One knock against wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in Napa Valley, California is that they don’t age as well as most of their Old World counterparts, particularly those from France.
The trouble with that criticism is that it firstly assumes Napa Valley winemakers want to make wines that can age for decades, and secondly, that older wines are better than younger wines and thus more valuable.
With regard to the first point, it’s important to differentiate “don’t” from “can’t” when referring to how well Cabernet Sauvignons from Napa Valley age. Some Napa Cabs that are made to last can and do age incredibly well, as was demonstrated during a Grand Old House Wine Club tasting called “Five Decades of Napa Cab” on March 16.
“Everybody knows that wines from France, Italy and Spain can age,” said Luciano De Riso, the head of operations and wine director at Grand Old House, “but we don’t know that about a lot of wines from Napa. We knew that some of them do, but we didn’t know how long.”
The history of Napa Valley dates back to the 1830s when George Calvert Yount, after whom the Napa Valley town of Yountville is named, planted the first wine grapes. In 1861, Charles Krug was credited with establishing Napa Valley’s first commercial winery. Other wineries followed, including Beringer, which now holds the title of the longest continually running winery in Napa Valley, De Riso said.
Wine making in the Napa and Sonoma Valley regions blossomed throughout the late 19th century and early 20th century until Prohibition in the period between 1920 and 1933 made most of the production and sale of alcoholic beverages illegal. As a result, many of California’s wineries closed and after Prohibition’s repeal, the wine-making industry was slow to rebound, producing mostly low-quality jug wines for several decades. In the 1960s, some wineries – including Heitz Wine Cellars which was established in 1961 – began making fine wines, even though Napa Valley wines were mostly unknown at the time.
The first wine sampled at the Grand Old House tasting was a 1969 Heitz “Lot C-91” Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine that was over 46 years old.
“I was concerned that this wine, being so old, wouldn’t still be good, but we had three bottles and they were all in perfect condition,” De Riso said. “It is surprising how good it tastes still.”
He explained that Heitz doesn’t use malolactic fermentation, a secondary fermentation that converts tart malic acid to a less bracing lactic acid in wines. Wineries use malolactic fermentation to soften the wines, making them more pleasurable when young.
The sharp acidity was very much noticeable in the 1969 vintage wine and remarkably, there were still some subtle fruit flavors, although mostly of dried fruits.
It was in the late 1970s that Napa Valley wines really started gaining world attention, thanks to the now-famous “Judgment of Paris” blind testing – about which the movie “Bottle Shock” was made – of French and Californian Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays. Because the American wines took the overall top honors in that tasting, which celebrates its 40th anniversary in May, and a Time Magazine journalist wrote about it, the world found out that Napa wines could be as good as, if not better than, their venerable French counterparts. The tasting changed the wine world.
The 1979 Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon tasted second was produced in the post-Judgment of Paris years when California saw a rapid expansion in the number of its wineries. In 1970, there were only 240 wineries in the entire state, about half as many as there were in 1940. After the Judgment of Paris, the number of bonded wineries grew to 508 by 1980 and 807 by 1990. As of 2014, the number had grown to 4,285.
Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon was one of the wines sampled at the Judgment of Paris tasting (as was Heitz) and the 1979 vintage was still drinking well, showing more spirited tannins than the Heitz, a reflection of being a decade younger.
De Riso said that although the Grand Old House staff had opened the wine several hours beforehand, they had quickly covered the decanters to prevent too much air from interacting with the wine. Old wines are generally more fragile than young wines and can start oxidizing quickly and losing aromas when decanted.
“You should really only decant with young wines,” he said, defining young as 15 years old or less.
One of the most interesting aspects of the oldest two Napa wines was the difference in style they not only displayed from most modern Napa Valley wines, but also in the difference from the Cabernet Sauvignons produced at their own wineries today. These were both wines made with the acidity and tannic structure to age for decades and without the rich fruitiness common in most of today’s offerings. The grapes from both of the oldest wines had been harvested before they reached peak ripeness, which is not only the reason for the restrained fruitiness, but also for their 13 percent alcohol by volume level. These days, almost all Napa Cabs are produced at between 14 percent and 15.5 percent ABV, although some wineries in recent years are trying to produce Napa Cabs under 14 percent ABV again.
The success of Napa Valley wines against French wines piqued the interest of some winemakers from France in the early 1980s, including Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Château Mouton Rothschild, who partnered with Robert Mondavi to create Opus One, and a young Christian Moueix, who formed a partnership to produce Dominus at the historic Napanook Vineyard in Yountville.
The 1986 Dominus was the third wine tasted and was different from all the others in that it wasn’t from a vintage that ended in “9” and it was the only wine tasted that wasn’t 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon. Dominus is a Bordeaux-style blend of three grapes – which shouldn’t be surprising since Moueix was born and raised in the heart of Bordeaux – with Cabernet Sauvignon making up 80 percent of the blend, Cabernet Franc 12 percent and Merlot 8 percent.
Of the three wines tasted, it was, at nearly 30 years old, probably the one that was drinking at its peak, a gorgeous balance of power and elegance, French in style but Napa at its core.
“The finish stays a lot longer [than the others],” De Riso noted, “and to me, that’s the sign of a good wine.”
Not all Napa Valley wines are from grapes grown on the valley plain; there are mountain ranges above and below the valley, with the Mayacamas Mountains – where Mayacamas Vineyards is located – to the south and the Vaca Mountains and the Howell Mountains to the north.
Dunn Vineyards Howell Mountain 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon displayed the characteristics common with wines made from grapes grown in the cooler temperatures of altitude than those grown on the valley plain, namely firmer tannins and more concentrated flavors that aren’t dominated by ripe fruit.
Another difference in wines created by Dunn Vineyards is that they have lower alcohol content than most other Napa wines being made today, something it achieves by using a controversial “reverse osmosis” technique to remove some of the alcohol if the wine isn’t below 14 percent ABV.
As a result of the altitude, as well as the wine-making process, the 1999 Dunn Vineyards Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon was different than all the other wines, having a unique and austere quality that made it more attractive and contemplative to connoisseurs, but less attractive to those looking for an easy-drinking yet high-quality Napa Cab.
Fans of a quintessential easy-drinking yet high-quality Napa Cab got exactly that with the last wine, 2009 Caymus Special Select, a wine that reflects the Napa Valley trend – and market demand – for silky smooth, fruit-forward wines that are lush with chewy fruit flavors, to go with an alcohol content of 14.9 percent ABV.
De Riso said what many of the wine drinkers, some new to older vintages, were thinking. “I am a little ashamed, but this is the wine that I’m enjoying the most,” he said, referring to the fact that “serious” wine drinkers probably should have enjoyed more one of the other wines tasted.
He noted that Caymus has made its name for its consistency, creating wines that taste very similar year after year, regardless of environmental factors.
“If they have to intervene with nature [to make a wine with their signature characteristics], they will do it,” he said.
Looking at the wine, De Riso noted that Caymus had a much darker purple color than all the other wines tasted, a reflection of both its age and its style.
“Color will tell you a lot about wine,” he said, noting that “big” fruity wines are generally darker and that wines also lose some of their pigment as they age.