” Napa. It is rated 98 points by Parker. It was my favorite of the series as it has developed an attractive bouquet and an elegant, complex taste. Its sweet cassis flavors were still rich and delicious and its firm tannins were nicely integrated, providing good counterbalance and structure to the wine. I would drink this now, too, but I could see this wine aging for another decade.



Third place by the group was the 1997 Araujo Cabernet Sauvignon “Eisele Vineyard” Napa. This is a deliciously-drinking, ripe, fruity, soft, and smoothly-textured Cabernet. Its lush chocolatey, blackberry flavors are seductive. But it’s already too soft for such a young wine and its overripeness and lack of acidity are making it lose freshness at this point. Drink up.



Second and first place votes were really too close to call as there’s only a single point separating them. The second place wine was the 2000 Bryant Family Cabernet Sauvignon Napa and the first place wine was the 1997 Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon Hillside Select Napa. The Bryant got double the number of first place votes of the Shafer, but one very low vote overturned the results. Steve brought the Bryant and, of course, he blamed Matt for skewing the results.

The 2000 Bryant is a densely extracted, mouthfilling Cabernet with massive amounts of cherry, chocolate, and blackberry flavors. Lush and velvety on the palate, it is round and seamless and very much a fruit bomb, a “Parker bomb” said one. It is impossible not to like for its hedonistic ripe fruit qualities. Yet, it does pay a price for the harsh heat that it generates on the finish. In its youth this harshness from the high alcohol is mostly hidden by the fruit, but as the wine ages this gets more excessive. Drink up soon and you’ll be happy with this wine.

The 1997 Shafer Hillside Select is nothing less than a perfect example of a modern-day California Cabernet. It has all the attributes of a modern California wine in the right proportions. It is very densely extracted and opulent. The flavors are predictable—it offers no surprise and, certainly, no non-fruity flavors. Instead, the wine does not veer away from the program of gobs of blackberry/cherry fruits, with just the right amount of tannins, that it delivers lavishly and with squeaky-clean polish. A “lab guide”, observed Matt. And that is very true, as it appears to be an oenologically perfect wine. Yet, it can be quite boring. It is the kind of wine one enjoys and drinks up and then move on. I noticed that we all enjoyed this wine but we did not linger over it. It is very satisfying sensually, but it does not evoke wine euphoria. It will definitely last for another 5-10 years.

After the blindtasting, we settled down around the dinner table to enjoy Gary’s unreal lamb shish kebab, a family heirloom recipe. While we were swishing and slurping, Gary was also busy preparing the lamb and sautéing his equally incredible green beans. Veggies don’t usually get top-billing at these affairs, but this dish of green beans is a revelation and an inspiration to pair more veggie dishes in the future.



There were several more California Cabernets up for tasting during dinner. I guess tired of all the judging, we simply stopped rating the wines at this point and just proceeded to enjoy them. The 1996 Chateau St. Jean “Cinq Cepages” Sonoma, the Wine Spectator’s 1999 Wine of the Year was first up and we were all dying to taste it. The wine is memorable not just for that huge accolade, but also for the shameless and unethical exploitation of the demand that followed its being named Wine Spec’s WOTY. It was first released in early 1999 at $28.00 a bottle (the Wine Spectator, itself, listed it at this price), a price consistent with previous vintages. Later in the year, though, when news of its being selected WOTY leaked, the wine was pulled out of distribution and became only available at the winery at about double the price of its release! It went back to distribution a few months later, but this time at a store price of $75 or more, not because the stores were gouging, but because the wholesale cost of the wine suddenly went up.



After tasting some funky wines during the blindtasting, it was actually a relief to taste something more typical of a California Cabernet in the 1996 Cinq Cepages. It was darkly colored and drinking ripe and sweet, very juicy and with hardly a hint of tannin. It was fleshy and soft and appeared to have not much of a finish or grip to it. It is an attractive Cabernet to drink, certainly worth its release price but not triple that price. Drink up.

The 1995 Dalla Valle Cabernet Sauvignon Napa was a favorite wine of the evening. It was drinking fresh and youthful—darkly colored, with solid fruit concentration and velvety tannins. It had a particularly delicious cassis flavor that was not soft and overripe, but rather textured and lively. It was not a particularly great wine, as it was not deep nor complex, but it really showed very good balance and potentially could evolve for at least another 5 years.

In contrast the 1992 Duckhorn Cabernet Sauvignon Napa was already showing signs of drying out. It does have some good life left as it started out with good fruity flavors that slowly lost freshness within several minutes in the glass. This was probably more solid at least five years ago. Drink up.

The 1980 Ridge Monte Bello was definitely in a more advanced state—with strong mature flavors of decay that may not taste attractive to those who always drink young wines. But I really enjoyed this wine because it was interesting. The difference with, say the Duckhorn or with the other Cabernets made in the 1990s, is that this was definitely made for aging in the first place. It was well balanced. The fruit was not overripe to begin with and both acidity and tannin were proportional. Thus, the secondary flavors that developed, highlighted by herbal and licorice flavors, tasted fresh and natural, not drying out. The wine is past its prime, yet it has aged beautifully.




Two more Cabernets were passed around during dinner, both from the 1990s. One was the 1997 Viader Napa that tasted sweet and overripe and then hot and harsh on the finish because of the high alcohol. I must say, though, that the chocolate chip cookies gave it a lift . The other Cabernet was the 1995 Plumpjack Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve. This was a big, dense, opulent Cabernet, with lush blackberry flavors and rich tannins. It did not develop any more after several minutes in the glass, but it was still an attractive drink even though it’s one-dimensional.

Awaiting us post-dinner were the two highly anticipated Ports: the 1963 Croft Vintage Port and the 1945 Graham Vintage Port. Kevin, of course, is the master of the Port tongs. This device is clearly the best method of opening an old Port bottle as it avoids the risk of the old cork crumbling into the wine, not to mention that it causes far less disturbance to the wine than a cork puller. But, kids, don’t try it at home unless you have developed the kind of discipline necessary that Kevin obviously possess.








The 1963 Croft Vintage Port was simply marvelous. This bottle was bottled in Oporto and it was clearly in perfect condition. Still dark purplish ruby colored, with fleshy, concentrated sweet flavors of ripe berries. It was fresh and lively and really quite youthful. Though it doesn’t have the depth and complexity of a truly great vintage Port, this Croft is so enjoyable to drink as it’s so well-balanced and integrated. It seems to be drinking close to peak right now, but it will easily age for another decade or more.



Well, one of the greatest Ports, if not the greatest, ever made is the 1945 W.J. Graham. We were really blessed to have one that was bottled in Oporto and in glorious condition. Graham’s makes a style of Port that is clearly built to last as it always has very sweet, ripe extracts to accompany its firm tannic structure. When it was bottled in 1947, I can only imagine how almost undrinkable this wine was for its massive sweetness. But now, of course, its heavenly trajectory has been achieved. It almost drinks like a Burgundy in terms of its color, fruitiness, and elegance, yet it has an ethereal sweetness and a depth that seems to reach out beyond what’s humanly possible to discern. If one of the reasons why we chase great wines is to get a glimpse of something immortal, then this wine was clearly a portal. Not to sound cliché-ish, but it’s hard to exactly put into words what one feels with a wine experience like this. A beatific smile and a nod to each other should suffice.

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