Cult Wines Can be Subtle Too

Garage wines in St. Emilion or cult wines in Napa are not usually accused of subtlety. The caricature is that viticulture and vinification are pushed to extremes to produce big, bold, wines that are powerful rather than elegant, and which may not reflect terroir (if there ever was any to begin with). This may be a fair criticism of some of the most recent attempts to impress, but it’s a far cry from an accurate description of the more established wines in this category.

When I was in Napa this month, the view was that the first wave of cult wines – usually described as Screaming Eagle, Colgin, Harlan, Araujo, Bryant, and Abreu – were built on special vineyards. “Harlan was at the front of it – you might say that Harlan defined the trend,” said Anthony Bell, who was at Beaulieu at the time. So a vertical tasting at Harlan was especially interesting in assessing how the wines age, since for me, that’s the real criterion for greatness.

Harlan was established as an effort to produce a “first growth” in Napa, using a Bordeaux-like blend. The vineyards are part of a stunning estate in the hills above Oakville, and are planted with the typical Bordeaux varieties, although “We never publish the exact breakdown as it forces the discussion into varietal composition instead of sense of place,” says Paul Roberts of Harlan. Aside from the 1998, which was pure Cabernet Sauvignon, the vintages have generally been about 70-75% Cabernet Sauvignon.

A vertical from 1991 to 2007 demonstrated a more austere style than I expected. The wines could not be more different from the caricature of a cult wine. The younger wines show structure as much as overt fruits; clearly they are built for aging. While they may become approachable sooner than Bordeaux, the vintages from the 2000s showed a sense of reserve, with the fruits opening out slowly and promising interesting development in the future.

With the older wines, you begin to see a characteristic difference in the aging of Napa compared to Bordeaux. Here the primary fruits turn savory, with a characteristic touch of sous bois, whereas in Bordeaux they tend to turn herbaceous. In either case, there is a delicious balance between the original fruits and the developed aromas and flavors, but the counterpoise to the fruits is different. Just as Napa is more overtly fruit driven when young, so it tends to be more savory when older; just as Bordeaux is fresher when young, so it tends to be more herbaceous when older.

Twenty years may be too soon to assess the full potential aging, but I’d give even the oldest wines at least another decade; I hope I’m here to repeat the tasting.

Tastings

2007 (bottled in Jan 2010)

Spicy nose shows cedary black fruits with a touch of cinnamon. General impression on the palate is somewhat closed at the moment. Slowly some fruits open out in the glass to reveal blackcurrants and blackberries, with a touch of aromatic plums, sweet, ripe, and complete,  supported by firm tannins on the finish. Too youthful now but the structure promises good longevity. 91 Drink 2014-2027.

2004

Medium garnet color. Some developed vegetal notes and hints of sous bois show on the nose. This follows through to a delicate balance on the palate between red/black fruits and sous bois, although there’s just a touch of heat on the finish. Initially this seems to be developing more quickly than usual (perhaps reflecting the hot vintage), but after a while in the glass it reverts to a more youthful impression, with the fruits coming back out and the savory impressions receding, suggesting more potential longevity than had initially been apparent. 93 Drink-2020.

1998

Medium garnet color. Slightly vegetal notes to the nose, varying in intensity between two bottles. There’s a fair amount of oxidized notes showing here on the nose, with evident sous bois, high acidity, generally a rather clear cool climate impression. Fruits are more youthful on the palate than they seemed on the nose, with some black plums coming out, and then the sous bois takes over on the finish. 88 Drink-2014.

1995

Medium ruby garnet color. Austere cedary nose which is turning savory but has not quite reached the point of sous bois. Fruits are ripe and sweet, quite dry on the finish. Then interestingly it reverses a bit in the glass to show more youthful spice impressions. There’s a lovely balance, caught just at the point of turning from fruity to savory, This was the most elegant wine of the vertical, with the precisely delineated black fruits supported by ripe, elegant, tannins. 93 Drink-2022.

1991 (this was the fifth vintage vinified, the second to be released commercially)

Still a medium to deep garnet color. Development shows on the nose, which has a cedary austerity with some sous bois just showing. Sweet ripe black fruits have a savory density on the palate with a herbal impression that drives the finish. Tannins are resolving. This was the most gracefully aging wine of the vertical, with the palate showing that perfect balance of old Cabernet between red and black cherry fruits, savory development, and an underlying texture of fine, elegant tannins. 93 Drink-2018.

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