Wed 29 Oct 2008
On the plate: A rib-eye steak from a grass-fed, pasture-raised all-organic bovine. I marinated the steak in red wine and garlic for an hour and grilled it outside over hardwood charcoal, about five minutes on the first side and four minutes on the second, so it came out a rosy medium-rare. Wow, it was scrumptious, with that perfect balance that great steaks have of ripe, fleshy meatiness (or beefness) with succulent texture and earthy minerality. Hey, sounds like a great cabernet!
In the glass: Five cabernet sauvignon wines and one cabernet franc that had been waiting for me to open and try on the right occasion. It’s much better to sample wines like these at the dining table with the appropriate food than standing up in the kitchen going through them as if in a laboratory, though sometimes that situation has to prevail, too, as in, “O.K., guess I better do these 12 pinot grigios under $12.”
Mainly, these cabernet-based (and cabernet franc-based) wines do not display the over-ripe, over-extracted, over-oaked character that has turned California’s cabernet wines into parodies of cabernet and into a sea of sameness from producer to producer and year to year. Mainly, these are wines of vigor and rigor that allow structure and fruit and acid to speak both for themselves and in harmony. One is a bargain; the others are expensive, though with the way prices have risen, does $30 still count as an expensive wine? Now $90, yes, that’s a kick in the wallet.
Here are the wines in the order of tasting.
Spellbound is a label from Folio Fine Wine Partners, a company launched by Robert Mondavi Jr. and his wife Lydia after the sale of Robert Mondavi Winery to Constellation late in 2004. The Spellbound Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, California, offers lots of personality for the price. Composed of 76 percent cabernet sauvignon, 9.5 percent petite sirah and 14.5 percent “other proprietary reds,” the wine, a dark ruby color with a deep purple center, immediately delivers a snootful of dusty plums and black currents permeated by lavender and licorice, cloves and sandalwood. It’s ripe, meaty and fleshy in the mouth, quite dense and chewy, fit for rolling around on the tongue, and the oak comes up from mid-palate back, contributing serious touches of walnut shell and underbrush. Drink now through 2011 or ’12. We were immensely impressed with the quality of this wine. Very Good+, and at about $15 it represents Great Value.
One of the problems with being around for 30 years is that you disappear into the background, a circumstance that has lately befallen the venerable Markham Vineyards. To sample what this winery is doing right, however, try the Markham Cabernet Sauvignon 2004, Napa Valley. The color is dark ruby shading to a purple-black center; aromas of woody spice and spicy wood, like old church altars permeated by centuries of smoke and incense, testify to oak aging, but the wine also smells of mint and minerals, and intense, concentrated roasted plums and black currants. The wine tastes ripe and fleshy, but neither too ripe nor too fleshy; black fruit flavors are infused with licorice and lavender, while the structure of dense, chewy tannins is bolstered by lively acid. The wine reveals lovely poise and balance but power too, while on the finish a few minutes bring out its underbrush and brambly character, leading to a bit of austerity from mid-palate back. Try from 2010 to 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $30.
Lord have mercy, the Tom Eddy Wines Elodian Cabernet Sauvignon 2004, Napa Valley, teems with iodine and granite; it’s as savory as rare beef strewn with sea salt and as winsome as spiced, roasted and macerated black currants, cherries and plums can be, with their keen mineral edge and vibrant acid. The wine gets “darker” in the glass, more intense, rootier, earthier, yet it offers beguiling and impressive class and character. This is 100 percent cabernet sauvignon, aged 28 months in French oak, 70 percent new, yet one does not smell, taste or feel the oak as anything but an essential, supporting role. A cabernet wine for grown-ups. Drink 2009 or ’10 through 2014 or ’15. Production was 400 cases. Excellent. About $40.
The Oakville Ranch “Robert’s Blend” 2004, Napa Valley, is composed of 83 percent cabernet franc and 17 percent cabernet sauvignon. This is truly a serious wine; it’s dark and deep, profoundly spicy, indubitably tannic and minerally, bursting with the untamed wild blueberry, mulberry and dusty leather notes, the bitter chocolate and walnut shell of the best cabernet franc. Lots of gravity, broad dimension and detail — the wine feels fathomless, inexhaustible. In the practical sense, this should be consumed from 2010 to 2018 or ’19; in the world of my fevered imagination, it feels ageless. The wine spends 25 months in French oak, 80 percent new barrels. Production was 122 cases (244 six-packs). Excellent. About $90.
The highly publicized first release of Rockaway Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Alexander Valley, a project of Rodney Strong Vineyard, speaks of its pedigree in every aspect, from the tall, etched Bordeaux-style bottle with its deep punt and broad shoulders, to its team of winemakers and consultants and vineyard managers; did it really take all these people to make this wine? The price tag confirms that pedigree, or at least its delusions of grandeur. The wine is 92 percent cabernet sauvignon and four percent each malbec and petit verdot; it ages 24 months in new French oak. I wanted there to be more “here” here; certainly the wine has many of the contemporary virtues going for it, but it feels as if it had been designed by a committee, a trait that many California “cult” cabernets share. Of course the wine is dense and intense, concentrated and minerally; of course the tannins and oak feel packed in, polished, sleek. We would expect no less. And I’ll admit that the next day, the Rockaway 2005 offered tremendous vigor and resonance; 12 or 14 hours added detail and complexity to the wine. I still sensed something missing, however, call it heart and soul, call it character and individuality; Rockaway 2005 is typical of the best that Sonoma County can produce, but it doesn’t go beyond that common standard. Drink now through 2015 or ’16. Still, I have to rate it Excellent. About $75.
The Tom Eddy Cabernet Sauvignon 2002, Napa Valley, the current release of this wine, is 100 percent cabernet sauvignon, one-third of the grapes drawn from high in the Diamond Mountain District and two-thirds from the loamy soil of the valley floor in St. Helena and Oakville. The point is that the wine is not an expression of a particular vineyard or designation but of the Napa Valley itself, and that’s certainly how it feels, as deep, as rocky, as alluvial as its historic origins. This is a cool, clean and powerfully minerally cabernet, effortless in its confidence, eloquence and elegance but with foundations that rest on bulwarks of polished oak — 28 months in French barrels, 85 percent new — and grainy tannins. And let’s not forget the vibrant acidity that keeps the wine lively and resonant and courses through structure and ripe black fruit flavors like dark electricity. Yeah, damnit, I love this wine, though I could never afford to buy it. 544 cases (1088 six-packs). Drink from 2010 through 2018 or ’20. Exceptional. About $90.