A group of about 10 of us gathered at Café Mangal a while back to taste a bunch of really excellent California Cabernets from the 1994 to 1997 era. My meal was fantastic, as always, and the wines were a great pairing, for sure.
1996 Roederer Estate L'Ermitage Brut Anderson Valley. This wine sports a pleasant enough nose of toasted bread, dark ginger ale, chopped nuts, baked apple and dark berry fruits. It has volume and a good amount of fruit on the open-knit palate—with flavors of browned apples, cider, lemon peel and nutmeg—but the structure seems to be melting away and the grip starting to slip. So, I’d suggest drinking up.
2002 Domaine Huet Vouvray Demi-Sec Le Mont. The nose here is really intense, piquant, fresh and attractive—featuring finely-etched aromas of quartz minerality, lemon verbena tea, lanolin, chalk and lime peel that I really dig. In the mouth, it is even better, with a fascinatingly squeaky vinyl feel to the texture to go along with perfect balance, drive, structure, vivacity and finesse. It is delightfully tangy and juicy, with yellow fruit and tropical citrus notes to go along with powdered mineral sensations all the way through. There’s tons and tons of life left here, but I personally find it almost irresistable right now. Indeed, this is pretty much exactly what I want from a demi-sec Vouvray.
1994 Dalla Valle Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley. This wine immediately offers up plush aromas of roast cherries, baked clay, sun-kissed earth, cedar wood, funky undergrowth, sexy spices and roasted coffee bean that slowly start to show some signs of soy and caramel over time, as well. In the mouth, it’s warm and pasty-textured—with a sweet core of baked cherry, baked plum and toasty spice flavors that are generous and giving. I wouldn’t call it elegant or refined, and it is a bit “baked” in tone, but it’s darned tasty just the same. I’d just be nervous to hold onto it much longer if this was a representative bottle.
1995 Viader Proprietary Red Napa Valley. This is an intriguing wine, starting with the nose that really highlights the wine’s significant Cabernet Franc ratio (47%). It smells quite strongly of tobacco leaf, menthol, green pepper slices, dusty dirt road, purple flowers and mincemeat—with the berry and currant fruit component way in the background. However, in the mouth, it is completely the opposite—the black cherry, black raspberry and mixed currant fruit flavors come right to the fore while the leafy green character slips far into the background. It has a nice tangy underbelly to the flavors, but comes across as pleasingly sweet-fruited and medium-weighted on an elegant frame.
1995 Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon The Montelena Estate Napa Valley. This bottle is showing quite youthful all around, starting with the tight nose that needs aggressive swirling to pull forth dark aromas of fudgy black fruit and hints of menthol, tobacco, white pepper and lilac. It gets bigger and bolder the longer you stay with it, but it’s clearly not showing all it will down the road. In the mouth, it is creamy and full-bodied, delivering a plush mouthful of muscular black cherry and black currant fruit. The tannins are surprisingly polished, but the structure and overall personality are still dark and sinewed. It is really impressive, but more so than any other wine on the table needs extended cellar time and/or lengthy decanting.
1996 Fisher Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Coach Insignia Napa Valley. I’ve always enjoyed this wine, and tonight it is again showing wonderfully, in my opinion. It displays an effortless bouquet that is rather Bordelais-styled in its classy but giving aromas of fine cigar box, leather, fireplace ash, barnyard scrabble and a deeper-down sweet core of melted chocolate and smoked cherry and black currant fruit. In the mouth, it shows off cool and creamy flavors of black cherry, plum, chocolate and mocha that are pliant and caressing but also finely-driven. It just feels sculpted and giving in a way that delivers a lot of classy pleasure all the way through.
1996 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma Mountain. Like many of the 80’s and 90’s Laurel Glen Sonoma Mountain cabernets I’ve had over the past few years, this one is kind of manly and burly on the nose, but still manages to capture my imagination and pull me right in. In this case, it is aromas of smoky cherries and black currants, earth, ash, tar, black leather and tobacco leaf that combine with mountain herbs in a way that just works. On the palate, it is definitely on the young and coiled side of things, but still it is smooth in texture, with a lifted brightness to the dark fruit and soil notes that are strong and direct but nascently layered and definitely nice and juicy-flavored. I like the mellow energy and fine easy drive of this particular vintage. I don’t think it will compete with the mid-80’s masterpieces from this producer, but I would have no problem cellaring a few of these to see what they do over the next decade or so.
1996 Ridge Monte Bello Santa Cruz Mountains. Despite a decently long decant, the ’96 Monte Bello is still a bit of a brooding dark beauty on the nose, showing cool, dense aromas of black currant fruit to go with pen ink, dried blood and other savory umami notes accented by quietly sexier bits of spices and peppermint dust. In the mouth, it is absolutely loaded with flavor draped over an impressively sculpted framework that makes you sit up and take notice. It has a certain gentlemanly refinement, though, despite the size, the polished tannins and the push that it brings to the table. No doubt this is a top-notch wine, but I’d rather wait on it another 5-7 years, personally.
1997 Freemark Abbey Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley. There’s a fairly big, boisterous and somewhat unfocused bouquet to this wine, as it seems loaded with aromas of blueberries, sweet oak, cola nut, toasted stems, black olive, dark chocolate, limestone, pen ink and a sort of multivitamin note that I seem to get with Freemark Abbey cabs quite often. In the mouth, I definitely like it a bit better, as it shows off a good solid burst of cherry, blueberry, blackberry and huckleberry sorts of fruit flavors with an underpinning of earth tones and twangy acidity. It hits some rough patches here and there, but it has a good deal of stuffing and exceeds my expectations.
1997 Araujo Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Eisele Vineyard Napa Valley. This wine shows its class and breeding right from the very start, with a serious but refined bouquet of fine tobacco, dried earth, fresh herbs and lilting fruit notes. It has a buffed and refined texture in the mouth, and drinks like silk—with a very fine-knit texture and a totally pulled-together personality. It’s utterly cohesive and elegant in its medium-weighted character and classy fruit flavors, but it seems to have the make-up to age, as well. It’s hard to find any faults here and it is drinking quite well right now.
1997 Guenoc Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Beckstoffer Vineyard Napa Valley. This one is just big and popping-fresh on the rather overt nose—with fun and sweet aromas of plum and blueberry fruit to go along with supporting bits of volcanic rock and tomato plant scents. In the mouth, though, I find it to be rather direct and a touch blunt or blocky in style, coming across as more obvious than most. That feeling is supported by the tacky texture and rougher-hewn tannins that come into play, along with the fruit that just doesn’t seem to fan out as much as you want it to. It’s certainly not terrible, but it just seems outclassed on this night.
1997 Etude Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley. This wine is a true extrovert, showing off a nose of dark gingerbread, mace, cedar shingles, barrel spices, cracked black pepper and ripe stem aromas in support of pure and fun blueberry fruit tones. On the palate, it is creamy-smooth, lush and plush, with powerful flavors of blueberries, mocha and baked plums, and accented by a fun cedary inner mouth perfume that I consistently seem to find in this producer’s cabernets. It’s a really generous and giving wine that may not be as refined as some, but has nice cushioning tannins, a pliant texture and lots of fun fruit and interesting accents to make it quite enjoyable.
1997 Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley. This wine is showing well just now, I think, starting with the very appealing bouquet of eucalyptus, mint, dark cherry and fun spice aromas that it puts forth. In the mouth, it’s showing some chewy tannin, but also tons of brown spice-tinged cherry and raspberry fruit flavors that gush ahead in fine juicy waves without losing much at all in terms of refinement of texture or structure. It’s just a nice combination of all factors that comes across as still young but very enjoyable right now, too.
1997 Pride Mountain Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley. This is by far the densest, most opaque-colored wine on the table, and it follows that up with a pasty-thick, dark and richly-fruited bouquet of black currant and blueberry fruit aromas riding atop some menthol and tobacco background notes. It’s young, rich and powerful on the palate, with a rounded character that supports tons of fruit stuffing. It’s thick and pasty at this stage of the game and the tannins here seem more drying and pervasive than with any other wine in the line-up. I’d have to say this needs a lot of time, still, at least for my tastes.
1997 Byrd-Cooper Mourvedre Contra Costa County. This was floating around all night, I think, but I resisted tasting it until the very end. I really had no idea what to expect and found a wine that features a bouquet of heavy-duty hickory-smoked bacon, maple and caramel allied to sweet cherry and rhubarb notes. In the mouth, it is quite smoky, very prickly and unusually flavored with a combination of savory mincemeat, grape stems and woodsy spices and rather sweet black fruit. I don’t get much pleasure out of it, though it was moderately interesting to try.
1994 Zind-Humbrecht Pinot Gris Rangen de Thann Clos St. Urbain Vendange Tardive. I’ve been fortunate now four times to have been around when somebody decided to open one of these—what a delightful wine! It’s just loaded with gorgeous aromas of burnished apricot, quince, clover honey, yellow raisin, frozen persimmon fruit, marmalade and dark botrytis spices in an unctuously draped combination. It’s sticky, viscous and beautifully spiced in the mouth, with a rich and luxuriant texture to go with very appealing flavors of toasted orange peel, yellow raisins, caramel and honey. It is decidedly sweet and a bit lower in acidity than I remember from some earlier bottles, but it’s still absolutely lovely stuff for my palate.
1996 Joseph Phelps Scheurebe Eisrébe Napa Valley. Served from a 375 ml bottle, I was not expecting to like this nearly as much as I ended up doing. In fact, I love this wine, starting with the beautiful and lifted nose of baked apricot, steeped tangerine peel, nectarine, iced tea and caramel aromas. In the mouth, it is delighfully funky and fun, with a sweet and tangy combination of citrus peels and tropical fruits that are really hard to capture with words but which deliver a wild mouthful of flavor. It’s vivacious and intense despite being really quite sweet in tone, showing impressive balance and grip to go along with the almost gooey consistency. Again, I really, really like how this pulls together a lot of fun elements into a seamlessly delicious package.
1989 Château Rieussec Sauternes. Ouch, this is brutally CORKED. What a shame.
1976 Calera Zinfandel Zin Essence California. Most folks finished up with this wine, but I missed it. I did hear from a few tasters that I didn’t miss a whole lot, as it seems largely over the hill at this stage of its life.