Recently a couple sat down with a 1981 Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon, apprehension covering their faces. Their eyes almost pleaded with the bottle: Be as wonderful as expected. As the first sips were taken, the worry turned to wide smiles. The wine had held up beautifully.
From Inglenook to Heitz to Louis Martini, there are many decades-old Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon bottles that, when opened, reveal gracefully aged wines.
Structure is said to be the key. If a wine is well-made with balance in its basic structure (alcohol, acidity, fruit intensity, and tannin), then it has a good chance of aging well.
With the use of different vineyard practices and production methods today, as well as the different wine styles being crafted, we can only guess at how Napa Valley wines made today will mature going forward. There is lots of debate, particularly with the riper, higher-alcohol wines that remain popular. Based on their fine structures now, however, there are plenty of wines such as Corison and Dunn that we anticipate will only get better as they evolve in the bottle.
With aging such an inexact science, the better question may be: What do you expect from a bottle of wine when you open it?
The St. Helena Star sat down at Monica and David Stevens’ 750 Wines fine wine shop in St. Helena on the last day in January to taste and discuss collectible wines from Napa Valley. Attending the tasting was a small group of winemakers, wine collectors and those representing the Star. The wines included in the tasting were pulled from the St. Helena Star and Napa Valley Vintners Tasting Panel selection of premium cabernet sauvignons. Venerable, iconic wines and those generally sought out by collectors were included in the tasting.
Once the tasters got past the definition of balance and the personal opinions on how long certain vintages and wines would age (they were varied), the talk turned to the purpose of collecting wine.
For many wine lovers, tasters said, the desire is to pluck a bottle from their wine cellar and be treated to a burst of richly intense fresh black or red fruits with a nice dose of vanilla spice and noticeable tannins. Their friends are already at the house and juicy steaks are being pulled from the grill. The desire is for a rich young wine that can stand up to their meal. Cabernet sauvignon wines from Napa Valley famously provide this gratification.
David Stevens pointed out, “Collectors read the Wine Spectator, and the people who rate the wines rate them young. On release, they are big, fruity and jammy, with big scores. Consumers lay these wines down forever, only to discover many years later that they have flabby wines,” something they did not expect. Many of us are partial to the ripe luscious flavors of young wines.
Other wine lovers like to patiently (or not so patiently) sit out the maturation of their wines. As cabernet sauvignon ages, any number of complex aromas and flavors can unfold. Powerful fresh fruit becomes a rich dried cherry or blackberry flavor; there are hints of savory mushroom or leather. The more you smell and taste, the more is revealed.
There are often occasions for both, if you enjoy each of these different sensations. The beauty of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon is that it accommodates both desires.
How long you should age your wine comes down to a matter of taste. We leave the stress of whether that 2000 or 2002 will age for 10 to 20 years to the collector who creates a wine museum, with wine labels to be fawned over but never sipped; or to those building their financial portfolios, expecting a big payday on their wines in the future.
Whether you open these wines now or let them develop over time, these are the top picks of the tasting at 750 Wines:
• Broman Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 ($48). The great balance of acidity, fruit, tannins and alcohol in this wine will help it age for years. Instead of going for jammy and over-concentrated, this wine gives you everything you would want in a Napa cab, but does not drown you in it.
• Shafer Hillside Select Stag’s Leap 2008 ($230). This is an icon in the valley and a wine that is often included on collectors’ lists and, at some point, lips. The 2008 is powerful and intense.
• B Cellars Beckstoffer Dr. Crane St. Helena ($145). B Cellars’ wines have been getting lots of attention, and this wine uses the venerable Dr. Crane fruit. Big and bold now, this wine will benefit from aging a bit before enjoying its rich and complex flavors.
• Michael Mondavi M 2007 ($200). This is the third vintage of M, a wine made to reveal itself over time with great complexity yet subtlety. Michael Mondavi named the wine’s vineyard site, Animo, after the Italian word for “soul.”
• Rubissow Reserve 2006 Mount Veeder ($140). This is the first vintage where the Rubissow-Sargent name on the label has been changed solely to Rubissow to make it simpler in the marketplace. The winery calls it “classic Veeder structure” and the wine indeed has incredible balance. This is an elegantly structured wine that produces lots of great fruit and other flavors.
• Behrens Family Winery “Cemetery” 2010 ($125). This wine is made from David Abreu managed fruit. It is a big wine with pronounced oak flavors of sweet vanilla and spice.
• Castello di Amorosa Don Tomas Vineyard 2010 ($125). This wine provides a wallop of fresh oak flavors. It is a wine to age; let maturity add some subtly to its powerful force.
(Catherine Seda is the St. Helena Star's tasting panel writer and works for Balzac Communications & Marketing in Napa. She holds a diploma in wine and spirits from the Wine & Spirits Education Trust, and enjoys all things wine. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.)