Tue 6 May 2008
LL no longer eats lamb or veal, so when she is traveling, on one night I’ll often buy lamb or veal chops and sit down with a phalanx of red wines to try with some of my favorite meats. She was out of town recently, so I got three small but thick loin lamb chops, sauteed them simply with rosemary, salt and pepper in a dab of olive oil (in the good old iron skillet), roasted a couple of potatoes and dutifully steamed a handful of green beans, which I actually ate, I promise.
Looking through the wine shelves and boxes at home, I grabbed six bottles, not really thinking about place or origin; I just wanted predominantly cabernet sauvignon wines. Turns out that two were from the Columbia Valley in Washington State, one from Australia’s Padthaway region and three were from the Napa Valley. Or without thinking about prices, which turned out to range from fairly expensive to outright expensive. On the other hand, the wines were excellent. While with one exception the alcohol levels were all above 14 percent (and what’s not nowadays), the wines were balanced and integrated, with none of the flamboyant toasty oak or excessive ripeness that render so many contemporary red wines questionable.
What is it about lamb and cabernet/merlot-based wines that makes them so amenable, so fated, as it were, to a marriage made in culinary heaven? Lamb is fatty, ripe itself in the way that good fresh meat can be ripe, a little earthy and gamy (it’s “wilder” than beef or pork) and, in the way that great beef has, it possesses a mineral quality that the heat of the flame brings out. Wines composed solely or mainly of cabernet sauvignon or merlot offer, in their own vinous ways, very similar qualities: the richness and ripeness, the “fat,” the mineral elements. Sometimes I like pinot noir with lamb, but most of the time, give me cabernet or merlot.
These wines are mentioned in the order of tasting.
*The blend of the Matthews Cellars Claret 2004, Columbia Valley, is 55% cabernet sauvignon, 22% merlot, 18% cabernet franc, 4% malbec and 1% syrah. The color is dusky ruby-purple; the bouquet wafts a seductive strain of lavender and licorice, ripe, fleshy, meaty and dusty black currant and black raspberry. The wine is dense and chewy, smooth and mellow, packed with smoke and spice and minerals; after a few minutes in the glass, it opens earthy layers of underbrush and forest floor, polished oak and fairly gritty tannins. It’s a lovely red wine, accessible and delicious yet capable of aging through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $32.
*Notice how the combination of grapes on the Matthews Red Wine 2003, Columbia Valley, is similar to the blend of the previous wine but without the malbec and syrah; this is 53% cabernet sauvignon, 26% cabernet franc and 21% merlot. The first impression is of an incredible and heady smoldering heap of bitter chocolate, mint and eucalyptus, cedar and smoke, potpourri, lavender and sandalwood. Then the fruit comes up in a welter of macerated and roasted black currants, black cherries and plums. It’s a high-strung wine, taut with acid, energized by minerals, but still dense and cushiony, lavish with firm oak and grainy tannins that gain power and substance as moments pass. Try from 2009 through 2012 to ’15. 823 cases. Excellent. About $60.
*Made from 100% cabernet grapes, Henry’s Drive Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Padthaway, delivers the towering heft and darkness of a softly cloaked monument. This is a wine of piercing purity and intensity, huge and vibrant, deeply imbued with dusty oak and grainy tannins and seething with earthy, mossy, forest floor qualities and a resonant mineral element that lends the wine tremendous dynamism. Fruit falls into the realm of rich, ripe and fleshy black currants and black raspberries with touches of mint and eucalyptus and toasted Asian spices channeling licorice and lavender. For all its size and complexity, the wine is beautifully balanced and integrated. Try now, served with barbecue brisket or chili-rubbed pork chops and such fare, from 2010 to 2015 or ’16. Case production was 1,150. Excellent. About $37. Great stuff.
The wines of Henry’s Drive Vignerons, which include Henry’s Drive, Parson’s Flat, Pillar Box and Dead Letter Office, are imported by Quintessential, Napa, California.
*Merryvale Vineyards no longer offers a “reserve” designation, under which this wine would previously have fallen. The level is now the “Signature Tier,” though that term does not occur on the label. In any case, the Signature Tier wines find a niche between the less expensive “Starmont” line and the top-of-the-line Profile and Silhouette.
The Merryvale Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 is composed largely of grapes that would have gone into the Profile, had Profile been made in 2005. Produced from 100 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes and aged 18 months in French oak, 32% new barrels, this feels like classic Napa Valley cabernet. It’s deep, rich and lush, dark as the night that covers us from pole to pole, a serious, intense and concentrated wine. The bouquet is woven from walnut shell and wheatmeal, mocha, cedar and tobacco and — give it a few minutes — aromas of tightly wound black currant and black cherry. The wine is huge in the mouth, notably tannic , earthy and minerally, bursting with spice, and yet for its size, it delivers a remarkable degree of finesee; it’s almost light on its feet. Of this group of wines, it’s the one that cried “Rib-eye steak, please, hot and crusty from the grill!” Drink 2010 through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $50.
*My first note on the Bourassa Vineyards Symphony3 Proprietors Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2004, Napa Valley, is “Wow, what a mouthful of wine.” This producer believes in strenuous oak treatment, as in three years in French barrels (no indication as to the proportion of new to used), yet the wine is immaculately bright, vivid and vibrant, deliciously smooth and mellow. Notes of ripe, meaty and fleshy black currants, black raspberries and cherries teem in the glass, well-laced with smoke, spice and potpourri. Earthy, minerally tannins feel finely milled, as if they had been ground between giant rollers of iron-flecked velvet, while oak is powerful and polished and a tad debonair. This is, in other words, a wine of lively contrasts and happy resolutions. Best from about 2010 to 2015 to ’18. Cases produced: 500. Excellent. About $60.
*Three years in French oak is also the regimen for the Bourassa Harmony3 Red Wine 2003, Napa Valley. The blend is 56% cabernet sauvignon, 23% malbec and 21% cabernet franc; the alcohol level is a mild-mannered 13.5 percent. What an absolutely lovely, vigorous, palate-pleasing red wine, pure pleasure! It offers wonderful balance and integration, great breeding and character, classic equilibrium of power and elegance, each element essential and inevitable. Yes, it does get pretty smacky, minerally and foresty on the finish, just as it should. I won’t say that I would choose this wine over the others on this page, because they’re all tremendously enticing, filled with depth and detail, yet this one seems special. Cases production: 450. Excellent. About $48.