Tasting Note: 1998 Conundrum, Caymus Vineyards

If you do things well enough, you can make pretty much anything work in winemaking. Even combinations and approaches that simply shouldn’t make sense.

Want proof? Try some Conundrum, the impossibly complicated blend created by Caymus winemaker John Bolta. It’s made from chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, semillon, viognier and muscat from Napa Valley, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Lucia Highlands and various other points in California, all fermented separately (some in stainless steel tanks, some in oak) and finally assembled in a blend that holds surprisingly well together.

For reasons that are well beyond my ken, blends like this sometimes go divergent, as if every grape was standing in his own corner of the schoolyard with his bunch, while others go convergent, turning the wine in a beautiful multivarietal love-in. With as many as sixty different components coming into play, Conundrum goes for harmony, with a level of success I’ve rerely seen elsewhere. Orin Swift’s The Prisoner, for instance, blends half zinfandel with some cabernet sauvignon, some charbono, syrah and petite syrah and a touch of grenache), while Mas de Daumas Gassac’s white wine is made from 20% each of Viognier, chardonnay, Petit Manseng, Chenin Blanc, plus 20% mixing a number of rare white varieties including petite arvine. Other such exotic mixes I’ve tasted were most often exotic misses.

Opened yesterday for a family dinner, the 1998 Conundrum was just gorgeous, with a full-fledged, deep golden colour and intense aromas where honey, roasted almonds, candied lemon, with a touch of butter and a flourish of the distinctive aroma of muscat mixed and moved beautifully. Quite a mouthful, the wine was full-bodied, round and velvety, confirming the aromas with corresponding flavors, to which a little spice and beeswax could be added. My only reservation is that the acidity felt a little out of place, even though, overall, it had the advantage of keeping the wine feeling fresh.

We drank the Conundrum with a lovely roasted ham, carrots, green beans and cabbage that had just slowly melted away in butter. The match was perfect, the sweetness and acidity of the wine complementing the saltiness and fat of the ham particularly well. I finished my last glass with some soft cheese, and there again the sweetness-acidity vs saltiness-fat was working very well.

I have wonderful memories, as well, of the 1995 Conundrum, which I was lucky enough to drink a few times at one of my long-time favorite restaurants, Le Graffiti, in Quebec City, after finishing my only cellared bottle. It’s the type of wine that can clearly take an encore.

More recently, I was less sure about a 2005 Conundrum, tasted last year with a sommelier friend. A sulfurous note was interfering with the more familiar aromas. A faulty bottle, perhaps? Something to do with the early conversion to screwcaps? Or maybe, as the 1995 and 1998 have showed, the wine just needed more time.


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