John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for March 16, 2013: California Icons and Top Smart Buys

California Icons; Can California Cabs age? Top Smart Buys

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

It’s been a deluge of California. This week’s report features Top California Icons, the main feature for the March 16th release. I’ll also take a deep look at the age-ability of wine, specifically, can California Cabernets stand the test of time, and more generally, how modern winemaking philosophies and techniques have tinkered with the shelf life of those expensive bottles. I’ve got reviews from a dozen Iconic California cabernets heading back to 1991 to illustrate the point. And if you’re looking outside of California, I’ve picked a half-dozen Top Smart Buys from the release to replenish your day-to-day stocks.

And there’s more: check WineAlign over the next week for several dozen new BC reviews and more top California reviews recorded at the 35th annual Vancouver International Wine Festival, on last week in a cool, grey and wet Vancouver. All of the WineAlign principal critics were out to sip, spit and report on the scene, not to mention announce the official launch of WineAlign in British Columbia. I’ll also be posting a couple dozen reviews from the LCBO’s recent Grandi Marchi event, featuring several of Italy’s top estates. If you were wondering what wine to buy, I’ve got something here for you; read on to find out.

A Half-Dozen Smart Buys

Disznókó Tokaji Dry Furmint 2011Loimer Grüner Veltliner 2011Loimer Grüner Veltliner, Austria ($19.95). 2011 is a terrific vintage for Loimer’s grüner, with a real driving purity and honest range of flavours, dry and crisp, lean but not austere. Apple and wet stone flavours dominate in an old world, minerally style. Very good to excellent length.

2011 Disznókó Tokaji Dry Furmint, Hungary ($14.95). Clean and very minerally on the nose, with green apple, apple skin, sage oil, wet clay and a white mushroom note that may remind one of TCA taint, but it’s not – that’s tokaji (and it’s closed with screw cap). The palate is both lean and fleshy at once, with tart green apple-malic acid yet solid fruit weight to balance, along with perhaps a gram or two of residual sugar, though this comes across as dry. Very good to excellent length, especially at this price. Superb value for fans of distinctive old world wines with earthy character.

Cantine Riondo Vinea Garganega 2011Vergenoegd Estate Shiraz 20032011 Cantine Riondo Vinea Garganega, Italy ($13.95). A late harvest but dry version of the Veneto’s great garganega grape, with considerable flesh, glycerol and extract. Partial wood ageing imparts a slightly creamy-leesy texture; the palate offers plenty of pithy fruit and spiced pear-apple flavours and a pleasantly bitter grapefruit pith finish. Fine value for money, and an intriguing by-the-glass pour for restaurants.

2003 Vergenoegd Estate Shiraz, Stellenbosch ($22.95). Lovely to see a mature South African shiraz in the line up in the release. This is a prime example of a wine at its prime, fully mature, just at the setting sun of fruit and the rise of earthy, tea and tobacco leaf flavours. It was surely never a blockbuster to begin with, but the alcohol-acid-tannin balance must have been in place from the start to achieve this harmony ten years on. Quite decent length and fine perfume all around – well worth a look for fans of mature wines at a fair price.

Katogi & Strofilia Averoff Xinomavro 2007F. Tinel Blondelet l'Arrêt Buffatte Pouilly FuméF. Tinel-Blondelet l’Arrêt Buffatte Pouilly-Fumé, France ($22.95). L’Arrêt Buffatte is my preferred parcel from Tinel Blondelet, giving rise to the most minerally Pouilly in their fine range. The 2010 is drinking beautifully now, an archetypical Central Loire sauvignon that mixes wet chalk with citrus-green apple flavours. The palate is just starting to flesh out, though retains the lean, firm texture that one looks for in these wines. Very good to excellent length. Don’t miss this with a piece of chalky goat’s cheese for a regional classic match.

2007 Katogi & Strofilia Averoff Xinomavro, Greece ($17.95). A clean, mature, ripe and savoury example of xinomavro from Katogi-Strofilia, as is the house style, with earthy, sun-dried tomato, black olive tapenade and leathery fruit – all very inviting and engaging. The palate is mid-weight, firmly structured but not austere, with dusty tannins and crunchy acids, but quite fine length and depth overall. For fans of Italian-style, dusty reds, excellent with grilled proteins.

A Half Dozen California Icons

Dunn Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2006Inglenook Rubicon Cabernet Sauvignon 20092006 Dunn Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($99.95). This is another superior wine from Dunn Vineyards, grown in the high elevation, volcanic soils of Howell Mountain. Fruit is succulent and juicy, vibrant and just beginning to evolve into the dried spectrum, while tannins and acids remain firm and impart solid structure. There’s a beguiling floral perfume that wafts out of the glass, as sultry, smoky minerality emerges. Classic, and more importantly, infinitely drinkable.

2009 Inglenook Rubicon Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford, Napa Valley ($239.95). Unquestionably a deep, dense, rich, massively structured and concentrated red from the newly-renamed Inglenook estate, formerly Niebaum-Coppola. Flavours are fixed in the dark fruit/black berry world, with layers of high quality oak expressed as sweet baking spice and tobacco leaf, almost port-like ripeness and good to very good length. The acidity is, amazingly enough, sufficient to balance this massive ensemble, and I’d suspect this needs another 3-6 years to enter into a more mature, interesting drinking range. Impressive in any case.

Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon 2009Calera Ryan Vineyard Pinot Noir 20092009 Calera Ryan Vineyard Pinot Noir Mt. Harlan, Central Coast ($49.95). The March 16th LCBO release provided an interesting opportunity to taste Calera’s ’09 Ryan side-by-side with the Villiers vineyard bottling, and they’re radically different. In the end, I prefer the Ryan. It’s a lighter and less obviously ripe wine, with firmer, more mineral flavour profile, dusty, earthy, savoury fruit and very good length. This brings together the best of California with an old world restraint and class. Ultimately more age worthy, too.

2009 Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon Calistoga, Napa Valley ($58.95). The ’09 Montelena is a clean, fragrant, lively, certainly ripe but still fresh cabernet, with fruit in the black berry, verging on blueberry, range. Acids are firm and succulent, tannins ripe but also firm and grippy, and the length very good to excellent; alcohol is balanced at 13.8%. This is another Montelena with class and elegance, with fine ageing potential ahead. It’s enjoyable now, but will develop that extra range of savoury nuances over the next 6-8 years and continue to hold into the 2020s without stretching.

Inglenook Edizione Pennino Zinfandel 2009Duckhorn Merlot 20102009 Inglenook Edizione Pennino Zinfandel Rutherford, Napa Valley ($54.95). This is an intense version of zinfandel, with gobs of oak to be sure but lots of intriguingly spicy, smoky, inviting dark fruit flavours. The palate is full, but firm, succulent but structured and generous, with significant extract and length. A fine, classic California zin with more stuffing and complexity than the usual, even at this price.

2010 Duckhorn Merlot Napa Valley ($56.95). Duckhorn’s ’10 merlot is a fully ripe, plummy, jammy version of  merlot, with still-abundant wood influence with coffee grounds and bitter chocolate. The palate is med-full bodied, with significant extract, firm tannins and generous, mouth filling alcohol (14.5% declared). Long finish on palate-warming alcohol vapors. All in all, a big, bold ripe style though well-structured to be sure.

Ageing Well: Can California Cabernet Stand the Test of time?

In addition to the general trade show at the 35th annual Vancouver Festival, I attended several excellent sit down seminars put on by the California Wine Institute, with titles such as “California Titans”, “Sonoma Face-off: Pinot vs. Zin” and “Napa Valley Rocks”. But the most interesting of the series was a master class entitled “Ageing Well: California Cabs”. Moderate by educator/writer DJ Kearney, with twelve winery principals in attendance, this was a rare opportunity to taste and compare a dozen cabernets (and blends) stretching back over 20 years to 1991, the oldest vintage on the table. And when it comes to scooping the un-fined, unfiltered story, there’s really no substitute for speaking directly with the creator of a wine (my apologies to sales agents and marketing directors).

California Wines

DJ Kearney, with twelve winery principals

The session allowed for not only a long deep think on the age-ability of California cabernet, but also some reflection on the myriad changes in winemaking philosophy, know-how and techniques, that have joined the mainstream in the last two decades, to which you could arguably add climate change, and how they have impacted the age-ability of wine on a general level. As goes California, so goes the world, you could say; the Golden State is a world leader, and what happens in vineyards and wineries here, especially in Napa and Sonoma, is sooner or later adopted in other parts of the world.

Defining Ageing Well

But before getting to the question of whether California cabernets age, and how evolving philosophies from the early 1990s to today have affected longevity of wine, a couple of precisions: when I refer to wines that age well, I mean of course wines that improve with age, not just get old. Obviously you can leave any wine in your cupboard for a decade and it will change, but not necessarily for the better.

And by improving I mean a wine that develops additional aromatic and flavour complexity, that is, a greater range of flavours than it previously had. The initial, and almost exclusive fruit and oak flavour should evolve and expand to include additional savoury nuances like dried mushrooms, tea, forest floor, pot pourri, essentially earthy-woodsy nuances. The fruit should never disappear altogether; it too, will evolve into the dried/baked spectrum, but once it’s fully gone I consider the wine gone as well. Obvious oak should also fade: the brash coffee/vanilla/clove/caramel flavours of young oaky wines should merge into the spicy-earthy ensemble so that it’s no longer recognizable as the taste of toasted oak tree.

A wine’s texture will also evolve. Astringent tannins should dissolve, turning from raw wool into silk; wines that remain hard and puckering after the fruit has already started to fade will likely never come into balance and it’s time to cut the losses and drink up. Finally, the basic components of a wine have to be in balance from the start of its life in order to age gracefully. There’s no magic that happens in the bottle. Nothing is created or destroyed in a bottle, no tannins appear, no increase or decrease in acidity; sugar and alcohol levels remain, for all intents and purposes, stable. Although compounds combine to create different aromas and flavours and tannins link up and drop out as sediment, the essential balance remains the same, so everything better be in line the day the wine is bottled.

Considering these criteria, there are surprisingly few wines that actually improve with age. But broadly speaking, wines with an abundance of tannin, acid, and concentration of flavour, and sugar in sweet wines, are the most likely candidates for the cellar. Alcohol, too, is a preservative, but more on that in a moment.

Cutting to the Chase

So the simple answer to the question of whether California cabernets can age is unsurprisingly yes. That much was abundantly clear during the tasting, with many of the wines including the nearly 20 year-old examples still deeply-coloured, full of fruit and vibrancy. Wines at the level included for the Vancouver master class clearly had the stuffing and structure to last and improve in the bottle over a couple of decades, which is about as long as you should expect from any wine with the rarest of exceptions. See below for my more-detailed-than-usual tasting notes on each of the twelve wines.


But, and here’s the big but, the question that follows is: will the more recent vintages of the wines put on display age as well as those vintages from an earlier, very different era? And generally, how have modern philosophies and new techniques changed the cellaring game?

Those questions are harder to answer, and any attempt will necessarily be based more on speculation than fact. But here are a few observations:

Ripeness Level and The Loss of Tannin and Acid

One of the biggest differences between wines of the current era and wines from the early nineties is the dramatic difference in the level of ripeness at which grapes are typically harvested. In North America, grape sugar levels, an important indicator of ripeness, are measured in degrees brix. The acceptable range varies, but 19º brix is considered barely ripe by most standards, giving a finished, dry wine with about 10.5-11% alcohol (under ripe for most) up to somewhere in the range of 35-40º brix for extremely sugar-rich juice such as Icewine or botrytis affected wines (finished alcohol depends on how much sugar is not converted and remains in the wine). Historically, most dry red wines have fallen between 21º-25º (12.5%-14%). Today, at least in some parts of the world, the numbers are much higher.

Several panelists at the master class such as Scott Kozel, winemaker at E&J Gallo, and Tracey Mason from Clos du Val both noted that they are picking their cabernet at several degrees brix higher now than they were in the 1990s. The 1991 E&J Gallo was picked at 23.1º brix (around 13% abv), whereas today anything less than 26º brix is considered unripe (giving you anywhere from about 14.5% to 15.5%+, depending on how efficient your yeasts are, among other factors).

High alcohol alone is not a measure of imbalance or indication of age-ability. As was pointed out many times during the seminar, balance can come at any number. And high alcohol wines such as port (19-22% alcohol) are notoriously age-worthy.

Consequences of High Ripeness

The issue is that to achieve such high levels ripeness/ºbrix, grapes are left out to hang until late in the season, effectively raisining as water evaporates. Aside from stressing the vine and reducing its lifespan, late harvesting means that acid levels drop, and that grape tannins begin to “soften” on the vine, what the scientist describe as polymerization. Polymerization is the process that traditionally has happened as wine ages in the cellar or the bottle, and is what accounts or the smoothing out of a young red’s rough texture. In any case, super ripe grapes translate to low acid/high pH, soft tannin and high alcohol wines.

Tannins or Acids?

I put the intentionally naïve question to the panel whether it is believed that tannin or acidity is the more important factor contributing to a wine’s age-ability. Not surprisingly, there was some discussion, and more or less an even split, each side citing reasonable arguments and examples to support one or the other cause. One, panelist, Steve Spadarotto, VP of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, put forth the idea of the golden ratio, a mathematical theorem of balance in triangles and rectangles. Basically, he posited that the amount of tannin, acid, alcohol or anything else doesn’t really matter, as long as each component falls within a ‘golden ratio’, i.e. balance, with everything else. I like this theory; wines can be balanced at any number, and it’s true.

But whatever you believe will make a wine with the potential to evolve favorably – tannins, acids, the golden ration – it appears that late harvesting is the wrong way to go. It only makes sense for wines that are meant to be drunk young.

Frequently the late harvest technique requires a winemaker to adjust the balance of the wine in the cellar. Adding in acid becomes critical to lower the pH, which, when it hovers close to 4, and sometimes even higher for the ultra extreme, makes the wine a bacterial time bomb. Natural tannins are often insufficient to support the wine, making powdered tannins additions also necessary for stabilization. (Although higher levels of natural tannin can be also be pulled from the grapes by more aggressive extraction techniques, or by raising the temperature of the ferment, as several on the panel revealed. Kozel, for example, used to ferment cabernet at 78ºF (25ºC), now the norm is 92ºF (33ºC). There’s no fear of extracting the harsh green tannins of less ripe grapes, he says.)

The sugar level of super ripe grapes often has to be reduced, too, otherwise the wine won’t ferment fully dry. The simplest, if illegal way of doing this is adding water to reduce the sugar concentration in the juice. Excessive alcohol perceived as out of balance (the hot, burning sensation it causes) in finished wine can also be adjusted down using modern techniques such as spinning cone and reverse osmosis. But a wine with contrived balance of components, added acid, tannins or manipulated alcohol – will never age as well as one with those components in natural balance, one that begins with the golden ratio.

But Who Cares. We Want Wines ready to Drink on Release

But maybe that’s not the point. It was clear that many of the panelists are aiming to produce a wine today that’s more or less ready to drink on release. Peter Lindenlaub of Caymus told the audience about owner Chuck Wagner’s own realization: “Chuck decided to stop chasing Bordeaux,” he said. “Ripeness is no longer hidden. What we’re looking for now is big California fruit, lower acidity so that the tannins don’t peal the enamel off of your teeth, and tannins that are absolutely integrated on the finish. We know that wines are often consumed within hours, and we want the consumers to be able to pull the cork straight away and enjoy.” Wagner himself prefers his own wines at around 5-7 years of age.

It’s a familiar refrain that I’ve also heard from winemakers around the world: we need to make wines that are approachable on release. Yet many also believe that this style of wine will also age well. They’re equally well balanced, just on a bigger frame then the old wines of the under ripe years. Tracey Masson says that Clos du Val is looking for wines that have “deliciousness on release and yet are still age-able”. I wonder if those two goals are fully compatible.

Ultimately, whether the ultra-ripe wines will age as well as the versions picked earlier with higher acid, lower sugar and firmer tannins remains to be seen. There aren’t decades of back vintages yet of the style to go back to check in. My gut feeling is that they won’t, based on the experiences I’ve had with wines of this style with only a handful of years in the cellar. And if that’s the case, there will have to be a good PR campaign put in place to convince consumers that ageability is not a sine qua non attribute of fine (and expensive) wine, has it has been for centuries.

There are many wineries in California that have never chased after the ripeness and jammy flavours that characterize many styles today – Montelena, Corison, Dunn – spring to mind. Others, like Stag’s Leap Cellars, whose 1995 is still magic, concede that wine is subject to the whim of fashion. The press, sommeliers and consumers began demanding the big wines, and the wineries delivered. But now that the tide has shifted and the general trade (and to a lesser extent consumer) opinion has swung back towards lower alcohol and natural balance, wineries will inevitably shift back to lower ripeness levels.

So back to the original question, can California cabernets age, the long answer is that, well, it depends.

The Wines, with some Current Vintages for Comparison

1991 Gallo of Sonoma Estate, Sonoma Valley

Gallo of Sonoma Estate1991 was only the second vintage of the estate cabernet sauvignon, born of E&J Gallo’s decision to bottle the best wine out of Sonoma County each year. And this is the last wine that Giulio Gallo blended himself, from grapes grown on AXR1 rootstock in the Frei Ranch in the Dry Creek Valley, blended with 10% cabernet franc and 8% merlot. It was picked at 23.1 brix, very low ripeness by today’s standards in California; now Gallo regularly picks their cabernet at 26º brix and higher. It was a cool vintage generally with the occasional heat spike, and a warm, dry September. The wine as you’d expect is fully mature and driven by savoury-umami character: forest floor, dried black fruit, mission fig, faded violets, and more. The palate offers a really fine silky texture, with fully integrated tannins and balancing natural acidity. This is in terrific shape admittedly, drinking beautifully – perhaps the biggest surprise of this tasting.

1992 Caymus Vineyards Special Selection, Napa Valley
(Compare with recent release:  2010 Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon)

Caymus Winery opened in 1972, although the farm had been in the Wagner family since 1948. 1975 was the first vintage of the Caymus Special Selection, which has been made in every year since, except ’77, ’93 and ’96. Wagner admits to having attempted to emulate Bordeaux in the early years before an epiphany around 2000 caused him to re-think the style and celebrate instead the richness and ripeness that the Napa Valley is capable of achieving. The ’92, still in the period of a more restrained style, is made exclusively from the Rutherford Ranch, another point of difference from modern versions (which are blends), and this has just 13% alcohol. It was a long, even ripening vintage. This 100% cabernet spent 30 months in barrel, and amazingly enough, is still marked by wood. The colour is deep and the tannins still fierce, bolstered by quite high acidity. The flavours are confined to the black fruit spectrum. Bitter finish and slightly woody tannins, with the palate drying out and the fruit beginning to fade. All in all, I’d say the modern style of Caymus – more ripeness, wood, alcohol – seems to be a more comfortable style for the house; this is neither a good imitation of Bordeaux nor forward Napa cab. Drink now.

1993 Clos Du Val, Napa Valley

Most of Clos du Val’s old cabernet vineyards had already been ripped out by 1993 to replant vines on phylloxera-resistant rootstock, but this bottling was made from the small parcel that had yet to be pulled. It’s a blend that includes 11% cabernet franc and 3% merlot, and has just 13% alcohol. 1993 was a very long season with long hang time, resulting in a really fine, savoury, dried herb and exotically perfumed wine. There’s still a vestige of wood flavour noticeable, slightly sappy and green, though the palate is quite refined and elegant, with remarkable acidity such as you rarely find in Napa cabernet today. The texture is fine and filigree, still firm and dusty, with tart red fruit flavour hanging on. This is showing very nicely all in all, held together over the years by both tannin and acidity.

1994 Hess Collection Mount Veeder, Napa Valley

Mt Veeder is one of the cooler Cabernet AVAs, given it’s the exposure to the south and the cool winds off of San Pablo Bay. Elevation, with most vineyards above the fog line at about 350 meters, up to over 600m, also contributes a cooling effect. Eastern exposition means mostly morning sun with most vineyards avoiding the much hotter afternoon sun, though the combined result of these factors means that getting cabernet ripe here is not always guaranteed, and Hess has had to replant some of the coolest sites with earlier ripening varieties like malbec. 1994 was considered a pretty average vintage, but this is holding on to an amazingly deep colour, and still crunchy black fruit, still fresh and pure, with genuine cassis flavours and even roasted vegetal notes. The acids and tannins are still strongly felt on the palate, giving fine structure; terrific length. It’s interesting to note how well this has aged considering cooler, less ripe vintage, yet another indication that acidity plays a critical role in the ageing process of wines.

1995 Robert Mondavi Winery Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
(Compare with current release: 2008 Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon )

1995 was one of the coolest, longest growing seasons in the winery’s records, harvested over two weeks later than the norm up until that time (now late harvesting is far more frequent to achieve high degrees of ripeness). Veraison came very late, but dry weather through the fall allowed grapes to hang long enough to achieve a decent level of ripeness.  All of the fruit for this wine came from the To Kalon vineyard, with its free-draining, alluvial – gravel soils. Winery representative Mark De Vere MW notes that this was fined with 6 egg whites per barrel and racked 5-6 times before bottling, practices that the winery no longer follows – so how did such oxidative treatment affect the ageability of the wine? The colour is deep but decidedly garnet-brick, showing more age than even some of the older examples on the table. And this is also slightly funky off the top, too, with leathery, dusty and earthy character mingling with a distinctive vegetal note; red fruit flavours also confirm a lower-than-normal degree of ripeness. The palate is medium bodied, with fine, quite light and refined tannins and zesty acids, although interestingly enough this has the highest pH of all the Mondavi cabernets from the 1990s. Just goes to show that the numbers don’t always add up to the taste profile. Beautiful, lingering finish. Certainly not a robust style, more axed on sandy, gritty acid-tannin balance and modestly ripe fruit, but really quite lovely all in all, fully ready to drink.

1995 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars SLV, Napa Valley

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars S.L.VThis is one of the highlights of the tasting to be sure, showing beautifully; the Stag’s Leap AVA is a special place to grow grapes without question. The zone has a combination of a radical diurnal shift, moving from very hot to very cool quite quickly towards 5 or 6pm each afternoon as the cool air rushes up the Valley from San Pablo Bay, locking in acids and preserving fresh dark berry flavour, while soil of volcanic origin contributes a high degree of savoury minerality. The SLV cabernet from a volcanic vineyard under the Stag’s Leap palisades is the most youthful in appearance of the lot so far on the table. It has a terrific nose, loaded with savoury, smoky, dark, brambly fruit and heaps of black berry and black berry pie, and cassis jam aromas – high intensity to be sure. The palate is succulent, juicy, with a yet another whack of dark fruit flavour cosseted by firm, dusty tannins. There’s pleasantly reverberating alcoholic warmth and marvelously lingering finish. A very fine wine, ready to drink or capable of evolving further to the end of the decade I’d wager – genuine density, acidity and structure make for ageworthy-ness.

1997 Signorello Estate Winery Padrone, Napa Valley

Poured from magnum. 75% cabernet sauvignon, 16% merlot, 9% cabernet franc ’97 was Signorello’s first vintage for Padrone, named for Ray Signorello’s father.  It’s a savoury, slightly rasined, earthy and dusty, rather Italian style wine that reminds me of traditional Brunello, complete with leathery, incense nuances. The palate is likewise firm and dusty, with excellent length to be sure. I’d like to drink this now – I don’t feel there’s a great deal of improvement left, and it’s drinking nicely.

1998 Joseph Phelps Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley

Winery principal Mike McEvoy admitted that this was the toughest wine of the flight to comment on, considering how widely panned the 1998 vintage was by the wine press. It was a cool, wet, el niño year with troublesome weather throughout. It flipped between to hot and too cold, with buckets of rains to add to the challenges, and vines struggled to ripen. Most of the fruit used in this wine would not have quality for today’s Josephs Phelps cabernet, as the selection criteria have become much stricter. A good percentage of fruit came from contract growers, a solid proportion of which was from the region known today as Coombsville AVA, an already cool growing region south of the town of Napa ripeness was a real issue. The challenges of the year are evident in the wine, as this is decidedly green-tinged. The palate is likewise vegetal and slightly weedy, with moderate structure, more dilute flavours than the average, and more obvious wood (or less obvious fruit to balance the presents of oak). The length, too, is merely average. This was evidently neither the vintage nor the wine to cellar long term, even if I’d suspect that this was quite pleasant early on in its life, especially if you don’t mind, as I don’t, lightly vegetal/herbal character in your cabernet. But this makes it clear that density and concentration have a role to play in age ability.

1999 Paul Hobbs Winery Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley

The 1999 Hobbs cabernet contains 10% merlot, only because it performed very well in the vintage, though there’s no fixed rule on blending for this wine. The fruit was sourced from the To Kalon, Stagecoach and Hyde (Carneros) vineyards. I’d speculate that this is going through a bit of a dumb phase for the moment, with less pop and vibrancy to the fruit, slightly raisined and flat, and curiously short and slightly bitter on the palate. Smoky oak is still present (43% new wood only), and has yet to fully integrate – one wonders whether it ever will. IN any case, revisit this in 2-3 years.

2001 Heitz Cellar ‘Martha’s Vineyard’, Napa Valley

Heitz Cellar Martha’s Vineyard1966 was the first vintage for Heitz’s Martha’s Vineyard cabernet, a vineyard which incidentally never been owned by the Heitz family; it belongs by Tom and Martha May. Regardless, it’s the oldest labeled single vineyard cabernet from the Napa Valley. It’s in Oakville on the valley floor, moving up to the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains, situated on alluvial loamy-gravelly fans, a later ripening site. The vines were replanted in 1992 on phylloxera-resistant rootstock, and were just 9 years old when this wine was made; it’s 100% cabernet sauvignon and spent 3.5 years in oak, of which the first year is large, neutral oak, before being racked into French Limousin oak (a rare thin in the wine world, most Limousin barrels are used for Brandy production). Wines are held at the winery until the fifth year. The nose is still shockingly youthful, with fine, deep violet and fresh herbal-eucalyptus notes (there are a few eucalyptus trees surrounding the vineyard, though the winery believes the minty notes come from the particular, proprietary clone of cabernet planted in the vineyard. And when visiting, if you describe the wine as smelling like eucalypt, you’re liable to be thrown out of the tasting room). The palate is firm without massive structure, with a fine amalgam of red and black fruit, cassis. Tannins are sandy and dusty, neither chewy nor hard, but structure-giving. Some dark chocolate/wood-derived notes mark the finish. This still needs another half decade I’d say to really enter prime drinking.

2003 Silver Oak Cellars Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma Valley

Silver Oak is the renegade winery in this tasting, using 100% American oak for ageing its wines rather than more popular and traditional French wood. And oak is indeed a major style feature of Silver Oak cabernets as it always has been from the first vintage in 1972, a decision made by co-founder and winemaker Justin Meyer after some blind trials using different cooperages. The focus has likewise been on cabernet from the start, and both the Napa Valley and Alexander Valley bottlings from Silver Oak are 100% cabernet. The 2003 spent two years in 50% new, 50% one-wine barrels, and sits around 13% alcohol. This is still heavily marked by the vanilla, melted butter and coconut character of American oak, along with tart, dried red fruit, making this taste like chocolate-covered cranberries. The palate here is remarkably fine and juicy however, with the most acid I’ve seen in a wine from this estate. The flavour profile is a matter of personal taste – to me it tastes like hot-buttered popcorn with a drizzle of caramel – but it’s quite juicy and surprisingly svelte and compact, avoiding some of the excesses of ripeness and pruney flavours that plague other popular, cultish Napa cabernets.

2004 Girard Winery Napa Valley Artistry Blend, Napa Valley

It’s tough for the youngest wine in a flight of more mature wines to stand out on the table, but the 2004 Girard Artistry red blend is in any case a wine of modest complexity and depth. It’s sourced from almost 30 different growers across the Valley, each parcel vinified and aged separately before the blending takes place. In the end, the 2004 was composed of 69% cabernet, 13% petit verdot, 9% malbec, and 3% cabernet franc. It offers simple, slightly raisined fruit notes, currant jam and other dried fruits in a fairly one-dimensional expression. The palate is fleshy, fruity, but likewise modestly structured. Average length; pleasant enough, though I would hold onto this more than a handful of years.


John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

From the March 16, 2013 Vintages release:

Top Smart Buys
Top California icons
All Reviews

Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz 2009