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.
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.