Lawrason’s Take on Vintages February 4th Release: A Global Survey of Bordeaux Envy

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

With only one shot at tasting Vintages Feb 4th release I zeroed in on the featured California cabernets, and every other Bordeaux name-sake and/or look alike on the roster. That included reds from Bordeaux itself; cabernets, merlots and blends thereof from the four corners of the globe, malbecs from Argentina and carmenere from Chile. In total there are 29 wines on this release that have their roots in the world’s most famous wine region, 42% of all the red wines on offer.  So obviously there is still huge demand for Bordeaux-inspired wines, but how are they doing out there? Who is doing what the best?  And what about that thorny issue of pricing? After pinot noir, Bordeaux-inspired blends are among the most expensive and in my view overpriced in the market

Napa’s Pricy Cabernets

Mondavi's To-Kalon Vineyard The genesis of this exercise actually came last week when I was in a Napa Valley vineyard called To-Kalon, largely owned by Robert Mondavi Winery.  I was with a group of Canadian wine writers and sommeliers. We had just come from a Napa cabernet tasting comparing young and older vintages of six prominent properties –  Staglin Family, Clos du Val, Silver Oak, Silverado, Cliff Lede and the famous Mondavi Reserve (the 2007 is released Saturday at a mere $140).  Our Mondavi field trip guide and “educator” slipped into reverent tones when he called To-Kalon a “first growth vineyard”, conferring the status of the vaunted 1st growths of the Medoc (Chateau Margaux, Mouton-Rothschild etc).  I am not doubting this is a great site – the yet to be released 2008 To-Kalon Cabernet is outstanding – but the Bordeaux wannabe game is one which Mondavi and Napa have been playing for more than a generation, and the rest of the cabernet-merlot wine world almost as long.

I had looked forward to the Napa portion of the trip and especially the cabernet tasting precisely to conduct a Napa/Bordeaux reality check. I have been disenchanted with the direction of modern Napa cabernets – becoming too fruity, unfocused, confected and hot (high in alcohol).  I accord Napa some stylistic leeway in this debate because it is a warm Mediterranean climate compared to Bordeaux’s more moderate maritime climate.  But still, if you are going to call yourself the Bordeaux of the New World, price your wines at Bordeaux’ nose bleed altitude, and live the rich and famous lifestyle, your wines should have some of class, elegance, nuance and refinement of Bordeaux’s best.  Recently I have found some Napa cabs to be more like convenience store confections. (Check out the $70 Caymus chocolate bar on this release).

At the seminar we first tasted through the older vintages from late 80s to early 90s, and it was immediately apparent that they were very much more like Bordeaux than anything I had had recently. It was not just a matter of maturity. Alcohol was lighter, fruit less jammy and harmony better. Then came the younger wines from 2008 and 2007, and some were as I expected and described above, including the Mondavi Reserve 2008.  However, perhaps through the sharper lens of the older wines I did pick up some of cabernet’s unique, firm tannic structure, and a sense that these new wines too might age well.  In other words, I did find a bit of Bordeaux, as well as in some other cabernets I would later taste in Napa and in Sonoma’s Alexander Valley from Rodney Strong and Stonestreet.  This included a vertical tasting of Chateau St.Jean’s Cinq Cepages, and a tasting of the $500 Verité 2008 Le Desir which Robert Parker rated 100. I was a mere 96 but more importantly it steered on the Bordeaux/California axis to perfection.

I was also able to carry the examination forward into the Napa cabernets being released on February 4, and  I found some promising structure there as well. Perhaps it was vintage 2009, but I really like the sense of proportion and potential in DUCKHORN 2009 DECOY CABERNET SAUVIGNON which is reasonably priced at $32.95; and even more so in FROG’S LEAP 2009 CABERNET SAUVIGNON ($58.95) the latter having more typical, less jammy blackcurrant fruit and firm structure. But hands down the best Napa cab on Feb 4th is DUNN VINEYARDS 2007 NAPA VALLEY CABERNET SAUVIGNON! It is not cheap at $87.95 but easily far better value than the Mondavi. My other confirmation in California was how well mountain grown cabernet performs; embossing the classic, lean structure of this tannic grape and filling its middle with more fiery minerality, foliage and fruit.
Duckhorn Decoy Cabernet Sauvignon 2009   Frog's Leap Cabernet Sauvignon 2009   Dunn Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2007
Cabernet Elsewhere

Maycas Del Limarí Especial Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 L.A. Cetto Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 The Feb 4th release also has cabernets from other regions: cooler climates like Niagara and northeast Italy plus warm zones like Australia, Mexico and Chile. In general the cool climate editions wimped out and showed some greenness and vegetative character which is now generally reviled by most New World winemakers. It is also increasingly frowned upon in Bordeaux where modern viticulture strives to minimize unripe leafiness. But in warmer areas cabernet takes on the depth and density that it handles so well. One of the best examples is MAYCAS DEL LIMARÍ 2007 ESPECIAL RESERVA CABERNET SAUVIGNON from the Chile’s Limarí Valley ($19.95). This one will cellar, another marker for good cabernet. There is also surprising depth if not the firmness in the $12 L.A. CETTO 2009 CABERNET SAUVIGNON from the Guadalupe Valley in Mexico’s Baja California.

Muddled Merlot 

Merlot is the great red grape of Bordeaux’s right bank and there is actually a very fine example of Bordeaux merlot in LA GRAVETTE DE CERTAN 2009, the second wine of Vieux Château Certan in Pomerol, even if it is rather expensive at $69.95.  Out in the wider world few merlot producers compare their merlots to Bordeaux. Merlot is more malleable than cabernet and it is being shaped more by the forces of climate, terroir and commerce.  And lacking the same cachet and structure of cabernet it rarely achieves high prices in the New World either, which is a good thing.

La Gravette De Certan 2009

Merlot’s image was devastated in the pinotphile movie called Sideways a few years back, but according to one winemaker in California the damage was largely to the mass cheap, merlot market, and that those serious about the grape are soldiering on.  Indeed, I have been enjoying merlot more of late, and I am starting to sense a rebirth of respect. I especially noted this in a recent trip to Argentina, witnessed in this release by VIÑA COBOS FELINO 2010 MERLOT from Luján de Cuyo at $19.95. Good merlots are popping up from New Zealand and California as well.  In Chile merlot is quite rare, having been supplanted by carmenere, the late ripening Bordeaux variety that has become a signature in the long thin land. In this release and in many other examples inexpensive carmeneres are often too confected.

Viña Cobos Felino Merlot 2010

Marvellous Malbec

Don Nieto Senetiner Don Nicanor Malbec 2008 Malbec is another story, a grape that is rare in Bordeaux itself but ascending globally thanks to its success in Argentina, and increasingly in other warm, dry climates with long growing seasons.  Bordeaux itself is too cool for this late ripening grape, and despite the fact it is hanging tough in warmer inland Cahors, I have never really been a fan of the very black, lean, tannic wines it produces there (Excellence Du Château Bladinières 2008 on this release is a case in point). So no one compares New World malbec to Bordeaux, indeed the Argentines are distancing from Bordeaux by saying their clone of malbec (the Argentino clone) is different from the French clone.  In Argentina it is the number one red grape by far, and there is a real movement afoot to upgrade it through higher elevation sites and improved viticulture. In Argentina its strength is its softness, this sense of creamy velvet and wonderful fruit density in the best examples. NIETO SENETINER 2008 DON NICANOR MALBEC from Mendoza is a great example and a huge value at $17.95.  The other great benefit of malbec from Argentine is that very few have the pricing pretention of Bordeaux.

A Pair of Fine Whites

It has become a tradition to end up with a couple of dandy whites. Again, I did not taste most of them so check out the picks from my WineAlign colleagues.  But here are a couple that dazzled, both having a connection to Italy’s Friuli region. GRAN LURTON 2010 CORTE FRIULANO  from the higher altitude Uco Valley in Mendoza, Argentina, is surely a new southern star and a great buy at $19.95.  The grape is from Italy’s northeast where it was once, but no longer, confusingly called Tocai de Friulano. BORGO CONVENTI 2010 PINOT GRIGIO is from the appellation of Isonzo del Friuli itself. It is an excellent value at  $16.95, and a testament to the modern brightness of Italy’s whites.

Gran Lurton Corte Friulano 2010  Borgo Conventi Pinot Grigio 2010

That’s all for this edition. If you haven’t checked out our latest episode of “So You Think you Know Wine?” tune in and watch me get stumped by a too funky Sicilian nero d’avola. And check next week for our Sweet Sara’s take on Valentine’s Day

Check out reviews on over 100 wines from the February 4th release here.

David Lawrason,
VP of Wine at WineAlign