Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A World of Cabernet Sauvignon: Sonoma and Napa Valley

So, after a brief respite, I return to our World of Cabernet Sauvignon tasting. In previous posts I have reported on our tastings of Bordeaux and Washington/Chile/Tuscany Cabernet Sauvignons. In this post I turn to our tasting of the Sonoma/Napa Valley flight.  The Napa wines were actually tasted in two flights -- mountain and valley floor -- but will be combined in this post in the interest of efficiency.  The wines included in this flight were: 2002 Chateau St Jean; 1994 Togni; 2004 Sherwin Family Vineyards, 1995 Dunn Vineyards Howell Mountain; 1985 Heitz Martha's Vineyard; 1973 Inglenook; 2002 Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon; and 2002 Revana.

The first wine tasted was the 2002 Chateau St Jean from Sonoma County.  Sonoma County is a diverse growing region with a complex terrain of small valleys, benchlands and hillsides. A coastal appellation, it is favored with fog in the morning and sunny afternoons cooled by maritime breezes. From the cool Carneros area in the south to the more moderate Russian River and Alexander Valleys further north, a wide variety of grapes can enjoy the optimum climate to achieve rich varietal flavor.  This wine had a beautiful nose, somewhat reminiscent of a Bordeaux wine.  Ron, one of our panelists, indicated that he had the 1966, a Wine Spectator wine of the year, in his cellar but felt that the 2002 presented better on the nose.  Russell felt that the wine gave a clear indication of where you were – California.  It lacked acidity but had vanilla and a brambly taste which Jeff uses as a marker for Sonoma Cabs.

The second wine tasted was the 1994 Philip Togni Vineyard, a 97-point rated wine by Parker.  Philip Togni began planting vines at the pinnacle of Spring Mountain in 1981 after having been winemaker at a number of Napa wineries. The 25-acre vineyard 200 feet up on Spring Mountain is planted to Cabernet Sauvignon (82%), Merlot (15%), Cab Franc (2%), and Petit Verdot (1%).  The 2000-case production is late-picked, “blended deliberately” and aged in 40% new French oak.  Jeff identified this wine as being Dominus-like and this launched a lengthy discussion of Dominus (everyone likes it).  This wine had good acidity, was well balanced, and, according to Jeff, would go well with a steak.

The 2004 Sherwin Family Vineyard was rated 93 points by Wine Spectator.  This wine is made from grapes grown in a 16-acre vineyard contained within a 30-acre estate.  The vineyard is planted to 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, and 10% Cabernet Franc.  Ron visited this estate in 2002 and, after tasting the wine, bought three cases.  He thinks that it is a great representation of Cabernet Sauvignon.  Good balance and nice finish.

The 1995 Dunn Howell Mountain was the next wine tasted.  Dunn produces both a Howell Mountain and a Napa Valley wine -- both 100% Cabs -- but the Howell Mt is 100% Mountain fruit while the Napa Valley contains about 6% valley floor fruit.   The Howell Mountain wine is massive in fruit and tannins. The estate spans 200 acres of which 30 are planted to vine: 24 acres to Cabernet Sauvignon and six to other varietals.  The vines range between 30 and 10 years of age.  Wines are aged in 75% new French oak for 30 months.  This is a big wine with Howell Mountain tannins.  Seemingly immune to the passage of time.

Heitz Martha’s Vineyard was the first vineyard-designated wine in Napa valley (1965).  The vineyard is owned by the May family who grow grapes for Heitz.  The vineyard covers 34 acres on a gently sloping alluvial plain on the western side of Napa, close to the Mayacamas foothills, and is ringed by giant eucalyptus trees which may contribute elements to the wine.  The 1985 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard was rated 94 points by Parker.  This wine is huge and expansive on the nose.  Hints of graphite, chocolate, leather, tobacco, asian spice and earth co-exist with a decided creaminess. The wine retains some acidity, is silky smooth, balanced, and elegant with a long finish.  This is the way California wines used to be.  This wine was voted wine of the flight.

Napanook was the former Inglenook Estate which, under John Daniels, had become famous for its Inglenook Cask Selection. Grapes from this site were highly sought after for the production of high-quality Napa Cabernets. Napanook, located in the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains, has a history that goes back to 1836 when George Yount, who gave his name to Yountville, planted the first vines in the valley there. The farm is 124 acres -- 108 of which are planted to vines -- with volcanic, heavy clay, and loam soil types.  The 1973 Inglenook exhibits aromas of tanned leather, red fruit, mushroom, and fig.  On the palate, somewhat Burgundian but with a short finish.  This wine seems to be on its way out.

The 2002 Shafer Hillside Select was rated as a 100-pointer by Robert Parker.  Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon is the flagship product of Shafer Vineyards, a Stags Leap District winery founded in 1972 by John Shafer.  As the name implies, Hillside Select is crafted exclusively from selected blocks of hillside vineyards whose soil characteristics and micro-climate combine to produce Cabernet Sauvignon wines with excellent aging potential. The soil on the Shafer Stags Leap properties are primarily bale loam or volcanic -- 2- to 4-feet deep -- resting on bedrock. The warm days and cool nights result in elongated growing seasons and a near-perfect mix of ripening and acidity. The wines are aged for four and one-half years prior to public release.  The 2002 Shafer Hillside Select had a great nose: grilled steak and graphite along with a rich decadence.  On the palate vanilla, licorice, new oak, sugar cane.  Not a food wine at this time.

The final wine in the flight was the 2002 Revana Family Vineyards, a 95-point (Wine Enthusiast) wine.  Revana is located to the north of St. Helena on gravelly soils.  The vines, first planted in 1998, are in eight separate blocks covering a total of 9 acres.  The blocks, five of which are Cabernet Sauvignon, are farmed and vinified separately.  Winter rains provide a constant supply of gravel, soil, and nutrients to valley floor vineyards.  Warm days and cool nights provide the perfect environment for the right balance of sugar and acidity.  This wine had aromas of licorice, spice, graphite, blackcurrant, cassis, and broccoli.  On the palate a nice attack but a missing finish.

Our final flight was Cabernet Sauvignon’s from Australia and those will be covered in my next post.

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