Recently, I attended a single-blind* tasting with a group of wine collectors whom I regularly meet to share interesting wine. While it has lately become popular to bash the direction of Napa reds and the influence of Robert Parker on the Napa wine industry, here was a chance to evaluate the longevity of Napa wines, BEFORE the wine style began to change. I will try to walk you thru the mindset of a single-blind tasting and wine evaluation. Hopefully, you will find it interesting. Hitch-up your britches, pour a glass of wine and let’s git after it…
(*”Single-blind” is the term used when you are provided with only general information, say: growing region and vintage, or Bordeaux blend and cool climate vineyard. With a minimum of information for context, you must then determine as much about the wine as possible, such as: grape varietal(s), winery – maybe even winemaker, etc. “Double-blind” tasting would include no information about the wine prior to tasting.)
I always enjoy starting a wine evening off with bubbly, but 1983 Dom Perignon? What a start to a great evening. The Dom still had medium+ acidity, was well balanced, but had moved beyond nutty to more of a brown butter component. The age on the wine gave it a beautiful texture. For those who have not drunk aged Champagne, the texture can be so gorgeous, it is worth tasting for the mouthfeel alone. The young Veuve Clicquot was bright and bracing as it should be.
The Cat (Wine) is Out of the Bag
Out of the bag quite literally… Here are the pics of the bottles out of their paper bags, after we wrote our tasting notes and had attempted to select which bottles matched which producer. Our host served charcuterie, bread and some beautiful pate I really enjoyed to clear/accompany the palate.
1974 Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
Very balanced wine, but reaching its limit. Still with medium acidity and medium-minus tannins, this drank reasonably well, but the oxidation had taken over the fruit and was a few years beyond its drinking window. The fruit had moved to more prune and raisin, than fresh fruit flavors. This would have drunk better at around 35 years of age, around 10 years ago. The brownish color around the rim and prune flavors gave it away, almost all of us identified this wine correctly.
1984 Diamond Creek Vineyard Volcanic Hill Cabernet Sauvignon
This wine still had strong tannins. It was a little watery with a very restrained nose and palate. Diamond Mountain region wines in the past have tasted big, tannic, with subdued fruit and without much nuance (IMO)… but with age, developed great mouthfeel. Exactly how this wine tasted. This was an easy tell, with some tasting history to reference.
1985 Silver Oak Alexander Valley (Sonoma) Cabernet Sauvignon
This was the fruitiest of the bunch and had the most obvious oak. This was the surprise of the evening (IMO). Recent vintages of Silver Oak Cab Sauv are not generally viewed as being able to stand up to extended aging, but this 80’s era vintage was balanced and still fruity. A nice wine with tremendous character for 30+ years of age. With the most obvious oak on the nose and palate, this fit the Silver Oak tasting profile, making for a high probability of accuracy.
1984 Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
I mistook the next two for each other. I have always had an odd relationship with BV as a producer. I have not really cared for their lower priced wines, having only a minimum of value (IMO), while their famous Georges de Latour release every year is good, but over-priced. They also seem to develop complex flavors in their higher priced wine, some flavors of which I don’t care for. So, I may have gone into this tasting with preconceived notions… which is always an interesting aspect of blind tasting. I guessed this wine was the Joseph Phelps, mostly because I enjoyed this wine as having the most balanced profile of the wines tasted and having the most gorgeous mouthfeel. Frankly, I didn’t think a BV wine could be this good. (buzzer sound) Well, I blew that one! Chalk one up for having a closed mind.
1985 Joseph Phelps Backus Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon
I described this one in my notes with the typical wine industry generic term, “food friendly”. The kiss of the death for uninteresting wine in a tasting note in the U.S. This was the most acidic of the bunch. Which was amazing, since this wine was 33 years old. It was a little vegetal with a touch of tomato, but no green bell pepper… both characteristics of under-ripe Cab Sauv. Hard to believe this wine was from a warm vintage. This could only happen in a Napa vintage before 1995. No self-respecting Napa producer would ever harvest Cab this early in a warm year today. I enjoyed this wine the least of the bunch. Poor balance and “interesting”, but not particularly pleasant flavor profile.
1988 Lynch Bages Bordeaux Blend
This was smokey, with medium+ acidity and medium tannin. This was another example of an aged Bordeaux showing balance after extended aging. The flavor profile included an earthiness, that when you taste enough of 1st-5th growth Bordeaux wine, you come to recognize. Still with fresh fruit (blackberry) and stewed currants, the fruit was forward on the palate. I am not a huge fan of Pauillac region wines. I prefer the St. Estephe and Margaux regions in Bordeaux, but this was drinking nicely at 30 years and was a strong representative of Left Bank Bordeaux.
This aged, vintage port was exceptional! The fruit had lasted very well. Not too sweet, tasting like a more recent vintage… but for a port, this wine was so balanced… integrated alcohol, good acidity, soft & full mouthfeel. All of us agreed, this was the outstanding wine of the evening. I wish I could hold on to ports this long. This one was worth the wait.
Well, there you have it. A great evening! I hope you enjoyed the personal perspective and found insight into blind tasting methodology. I think you can see, blind tasting accuracy is mostly: having tasted a lot of wine labels and being able to hold them in your memory. These were all exceptional wines, wines I would score from 90-99 on the Parker scale. We definitely proved the point, most collectors can easily identify Bordeaux in a line-up of Napa Cabs. All of us guessed the Lynch Bages correctly.
Napa Cab Sauv: Now & Back Then
Not many are allowed the opportunity to taste a selection of Napa Cabs from the 70’s & 80’s. This was a great experience. I will reiterate comments made before about Napa in the last 30+ years… Prior to 1995 Napa made true Bordeaux style wines: structured, leaner, lower alcohol and well-suited for extended aging. 1995 to 2003 was an interim period, where Napa Cabs were fruitier and more ripe than before, but still able to handle 10-20 years in the bottle. 2004 and after, most of the wine was produced for optimum drinking windows in the 5-10 year range. This is just a gross generality. There are individual exceptions with both shorter and longer aging windows, but in general, I have found this evaluation to hold true.