Tasting note: 1997 California Cabernet Sauvignon

On the evening following the death of Napa Valley legend Robert Mondavi, I headed with a higher than usual level of anticipation to my main wine tasting group’s tasting on 1997 California Cabernet Sauvignon. The events of the day put the tasting under a special light, with everyone wondering, on arrival, whether or not a Mondavi cabernet would be part of this enticing line-up.

The first sip of the evening, after touring the aromatic landscapes of the nine wines decanted for the occasion, was accompanied with a toast to Robert Mondavi, with everyone saluting the spirit of the man. Doing it with the best vintage in recent memory seemed quite fitting.

We were tasting blind, which I always prefer, but when the bottles were pulled out at the end of the tasting run, it was revealed that we had tasted with the right wine. And what an elegant start to the evening it had been, delicious and elegant and refined and able to hold its own against the apparently more powerful wines that followed.

Overall, I was struck by the wide range of aromas and flavors found in the wines – all cabs, all from the same vintage. Evolution varied greatly as well, just as extraction, oak integration, color and tannins did too. As Bernard, our host for these tastings, pointed out quite rightly, the variations in climate and soil and, even more, the signature of the winemakers could easily be perceived in the wines. For those who think that New World Cabs are all the same, well, I certainly have to say it’s not true – at least not at the higher price range.

So here are the full tasting notes of the evening:

1. Robert Mondavi Stag’s Leap District, Napa Valley

Clear, garnet-colored wine, meaty nose with blackcurrant jam and iodine notes, beautiful creamy texture with silky smooth tannins, and a subtle range of flavors going from celery to raspberry, mineral and orange peel. Remarkable balance and refinement.

2. Kendall-Jackson, Buckeye Vineyard, Alexander Valley

Deep garnet color, tight nose with blackcurrant/blackberry, cocoa, smoky notes, fine but substantial tannins, compact on the flavors as well, with notes of dust and cocoa particularly coming through. More extraction and wood than the Mondavi.

3. Arrowood, Sonoma County

Earthy and animal aromas and flavors dominate this wine, with vegetal, smoky, cedary notes overlapping with jammy touches, a little mushroom and coffee, all rounded by smooth, ripe tannins. Nicely complex, with great length and changing flavors as time goes by.

4. Corison, Kronos Vineyard, Napa Valley

Lighter, slightly more evolved color on this intriguing wine featuring red-fruit jam, cigar-box aromas with granny smith apples and slightly oily notes on the nose. Kicking in slowly, it features fresh acidity and fruity aromas, with a note of oranges and medium length. Very pleasant overall, though.

5. Benziger Reserve, Sonoma County

Leather, spice, light fruit, medeciney nose, bright clear color. The mouthfeel is more intense than the nose, with spices, coffee, cedar, a fair bit of sweetness, but a touch of astringency on the finish. Doesn’t seem to be fully integrated yet, but has a while to go.

6. Kenwood Vineyards Artist Series, Sonoma County

Lovely deep garnet color, with ripe red currant, leather, coffee, vanilla and a nice touch of earthy, dusty aromas. A very balanced mouthfeel, long and bright, finishing on a beautiful black fruit note that goes on and on, after an array of rich flavors corresponding nicely to the aromas. Great stuff.

7. Dominus, Napa Valley

Not surprisingly, the more Bordeaux-like of all the evening’s cabernets. A dense, bright ruby color, aromas of horse saddle, iodine, smoke, ferns and woodland, red cherry – and that’s just on the nose. Neat, clean mouthfeel with tight flavors of leather, coffee, a round, sweet feel, but with a graphite finale and significant, well-rounded tannins. A class act.

8. Beringer Private Reserve, Napa Valley

A lovely set of distinctive aromas on this expansive wine: pine and blackberry, licorice and blood, something like the crust of a camembert. Flavors are tight and dense, with dust, oak, cherry, strawberrys, a touch of menthol, and a sudden burst of fresh fruit, as if you were biting into the grape itself. Still quite young and yet well-integrated and elegant.

9. Ridge Montebello, Santa Cruz

Still showing ruby-violet, this young giant shows a concentrated, rich nose, ripe with blackcurrant, spice, peat smoke, fruit ketchup, concord grape and a host of other aromas waiting to burst over time. On tasting, it is warm and luscious, with spicy notes, firm tannins, black berries, jam, salty, mineral touches and great length. More expansive than I would have expected from a Paul Draper wine, but it also feels “incredibly young”, as I wrote down enthusiastically.

As befits such a remarkable year, none of the wines were beyond their peak. Anybody lucky enough to have them in their cellar can still lovingly stare at the bottles for a while.

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