Tue 24 Mar 2009
Here’s an interesting and unusual conjunction of wines that we tried in the last week of March, 1984, on the 26 through the 28th, like two days away from 25 years ago. One was a failure, one a triumph.
I remember hesitating for weeks before buying the Chateau Beychevelle 1977, from Bordeaux’s commune of Saint-Julien, because I knew that it might not be too good. In my favorite wine volume at the time, and still one of my favorites, The Great Vintage Wine Book (Alfred A. Knopf, 1982), Michael Broadbent calls 1977 “one of the least inspiring vintages of the decade,” so, having pored over Broadbent’s annotations numerous times, I can’t say that I wasn’t warned. You know though, there it was on the shelf, it’s a Fourth Growth (according to the Classification of 1855), the chateau possesses ancient and noble lineage, the label is classy — and it was only $10, so I ponied up.
It was terrible. My notes: “Reflects the year. Brownish rim; some typical cabernet nose; a bare glance at complexity, some earthiness, but basically weak — an impression of tiredness and thinness.” So there.
The blend at Beychevelle, by the way, tends to be about 62 percent cabernet sauvignon, 31 percent merlot, five percent cabernet franc and two percent petit verdot.
Fortunately, those same days, we consumed a bottle of the Mayacamas Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 1980, which at the time carried a California appellation.
The winery was founded, high on Napa Valley’s Mount Veeder, in 1889 by German immigrant John Henry Fisher. He went bankrupt after a few years, and the winery was abandoned and fell derelict, until it was purchased in 1941, in a pioneering move, by Jack and Mary Taylor. They sold the property, in 1968, to Robert and Elinor Travers, who still own it. The winery’s reputation stands on its rock-ribbed, long-aging cabernet sauvignon wines, and I’ll tell you the truth. If someone, say a bright and shining angel, came to me and said, “F.K., you have been such a Good Boy and so exemplary in thought, word and deed, that I am going to offer you the chance to experience vertical tastings of any Napa Valley cabernets your heart desires,” I would say forget the cult cabernets, the new darlings of collectors, the Screaming Eagles and so on, and give me the old mountainside wines, Mayacamas, Mount Veeder, Diamond Creek, Dunn, let me feel the rich austerity and dignity of the altitudes.
Anyway, Mayacamas makes about 5,000 cases of wine a year, of which about 600 cases are sauvignon blanc that is given a short aging in American oak. Now I’ll confess that I have not seen a Mayacamas Sauvignon Blanc on a retail shelf for decades, in fact, not since the one under discussion here, so that’s 25 years ago. Nor have I seen a zinfandel from this winery, and zinfandel is not listed as part of the production on the website, but one of the most memorable wines of my career remains the Mayacamas Late Harvest Zinfandel 1984.
Anyway, the Mayacamas Sauvignon Blanc 1980, California, was splendid, sporting a pale straw color, a spare, elegant bouquet with touches of lemon and spice, “full body, exceptional balance, suave and smooth, dry.” It was certainly the best sauvignon blanc wine I had tasted up to that point and serves, in many ways, even today, as a model of excellence in my memory.