As the new year approached, I began reflecting on my vinous journey through 2020 when I chose to explore wines in our cellar from past years. Travel restrictions and restaurant closures meant far more dining at home, so in an effort to look on the brighter side, I began my search with Napa Cabernets from the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. Three distinctly different decades with many delights from each.
My exploration quickly grew beyond Napa Cabs to include a few Chardonnays (can they age?) as well as other varieties and growing areas. Enjoying these wines was a positive counter-point to the rapidly unfolding events across the globe.
My journey included several dozen bottlings from a range of both widely acclaimed and generally dismissed vintages including well known and not so well known labels. Many were outstanding but a few were disappointing and should have been consumed years ago.
There’s an old adage often heard when looking at older wines: “There are no great wines, only great bottles.” Anthony Rose took this a step further in his Dec. 31 online Decanter post: “Anniversary wines 2021: The Decanter guide” where he detailed suggestions for birthdays and anniversaries from the 10th (vintage 2011) to the 60th (vintage 1961) and beyond. He stated, “Wine can often surprise us for better or worse…[but] there are clues that help guide us through a minefield of disappointment.”
Some of the more obvious clues are vintage (good, variable or questionable), producer, varietal components, growing area and provenance that includes verifiable proper storage since release. I sampled a broad range across the first four clues and can vouch for the provenance as I purchased all of the wines on release, and most directly from the wineries. Since purchase, they’ve all been stored with proper consideration to temperature and humidity in our cellar.
Great Chardonnays are meant to age (though presenting demonstrably different color, aromatics and flavors than more youthful counterparts) as readily seen in Burgundy. But the conventional wisdom for California Chardonnays is that they don’t age well beyond eight or ten years. So I skipped the aughts and went straight to the 1980s and 1990s with choices from proven producers made in a more traditional style than the familiar higher alcohol, lower acid and over-oaked examples so prevalent in the market.
1984 Grgich Hills Chardonnay displayed an expected deep golden/amber hue with an attractive baked apple/cinnamon nose. The palate was lush with hints of honey and underlying acidity that carried well into the finish. Definitely past its prime but a gratifying surprise after 35 years.
Two Chardonnay standouts were 1990 Stony Hill and 1995 Peter Michael Clos du Ciel, both emanating from outstanding vintages. The Stony Hill presented many of the same appealing notes found in the Grgich Hills with added vibrancy and is now at its prime with several years ahead.
The Peter Michael drank much younger with a light golden hue, melon and peach on the nose and bright acidity through to the finish. Years ahead on this one and rock-solid proof that when properly grown and produced, California Chardonnay will stand the test of time.
My two absolute stand-outs of the 1980s were the 1985 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve and the 1986 Penfolds Grange Hermitage (now simply referred to as Grange respecting the international code of protecting specified denomination names).
1989 was perhaps the most maligned vintage of the decade due to late season cooler temperatures and rain. But Merlot was mostly harvested before those weather issues and the 1989 Duckhorn Three Palms Merlot is a notable example of what a great wine can offer from a grossly panned vintage. Characteristic bright cherry is still perceptible on the nose though somewhat muted with age leading to a rich mouthfeel and complexity on the palate and finish.
The Mondavi Reserve expressed what Robert Mondavi envisioned in creating a wine deeply rooted to California but in the mold of a great Bordeaux in style. It was elegant and complete with a unique combination of red fruits representing its youth and notes of leather accented by touches of tobacco and cedar as a nod to its mid-life status.
In 1951, legendary Penfolds winemaker Max Schubert, without the knowledge or consent of management, conducted his own private experiment with a multi-regional 100 percent Shiraz. Although the 1951 was never released to the public, it became the foundation of (perhaps) Australia’s greatest and most respected wine. The 1986 was the epitome of balance, grace, structure and appeal. It is drinking beautifully now with highlights of secondary notes on the nose and palate. An enviable example of what Shiraz can be with years or even decades ahead.
From the 1990s I was especially taken by 1995 Williams Selyem Pinot Noir Rochioli, 1990 Opus One, 1997 Michele Chiarlo Barolo Cerequio and 1999 Joseph Phelps Insignia. Whoever said California Pinots don’t age has not encountered this brilliant effort by Burt Williams and the lineage of the Rochioli vineyard. It was a mystical blend of youthful color, cherries on the nose and mature characteristics of delectable savory notes, spice and earth on the palate. Added complexity on day two and continued evolution on day three!
The Opus One was a true delight with a rich palate stemming from its Napa Valley base and accented by a strong link to its Bordeaux (Château Mouton Rothschild) parentage. A fine wine from an excellent vintage that brought to mind its Mouton pedigree of, “An iron fist in a velvet glove.”
I thought I had long ago enjoyed my last bottle of Chiarlo’s Cerequio and was thrilled to discover this one in the cellar. It represented all the greatest Barolo character of aged leather, tobacco, bright acidity to carry everything forward and balanced by still bold tannin. Even better on day two!
The 1999 Insignia expressed total integration from the nose through a brightly textured palate to the complex finish with flashes of acidity complementing finely structured tannins. All of the components throughout exhibited a distinguished sense of balance with expected secondary notes of aging. It was a reminder of what proper vineyard and winemaking expertise can produce using the age-old model of Bordelaise blending.
Many wines from the 2000s have yet to display all the character expected from proper aging. Most were just in their adolescent stages with many years ahead. Some of my favorites were 2000 Ridge Montebello, 2001 Justin Isosceles, 2005 DuMOL Pinot Noir Finn and three 2007 vineyard selections of Ravenswood Zinfandel.
The 2000 Montebello is living proof that great wines are made in challenging vintages. It has aged beautifully with intense fruit and backbone that is beginning to show the depth of flavor from secondary attributes of earth and cedar. Rich, bold, balanced and broad on the palate. Nearing its prime now with perhaps a decade ahead.
2001 Isosceles displays perfect balance, sweet red and blackberries, depth of structure, and harmonious from nose to finish. All delivering on Justin Baldwin’s original model of Château Margaux with finesse and power combined as a link to its Old World style. And the 2006 Justin Justification (Cabernet Franc and Merlot) was cut from the same cloth and a true delight.
Then winemaker and now proprietor/winemaker Andy Smith turned in a monumental effort with the 2005 Finn, a beautiful interpretation of a classic Russian River Valley Pinot. Bold yet elegant with finesse, style, balance and texture. Black cherry and Asian spice combined in presenting a complex tapestry of aromatics, flavors and structure. Just past its adolescence and embarking on a rewarding passage to young adulthood.
Concluding my three-decade journey, I loved these 2007 vineyard select Zins from Ravenswood crafted by the iconic Joel Peterson whose motto was always, “No Wimpy Wines.” All three — Big River, Belloni and Teldeschi — exhibited an intriguing “Claret” profile that is the hallmark of a properly aged Zinfandel. Each presented its own vineyard character and was a treat to enjoy separately or side-by-side. Still years of pleasurable drinking ahead for all three.
These wines represent only a snapshot of what I found best from the ‘80s, ‘90s and aughts and I intend to keep on smiling as my journey continues into the new year.
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Allen Balik, a Napa resident, has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 35 years.