Tasting the Cult: Napa Valley 1994- 98

It was one of the very few chances to taste and compare some of the most legendary wines from Napa Valley from 1994- 98 together with other critics and lovers of Californian wine.
The idea was to taste the wines of five wineries – Harlan Estate, Abreu Vineyards, Bryant Family Vineyard, Colgin and Dalla Valle – side by side and vintage by vintage. Additionally a reference wine from Bordeaux from the same vintage was served blind to get an impression about the benchmark from the region that has always been the role model for great Napa Valley wines.
All wines were double-decanted and served from the original bottle.

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1998, the El Nino vintage, with abnormally cold temperatures and modest ripeness the vintners were forced to reduce their yields and to select fruit strictly:
As David Abreu declassified his 1998 Madrona Ranch, because it didn´t meet his personal standards, we consequently tasted the 1999 Madrona Ranch instead. It comes with dark and powerful aromas of black fruit, glyceric notes, some road tar and leather. While smooth and dense on the palate with ripe fruit and drive, it finishes long with cool, black fruit and peppery spiciness. Still young.

Surprisingly little fruit showed Araujo´s 1998 Eisele Vineyard, which had to step in for a flawed 1998 Bryant Family Vineyard.
The wine is still youthful and even a little edgy, but full of herbs, pencil lead, traces of walnut and little earth. Robust, yet approachable, harmonious and already glorious!
1998 Herb Lamb Vineyard by Colgin was the first vintage made by Mark Aubert and comes from a tiny total production of only 300 cases.
It is a fine, fresh and beautiful wine with aromas of delicious fruit (mostly blackcurrant), perfume and ethereal notes of fresh herbs and menthol. Cool, black fruits on the palate. Great depth, complexity and length.

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Rather controversial is Dalla Valle`s 1998 Maya. With, as always, about 55% Cabernet Sauvignon and 45% Cabernet Franc in the blend, 1998 is driven by lovage and a mix of herbs and vegetables, smoke and traces of raisins. Yet, the wine is fresh and alive.
Smooth and soft, but present on the palate. Dark herbs dominate the taste and make it a
distinct and special wine marching to a different drummer.
Right from the start the 1998 Harlan showed what is possible – even in a complicated vintage. Strictly low yields resulted in a tiny production of only 1100 cases in that vintage, but created a wine of darkness, coolness and elegance.
Concentrated aromas of black fruit, leather, forest floor, lovage and cool minerality. Tight, yet approachable on the palate with more black fruits and herbal notes. It might be lacking some juice, but finishes long and focused with licorice spiciness.
1998 Chateau Haut Brion delivered the benchmark from Bordeaux in this first flight. Ripe, dark fruit, earth, dried herbs, some licorice and little pepper on the nose. Furthermore, rustic and tightly structured on the palate, very fruit-driven and long. Youthful, robust tannins and fine acidity. Even though pleasurable to drink, it´s still way to young. Keep this tight power package from Graves for 10+ years.

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After an early budbreak the 1997 growing season provided generally moderate temperatures, with the exception of one hot week in August, and light rains in September and resulted in a huge crop of exceptional quality. Many of the great 1997s are already legends today. Consequently, our expectations were high.

The mixed soils of red, weathered volcanic rock, white tufa and dark clay of Abreu´s Madrona Ranch created an exceptional wine of sweet, ripe fruit, cool freshness and perfect structure. Aromas of red fruits, licorice, smoky notes, cassis, little barnyard and vanilla.
Lush and present on the palate with substance and young, yet approachable tannins. Elegant, harmonious and sophisticated!
Bryant Family Vineyard`s 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon welcomes you with open arms and gives you a never-ending, comforting hug with bold, ripe fruits (mostly cherries), fine sweetness, baking spices and florals. Fruit-driven, lush and juicy, the wine is dense and present on the palate. A perfect wine without any flaws.
Here are the fresh herbs and the lightness again. Yes, that´s the Colgin 1997 Herb Lamb Vineyard. It shows a lot of ripe, red fruits, fresh herbs (mint!), some coffee, vegetal notes and finest minerality. A deep, cool, elegant and present wine of great precision and fascination!
Dalla Valle`s 1997 Maya doesn´t hide its origin either. Lovage, kitchen vegetables, fruit in rum and cassis represent the distinct, always special style of Maya.
Juicy and of great midpalate density the wine is shining brightly on the palate as well. Dark fruits, caramel and a mix of herbs are packed in fine acidity and delicate, dusty tannins. Delicious and full of character!
1997 Harlan is a blend of 80% Cabernet Sauvignon with Merlot and Cabernet Franc. With a production of about 2500 cases in 1997 there were more than twice as much bottles produced than in 1998. Lots of concentrated, ripe and sweet fruits of cassis, black cherry and plum push the wine forward. It shows very dark with leather, road tar, graphite and delicate smoky notes. Very pure, powerful and focused on the palate, where the dark fruit dominates as well. Perfect and good for decades to come.
The 1997 Chateau Mouton Rothschild couldn´t win this battle – it was just outnumbered by legends. Still, nice with red fruits, animalistic notes, earth, leather, florals and leafy hints. Very elegant with good balance and harmony. Drink soon.

 

1996 produced rather rustic wines of lower acidity in Napa Valley. Yields very reduced due to rain during flowering and at the early stage of the growing season. After that, the season was warm with occasional heat spices and, by that, delivered ripe, tannic wines of great potential.
Abreu´s 1996 Madrona Ranch shows cool, even a little green and straight forward with red fruits, fresh herbs, wet forest, espresso and animalistic notes. A powerful, young and solid structured wine.
Polished, ripe and surprisingly open showed the 1996 Bryant Family Vineyard. As always, fruit-driven, sweet and ripe, but still very fine and elegant with, furthermore, traces of perfume, licorice and little smoke. Smooth and delicious now!
Colgin´s 1996 Herb Lamb Vineyard really shows the characteristics of the vintage with black fruits, violets, fresh herbs, pepper and earth. Dense, concentrated and focused on the palate. Dark fruits, graphite, mineral notes, spiciness and bitter (metallic) notes characterize the palate.
Maybe not a perfect bottle, but still a bulky and scraggy wine with lots of grip and character.
A fresh monster that´ll live forever.
1996 Maya is dark, dense and approachable. Lovage, of course, exotic spices, tobacco as well as black fruits and pruns show character and excitement. Though, the wine is on the point right now. It´s dense, but juicy and smooth.
1996 Harlan is a real monument of ripe and concentrated fruit, sweetness, character and structure. It´s fine and ripe, but also dense and almost austere. Nevertheless, layers of forest floor, graphite, burnt toast, clove and green pepper show its flavor complexity.
Young and massive after 20 years.
1996 Chateau Lafite joined the game and showed a rather rustic than elegant face.
Concentrated and cool aromas of little black fruit, earth, mushrooms and barnyard. Edgy, dense and a little leafy on the palate with hardly any (black) fruit, dark minerality, barnyard and bitter notes. This wine doesn´t allow to be consumed now. I´m curious, yet skeptical, to see what this wine will turn into.

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1995 was a relatively cool year with a long growing season creating elegant and rich wines of firm tannins and present acidity. Results were generally heterogeneous.

Little dark fruit, earth, truffle, herbal notes (thyme!) and traces of barnyard represent the nose of Abreu´s 1995 Madrona Ranch. A wine in perfect balance that is open and ripe now. Yet, not a perfectly clean bottle, but still fascinating to drink.
Flawless and fruit-driven shows the 1995 Bryant Family Vineyard Cabernet…once again. Aromas of sweet, ripe fruit, cedar and vanilla describe the classic style, while some traces of leather and burnt rubber add character and facets. Juicy and full of substance on the palate, where minerality and herbal spiciness join the play of red and black fruits.
Elegant and a pure joy to drink.
Colgin´s 1995 Herb Lamb Vineyard explodes with fruit, freshness and character!
With aromas of dark fruit, dried and fresh herbs, tons of lovage and mint, some cinnamon, smoke and decent oak it´s fine, ultimately complex and fascinating.
Very alive, dense and focused on the palate very ripe, sweet fruit, minty freshness and fine minerality. Perfectly structured with a core of ripe, approachable tannins and integrated, delicate acidity and an endless finish. Among the best wines of the night!
1995 is a typical Maya and a wine that divides the opinions. However, I really like the herbal, distinct style of lovage, vegetables and dark fruit. 1995 comes with peppery spiciness, licorice and malty notes and shows robust on the palate, while not lacking sweetness and balance. A challenging and special wine.
With aromas of black cassis, tobacco, exotic spices, earth and licorice the 1995 Harlan is stylistically not that far away from the Medoc. Black, deep, but ripe and sweet on the palate. An elegant, silky and open wine. Out of the five vintages tasted, this is probably the candidate to drink soonest.
A true competitor was the 1995 Chateau Margaux. Brightly shining with aromas of red and black fruits, violets, tobacco, iron and minerality. All packed in an elegant, feminine and multi-layered ensemble. While approachable, the wine is still young, dense and very long.
Distinct Margaux and, by far, the best from Bordeaux this night.

After some rains in mid May, 1994 provided a warm, yet long and great Napa Valley growing season with good yields and ripeness.

Abreu´s 1994 Madrona Ranch opened the flight with delicate, yet ripe and dark fruit, pencil lead, dried herbs and animalistic notes. Youthful, concentrated and present, yet elegant and sophisticated on the palate with fine, sweet fruit, opulence and dusty tannins.
Pure perfection in a deep, complex and very long wine!
The 1994 Bryant Family Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon jumps with massive fruit and sweetness out of the glass. Aromas of chocolate, autumn leaves and coffee play in the background. Very fruit-driven wine of juicy ripeness, immense concentration, density and drive with all pieces in perfect harmony.
Concentrated, red fruits and freshness of green herbs and lovage describe the nose of Colgin´s 1994 Herb Lamb Vineyard. With cool, almost ethereal layers of menthol and herbs, the distinct fingerprint of the rocky hillside vineyard shines through.
It`s still youthful on the palate combining concentration with finesse, freshness and simply delicious fruit, which now starts to show a little sweetness. Stunning!
Dalla Valle´s 1994 Maya comes with black currant, tons of lovage, herbal spiciness and balmy notes. Fascinating and intriguing! On the palate the wine shows ripe and dense with lots of substance, little fruit and some leather and cigar.
Round and juicy wine of good length.
1994 Harlan is elegant, pure and full of character with cassis, black cherries, little leather, espresso, minerality and some vanilla sweetness. Concentrated, rich and deep, but elegant and of cool freshness. Powdery, approachable tannins, delicate acidity and alcohol in perfect harmony. Endless finish.
Hard to imagine that this wine gets any better, but it´ll certainly last forever.
1994 Chateau Latour took the brave challenge to compete with these wines.
Aromas of black fruits, some raspberry, traces of barnyard, graphite and leather. Open and smooth in the mouth with mostly fruit, good complexity and medium density.
Refined, but open and good to be consumed now.

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A memorable tasting proving, once again, the greatness of many of the so-called “Cult Wines” from Napa Valley, where concentration and ripeness meet elegance, freshness and sophistication like in no other wine region on the planet.

None of the wines showed fat, jammy or tired. Instead, almost all wines just start to open and promise a very long future.
Furthermore, with characteristics of site and vintage shining through, the consistency in quality and character is simply remarkable. Even in supposedly weaker vintages, as 1998, the quality level is extremely high.

It was fascinating to see the different styles of wineries and vineyards and to follow the consistency of these styles through the vintages.
My personal favorites:
Harlan Estate for its consistency in style, quality and simple greatness and Colgin´s Herb Lamb Vineyard for combining concentration of fruit and extract with freshness and focus like no other.

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Tasting Note: Joseph Phelps 1987 Backus Vineyard

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1. Introduction:
You don´t need many words to explain Joseph Phelps Vineyards, who created the first proprietary Bordeaux-style blend in California back in 1974. They were also the first winery giving their flagship wine a distinct name, “Insignia”.
Today, their Insignia is recognized as one of the world’s great wines.
Besides this wine, Joseph Phelps is also famous for its single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon from the Backus Vineyard in Napa Valley´s Oakville appellation. This steeply-terraced 22 acre hillside vineyard, with its gravelly, well-drained, rust-red loam and rhyolite soils receives almost ten hours of sunlight per day and was planted in 1975.
From an average vintage, our 1987 bottle and cork are flawless. 12,8% alc.

2. Appearance:
Velvet and vital, but light with slightly orange/ brown rim.

3. Nose:
Elegant and light-weight aromatics of Red and Dark fruit with mostly Red Currant and Cherry. Traces of Earthy and Leathery characteristics.
Fresh Herbs and (Kitchen) Vegetables. Later also some Licorice and generally broader.
Intriguing coolness in a minty freshness with decent scents of oak.
Fascinating elegance with fine, multi-layered complexity!

4. Taste:
Fine, Dark Fruit of Cassis and Blackberry comes with a play of Dried Herbs and Spices.
Subtle minerality and tannins as well as filigree acidity.
Soft and light mouthfeel- no weakness (!)
Finishes medium-long with velvet Red Fruit, Anise and Peppery Spiciness.
Beautifully integrated, complex and smooth on the palate.

5. Opinion:
Even though the 1987 Backus Vineyard Cabernet seems to be past its prime, it still shows its distinct virtues. Yet, on a more quiet, but fascinating level!
Nice complexity and great elegance in a very harmonious, medium-bodied wine, which should be enjoyed now or within the next years.

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@ Joseph Phelps Vineyard, 2012
While the Backus Vineyard is located in Napa´s Oakville Appellation, the winery sits a few miles outside of St. Helena.

Tasting Note: 1997 PARADIGM Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

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1. Introduction:
Heidi Peterson Barrett , the winemaker of Paradigm Winery since their first vintage in 1991, is (was) also responsible for several other Napa Valley cult wines like the early vintages of Screaming Eagle and Dalla Valle. Robert Parker once called her “the first lady of wine.” In spite of Heidi´s great reputation and experience especially in Napa Valley Cabernet and, furthermore, Paradigm Winery´s relatively small annual production of about 6000 cases, the winery managed to keep the wines affordable and fairly priced.
Today the vineyard located in the Oakville District of Napa Valley is planted to 37 acres (15 ha) of Cabernet Sauvignon, 12 acres (4,9 ha) of Merlot, 4 acres (1,6 ha) of Cabernet Franc, 1 acre (0,4 ha) of Zinfandel and 1 acre of Petite Verdot.
As expected, the Paradigm Cabernet Sauvignon is a typical, Cabernet Sauvignon dominated, Bordeaux blend with usually more than 90% Cabernet Sauvignon.
Our 1997 PARADIGM is flawless. Perfect bottle & cork. 14,1% alc.

2. Appearance:
Deep dark- velvet.
Slightly orange to brown rim, but still vibrant and alive!

3. Nose:
Little, but fine Fruit with Cedar, Black Cherries and other Dark Berry- Fruit.
Some Raisins and mostly tertiary characteristics of Mocha, Leather and Earth.
Nicely integrated and complex nose with harmony and vitality.

4. Taste:
Again, decent Dark, Ripe Fruit and some Fruit in Rum.
Softly textured, with healthy, vital acidity and finely grained tannins.
Intriguing mixture of Tobacco, Leather and Earth. Dark Chocolate.
Finishes long and smooth with Earthy and Herbal notes and some Spiciness.
Round and harmonious, while complex and exciting!

5. Opinion:
This wine has reached a perfect drinking window right now and gives perfect example of what Napa Valley Cabernet can be capable of!
It shows very harmonious without lacking any power or vibrancy.
Beautiful complexity comes in a great play of dynamics!

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Tasting Note: Shafer Vineyards 2008 One Point Five

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1. Introduction:
Shafer´s One Point Five pays homage to John and Doug Shafer´s long term father-and-son partnership in the winery. Instead of one generation handing over the business to the following, father and son work hand in hand at Shafer since 1983 and tell their successful “Generation and a half story.”
Most of the fruit for this Cabernet Sauvignon dominated wine comes from the Borderline Vineyard on the edge of Stags Leap District and is added by some fruit from the Hillside Estate vineyard.
Our 2008 One Point Five bottling is flawless (bottle and cork). 15,1% alc.

2. Appearance:
Garnet, inky colored with an almost black core.
Very dense and vital!

3. Nose:
Ripe Dark Fruit and Berries. Stewed Fruit.
Beautiful Floral traces (Roses and Lilac) with Fresh Eucalypt and Herbs.
Sweet Vanilla, Tar, Dark Chocolate and Tobacco. Little traces of Smoke.
Decent Spiciness.
Complex, attractive, intense and inviting aromatics!

4. Taste:
Powerful Dark Fruit; Blue and Black Berries, Cherries and little Plum.
Some Herbal Spiciness. Hints of Lilac and Violets. Earthy characteristics.
Soft and warm mouthfeel. Perfectly round tannins and refreshing acidity.
Finishes soft, warm and very long with a ton of Dark Fruit (Black Cherry!),
Soft Tannins and Decent Peppery Spiciness.
Greatly structured, multi-layered and delicious!

5. Opinion:
Intense and rich, but harmonious, balanced and round wine!
It is still very young, but already very drinkable with beautiful finesse, complexity and drive.
This should evolve for another 10 to 20 years easily.

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Tasting Note: The Mascot 2008 Napa Valley

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1. Introduction:
Will Harlan, son of Bill Harlan (proprietor of Harlan Estate), created this Cabernet Sauvignon based blend from grapes from the younger vines on Harlan Estate and from Bond mostly located in the appellation of Oakville, Napa Valley.
Will´s intention was creating a more affordable and early approachable wine to drink with friends. After smaller earlier vintages, this is the first release that got available for (limited) public sales via mailing list.
We didn´t decant the wine. Bottle and cork flawless. 14,5% alc.

2. Appearance:
Deep dark crimson to garnet.
Dense and vital!

3. Nose:
Fine & highly complex aromas of Dark Berries, Flower(s) (Meadow), Perfume, and Exotic Spices.
Constantly evolving – especially in the first hour!
Beautiful and powerful Floral characters. Mushrooms, Herbs and little Licorice.
Vanilla Sugar and some Fresh Eucalypt.
Multi-layered and finely spun while very present and intense!

4. Taste:
Dense Dark Fruit- Cassis, Cedar, Blackberry and even (little) Plum.
Mocha, Dark Chocolate, Spices, and Road Tar.
Great density with medium- to full-bodied, silky mouthfeel.
Finishes long and intense with amazing Dark Fruit, Fine Dusty Tannins and intense Peppery Spiciness.
Combines density, concentration and power with filigree flavor levels, balance and great complexity!

5. Opinion:
Primarily intended for uncomplicated and early consumption, this wine combines all virtues of Premium Napa Valley Cabernet.
An approachable, but exceptional wine with great structure and future potential!
Filigree, harmonious, balanced and complex.
This wine doesn´t get boring and unites richness, great fruit, freshness and sophistication.

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Tasting Note: Dunn Vineyards 1997 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

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1. Introduction:
While most valley floor wineries gear up with optical sorters and other high-tech equipment, Dunn Vineyards stays true to traditional, old ways of winemaking.
Randy & Mike Dunn´s wines are not of an easy style and need time to develop- first in the cellar and then, after opening, in the decanter. Even though their recent releases, especially of the Napa Valley Cab, changed to a maybe more approachable style compared to the ones back then. Nevertheless, the Napa Cabernet Sauvignon and (even more!) the Howell Mountain Cab are both made in an Old World style for long-term cellaring with firm tannins and great structure.
Today we taste the 1997 Napa Valley Cabernet made from parts of Howell Mountain estate fruit and from purchased Napa Valley grapes.
Bottle and cork flawless. 13% alc.

2. Appearance:
Deepest Dark-Red/ Crimson with no signs of any visual aging.
Very dense and vibrant!

3. Nose:
Classic aged Cabernet aromatics with lots of Dark Fruits-
Driven by Cassis, (Black) Cherries and Cedar.
Multi-layered with a sophisticated play of secondary & tertiary characters of Leather, Earth (!), Tobacco and some Cocoa.
Mint, Anise and Dried Herbs in a fine cloud of (Sweet) Vanilla with very little Oak.
Very present, powerful and complex!

4. Taste:
Intense, but perfectly integrated flavor components of Dark Berries with Harmonious Earthy Elements, Leather and Tobacco. Dark Chocolate.
Very long finish with Ripe, Dark Fruits, Fresh Mint, Herbal Pepperiness and Comforting Power.
Velvety mouthfeel, a lot of power served with great finesse and balance.

5. Opinion:
A mind-blowing exceptional wine and one of the best wines we had this year! Period.
Amazing intensity, perfectly integrated with great complexity, finesse and harmony.
You can´t ask for more in an aged Cabernet and – yes I´m really excited – peaking now.
I simply can´t imagine how this wine could get any better. Cheers!

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Tasting Note: Clos Du Val 2008 Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon

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1. Introduction:
The flagship Cabernet Sauvignon from Clos Du Val´s gravelly loam soiled Stags Leap District vineyard is a classical Bordeaux blend of mostly Cabernet and little Merlot,
as the 2008 vintage is made of 94% Cabernet Sauvignon and 6% Merlot.
Due to severe frost in April (shortly after bud break) and following heavy temperature swings, most Napa Valley vineyards experienced significant losses, but the remaining and finally harvested fruit was of great quality.
The 2008 Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon was still made under the direction of former senior winemaker and COO John Clews, who left Clos Du Val last year after more than 13 years of collaboration.
But let´s try it now! Bottle and cork are flawless. 13,5% alc.

2. Appearance:
Deep dark-red, garnet. Dense and vibrant.

3. Nose:
Rich aromatics of Dark Berries with mostly Cassis, Cedar, some Cherry and Blackberry.
Herbs, Spices, little Mocha and Dark Chocolate.
Notes of Toasted Oak and Earth.
Beautiful complexity, richness and elegance (!).

4. Taste:
Rich Cherry, Cassis and other Dark Fruit flavors.
Earthy characters come with Tar, Dark Chocolate and little Tobacco.
Moderate but Vital Tannins.
Finishes deep and long with Dark, Soft Fruit, Spiciness and Finesse.
Elegant, but powerful and complex!

5. Opinion:
A harmonious, balanced and complex wine with perfect structure.
Present, silky tannins, but outstanding and typical “Clos Du Val- elegance” and, thereby,
a wine which is delicious and approachable now, but ultimately made to last.

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@ Clos Du Val, 2012