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A tasting of 1974 wines (and one 1944)

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Went to a very interesting tasting yesterday. It was a small private affair, held at the Restaurant at Wente, a chic place tucked into the southern foothills of the Livermore Valley. The subject of the tasting was 1974 Cabernet Sauvignon.

Now, anyone familiar with the modern history of wine in California knows that that vintage was a very famous one. Bob Thompson (1979) called it “strong, showy,” and added, “May be early maturing.” Sadly, for him—happily, for us–he was wrong. Charlie Olken (1980) was nearer the mark. “The best are dark, concentrated, tannic and potentially long-lived.” He even predicted the best “may last until the next century.” As indeed they have.

When tasting older wines like these, which were all 40 years of age, quite a bit of subjectivity rises to the surface. In general, most of the fruit has faded away, and turned into drier, secondary or tertiary notes. Any fatal flaws that were initially present in the wine, such as brett, overripe grapes or excessive tannins, rise to the surface. Then too, in a group such as the one that sponsored the tasting (which was open, not blind), familiarity with these wines is very high, which also raises expectations: The tasters, most of whom are collectors with vast cellars (indeed, it was they who furnished the wines), have a certain emotional attitude invested in their showing well. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I bring it up only in order to suggest that I, personally, was perhaps a little more objective in my appraisal.

Overall, the tasting was remarkable. Not a single one of the wines was dead—pretty astonishing considering their age. Here are some brief notes:

ALL 1974s:

Heitz Martha’s Vineyard. Getting a little threadbare. The alcohol is showing through. Toast, caramel, loads of sweet blackberry jam, but getting tired and starting a downhill slide. Score: 89.

Mount Eden. Holding up well. Good, strong bouquet: blackcurrants, dried fruits, toast, spice. Hard to believe it’s 40 years old. Still, it’s beginning to unravel. Score: 90.

Ridge Monte Bello. A little funky. Tannins strong. Lots of blackberries and currants. A bit rustic and tired. But it held up well in the glass with some fruit gradually sweetening. Score: 89.

Villa Mt. Eden. Delicate. Earthy-tobacco. Oodles of cherries and blackberries. Very tasty—long sweet finish. Definitely in a tertiary stage, but clean and drinkable. As it breathes it opens up. Score: 92.

Mayacamas. Turning old. Cassis and blackcurrants. In the mouth, incredibly sweet and delicate, yet with California power and the ripeness of the vintage. Really classic. Will continue to evolve. Score: 94.

Conn Creek. Lots of sweet blackberry, mocha, spice. Insanely rich. Heady. Getting old, but still fresh, clean, muscular. Finish is sweet, strong, spicy. A great wine. Score: 96.

Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill. Firmer, with a hard foundation of stony mineral. Tons of blackberries and blackcurrants. Very high quality and still a ways to go. Really top quality. Heady and voluptuous. This was the wine of the flight. Scote: 97.

We also had, for starters, some older white wines:

1944 Wente Brothers Dry Semillon. Browning color. Sherried aroma, slightly maderized but pleasant: nutty, toffee. Very dry, good acidity, clean, but over the hill. Still, this wine is 70 years old!!!! Score: 88.

1974 Heitz Chardonnay. Golden-brown color. Not much going on in the nose. In the mouth, remarkably fresh and lively. Good acidity, dry, clean. “Old Chardonnay.” Fruit largely gone, but a good honeyed sweeteness. Score: 88.

1974 Phelps Syrah (Wheeler Vineyard). This Napa Valley bottling is said to be the first varietally-labeled Syrah in the U.S. Pale and translucent in color, with a brick color at the rim. Pretty bouquet: spices, dried mushrooms, raspberries. Complex, dry, good acidity. Slightly maderized. An interesting wine. Score: 90.

1974 Mount Eden Pinot Noir. Beautiful color: rich robe, still some depth of ruby-garnet in the center. Complex, lovely, delicate. Bone dry, but lots of sweet raspberry fruit. Clearly old, but attractive. Turns slightly brittle and dried-leafy on the finish. Score: 91.

I don’t expect to come across any of these wines again in my life, so this was a very special treat!

  1. Dusty Gillson says:

    One of the tastings I will never forget was a Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill vertical from 76-87. The room was full of Francophiles to say the least, but no one could deny that these were world-class wines that were all doing just fine at nearly 30-40 years of age. Not surprised about the 74′ taking the prize.

  2. I have organized California Cabernet tastings when they first hit the market, and at 10 year intervals to track the maturation of the wine.

    In 2003 at the 30th anniversary of the 1974 harvest, my wine group held a dinner at a westside Los Angeles restaurant dining on 30 days dry aged steaks.

    The Villa Mt. Eden (made by Nils Venge, who a decade later made the first Robert Parker-anointed “100 point wine” in California history: the 1985 Groth “Reserve” Cabernet) was a revelation.

    Link: http://www.kirktech.com/bob_henry/

    Navigate to “California Cabernets – 1974 Tasting.xls”

    Steve, glad to see you getting introduced (or better introduced) to Ridge and Mount Eden wines.

    Martin Ray, the founder of Mount Eden dating back to the late 1940s, purportedly planted his vineyard to Louis Latour Corton Charlemagne clone Chardonnay, DRC clone Pinot Noir, and Chateau Margaux clone Cabernet.

    The Chardonnay came from his Saratoga hillside neighbor Paul Masson.

    The Pinot Noir and Cabernet were “suitcase clones” following World War II.

  3. Nice followup to recent discussions about ageability. And glad (not surprised) to see that our neighbor across the road showed so well. Diamond Mountain District Cabs seem to share the trait of aging well.

  4. doug wilder says:

    Those Dyer wines from Diamond Mountain age beautifully as well, Bill.

  5. The current newsstand issue of Wine Spectator (December 15, 2004 issue, page 35) has a 10th anniversary of thew harvest retrospective of Napa Cabernets.

    “Easy Sailing for 2004 Napa Cabernets”

    By James Laube

    Link: http://www.winespectator.com/magazine/show/id/50776

  6. I have been doing retrospective tasting of older CS for years now. It started with the 1970 vintage, which was my first collectible. They aged very well. The 73 and 74s have been also quite good. I agree with Steve that many of them are getting a bit threadbare. That is a trend that has been going on for over twenty years.

    The 73, while not nearly so voluptuous, were somewhat sturdier and may have lasted longer while not reaching the same heights as the best 74s.

    What is the real takeaway here is this: people were saying in the 70s that CA Cabs could not age because they were more forward than their Bordelais counterparts. Then they aged longer.

    Fast forward to the last twenty years. CA wines have gotten riper. No doubt about that. But the wines are still the wines, and as we begin to look at the top wines like Spottswoode, Chappellet, Corison, Shafer Hillside, we see that none of those wines is falling apart at fifteen and more and thus will easily last another five plus years.

    And, once a wine has lasted twenty years and is in good shape and not losing ground, it has proven itself beyond a shadow of a doubt to all except the absolute deniers who cannot stand the truth.

  7. A historical footnote.

    The 1974 Conn Creek Cabernet was made from Eisele Vineyard fruit.

    The first and only time Conn Creek had access to that fabled property.

    Joseph Phelps garnered fame for their Eisele Vineyard Cabs starting in 1975. And later Araujo when they released their first Cab in 1991.

  8. Words of wisdom from Mr. Olken.

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