Lessons old Cabernet can teach
My San Francisco wine tasting group met again yesterday, in our usual haunt at Pier 19, just north of the Bay Bridge, and with a fine view of the span arching so gracefully to Yerba Buena Island. The theme was old Cabernet; beyond that, our host, Gary Cowan, of Fine Wines International, told us nothing. As this was an extraordinarily educational tasting for me, I thought I’d share the results here.
There were 9 wines. I knew instantly that #1 was very old. From the pale color and, even more, the maderized smell and taste, I guessed it to be 1960s Napa Valley. In fact, it was 1973 Castlerock Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine was a forerunner of today’s Yates Family/Napa Redwoods Estate, and the grapes came from Mount Veeder. I scored it 92 points “for historical interest…a ghostly remnant from another era.” (Words in quotes are from my notes during the tasting. Prices are retail, as determined by Gary.)
My ranking: 5. Group ranking: 7 ($N/A)
#2: Another old Cabernet that I found “dried out, bitter, dead.” Most of the group agreed with me, but one of us loved it. It was 1970 Chateau Montrose (which Parker called “unquestionably a 40-50 year wine”). Well, it is nearing 40. I gave it 86 points, out of respect for its “curiosity” value.
My ranking: 7. Group ranking: 9 ($250)
#3: Yet another old Cabernet, but “still with some sweetness…charming.” Maderized, yes, but “buttery-sugary. Marzipan.” It was Freemark Abbey 1974 Bosche. I gave it 93 points, despite some still-hard, bitter tannins.
My ranking: 4. Group ranking: 6. ($150)
#4. This was my last place wine, and the most polemical of any our group ever tasted. It earned 3 firsts, 3 ninths, 1 eighth and 1 fourth. I couldn’t get past the burnt rubber smell. It was 1990 Ridge Montebello, a wine I had not tasted previously, although I had given the 1991 95 points. It is very difficult to explain how and why a group divides down the middle on such a wine. I gave it 70 points, “undrinkable.”
My ranking: 9. Group ranking: 4. ($225)
#5. I didn’t care for this wine, either, mainly because it was dominated by a curiously deadening aroma of mold. Others perceived the same. It wasn’t TCA. It was also hard and tannic. It was the 1984 Joseph Phelps Eisele, from the vineyard in Calistoga, and I gave it only 83 points.
My ranking: 8. Group ranking: 8. ($195)
#6. I called this “solid, old-style Cabernet” and judged it to be from the 1980s. “Bone dry, tannic, with old-style blackberry, currant and cedar flavors.” It was quite a good wine, with some life ahead, and I gave it 91 points. It was Heitz’s 1985 Martha’s Vineyard.
My ranking: 6. Group ranking: 5. ($250-$325)
#7. With this wine we entered a much younger era. The tannins were entirely different from the previous wines: softer, rounder, more refined. The wine was 1992 La Jota “Anniversary” Cabernet, and I gave it 94 points for its “dense, powerful, concentrated” structure. I was reminded that by the early 1990s the era of tannin management (bladder presses, riper fruit, canopy management) already was underway. It was a beautiful wine with still a good future.
My ranking: 3. Group ranking: 1. ($195)
#8. This wine seemed older than #7, although Gary usually arranges the wines from oldest to youngest. It was paler, and certainly more brittle and lighter in body. Yet I loved its elegance, its almost tea-like delicacy, and the floral-sandalwood and cherry flavors. It was 1990 Cos d’Estournal, a beautiful old Bordeaux. “Enjoyable and complex.” I scored it 93 points.
My ranking: 2. Group ranking: 3. ($255)
#9. This was my highest-ranking wine, but by the end of the tasting, I probably would have scored it a little lower. It was the 1991 Beringer Chabot Vineyard Cabernet, and I initially gave it 94 points for its sheer, Napa-esque muscularity. The primary fruit was just beginning to evolve to more mature bottle notes. A great Cabernet that seemed far younger than 18 years. This led to a discussion about allowing wines to air before you rate them. For example, the #1 wine — the 1973 Castlerock — continued to gain in aromatic complexity after 2 hours in the glass; I would have scored it higher had I tasted it later. Some of our group argued for future wines, especially older ones, to be put in glass at least 2 hours before we taste them, to let them breathe. This isn’t a bad idea.
My ranking: 1. Group ranking: 2. ($225)
Gary followed the tasting by treating us to an astonishing white wine: von Othegraven 2008 Altenberg Riesling Kabinett Erste Lage, from the Saar. It was a near-perfect Riesling, off-dry and minerally, with a tang of citrus, tangerine, flowers and honey. And what acidity! The alcohol was 8.5%. Gary plans to retail this beauty for $28. A steal.
I’ll be going down to Monterey this Friday for the Great Wine Escape Weekend, which Wine Enthusiast co-sponsors; Saturday night is our big Wine Enthusiast Signature Winemaker Dinner. This year it’s 5 courses, each prepared by a chef from a different venue (PlumpJack, the Intercontinental Monterey, the Food Network, the Carneros Inn and the Intercontinental’s pastry chef). There will be 2 wines with each course, i.e. 10 wines in all, which means I’m going to have to set limits; otherwise, I’ll be slurring my M.C. words by night’s end! It’s happened before…