The Fruit, The Whole Fruit, and Nothing But The Fruit.

Unless you are a winemaker, you don’t usually get to see wines immediately after they have finished fermentation, but in many ways this is the most revealing stage, before any oak or other influences have changed them. This is a real WYSIWYG situation—what you see is what you get. I had an unusual experience of comparing the products of four vineyards on a recent visit to David Abreu in Napa in tasting through a range of tank samples as the wines waited to be transferred to barriques.

David Abreu is probably the most famous vineyard manager in Napa and is responsible for establishing many of the top vineyards. He still functions as a grower with his own vineyards, making wine from only some of the production. Winemaking here follows a somewhat unusal approach, and the emphasis is decidely on the vineyard as opposed to the individual variety.

Every one of Abreu’s four vineyards—Madrona Ranch (in St. Helena at the base of Spring Mountain), Capella (just south of Madrona Ranch), Thorevilos (east of St. Helena just below Howell Mountain), and Howell Mountain (in Angwin) is planted with a mix of Bordeaux varieties. Usually Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc are predominant. There are several harvesting picks in each vineyard–there were 6 in Madrona this year, and 3-4 in the other vineyards–and the grapes that are considered ripe on each pass are harvested and then cofermented, irrespective of variety. Abreu’s winemaker, Brad Grimes, says, “People tend to think that separating into lots and fermenting as such is more precise, but one of the advantages of taking fruits that are ready together and cofermenting is that you can usually balance out acid and alcohol.”

Certainly these samples gave more complete impressions than you usually see from barrel samples. The special quality of Madrona came through clearly; it was always the most profound, irrespective of the date of picking or the exact mix of varieties. Capella seemed to be the most refined and elegant, Thorevilos more masculine. The big surprise was Howell Mountain, where the interplay of fruit and tannins practiced an unusual deception. At first taste, the wine was surprisingly soft, round, and chocolaty: where were the famous mountain tannins, I wondered? Then 30 seconds later, the finish closed up completely with a massive dose of tannins.

All these wines will mature in 100% new French oak, so there’s a great deal of change yet to come, but it was fascinating to see the essential character of each vineyard come out so directly from the fermentation tank.

Bordeaux 1970 versus California 1974

As part of the research for my book on Cabernet Sauvignon, I wanted to determine whether the stereotypes about aging of Bordeaux versus California Cabernet are true, so  I compared wines from the classic 1970 vintage in Bordeaux with Cabernet Sauvignons from the 1974 vintage in California, really the first vintage that put California on the map as a potential competitor to Bordeaux. Is it true that California Cabernet has more limited aging potential compared with Bordeaux?

The two top wines in the tasting absolutely typify the character and quality of Bordeaux versus Napa. The Pichon Lalande had that delicious balance of fruits and herbaceousness; as it gets older it turns more savory. The Mount Eden Cabernet Sauvignon (which comes from an old plot of ungrafted wines on Santa Cruz Mountain) has that warm impression of sweet, ripe red fruits; age has brought a faint impression of piquancy that adds complexity. Ultimately it will become sweeter and simpler.

The California wines are aging well, but they are staying ripe and sweet and warm and showing impressions of ripe strawberries rather than going savory. The best are absolutely delicious, but it’s not obvious what further evolution will occur if they are kept longer. To what extent is this because most are 100% Cabernet Sauvignon or simply a consequence of the warmer climate? The California wines that made great reputations in their day remain the leaders. Heitz Martha’s vineyard has lost some of its density, and is less evidently in a European style. Ridge Montebello shows more evident savory notes. Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill is every drop a mountain Cabernet, just a touch behind the Mayacamas (from Mount Veeder).

Bordeaux was more surprising with some reversals of reputation. From Margaux, Châteaux Giscours and Brane Cantenac, generally considered to be slightly rustic and slightly overcropped in the era, showed better than more classic wines from Pauillac or St. Julien. The issue with the Bordeaux as they age is just how savory you like your wine, as ultimately they can turn herbaceous and medicinal. On this showing, typical or not, the best showed  more complexity than California, but usually were less delicious.

The difference is not so much that California Cabernet doesn’t age so well as Bordeaux, as that it ages differently.

Tasting Notes

Wine were tasted blind in one flight by a panel including Joel Butler MW, Bill Blatch (Bordeaux negociant), Peter Sichel (former château owner), and Josh Greene (Editor, Wine & Spirits magazine).

 Château Pichon Lalande, Pauillac, 1970

Slightly cedary, spicy nose, a touch of Brett lending a leathery complexity: classic Bordeaux. Sturdy on the palate, giving a rather St Estèphe-like impression.  Classic herb-driven palate with almost medicinal after finish. Absolutely classic Bordeaux in the tradition of the sixties and seventies with that delicious mingling of fruits and herbaceous influences. If there was a wine in the tasting that typifies Bordeaux of the sixties and seventies, this was it. 91 Drink to 2018.

Mount Eden, Santa Cruz Cabernet Sauvignon, 1974

Spicy with faint suggestions of cereal, then warm ripe suggestions of sweet, ripe fruits suggesting California. Still lovely and ripe on the palate, the generosity of the warm fruits is evident, but relatively slight development in the direction of savory evolution. Alcohol is a little higher than average. Complex array of flavors on the palate, albeit a touch rustic. and a faint impression of herbaceousness coming through. Delicious balance. 13.9% 91 Drink to  2018.

Heitz Martha’s Vineyard, Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, 1974

Faintly savory intimations of roasted meats, then reverting to a faint spiciness, even a hint of perfume. Sweet and ripe on the palate although there is a touch of volatile acidity. Warm impression with nice flavor variety. There’s a touch of iron that resembles Pauillac. 13.0% 90 Drink to 2017.

Freemark Abbey, Bosché Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa, 1971

Quite youthful on the nose with slightly floral perfumed mixing with impressions of spices. Palate follows the nose, nice balance, elegant and flora; a touch of that sweet strawberry impression identifies the origin with California. There seems to be very little development in a savory direction, but good acidity pushes this a little towards a Bordeaux spectrum. 12.4% 90 Drink to  2018.

Château Giscours, Margaux, 1970

Fresh, intriguing nose, hints of spices, a touch of perfume, hints of fruits, quite complex.  Elegant and ripe and the palate, refined red fruits, but lacking a touch in the complexity you expect at this age. Very good, but a little rustic. This fooled almost everyone into thinking it came from Napa; it’s definitely much fuller than you usually find from Margaux, but that’s Giscours. 89 Drink to 2017.

Mayacamas, Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, 1974

Perfumed and floral with suggestions of roses and violets on the nose. A lovely balance on the palate here, firm ripe fruits yet with an impression of delicacy, and just a faint herbal underlying hint. But oxidation is beginning to creep in. Touch of  Brett adds complexity. 89 Drink to  2018.

Ridge, Montebello Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Cruz, 1974

Some impressions of cinnamon and other spices on the nose, a surprisingly youthful impression, developing savory overtones of roasted meats in the glass. If you ignore the increasing acidity on the palate, there’s an impression of ripe, sweet, warm fruits from California, presently ripe and nutty retronasally (with a faint impression of American oak), but developing in a savory direction, even a hint of herbaceousness (more Bordelais than most California wines in this tasting). 89 Drink to 2016.

Château Mouton Rothschild, Pauillac, 1970

A very faint leathery suggestion of Brett on the nose, turning a little flat, but the palate is still lively. Solid fruits, firm, but subject to attack by the acidity. This is a very solid wine, developing some flavor complexity, with a warm impression reminiscent of California (not seen on previous bottles, which were more clearly in the herbaceous spectrum). 89 Drink to 2017.

Chateau Brane Cantenac, Margaux, 1970

Controversial between those who loved it and those who thought it had dried out. Classic Bordeaux nose of cedar, spices, and leather, identifying some Brett (more distinct than on the Pichon Lalande, which also showed a touch). Although acidity is threatening to take over the palate, there is still complexity to the savory fruits counterpoised against the leathery overtones, still delicious. 12.0%, 89 Drink to 2016.

Diamond Creek, Volcanic Hill Cabernet Sauvignon, Diamond Mountain, 1975

Amazingly dark. youthful color. Fragrant, perfumed impression on the nose, a really clean impression compared with all the other wines. The only wine not to have some Brett, said Joel Butler MW. Ripe, sweet, warm, acidity is lifting up of course, but nice fruits underneath, with a touch of tobacco. The initial soft warmth of the fruits identifies California, but in the glass they become more evidently taut, reflecting the mountain site. 12.0% 89 Drink to 2018.

Château Léoville Lascases, St. Julien, 1970

Restrained nose, in fact completely closed. Piercing acidity on the palate as the fruits dry out. May have been elegant, but too old now. Slowly picks up a bit in the glass to reveal some flavor complexity in a savory Bordelais style, and then (after a couple of hours! reverts to a warmer, softer, richer impression, although the finish remains dry and a little tart. 12.0% 87 Drink up.

Château Pontet Canet, Pauillac, 1970

Herbal and savory intimations, barely perceptible hints of raisins, a little tired on the nose, faintly musty. Tight fruits on the palate, originally elegant, but the acidity is beginning to take over, disguising its origins. Elegant fruits but tiring now. 86 Drink up.

Château Grand Puy Lacoste, Pauillac, 1970

Slightly acid nose, some herbaceous intimations, but seems old. Nice fruits on the palate, elegant style, but a touch of volatile acidity. Fruits are lightening and drying out but have not become savory. 86 Drink up

Beaulieu Private Reserve, Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, 1974

You never know what you are getting with this wine, because there were two bottlings, one of which was evidently much better than the other. In this bottle, you can see the original spices and fruits , but some oxidized notes of raisins are threatening to take over: the general warmth of the impression identifies California as the origin. Volatile acidity is taking over, turning to raisins in the glass. 13.5%  85 Drink up.

Mondavi, Napa Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve

This was a great bottle in its time, and one of the wines that put the 1974 vintage on the map, but this example did not seem to be the best condition. Mature nose with mixture of acid, fruits that aren’t quite tertiary, but giving an impression that the fruits are drying out. Palate shows better than nose although spoiled by a must, moldy impression. This was delicious before the spoilage took it over. Possibly corked at sub threshold. 13.0% 85 Drink up.

 

Is Napa Going Flabby?

I’ve been exploring differences between Cabernet Sauvignon (or blends based on it) from Napa and Bordeaux, and am wondering how much the acidity is a major factor in perception, as opposed to higher alcohol or extraction from the New World. In fact, acidity seems the most immediately obvious difference when I compared recent Napa vintages with the Bordeaux 2009 vintage.

A tasting  precedes the Napa barrel auction each February, and has an interesting format when wines from three successive vintages are presented blind, so that tasting focuses on vintage character and differences. At the end of the tasting, there’s a list of the producers. I tasted all three vintages, 2007, 2008, and 2009 from all fourteen Cabernet Sauvignon producers. (There was also a smaller tasting of Merlots.) The intention of the blind tasting is to indicate the general style of the vintage rather than focus on specific wines.

There’s a fairly clear line between the vintages: 2007 is more concentrated than either of the succeeding vintages. Differences between 2008 and 2009 are less distinct, although in general I’m inclined to agree with the conventional wisdom that 2009 is less intense than 2008, but both 2008 and 2009 tend to give a fairly flat impression, at least at this stage. Every producer in this tasting had a characteristic style that ran through all three vintages, but often the lighter fruits on 2008 and 2009 let the tannic structure show through more clearly, making the wine a little spartan. I felt that few of the wines at this particular tasting would be really long-lived, although the best will drink well in the mid-term (next five years or so).

At barrel tastings the same week, and allowing for the difference in age, the 2010s struck me as generally in line with the previous two vintages of 2009 and 2008. That makes three relatively indifferent vintages in a row. I did not feel, as has sometimes been suggested, that 2010 was a vintage more in line with Bordeaux, that is, lower in alcohol, not so rich, but with more finesse.

The 2009s provided an interesting contrast with a large tasting of Bordeaux 2009 just a couple of weeks earlier, where the wines had that characteristic lift of freshness, in spite of the reputation of the vintage for being unusually rich and alcohol for Bordeaux. Acidity in all three Napa vintages, by contrast, generally seemed a little low. On the best wines this makes the wines quite approachable, with a soft, velvety or furry palate, but in other cases the impression remains a little flat. There was a tendency to hollowness on the mid palate, especially with 100% Cabernet Sauvignons, but also even with wines that were also blended with some Merlot. Many of the wines cry out for some (or for some more) Merlot to fill out the mid palate. Perceptible alcohol was rarely a problem, although the level was often higher than would leave me comfortable after splitting a bottle at dinner. Overall, if I were to choose a wine to drink from these three vintages, 2007 would almost always be my preference, but in most cases I felt 2009 Bordeaux would be a better match for food.

Bring Back the Merlot

I got to thinking about Merlot when I was tasting Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa last week. Now I have never been much of a fan of Merlot, I’m not an enthusiast for Pomerol, for example, because I find those fat lush fruits less interesting than the more restrained flavors of Cabernet-dominated blends in the Medoc. And even though the last couple of vintages have had their problems in Napa, I think it’s a fair point that the extra ripeness that Cabernet achieves there may make it unnecessary to fill in the mid palate with Merlot the way that has been traditional in Bordeaux. Although at the Napa Premiere tasting of the 2007, 2008, and 2009 vintages, it seemed to me that more than a few of the Cabernets (especially from 2008 and 2009) cried out for some Merlot on the mid palate (or cried out for something closer to 20% than the 10% they actually had). But it wasn’t so much the younger wines that made me think about the virtues of Merlot as the older ones that I tasted during the week, ranging from 1985 through to 1995.

Many of the older wines had a really sparse quality, a sort of Spartan palate, with the bare bones of tannic structure poking through the black fruits of Cabernet. No matter how delicious and full of fruit those wines were when young,  age may not have exactly withered them, but certainly it allowed the full austerity of Cabernet show through. The other striking feature was that although they had certainly matured, with the fruits lightening and changing from primary to secondary aromas and flavors, in very few cases was there much evidence of that delicious savory quality to which Bordeaux turns when old. It seems to me that the development of savory qualities, extending to what the French call sous bois (forest floor) is needed to compensate for the lightening of fruit flavors as the wine ages. I have begin to wonder whether this is something that happens more naturally with Merlot, or with a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, than with  Cabernet alone. I discussed a direct example of this previously in The Retarded Development of Cabernet Sauvignon. I think it is more difficult to find examples of pure Cabernet Sauvignon that has aged interestingly than blends.

Not that Merlot is dispensable in young wines; in can add refinement and elegance – but there’s a rub. Merlot is rarely planted on the best terroirs. If you ask in Bordeaux about the match between variety and terroir, the answer is usually that each variety is planted on the terroir that’s best for it. But the fact is that Cabernet is planted on the best terroirs – the gravel mounds – and Merlot is planted on the clay-rich soils where Cabernet won’t ripen. I have found two interesting exceptions to this rule, one in Bordeaux and one in Napa.

Chateau Palmer in Margaux is famous for having Merlot planted on gravel mounds, on terroirs that any other producer would have devoted to Cabernet. This goes back to an enthusiasm of Édouard Miailhe in the 1950s, when Merlot was heavily planted at Palmer, reaching as much as 60% of the vineyards. It was partially reversed at the end of the 1960s, bringing the level down to 47%, although this is still high compared to other producers. Palmer 1961, which represented one of the icon wines of the twentieth century, was only 30% Cabernet Sauvignon. No one knows why Palmer 1961 reached the heights of the first growths, but to my palate it was much in line with the 1959, 1962, and perhaps 1966 vintages – all of which had a very high proportion of Merlot planted on gravel, before it was cut back. Has Palmer ever achieved those heights again? Could this merely be coincidence?

I had a similar epiphany at Screaming Eagle when tasting barrel samples of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to compare with the blend. Even within this small vineyard, the terroir varies from gravel at the eastern edge to more clay at the west of the vineyard. The Merlot came from a block of vines planted in 1987 on the best – for which read gravel – soils. Although Screaming Eagle has Cabernet on gravel and Merlot on clay, they are not slavishly devoted to the idea that they must follow the old Bordeaux rules, so there is some counter thinking, with Merlot on gravel, as well as some Cabernet on a clay plot that gives good results. The Merlot was elegant and refined, with a very fine grained texture that I don’t usually associate with the variety. But then again, I don’t get to taste much Merlot grown on gravel. I think that Merlot makes a significant contribution to the refined quality of Screaming Eagle.

Palmer and Screaming Eagle are, to my mind, hard examples to argue with. The problem with Merlot may be that, when it’s grown in company with Cabernet, the Cabernet usually gets first choice of terroirs. In Bordeaux, this means it’s never as refined. In Napa, the Merlot is often a bit too coarse – indeed, I wonder whether deficiencies in the Merlot are partly responsible for the focus on pure Cabernet Sauvignon. So bring back the Merlot, I say, plant some on your best terroirs, and make wines that will be truly refined when young but will mature into a gracefully savory old age.

A Reality Check on Napa Cabernet Sauvignon

It’s become a truism that more powerful, fruit-forward wines in the “international” style may show well at tastings, and in fact make it difficult to appreciate wines in more subtle, restrained styles. No matter how experienced a taster you are, there is always the possibility that the sheer deliciousness of a wine taken in isolation will give a misleading impression of how it will taste with food. So I like to perform a reality check: after seeing how a wine performs at a tasting, to have a bottle for dinner and see how much my impression changes. I should declare my perspective, which is that I’m with Emile Peynaud, who once famously said, “If I want to drink fruit juice, I’ll drink orange juice.” For me, wine should have at least savory intimations; it should not be an alcoholic version of grape juice.

In connection with my book on Cabernet Sauvignon, I have been investigating all styles of the variety, and during a visit to Napa last month tasted a range from the more restrained to the most opulent. In the course of the last week, I repeated this exercise on a more restricted basis with wines at dinner. The dinner wines were all from the 2005 vintage, which was relatively lush, so perhaps it should not be a surprise that all the wines seemed more fruit-driven and more overtly aromatic, than the impression that had been gained of each house during vertical tastings in Napa.

My first impression was that none of these wines is ready to drink with dinner. None of them would seem unready at a tasting in the sense that the fruits come through clearly, and are not obscured by the weight of tannins; indeed, I think these wines all come into the category of seeming delicious at a tasting. The big question is what will happen with time? All have a strong sense of a powerful underlying structure, but this is hidden by the intensity of the fruit concentration. That of course is what makes them approachable now. As the fruits (and tannins) lighten, I expect they will come into a balance that is more suitable to accompany food; the aromatics will become less intense, and the fruits will begin to turn towards savory rather than jammy. That will take at least another five years.

All the wines have high alcohol (over 14%), but this was not the main determinant of their suitability to accompany food. The wine with the highest alcohol (14.8%) was Araujo’s Eisele Vineyard, which seemed the best accompaniment to food. The wine with the lowest alcohol (14%), Shafer’s Hillside Select, seemed the least suitable. The main criterion for me was either the intense aromatics or the very high level of extraction. In the case of the Spottswoode, the aromatics seemed too intense against food, and the Shafer Hillside Select was simply so powerful that I tired of it before we could finish the bottle. I’m sure that in every case the high alcohol was a factor, in that it enhanced the sense of aromatics or extraction, but it was not the sole determining factor.

Of course it’s unfair to put these wines down because they are not ready to drink now. You would not necessarily expect Bordeaux to be ready to drink after six years; indeed, I have not started to drink any Bordeaux of the 2005 vintage. I would normally expect to start on the vintage after about a decade. It’s curious that the point at which the wines become ready to drink (as opposed to tasting) may be similar for both Bordeaux and Napa, but for very different reasons. Typically the tannins need to resolve to allow the fruits to show in Bordeaux, while it seems to me that the fruits need to lighten (especially to become less aromatic) in Napa. It’s premature to make a judgment now: just as you would no more have criticized a great Bordeaux vintage in the past for having too much tannin to drink when young, so it may be unfair to put down a great Napa vintage because it has too much fruit when young. (Some people feel that wines with too much extract and fruit will never age gracefully, but I am prepared to reserve judgment for the moment.) So for my money, a fair test to compare Bordeaux and Napa of the 2005 vintage would be to wait another five years or so.

Tasting Notes in order of suitability to accompany a meal

Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Eisele, Araujo Vineyard, 2005 (14.8%)

The nose gives a suggestion of balanced restraint, with a mix of red and black fruits and a touch of coconut and vanillin showing, turning to coffee in the glass. The palate shows the coconut and vanillin more distinctly than the nose, with the overt black fruits cut by a faintly austere herbal note of anise. This gives a fine-grained textured impression to the palate, with coconut and vanillin overtones coming back on the finish. This is still too young, but the herbal touch that takes the edge off the exuberance of the fruits promises that this will become a finely balanced wine in a more savory spectrum over the next decade. 91 Drink-2021.

Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, Spottswoode, 2005 (14.1%)

The initial impression is that this has a European nose but an American palate. There’s a hint of development in a faint touch of barnyard on the nose as it opens, than later this clears to show aromatic black fruits, before returning again. The palate is distinctly Napa, with bursting fruits overlaid by notes of vanillin and coconut. Some intense blackcurrant aromatics stop just short of cassis and make a forceful impression on the palate and finish. This vintage seems less restrained than others from Spottswoode. The underlying tannins take a while to show directly, but finally appear in the form of some bitterness on the finish. It’s not so much the power as the force of the aromatics that make the wine too forceful to accompany food; perhaps another couple of years will make a difference. 89 Drink 2013-2019.

Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon, Hillside Select, Shafer, 2005 (14.0%)

The first impression is very Californian, in the form of strong notes of coconut and vanillin on the nose, turning to coffee and chocolate, but then accompanying savory notes, with a faint tinge of barnyard, suggest there may be some development. The palate, however, reflects more the initial impression than the follow up, with a rather aromatic impression of black fruits, blackcurrants with overtones of cassis, and then those notes of coconut and vanillin coming back on the finish. It’s intense and chewy on the finish, colored by those strong aromatics. No one could quarrel with the quality and intensity, but sometimes I think this style is more food in itself than wine to accompany food. The label claims that the Hillside Select is typical of the Stags Leap District, but I think it is more typical of itself. The big question in my mind is how long it will take for those aromatics to come into a calmer balance, and whether that will be paralleled by an extension of those faint suggestions of development to the palate. My guess is at least a decade before the wine will cease to be so assertive that it overpowers any accompaniment. 90 Drink-2021.

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.

Elegance and European Restraint in Napa Valley

The stereotype of Napa Valley Cabernet, as for New World wine in general, is for up-front, forward, bright fruits, intense and flavorful on nose and palate. “This what the fruits give us,” producers will say. Exacerbated by the trend over recent years to picking later, there can be a tendency to powerful extraction rather than elegance or subtlety. This may be a fair criticism of extremes, both at lower price levels where an emphasis on direct fruits substitutes for anything more complex, and for some top wines where ripeness has turned to over ripeness. But on my recent visit to Napa I was struck by the number of wines that displayed true Cabernet typicity, and by the fact that some cult wines, at least, are far removed from the caricature of bigger is better. In these tastings, a decade seemed to be about the appropriate age for starting the wine, a far cry from the popular impression that the wines should be drunk young and don’t age.

Two of the most interesting representations of Cabernet in a more restrained style came from Corison and Spottswoode, both long known for their elegance of approach. It would be fair to describe Cathy Corison’s style as aiming for precision in the fruits. She is well known for picking early in the context of Napa, aiming for ripeness without high alcohol. The wines are pure Cabernet Sauvignon.  “At least on the Rutherford bench, I believe that Cabernet can do anything the blending varieties can do, better, nine years out of ten. Rutherford gives you the entire range of fruit flavors that Cabernet can give all in one glass,” she says.  After some years in the wilderness, when there was a general move towards greater ripeness, she thinks the pendulum is swinging back.

My general impression of a vertical tasting of recent vintages was that the wines somewhat resembled what would happen in Bordeaux if they made monovarietal Cabernet. The wines showcase precise black fruits, outlined in cooler vintages by a tight acidity supported by fine grained tannins, not exactly austere but certainly restrained, giving way in warmer vintages to a softer palate with more velvety textured tannins. The 2001 was just coming up to its peak. The Kronos bottling, which comes from the vineyard immediately around the winery, is fuller and plusher with an extra density of fruit concentration that reflects the old vines.

Spottswoode is an old line winery – wine was being made here in the nineteenth century – which for the past three decades has also been known for its restrained style, although in the past decade, perhaps in response to market pressure, there has been a move to greater ripeness. Current winemaker Aron Weinkauf says that, “We are still fairly early pickers but that’s partly because we are one of the warmer sites, but in more recent years we haven’t shied away from going after ripeness.” Most of the Cabernet is their own selection, essentially a heritage clone that has adapted to the site. They tried some clone 337 but pulled most of it out because it was too strongly flavored with cassis. The wines have changed from pure Cabernet Sauvignon to a blend. Rosemary Cakebread, winemaker from 1997-2005, who still consults, explained, “When I came to Spottswoode, it was virtually all Cabernet Sauvignon. To allow ourselves some blending opportunities each vintage, it was really an advantage to have some other varieties, so when we had the opportunity we planted some Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot to give ourselves some flexibility.” Now there is 1 acre of Petit Verdot and  3 acres of Cabernet Franc, in addition to 31 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon. There’s no Merlot. The style is restrained, and the wines definitely need to age: the 1992 was at perfection.

I found another outlier for style at Viader, where the Proprietary Red is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, generally around 60:40, but varying with the vintage. “The limiting factor in the blend is the aging potential of Cabernet Franc- we have typical mountain tannins, very intense and dominant – so we use all the Cabernet Franc that is successful, and then add Cabernet Sauvignon (but there is always a majority of Cabernet Sauvignon, up to 75%)”, says Delia Viader. She explained her stylistic objectives. “I always had a very clear stylistic aim, I wanted to make a wine more in the St Emilion style, but elegant. I don’t go after fruit, fruit, fruit, fruit, I want elegance. Like St  Emilion because it’s not in your face, there are not the dominant Médoc tannins. It’s the quality of tannins that are the big criterion.” The wine needs at least seven years aging, she says. Coming from Howell Mountain, but outside of the AVA, the wine has typical mountain austerity, with the aromatics of Cabernet Franc often quite dominant even though it’s the lesser component. The 2002 seemed at its peak when I visited.

I liked the restraint of these wines, and I wouldn’t drink any of them under a decade. Ranging from pure Cabernet Sauvignon, to a Bordeaux blend, to a blend of Cabernets, they were an impressive demonstration of Napa’s potential for something well beyond the stereotype.

Tastings at Corison

Kronos 2006

More evident aromatics on the nose than on the Corison Cabernet with an immediate impression of black plums and blackcurrants. The palate follows right on, with more forward, plush fruits, showing the intensity of the old vines, and velvety tannins with a furry texture on the finish. 92 Drink-2024.

Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, 2006

Fruits on the nose initially appear a little spicy and then develop some notes of coffee in the glass. Nicely rounded black fruits show on the palate, with a kick of ripe plums and blackcurrants on the finish. That touch of spice comes out again on the palate with a soft velvety texture. The small crop of this year gives the wine an impression of concentration, softer and more overtly fruity than the preceding vintage, and perhaps less typical of the usual Corison style. Tight and closed only a few months ago, this wine has suddenly begun to open out. 91 Drink-2021.

Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, 2005

More black fruits than red on the nose. Nicely textured density with a soft impression on the finish, and an elegant impression overall. The mix of red and black fruits tending to cherries on the palate gives a fresh impression. There’s a slight retronasal nuttiness. Sandwiched between two softer vintages (2004 and 2006) this year gives a very fine-grained impression from what was a relatively large crop. 89 Drink-2021.

Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, 2004

Restrained nose is developing some suggestions of coffee. Reflecting the warmer vintage, the wine is softer than usual, with more broadly diffuse black fruits, and a soft, gravelly texture to the finish. 89 Drink-2020.

Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, 2003

There’s a fairly spicy red and black fruit nose. Fruits are quite restrained on the palate at the moment and seem to be developing very slowly; perhaps the wine is passing through a dumb phase, with a certain lack of presence on the mid palate. 88 Drink-2019.

Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, 2002

Restrained nose has some suggestions of spices and pepper, with black fruits turning more red in the glass. Good acidity lends precision to the fruits, but with less presence on the mid palate than was evident in the 2001. This mid bodied wine is developing slowly. 90 Drink-2021.

Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, 2001

A touch of red fruits on the nose has some suggestions of underlying austerity with a hint of acidity. On the palate the fruits make an elegant impression, showing as precise black cherries, plums, and blackcurrants, with an elegant acidity. This shows the most precision of fruits of the vertical (from 2001 to 2006), with a soft, gravelly texture just beginning to develop underneath. 90 Drink-2022.

Tastings at Spottswoode

Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, 2008

Restrained nose suggestive of black fruits with herbal overtones. Smooth elegant fruits of blackcurrants and blackberries show in a light style on the palate. not a blockbuster. Slowly a faint impression of chocolate, vanillin, and coconut develops on the finish. Rather taut, with fine grained tannins, this really needs another couple of years to open out. 89 Drink 2013-2023.

Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, 2001

Spicy black fruit nose shows a touch of cinnamon and a suggestion of smoky minerality. Elegant black fruits are precisely delineated on the palate in a restrained style. Fruits have lost their primary fat but not yet developed savory notes. The wine still seems quite youthful, perhaps at the end of its adolescence, just about to develop. 90 Drink-2023.

Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, 1998

Strongly developed barnyard nose is quite pungent. The palate shows more subtle balance than is suggested by the nose, although savory notes of sous bois are clearly dominant. Fruits still are quite concentrated, although some bitterness is creeping on to the finish. Then the barnyard blows off somewhat to reveal some tobacco notes. Delicious, but will be too developed for some palates. 87 Drink-2014.

Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, 1992

Mature nose is intriguingly balanced between perfume and sous bois, giving an impression of delicacy, with a developing touch of minerality and smoke. The balance on the palate makes it hard to decide whether savory or fruit is the driving force. The light elegance of the palate perhaps doesn’t quite deliver the full complexity promised by the nose, but right at this moment it’s caught at that delicious turning point. This may be the  most subtle wine Spottswoode made in the past two decades, but drink soon before the fruits begin to decline. 92 Drink-2015.

Tastings at Viader

Napa, 2008 (69% Cabernet Sauvignon,  31% Cabernet Franc)

The aromatics and perfume of Cabernet Franc seem to dominate the nose, with tobacco giving way to more austere aromas. The elegant palate shows tight, precise fruits, with a chocolate coating on the finish. Once again Cabernet Franc seems more in evidence than Sauvignon. Overall impression is quite perfumed and elegant. 91 Drink-2022.

Napa, 2002, 14% (51% Cabernet Sauvignon, 49% Cabernet Franc)

Development on the nose shows as savory, barnyard notes, which change to nuts and cereal in the glass. The palate is more herbal than savory, with a touch of spice to the red fruits. Tannins have resolved, there is a nice balance, and the wine is at its peak. 89 Drink-2016.

Napa, 2001

Characteristic Napa fruit comes right up in the glass, showing as aromatic, piquant, black plums on the nose. Very fine and tight on the palate, with a refined quality brought by the Cabernet Franc. The overall balance of the palate is taut rather than fleshy,. The nose promises a finely delineated elegance, which the palate delivers, although it is a touch linear, making somewhat of a contrast with the aromatics of the nose. The fine granular texture is very Cabernet Franc-ish; in fact, the overall impression is as much Cabernet Franc as Sauvignon.  89 Drink-2019

Are Clones Important for Cabernet Sauvignon?

Seems like a silly question, but I’ve been struck by a great difference when talking with producers of Cabernet about clones compared to my experience with Pinot Noir. It’s a really hot button issue for Pinot, with all extremes of opinion from those who think that the Dijon clones have basically rescued Pinot Noir from failure, to those who believe that their widespread adoption is leading to a homogenization of Pinot typicity that will all but destroy the variety. Opinions are much calmer with Cabernet. Many Bordeaux producers say that they use clones when replanting, but when asked which clones, shrug and say that they can’t remember the numbers. The general impression you get in both Bordeaux and Napa is that clones affect yield more than character. But on my recent visit to Napa, I was able to taste wines specifically vinified from individual clones, and the results were revealing.

The choice of clones in Napa today may be as wide as anywhere in the world. In addition to the new ENTAV clones from France, there is a series of heritage clones. The workhorse clones of Cabernet Sauvignon in California in the 1970s and 1980s were clones 7 (also known as the Concannon or Wente clone) and clone 8, both of which were taken as cuttings from the same vine at the Concannon Vineyard in Livermore. Clone 6 originated with nineteenth century imports into California from Bordeaux (the Jackson clone, rescued from an abandoned vineyard). Clone 4, the Mendoza clone, which was imported from Argentina. (It was incorrectly labeled as Merlot clone 11 when it arrived!) And there are many others. The best known of the new clones from France is 337, which I rapidly discovered is basically Cabernet’s equivalent to the Dijon clones: it’s reliable, gives reasonable yields of smallish berries, and has fruit-forward flavors.

One of the most knowledgeable people about clones is Anthony Bell, who was in charge of an extensive clonal trial at Beaulieu in the eighties. He told me that out of 14 clones that were tested, those with the greatest Cabernet typicity were #4 and #6. This can be a mixed bag, since not everyone likes the classic typicity, which implies a touch of herbal character. This may be responsible for the recent success of clone 337. “I think it lacks varietal typicity in California – it allows winemakers to create the fruit-driven style of Cabernet that tends to be a favorite of the media,” explained Anthony. “If you want to pick late and make very extracted wines, 337 allows you to do this in spades.” By contrast, clone 6 gives very small straggly bunches, and tends to show more herbal character: Bell picks this last, not so much to increase sugar, as to get to phenolic ripeness. Yields with clone 6 are so pitiful compared to the others that most producers won’t grow it, and certainly it does not seem to be economically advisable.

Bell Wine Cellars makes wine from clones 6, 4, 7, and 337, and a tasting of the separate bottlings gave a fascinating insight. Clone 7 and clone 4 have similar profiles, but on clone 7 you see the fruits first, and this reverses on clone 4 where you see the herbal influence first. The most striking difference is between clone 337, which shows the most lush profile and clone 6, which has the most traditional austerity.

The style at Bell tends to European restraint, so I wondered whether this tends to bring out the differences between the clones more than would be the case of ripeness were pushed to greater extremes. But my next tasting was with Fred Schrader, who produces a series of single vineyard Cabernets from within Beckstoffer’s To Kalon vineyard, three representing individual clones, and one a blend. These are wines made in a rich and powerful style, but the character of vineyard and clone shines clearly through. Clone 337 is the most open and obviously fruit-driven, and clone 4 has more structure. I do not think you could use the phrase “herbal” in conjunction with Schrader wines, but let’s say that the clone 6 had more reserve, more evident structure and longevity, than the others. What about the blend? According to conventional wisdom, it should be more complex than any of the parts. Certainly it was impressive, but it did not strike me as more interesting than clone 6 or clone 4 alone. But it’s early to tell.

There seemed no doubt that, in these two comparisons of wines in very different styles, the clones have different characters. Some of the difference may come from the yields, especially that increase in austerity of clone 6. It would be fascinating to measure levels of pyrazine production by the different clones, since that is the main factor determining perception of herbal character, and see whether that correlates directly with their styles, or perhaps whether it forces different decisions about ripeness that affect perception of style. Of course, it’s entirely another issue whether yet greater complexity would be obtained by sticking to selection massale to propagate a greater variety of vines from the vineyard instead of the restricted selection of one or a few clones.

Bell Wine Cellars Tastings

Clone 7, Napa 2008, 13.9%

Medium to deep purple color. The first expression on the nose shows as black fruits, followed by a subtle touch of herbs and cereal. The palate shows black fruits of damsons and bitter cherries, with tight, elegant lines. Some fine tannins are present on the finish with a faint touch of heat, 90 Drink 2013-2023

Clone 4, Napa, 2008, 14.0%

Medium to deep, ruby to purple color. A herbal touch of tarragon shows on the nose, just ahead of the black fruits of plums and cherries. This has similar components on the nose to clone 7, but they appear in reverse order. The black fruit palate shows more cherries than plums, with very fine grained tannins, and more chocolaty than clone 7. Just a touch more flavor interest and length on the finish here. 91 Drink 2013-2024.

Clone 337, Napa, 2008, 13.8%

Medium to deep, ruby to purple color. Slightly austere, cedary impression to black fruit nose, leading int a touch of chocolate. The fruits are softer and more rounded on the palate, a touch more aromatic, showing more as plums than cherries. Smooth, fine grained tannins coat the palate, where the more opulent character of this clone really comes out, reducing the impression of Cabernet typicity. 90 Drink 2013-2020.

Clone 6, Rutherford, 2008, 13.2%

Herbal impression on the nose is more evident here, just short of showing as bell peppers, with black cherries underneath. Black fruits on the palate are more cherries than plums, a little more loose knit on the palate, with quite soft, ripe, tannins. The impression of Cabernet typicity in the form of those herbal notes is really clear on the nose, but a bit more subdued on the palate, which hasn’t yet really opened out. 91 Drink 2013-2022.

Schrader Cellars Tastings

Napa,  RBS To Kalon Beckstoffer, 2009, 14.5%

This is 100% clone 337, at yields of 3.5 tons/acre.

Perfumed black fruit nose with the perfume intensifying in the glass. You can see the dense black cherry fruits holding back on the palate. Ripe rounded tannins with more than a touch of chocolate on the finish. Yet this is the most open on the palate of the Beckstoffer bottlings. Powerful, with an overall chocolaty impression. 94 Drink 2014-2031.

Napa T6, To Kalon Beckstoffer, 2009, 14.6%

This is 100% clone 6 at yields of only 2 tons/acre.

A touch of perfume on the nose is just a bit less intense than the RBS. Restrained black fruits dominate the palate, showing as chocolate-coated cherries. Ripe tannins are subsumed by the fruits, and are evident only by dryness on the finish. This brooding monster will open slowly and live for ever. It’s nowhere near releasing its full potential yet. 95 Drink 2016-2033

Napa, CCS, To Kalon Beckstoffer, 2009, 14.4%

This comes from clone 4 at 3-4 tons/acre.

There’s an impression of nuts and cereals as well as black fruits on the nose. The black fruits of the palate are quite restrained, held back by the firm, fine-grained tannins. Very long term aging potential. 95 Drink 2015-2033.

Napa, Schrader, To Kalon Beckstoffer, 2009, 14.6%

This is a blend of clones 337 and 4 and 6, at 3-4 tons/acre, but not from the same blocks as the others.

Initial impression on the nose is a chocolate coating to black cherries, and then a faint herbal note develops in the glass. This is more open than CCS but less than 337, chocolaty on the palate with firm tannins drying the finish. Clearly needs a lot more time. 93 Drink 2015-2031.

When Should You Send Wine Back at a Restaurant?

I hate sending wine back at a restaurant. Of course I will do this when a bottle is flawed, but there’s always the potential for some disagreement or unpleasantness. My working rule is that this is appropriate only when the wine is clearly flawed, not merely because I don’t like it. Usually this is because the bottle is corked, and in the vast majority of cases the sommelier accepts immediately that the bottle is defective, but occasionally there is a sommelier who doesn’t recognize the taint and is awkward about it. But I was brought to a new question this week by a wine that was so poor – although technically it was not flawed by being corked or oxidized or having any other single identifiable defect – that I wondered whether being completely atypical should count as a reason for rejection.

Increasing problems with premature oxidation of white Burgundy have made this, my staple when I want a white wine in a restaurant, more of a risky venture when the wine is more than a year or so old. Once again, most sommeliers will recognize madeirization as a flaw, but from time to time I’ve had difficulties with this, especially in France. “These are the typical aromas of the vintage,” a sommelier explained patronizingly to me at a grand restaurant in Provence when a white Burgundy was madeirized. As politely as I could, I said that I had a cellar full of that vintage and none had this problem. With very bad grace, he agreed to take the bottle back, but warned me to order a different vintage, because all his wines of that vintage had the same problem. The storage conditions must have been terrible. These days I have taken whenever ordering a white Burgundy to asking at the outset whether it has any problem with oxidation. Often enough a sommelier will say there have been problems, and advises me to choose something else. But having asked the question, at least I then feel free to send the bottle back if there is any taint by oxidation.

Given the erratic nature of cork taint, there would not be much point in asking whether a wine is likely to be corked, but even with this most easily recognizable flaw, there can be doubt. When a bottle is well and truly tainted, it’s a fairly easy decision to reject, but this can be more difficult when there’s a subthreshhold level of taint, enough to suppress the fruits but not enough to show any clear evidence of TCA on the nose. Actually, I think this is a killer for the producer: if you don’t know this particular producer, you can easily conclude that he’s no good rather than that the wine is flawed. In such cases I have usually felt obliged to stay with the bottle. When you have a clear expectation for the wine, you may be able to say fairly that it is flawed. But given people’s widely varying sensitivities to cork taint, there can be problems in marginal cases. My most amusing incident was at the restaurant Les Bacchanales in Vence, where a bottle of a recent vintage white Burgundy was suspiciously lacking in fruits. When I expressed concern, the waiter took it over to the diner at the next table, who was a local dignitary on the wine and food scene. We could hear him saying, “no, I do not see any problem here,” which the waiter duly came back to report. As the taint was slowly becoming more evident, I stood my ground, and indeed a substitute bottle was vastly better, A few minutes later the chef came out. “I do apologize,” he said, that bottle is terribly tainted. “I would not even cook with it.” So here we had a living demonstration of variation in sensitivity, increasing from the food writer to the chef, where I was uncomfortably the piggy in the middle. That’s why it can be so difficult.

This week I am visiting producers of Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley as part of the research for my next book, Claret & Cabs. My usual habit is to try to perform a reality check at dinner by having a wine that we have tasted at a producer, to see whether experiencing a whole bottle with food gives me the same impression as a tasting. However, having dinner at the Auberge du Soleil, I was so offended by the markups on the Napa Cabernets that I decided to try something else. My usual experience in wine regions is that restaurants showcase the local producers, and while it would be naive to expect to find bargains on the wine list, often there is some wine, perhaps an older vintage that hasn’t been terribly marked up, that offers an interesting experience without completely breaking the bank. Slowly I have become adjusted to markups moving from two fold to more than three fold, but at over four times retail prices, I draw the line. One example makes the point. The Spottswoode Napa Cabernet 2000 is $360 on the list at Auberge – but the restaurant at Domaine Chandon has it at $160. Now I’m prepared to believe that expenses are higher at Auberge, but not that they justify a price of more than double compared to another good local restaurant. The wine averages around $80 at retail, so the markup at Auberge is well over my line.

So I did something I have not done before and ordered a wine from another region altogether, in fact from Burgundy, as  I thought a lighter style anyway would fit better with our particular meal. This was the Nuits St. Georges 2005 from Confuron-Cotetidot. I think it’s a reasonable expectation that in 2005 any decent producer should have been able to make an acceptable wine at communal level. But this was a throwback to the old days of Nuits St. Georges, and I do not mean that as a compliment. It had no nose at all and no fruit could be detected on the palate. If this had been a Bourgogne AOC, I would have shrugged and said that I expected a better result in this vintage. But this tasted (if the word taste can be used at all in conjunction with this wine) as though it had been overcropped to hell. I hesitated, but decided that as it had no detectable flaw, it would be unfair to send it back. However, when the wine deteriorated in the glass to the point that all you could taste was a medicinal acidity, I called over the sommelier and asked her to taste it. “Ah it has racy acidity, a bit surprising for 2005,” she said. I explained that my problem was more with the lack of fruit, and she wondered whether decanting would help. I did not feel that decanting could bring out nonexistent fruit, however. She offered to bring another wine, but I did not feel like starting another bottle at this point (and I had somewhat lost confidence in the selection of Burgundy), but we ended up with a couple of glasses of the Beaux Frères Willamette Pinot Noir from 2008 (surprisingly taut for this producer and vintage), but definitely wine as opposed to the previous mix of acid and water.

I still hold to the position that you can’t send a wine back just because you don’t quite like it, and  I cringe at the thought of imagining flaws because a wine fails to come up to expectation. But in retrospect, I think perhaps I should have rejected this wine at the outset, without crossing the line, on the grounds that it was so far from the typicity of Nuits St. Georges that it was unreasonable for it to be presented on the wine list. Here is the tasting note

J.Confuron-Cotetidot, Nuits St. Georges, 2005

No nose at all. Rather characterless and lacking fruit on the palate, seems dilute and overcropped. No obvious flaws, but only a thin somewhat medicinal, slightly acid, quality to the palate. Only fruit character is an amorphous somewhat flat medicinal note. Would not be a credit to the Bourgogne AOC. 75 points.

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

2008

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

2007

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

2006

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.

2003

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

2002

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

2001

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

2000

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

1999

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

1997

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