I met with my first Tuesday of the month tasting group yesterday to blind taste a particularly compelling array of mostly 1994, with a smattering of 1995. Napa Cabs. Arguable one of the best vintages of the decade, with the only real competition coming from 1991, a vintage I in fact prefer to 1994, this was going to be interesting.
By 1994 the current fascination with overblown California Cabernets had taken hold but I have to admit that our sampling didn’t show any of the traits that have come to define the genre: namely over-oaking, over extraction, too high alcohols and the tannin and acid corrections that lead to imbalance after ageing. In fact this line-up, purchased on release by one of the group’s members, showed fine balance and evolution.
I have been a fan of California’s Cabernets for almost my entire drinking career and continue to have a soft spot for the great, mature bottles from the 70’s and 80’s. These wines tonight were barely mature. Well that is not entirely true, most showed fairly mature structurally but not particularly evolved flavor-wise. The appeal for me with the older wines is their wonderful texture. They are simply some of the funnest wines to drink sharing a bit with Bordeaux but retaining such a sweet, uncomplicated core of berry fruit that I can’t help but smile when I drink them.
Tonight’s wines, while significantly younger than the wines I normally drink, had all the fruit of their youths, well nearly, but had not developed much complexity and did not, with a few exceptions, appear to have the tannin to age much longer. This is not an indictment of these wines, simply an observation that perhaps these wines, and the majority of the wines made in California today, are best enjoyed young and during their early maturity. A reasonable course of action if early maturity is defined as between 10 and 20 years old!
I have to admit that the results of this tasting surprised me a bit. I did not expect to enjoy the top wines quite as much as I did but the proof is in the blind tasting after all!
1995 Philip Togni Cabernet Sauvignon - My 8th place wine/ Groups 8th place wine
This smelled a touch under-ripe on the nose with a nice spiced note but lots of overwhelming pickle barrel and herb tone that dominated the light, raspberry fruit. In the mouth this was soft at firth then turned a bit feathery with the stern tannins peaking out on the finish that was drying and short. Not much worth revisiting here and this lost appeal with air. 84pts
1994 Dominus - My 7th place wine/Groups 7th place wine
Oaky and smoky on the nose with notes of chipotle, plums, minerals and an earthy, leathery, manure tinged note of decomp. Fairly high acid on the attack followed by a rather aggressive midpalate with alcoholic heat and stern tannins leading to the finish which had some nice black fruit but the tannins remained astringent. The complexity on the nose was interesting and more engaging than most of the wines but the palate was just out of balance. 86pts
1994 Dunn Napa Valley - My 6th place wine/Groups 5th place wine
Lean and leafy on the nose with a touch of sweet cassis fruit and a hint of banana and oak that barely prevented this from being dull and un-interesting. In the mouth this is gentle and elegant with a simple yet pure core of sweet red currant fruit edged with a touch of vanilla. This finishes with a bit of black cherry bitterness that refreshes the palate a touch. 88pts
1995 BV Georges de Latour - My 5th place wine/Groups 1st place wine
This smelled of American oak with lovely spice notes, black olive, tea, and dill notes accentuating the black plummy fruit. In the mouth this was neither terribly deep nor complex yet offered a bright fresh mouthful of sweet, uncomplicated fruit in a well-balanced package. A very solid wine. 90pts
1994 BV Georges de Latour - My 4th place wine/Groups 3rd place wine
This started out a bit dank and woodsy with a green oaky element backing the tobacco/forest floor tinged dusty red fruit. A bit soft and blocky on the palate with nice dark cherry fruit touched with a hint of funghi. This is fairly tannic yet retains a lovely lean elegant appeal. I really enjoyed the mouthfeel here. 91pts
1995 Araujo Estate Eisele Vineyard - My 3rd place wine/ Groups 4th place wine
This came off as a more Bordelaise styled wine with gentle vanilla, cocoa, and spice tones wrapped around the lovely, pure fresh fruit on the nose. In the mouth this was velvety with a rich, earthy layered quality and a ripe, almost roasted fruit note. There were classic minty/eucalyptus tones on the long finish and while this was a touch obvious it really screamed Napa Valley Cabernet. 93pts
1994 Dunn Howell Mountain My 2nd place wine/ Groups 6th place wine
A little light on the nose but with wonderful tones of light green herbs, mineral, iron, milk chocolate and sweet, dusty red cherry fruit. In the mouth this was rich,. Elegant and layered with a transparency and precision that set it apart from the other wines offered tonight. It also was the most tannic wine and in more ways than one seemed to be the wine most likely to develop with additional cellaring. The spicy, earthy notes of pipe tobacco and chewy texture added interest to the lovely red cherry fruit in the mouth and left an overall impression of a rugged wine with fine balance. 94pts
1994 Phelps Insignia My 1st place wine/Groups 2nd place wine
Sweet and earthy on the nose with a little VA adding lift to the leathery, cocoa and vanilla tinged slightly stewy black berry fruits. This is so smooth on the palate with a rich soft feel that is marred by the faintest touch of heat but the rich black raspberry fruit quickly overcomes this minor note. There remain nice spicy oak nuances and the acidity keeps this fresh and juicy in the mouth while the powdery tannins add a little mouthgrab to the rich, plush fruit. Very nice detail in the mouth and with good length this is absolutely at peak right now. 95pts
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