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New wine reviews: Six En Garde reds

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I’ve been reviewing Csaba Szakal’s En Garde wines for many years. For some reason, he continues to be interested in my impressions, even though I’ve been retired for nearly five years. So he has sent me six of his new releases, two Pinots from 2018 and four Bordeaux-style red wines from the 2017 vintage.

Hungarian-born Csaba comes from four generations of winemakers. He emigrated to the U.S. to be a computer engineer, but on meeting his future wife, Sandy, and her winemaker friends in Sonoma County, Csaba changed course and launched En Garde in 2007. That year saw his first vintage, a Reserve Cabernet I rated at 95 points. Csaba’s specialty has been Cabernet Sauvignon and related blends, usually based on grapes from the Von Strasser-owned Sori Bricco Vineyard on Diamond Mountain. The wines have consistently been of high quality. The Pinot Noirs, by contrast, seem like an afterthought.

2018 Pleasant Hill Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $60. The vintage was celebrated as one of Sonoma County’s best in years. The grapes for the Pleasant Hill, always a big wine, hail from the Sebastopol area, one of the cooler parts of the valley. As it always does, it shows exuberant flavors of raspberries, pomegranates and black cherries—what I think of as the fruit-forward flashiness of Dijon clones—with an earthy, tea-like herbaceousness. The color is translucent, suggesting the delicacy of Pinot Noir. The mouthfeel is rich and elegant, the finish thoroughly dry. And such nice acidity. There’s a lot of oak, too—according to the technical notes, 33% new French barrels—and I have to say while all that oak is pretty aggressive, the end result is a fine Pinot Noir that’s good for drinking now and will age for a while. Production was a miniscule 155 cases. Score: 90.

2018 Passion de la Reine Reserve Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $70. First impression: This is a much bigger Pinot Noir than the Pleasant Hill. It’s higher in alcohol, and oakier. Unfortunately, that is not to the wine’s benefit. It’s too big, too hot, and all that oak rides uneasily over the raspberries and pomegranates. The wine lacks delicacy and elegance, which are what you want in a fine Pinot Noir. Three days later, I tried it again. The bottle had been one-third full, the cork shoved in, standing on the sideboard. Now, it’s like a sweet Amador Zinfandel, almost like cognac. Score: 85.

2017 Cabernet Sauvignon (Mount Veeder); $100. This is the poster child for the modern style of Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley. It’s a rich, unctuous wine, superbly ripe, with the most succulent tannins. As a mountain wine, its flavors are intensely concentrated: blackberries, cassis liqueur, blueberries and molten, unsweetened dark chocolate, while new French oak brings the usual suspects of wood spice and smoke. The official alcohol is 14.5%, but to me, it’s stronger than that, as evidenced by the heat of the finish. With a little Cabernet Franc blended in, there’s a bit of an herbal note, like sweet green pea. It surprised me, when I poured it, by throwing some sediment. I’m not sure what that means in such a young wine. At any rate, it’s not all that different from a hundred other Napa Cabs, and I’m not seeing much Mount Veeder (which to me suggests something firmer and drier, as Veeder is a cold mountain by Napa standards). But it sure is delicious. Very good to drink now and over the years. Score: 92.

2017 Grand Vin, Sori Bricco Vineyard (Diamond Mountain); $100. What a gorgeous wine. It dazzles with intricate beauty, but far from being merely surface artifice, has deeper fascinations. The vineyard, originally planted in 1968, is at an elevation of 2,100 feet, placing it above the fog line on most days; Sori Bricco means “sunny hillside.” En Garde doesn’t own it, but has access to a few choice acres. The cépage on the 2017 is 80% Merlot, 17% Cabernet Franc and 3% Petit Verdot, making it one of the few Bordeaux blends in the valley without Cabernet Sauvignon. Nonetheless the wine has the structure of a fine Bordeaux (although it’s not particularly Right Bank). The tannins, as befits a Napa mountain wine, are powerful, while succulent acidity adds to the architecture. Flavor-wise, the spectrum is complex: blackberries, violets, cocoa, plums, leather, smoke. This is power, pure and simple, but it’s also grace: a paradox of opposites that marks great wine. Csaba has done a fine job assembling it, especially considering he also was putting together his 2017 Touché Reserve and Bijou du Roi. I would drink this wine now, with careful aerating, but it should hold in a good cellar for a decade. Score: 93.

2017 Le Bijou du Roi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Sori Bricco Vineyard (Diamond Mountain); $120. Rich, powerful, concentrated, flashy, pedigreed—these are just some of the adjectives I could roll out to describe En Garde’s ’17 Bijou. It’s one of the winery’s most consistent bottlings, varying little from vintage to vintage, always showing the class and finesse of the Sori Bricco Vineyard. As in the past, it brims with ripe blackberries and cassis, spices and the vanilla and toast of 80% new oak barrels, in which it was aged for an astonishing 28 months. Alluring now, it defines the pleasures of mountain Cabernet, offering wave after wave of complexity. There’s a tingly spine of acidity and minerality that reminds me of iodine, or the peat of a fine Scotch. The blend includes a touch of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, which may account for the taste of cherries. Oh, and the texture: silk, velvet, satin. To drink now, or to age? If you have only one bottle, play it down the middle: six years in the cellar. If you have a case, drink a bottle a year from now until 2033. Expensive, yes, but compared to some of the competition in Napa Valley, not really. Score: 94.

2017 Touché Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley); $180. This is the winery’s big dog, the heavy hitter, its most expensive release—which indicates Csaba’s feeling that this is the greatest wine he can make. It is a very fine Cabernet. Two things strike me: the tannins, which to my palate are stronger than any of the other new releases, and the complex range of flavors. This latter most likely is because the grapes come not only from Diamond Mountain, but also Mount Veeder and Rutherford. I won’t venture to speculate what each of the three appellations contributes. Suffice it to say that the wine isn’t as blackberry-driven as Bijou or the regular 2017. There’s more of a tart, red cherry note, and a pleasant tobacco taste, as well as a more generous or expansive quality that is at once lush and tight. At any rate, the 2017 Touché is a profound wine. At 3-1/2 years, it is, as I said, quite tannic, and rather raw, but very ripe, in keeping with this warm vintage. It’s not unpleasant to drink now—in fact, with aerating, it’s exciting–but undisciplined, precocious. I would cellar it for at least six years. It might still be in development in ten years, or fifteen, or twenty—who knows? Only 50 cases were produced, and compared with the prices of most of the more famous Napa Cabernets, $180 is—dare I say it?—a bargain. Score: 96 points.

Discussion: I have said in past vintages that it’s not clear to me why Csaba makes such a wide range of red Bordeaux-style wines—in this vintage, four—and why he bothers with Pinot Noir. That seems to dilute the meaning or message of En Garde. The Bordeaux First Growths, for example, typically produce only a grand vin and a second wine, with a very strict protocol separating the two. Perhaps a more a propos example is that of the red wines of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. They number six, grown in a near-contiguous vineyard of only 178.37 acres—about the size of Chateau Latour’s vineyard, in Pauillac. But no one disputes the rationale for producing six red wines from the DRC. They really are different: on the three or four occasions I’ve sampled them, the distinctions are profound and clear, although the different climats are separated by (as they say) donkey paths.

The distinctions between En Garde’s Cabernets are not profound; they are subtle. Indeed, I’ve made this argument concerning most Cabernets and blends from Napa Valley: more alike than not. They is perhaps to be expected, for two reasons: Cabernet and its related varietals are far less susceptible to minute influences in soil and other aspects of terroir than is Pinot Noir; and the warm-to-hot weather of Napa Valley shoves the wines toward ripeness and high sugar levels that blur terroir distinctions. This is why I have long concluded that much of the decision-making in Napa Valley concerning differing bottlings is based on marketing, not terroir.

Be that as it may, producing four Cabernets/Bordeaux reds each vintage is Csaba’s decision, and his only, to make. We must accept the wines as they are—and they are certainly as good as, or nearly, as almost anything else produced in Napa Valley. They are distinguished. They are detailed and complex. They are delicious. Were I a “normal” buyer, instead of a writer who is sent these wines to review, I would save myself a few bucks and buy, say, the 2017 regular Cab instead of the Touché.

As for the Pinot Noirs, that great red grape and wine is not En Garde’s specialty. Perhaps it’s asking too much for a Cabernet master like Csaba to also excel at Pinot Noir. Were I in charge, I might eliminate Pinot Noir from En Garde’s lineup and reduce the number of Cabernets to two, or possibly three in a great vintage.

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