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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Phelps Insignia Tasting

Insignia is one of California’s most genuine cult wines, by which I mean that it is produced in appreciable quantities (up to 20,000 cases), roughly comparable to a Bordeaux chateau, as opposed to the tiny production in just a few hundred cases of many cults or garage wines. As a selection of the best cuvées, one expects it to represent the best of the vintage, but at these quantities still to reflect general vintage character. It has been a Cabernet-dominated blend since the 1980s, averaging around 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, with the remainder coming from all the other Bordeaux varieties in varying proportions. It comes from about six vineyard plots, in various parts of Napa Valley. Vintage 2003 was the last year in which any grapes came from growers: today the wine is entirely an estate production. The wine is not easy to judge when young, given the powerful fruits, which take ten years or more, depending on vintage, to resolve enough to allow complexity to show. A recent tasting featured vintages from 2008 to 1997.

There were some especially interesting comparisons between pairs of successive vintages. The 1997 was Bordelais in style, just turning from fruity to savory, whereas the 99 was more New World, driven by the plump up front fruits. The 2001 was restrained, still showing a touch of New World aromatics, but mingling with savory elements, whereas the 2002 was all upfront California fruits. The 2001 was the far more interesting wine, showing some subtlety and complexity, and it’s an interesting comment on different palates that it was the 2002 the Wine Spectator picked out as its wine of the year: forceful and aromatic, interesting to taste, but less sophisticated and less of a food wine than the 2001. There’s no accounting for taste (well, there is, but that’s another story). (The Wine Advocate gave 99 points to the 2001 and have 95 points to the 2002, which is enthusiastic, but places the wines in a more appropriate order.) There was a comparable difference between the most recent vintages, with 2007 showing restraint, and 2008 showing more overt power.

I am inclined to divide the Insignias into two series. There’s a lineage from 1997 to 2001 to 2007 which seems more European in its balance and restraint; there’s an alternative lineage from 1999 to 2002 to 2008 which shows more overt fruit and aromatics in the New World style. As Insignia is a blend with varietal composition changing each year to maintain house style, I wondered whether these series might relate to the proportions of Cabernet Sauvignon, but not at all. Cabernet Sauvignon varied from 77% to 89% in these vintages; as a general trend, I found  I preferred the wines where the percentage was higher, but not in every case. There’s been a trend in the past decade to increase the proportion of Petit Verdot, which you might expect to bring more evident aromatics to the blend, but I can’t honestly say I could see a direct influence here either.  I am happy to conclude that the differences reflect vintage character, which is exactly as it should be.

Wines were tasted November 2011 except where otherwise noted.

Phelps Insignia


A relatively stern nose for California, faintly nutty, and generally restrained. On the palate the fruits are more powerful and the aromatics more evident than 2007, with some noticeable vanillin. This is a little too powerful to enjoy right now, but should calm down over the next couple of years.  92 Drink 2014-2023


Warm nose shows cereal notes of semolina. Full fruits of youth on the palate, but aromatics are pleasingly restrained. Blackcurrants and black plums show on the palate, with nicely restrained tannins. This shows better balance that the 2008, where the aromatics are still more evidently powerful. Good balance of fruits, acidity, tannins, promises interesting future development.  93 Drink 2013-2020


Restrained black fruit nose with some influence of butter and vanillin. Smooth full black fruits on palate, some vanillin on the finish showing retronasally. Powerful wine in the Napa cult tradition.  (January 2011) 91 Drink-2020.


Black to purple color, no development apparent. Deep black fruit aromatics dominate nose and palate, with blackcurrants and plums to the fore. Very primary and intense on the palate, but aromatics are not oppressive. Tannic support is evident with a touch bitterness on finish, which is a fraction hot.  91 Drink-2019


Still a dark ruby color, with some purple hues. Lots of primary fruits remain on the nose, with aromatics of black plums and hints of blackcurrants. It’s all upfront California. Forceful primary fruits of blackcurrants supported by vanillin dominate the youthful palate. The vanillin carries  right through to the finish. Tannic structure should support this for years to come, but at present it’s really still too powerful to enjoy except in small tastes.  90 Drink-2022


Dark ruby color still with purple hues. Black primary fruits on the nose are cut by a herbal touch of tarragon. The palate shows less complexity than might be expected from the variety of aromas on the nose. Fruity aromatics come out on the palate, but better balanced than in the rather simple style of the 2000. Overall the impression is that this wine is still too young for its full measure to be taken, but the savory notes intensify slowly on the palate, suggesting that it will mature to an interesting complexity along the lines of 1997.  92 Drink-2021


Deep color just beginning to lighten to show some garnet. It’s more restrained on the nose than the vintages immediately before or after it, but with hints of savory development cutting the fruits. Some vanillin shows and the wine seems about ready to start development. At the moment the fruit and aromatic notes seem a bit obvious; slowly more herbal and savory notes should begin to take over. This was a lighter year in California, and some tasters felt that the wine was too soft to show Cabernet typicity.  90 Drink-2018


Dark color with some garnet hues. The nose is driven by black fruit aromatics although there are hints of savory notes beginning to develop. Dense black fruits on the palate are accompanied by strong aromatics and a touch of  vanillin. This is a fruit-driven palate in the New World style. It’s impressive that the fruits are still primary, but with acidity just a touch on the low side, it’s not evident that the wine will develop as well as the 1997 before it.  88 Drink-2019


Dark color with garnet hues, showing just a touch more development in its appearance than the 99. A faint touch of gunflint on the nose leads into a palate that is more savory than fruit-driven. The overall impression is that the wine is at that delicious point where it is just beginning to turn from fruity to savory. Tannic support is in the background. The general style is Bordelais, although there is just a touch of vanillin on the finish.  92 drink-2021

Cabernet Sauvignon: To Blend or Not to Blend

One of the questions I’ve begun to think about as I start the research for my book on Cabernet Sauvignon is whether the traditional difference between blended wines in Bordeaux but varietal wines in Napa is still justified.

Blending in Bordeaux originated as a protection against failure of any one variety in a climate that was marginal (at least for the varieties being grown). Cabernet Sauvignon did not ripen reliably every year on the left bank, so blending with varieties that ripened more easily (originally with Malbec, later with Merlot) offered two advantages: adding riper flavors to the wine than would be obtained with Cabernet Sauvignon alone; and being able to vary the composition of the blend to respond to failures and successes each year. It also allowed more vineyard area to be cultivated, since Merlot will ripen in spots where Cabernet is not successful. (On the right bank, of course, Cabernet Sauvignon is even harder to ripen and so is generally replaced by Cabernet Franc, but the same principle applies). Even today, with warmer vintages and better viticulture, there is still significant variation in annual usage of each variety; Chateau Palmer, for example, has varied from 40% Cabernet Sauvignon to 68% in the first decade of this century.

The contrasting focus on monovarietal wine in Napa Valley comes partly from the move to varietal labeling that was stimulated by Frank Schoonmaker after the second world war, and which became standard in the New World. (Before then, most wines were labeled by reference to Europe with generic names such as Claret or Burgundy.) Of course, at first the situation in California was not in fact too different from that in Europe, because the rules were so lax that a wine could be labeled with a varietal name so long as it had more than 50% of the variety. Slowly the rules became tightened until reaching today’s minimum limit of 75%. The rationale for making monovarietal Cabernet Sauvignon is that the grapes ripen more reliably in Napa than they did in Bordeaux, the result being that the mid palate is full of fruit, and does not need to be filled in by Merlot or other varieties. Proponents of monovarietals would argue that Cabernet Sauvignon achieves a full flavor spectrum in Napa without needing assistance from other varieties, in fact, I suppose they might take this argument to the logical conclusion of saying that you can only really appreciate the full varietal force of Cabernet Sauvignon if you don’t weaken it with other varieties.

But do these arguments for a fundamental difference in approach still hold up? In the past two decades, climate change has seen temperatures in Bordeaux warm to basically those that Napa showed in the 1970s. Napa has also warmed up a bit, but the gap has narrowed. Climate change has caused somewhat of a change in attitude to winemaking. One of the themes of my book is that prior to 1982, the issue in Bordeaux was trying to get Cabernet to ripeness; the issue in Napa was taming the ripeness to achieve a Bordeaux-like elegancy. Post 1982, a change in consumer attitudes meant that riper, fuller wines were desirable – no more of that touch of herbaceousness that characterized traditional Bordeaux. Coupled with the move to picking on “phenolic ripeness” rather than sugar levels, this led to increasing alcohol levels in the wines. Now the problem everywhere is to control the ripeness. It’s still true that Napa reaches greater ripeness than Bordeaux, typically resulting in an extra per cent of alcohol.

Is it the case that this extra ripeness means that Cabernet Sauvignon is complete in itself or is it true rather that blending even with small amounts of other varieties increases complexity? Should the Bordelais reconsider their view that monovarietal Cabernet Sauvignon is uncouth; or should the Napa producers move to blending in at least a little Merlot to add variety? Before trying to answer this question, it seems to me that the basic facts need to be established. After all, wines labeled as Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa can have up to 25% of other varieties, and even small amounts of secondary varieties can have a significant effect on taste. I remember a blending exercise we did on a Master of Wine trip to Bordeaux where it was surprising what a difference it made to the feeling of completeness in the overall blend when just a tiny percentage of Petit Verdot was included. The question is whether in comparing Bordeaux and Napa we are comparing blended wine with monovarietal wine, or whether we are comparing wines blended with a smaller overall proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon with wines blended with a greater proportion.  So I propose to begin by trying to establish the constitution of wines that are varietal-labeled by determining just how many are really 100% Cabernet and how many have a minor component of another variety. That should be the starting point for an investigation of whether the best wines will be made by blending in Bordeaux but not in Napa. Of course, the answer might depend to some extent on the criteria: mine will be for complexity and elegance in the wine.

In the Médoc, there is a de facto association between quality and Cabernet Sauvignon. The first growths have higher average levels of Cabernet Sauvignon than the second growths, the other grand cru classés are lower, and cru bourgeois are lower yet. (Some of the top wines have more than the 75% Cabernet Sauvignon that would be required for them to be labeled as varietals in Napa!) Whether this is due to the fact that the first growths have better terroir (that is, more reliably capable of ripening Cabernet Sauvignon) or is due to more commercial factors is hard to say, but the fact is that there’s a correlation (albeit rather a loose one) between proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon and position in the marketplace. What does this tell us about Napa, where the majority of wines have more than 75% Cabernet Sauvignon (that is, are varietal-labeled), although they do not necessarily show a price advantage over other Cabernet-based wines. Some of the most expensive cult wines are labeled as Cabernet Sauvignon, others as Proprietary Red. (Of course, whether the varietal-labeled wines are monovarietal remains to be seen.) Cabernet-based wines are certainly at the top of Napa’s hierarchy, but they don’t have to be varietal-labeled.

Which leads me to another thought. The difference between wines of the Médoc and Napa Valley has narrowed since the turning point of 1982. There is a convergence on what is sometimes called the “international” style, focusing on fruits. Partly this is due to Bordeaux closing the temperature gap with Napa, partly it is due to adoption of shared attitudes on viticulture and vinification. (Also notable is the fact that Bordeaux has increasingly moved in the direction of Merlot to obtain those richer flavors: plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux peaked at 32% in 1990 but today are only 24%, although the Médoc remains around 60%.) It is definitely more difficult to be confident of distinguishing the wines in blind tastings. So to what extent are the differences due to the focus on blending in Bordeaux as opposed to varietal focus in Napa? Would the answer become clear from a comparative tasting of Meritage wines (Bordeaux-like blends from Napa) against Napa or Bordeaux? And of course back to the basic question: what makes the best wine?