Last week, our son Randy joined us in Napa with his family and several friends from Southern California. And just for fun, we hosted them all at our home on Sunday for a wine tasting and dinner. Everyone in the group loves wine but is more familiar with younger wines and the more recent vintages.

So for a different twist with a look back I chose two wines each (four cabernets, one merlot and one proprietary blend) from three (1997, 1999 and 2001) very different Napa Valley vintages.

The 1997 vintage was quite warm and highly acclaimed by the critics with lofty scores awarding their extra ripeness, plump fruit and approachability. Yields were high as were the early expectations of quality. But over the last decade or so the vintage has often been revisited and found not to have lived up to its original vision with many observations of the wines “drying out.” This continues to be seen as a controversial vintage marked by the stylistic changes to bolder, less structured wines occurring in the mid-1990s, and its expected ability to develop with age.

The 1999 vintage in contrast was a cool vintage and not highly praised in many corners of the critical press in its earlier years. The long cool spring led into a mild summer with one heat spike in July. The lengthy cooler season produced wines on the leaner, more Old World side with bracing acidity, fine tannins and complex fruit — a step back from the more forward wines of the day. But as the years progressed the cabernets took on ideal aromatic, flavor and textural profiles with the backbone and structure to bode for continued growth.

The 2001 vintage, on the other hand, was somewhere in the middle. Spring was very cool for the most part but a couple of warm spikes coaxed a slightly earlier bloom and flowering. Extreme heat in May and June signaled an earlier harvest, but cooler temperatures prevailed in August and September to put the hang time and harvest on a more normal schedule. The vintage is highly acclaimed by most in the critical press for its richness and ecstatically proclaimed by winemakers as an ideal vintage for its complimentary structure. The wines have not only aged beautifully but continue to grow and gain additional layers of complexity and grace with every passing year.

The 1997s we tasted were Araujo cabernet sauvignon (Calistoga) and Cosentino Estate Merlot (Yountville). Both showed a slightly oxidized nose with little aromatic development. There was also a drying-out of the primary fruit component on both with minimal secondary aromatic or flavor growth. The Araujo did improve somewhat as the evening progressed and the Cosentino was a favorite of one guest. While I was disappointed with the showing of both wines, I was not surprised.

Venturing on to the 1999s, I poured two wines from Appellation St. Helena — Parry Cellars cabernet sauvignon and Spottswoode cabernet sauvignon. On the nose the Parry showed interesting notes of clove and spice and the Spottswoode accented bright red berries with hints of tobacco and coffee. The mid-palates on both were elegant and charming with fine tannins and layered combinations of red berries, spice and black cherries. The finish on both wines was also intriguing with suggestions of tea on the Spottswoode and cranberries for the Parry. I was thrilled with the development of these wines and look forward to enjoying more 1999s over the next five to seven years.

The 2001s — Joseph Phelps Insignia and Etude Cabernet Sauvignon — were quite different and both exciting at almost 15 years of age. On the nose the Etude exuded bright red berries and cranberry that carried on to the palate with silky tannins and a vibrating finish. The Insignia was more brooding showing darker fruit, cassis, spice and cigar-box scents on the nose and a bit bolder on palate exhibiting a rich texture and firm tannic structure. The secondary aromatics and flavors are beginning to unfold in both wines and will continue well into the future. The critics really got this vintage right.

While most wines are intended to show well in their youth, only a relative few will mature gracefully and improve with age. And as last week’s tasting demonstrated, it’s not always the “showiest” vintage that raises to the top with age.

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Allen Balik, a Napa resident, has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 35 years.


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