Mature California Cabernet 9/2009


As many of you already know I am a big fan of older California Cabernet Sauvignon. Heck I’m a big fan of most older wines from California but Cabs and Cab based blends are the ones I most frequently encounter.

This past Monday night I joined a group of friends for an evening of mature California Cabernets served blind. I did an excellent job of guessing none of the wines exactly correct, and the evening turned into a near vertical of Mayacamas Cabernets, some of the most traditionally made, and classically styled wines to ever have come out of California. One can comfortably say that, all things considered, it was quite a successful evening.
The wines were served in flights of 2

 Flight 1 -

Wine number 1 was a bit weedy and leathery with a touch of thinness on the mid-palate and a feathery finish but still retained a nice core of jammy fruit. It reminded me of Sonoma Mountain Cabernet from a mature yet warm vintage. I guessed Laurel Glen Cabernet, 1984 if I would be pushed. It was 1979 Mayacamas.

Wine number 2 – from magnum – This was tight on the nose with cool black fruits and a dusty mineral tone but offered up an impeccably fresh quality that followed through on the youthful palate that was elegant, balanced and packed with perfectly ripe fruits. It felt like a Dunn Howell Mountain from a ripe yet tannic vintage, 1986 perhaps. Well it was Dunn Howell Mountain all right, but from 1981. A great bottle and my wine of the night!

 Flight 2 -

Wine number 3 was a bit high toned on the nose with a typical but undistinguished array of smoke, leather and cassis notes. In the mouth this was fairly soft and a touch past peak with a nice spicy cinnamon tone and chalky tannins on the finish that made me think of some older Spring Mountain Cabernets, maybe the 1985. In fact this was the 1976 Chappellet. The wrong side of the valley but at least I’m still in central Napa.

Wine number 4 – smelled cool and lean with notes of bittersweet cocoa and leafy tobacco notes still accentuated by a bit  of French oak. It had a red fruit quality in the mouth and a leafiness that together made me think that this had some Cabernet Franc in the blend and it had a soy element that made it seemed fairly evolved but it’s chewy tannins put me in the mind of  a fairly rich vintage. Without specifying producer I volunteered 1986 Howell Mountain as the source for this fruit. The fact that it was 1987 St. Clement kept me once again at about the right latitude in Napa valley.

 Flight 3 -

Wine number 5 -  This was so fresh and youthful on the nose with white chocolate, cherry and peanut brittle notes. In the mouth it was smaller scaled than the other wines of the night but with impeccable balance, freshness and finesse that is so rare in California. I brought this bottle so no guesses but it was the 1975 Ch. Montelena

Wine number 6 – Complex aromatic of poop, blood and rusty mineral tones filled the glass of this rich wine. It had a lot of acidity, but so much rich fruit that I ignored this obvious hint about the vintage. The finish showed signs of cracking up so we knew this was rather older. I guessed a 1976 Diamond Creek wine. In hindsight, I should have known that was 1975 acidity and the wine was 1975 Mayacamas.

Flight 4 – We had three wines in this flight

Wine number 7 – Another wine showing it’s age on the nose with note of maderization creeping into the core of red fruit. This was full and soft in the mouth with the remains of what seems like fairly aggressive structure keeping the rich mouthfeel intact. Notes of dried fruits hint at a fairly warm vintage here. I began thinking this might be a 76 or 77, both drought years that produced big, yet rustic wines, but the wine seemed to be older so I went with a 1974 Joseph Phelps wine. Seeing as this was 1978 Montelena I can’t say I was terrible close here

Wine number 8 – This had a great nose full of classic scents of American oak, smoke, ripe fruit, herbs and earth.  This offered up such a wonderfully pure and seamless mouthful of red cherry and wild berry fruit yet was a bit simple. All that red fruit and the wonderful aromatics reminded me of a great bottle of 1974 Ch. Souverain I enjoyed quite a few years back and while, I was way off since this was the 1978 Ridge Monte Bello at least I guessed somewhere outside of Napa!

Wine number 9 –A touch of mint on the nose with really fresh tones of aloe and watermelon were a bit surprising.  In the mouth this was feminine and a bit minty with an angular quality. It reminded me of some Heitz wines, specific the Bella Oaks so in keeping with what I thought was a vintage theme, and it was though not the vintage I was thinking of, I guessed 1974. I should have had a hunch that it might have been another Mayacamas, 1978.

Flight 5 –

Wine number 10- This stood out a bit as a rather evolved wine with a bitterness to the tannins and leafy character that seemed to be the result of a distinctly cool vintage. It was complex and evolved so all I could do was guess a vintage and region. 1973 Sonoma, close but not quite as this was a ringer, the 1971 Ch. Latour!

Wine 11 –Also showing plenty of age on the nose this had a distinct medicinal quality yet retained a core of rich chunky fruit. The texture here was beautiful and seamless with just a hint of chunkiness on the backend. Such a ripe yet elegant wine, it must have come from a great vintage. Shall we say 1968 Napa? Say what you will, that doesn’t change the fact that this was the 1974 Mayacamas!

So that was that. I didn’t do too terribly poorly in a very general sense. The wine were mostly delicious, and a testament to both the age worthiness of California Cabernet and the difficulty of identifying vintages much less producers and vineyards.

The golden age of California Cabernet was certainly the 1970’s and much of the 1980’s, though by the early 1980’s there were many movements a foot, food wine anyone, cult cabs perhaps, that would fundamentally change the way the vast majority of California Cabernet s were to be made in the subsequent vintages.

Having said that the Producers we enjoyed this evening: Mayacamas, Montelena, Ridge and Dunn all continue to produce benchmark California Cabernet s and have remained true to their roots! I can't wait for our next California showdown.

Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: tikiman
    233625 3

    On flight #2 wine 3 you had mentioned the wrong side of the valley , what did you mean by that ? tikiman

    Sep 21, 2009 at 4:59 PM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 237,207

    Thanks for your question. I guessed Spring Mountain but the fruit was in fact from Pritchard Hill which is right across Napa Valley so I was at the right latitude but on the wrong side of the valley.

    Sep 21, 2009 at 7:42 PM

  • Snooth User: D9sus4
    163476 316

    Gregory, Wow! Thanks for sharing. Makes me rethink finishing off the last of the 1984-87 cabs. in my cellar. I thought maybe they wouldn't have the structure to hold up much longer, but maybe they do?

    Sep 22, 2009 at 8:54 AM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 237,207

    It depends on the producers as much as the vintages. I have been very surprised bu the mid 80's Cali Cabs I've been drinking lately. Almost all of them are drinking beautifully and seem to have the staying power to remain on their plateaus for another 5 to 10 years. they are some of the greatest values in the marketplace today.

    Sep 22, 2009 at 9:06 AM

  • Snooth User: Honeybells
    214185 93

    Sounds like a lot of fun! I'm headed back East at the beginning of next year. Any blind tastings in the works around then?

    Sep 23, 2009 at 3:55 PM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 237,207

    When will you be with us?

    Are you going to be on the East Coast for long? We'll put something together when you visit, Just let us know when.

    Sep 23, 2009 at 5:45 PM

  • I have a suggestion for another 'ringer' in a subsequent tasting-- any number of the recent syrahs, cabs, or cab based blends from Renaissance Winery, located in (excuse my naivete and/or ignorance) the Sierra Foothills, up around the Marysville/Grass Valley area. This little known gem of a winery is producing extremely high quality wines at a fraction of the cost of what is coming out of France and Napa/Sonoma at the same level of quality. Wake up, people.

    Sep 26, 2009 at 2:50 AM

  • hi...i have a bevy of '69,70,74 cabs from cal that are stillquite viable latour, inglenook, mondavi reserve, oakville vineyards(anybody out there remember them?) would love to put togethr a fun tasting in the spirit of a charitable cause that perhaps participants could make reasonable donation to taste this "golden age "trove . I live near the less wonderfuln city of albany, n y.

    Oct 02, 2009 at 11:36 AM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 237,207

    Hi Ralph.

    I have a friend in Albany who is a wine lover and might be convinced to join you!

    Alternately if you can make it down to NYC we can certainly find a larger group with which to share the wines!

    Oct 05, 2009 at 12:36 PM

  • That Ridge Montebello is a fantastic wine. Can't wait for my next taste of it. Not sure I'd find the 1978 anywhere easily...

    Nov 11, 2009 at 2:23 AM

  • Snooth User: zinfandel1
    Hand of Snooth
    154660 1,082

    After reading your Cab blind tasting, I now have the courage to open up a couple of my moldy oldies. I have a 1972 Robert Mondavi Cab and a 1973 Sterling Vineyards Cab which I bought at the winery. I'm hoping for the best.

    Dec 12, 2009 at 7:58 AM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 237,207

    Oddly enough I just had the 73 Sterling Cab on Wednesday. It was showing spectacularly. Rich fruit, well balanced and bright. If your bottle shows well you are definitely in for a treat!

    Dec 12, 2009 at 9:51 AM

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