I invited wine-blogging colleague Benito to come over and taste six pairs of mainly limited-edition red wines with me a couple of weeks ago. The wines within each pair were related in some way, mainly in the sense that they were made by the same producer but from different vineyards or appellations. My intention was to see what sort of characteristics the wines possessed and how they expressed the variations in location, if they did so, and to what degree. There were four pairs of cabernet sauvignon-based wines and two pairs of merlot; one pair was from Washington state and the others from California, two from Sonoma County and three from Napa Valley.

Benito knew none of these details; all I revealed to him was that the wines were red, in related pairs and that we would taste them blind. I had a potential advantage, of course, but after I bagged and marked the wines (and removed the capsules), I moved the pairs around the table, and when Benito arrived, I asked him to do the same thing. When we sat down to begin, I realized by looking at the groups of bottles in brown paper sacks that I actually didn’t have a clue what the order was.

Here’s the deal: I found these wines, whose prices range from $35 to $85, generally solid and well-made but unexciting, uninvolving and uncompelling. Many of them shared so many similar qualities that they felt as if they had been engineered by committees. Nor did I discover much of the individuality and personality I was hoping for, either in the single examples or comparatively within the pairs. In fact, they seemed remarkably alike, reflecting a sense of prevalent style. After Benito and I tried the wines on a Thursday afternoon, I set the wines aside, let them rest over night and tried them the next day, and the next and even on Sunday; there was little sense of development or diminishing of oak and tannin. It’s difficult to understand, then, what these wines represent except their own status as iconic products to be featured on high-end wine lists and in the cellars of collectors. The order in which the wines are reviewed follows the order in which Benito and I tasted them.

These wines were received as samples for review.
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1. Matanzas Creek Merlot 2006, Bennett Valley, Sonoma County. 88.5% merlot, 7.5% syrah, 4% cabernet sauvignon. 14.1% alcohol. $35. and 2. Matanzas Creek Jackson Park Vineyard Merlot 2006, Bennett Valley, Sonoma County. 100% merlot. 14.1% alcohol. $49. Winemaker is François Cordesse. Matanzas Creek is part of the Jackson Family Wines of Kendall-Jackson.

The “regular” Bennett Valley Merlot 06 offers a dark ruby-purple color and a seductive bouquet of smoke, lilac and lavender, iodine and graphite, cassis and crushed raspberries, with a final fillip of violets and toasty charcoal. (The oak regimen is 14 months in French barrels, 31 percent new, 69 percent used.) So, this aromatic nature is attractive and pretty standard in the California vein, with emphasis on the character that comes from oak aging, all that sort of smoky, crunchy, roasted stuff. The wine is rich, ripe and juicy with black fruit flavors, deeply spicy, solid with dense chewy tannins that grow more austere as the minutes (and days) pass, and altogether very cabernet-like in its sleek, powerful structure.

How does the Jackson Park version compare? Immediately one feels more power and darkness in the glass, more structure and more of the wheatmeal-graham-walnut shell nature, the dusty minerals that indicate the presence of formidable oak and tannin and presage time in the cellar. This wine also spends 14 months in French oak, 50 percent new barrels, 25 percent one-year-old, 25 percent two-year-old. At first the wine feels pungent, spicy and provocative, but it quickly succumbs to its structural elements, turning very dry and austere from mid-palate through the finish, leading one to wonder if the only way to produce impressive merlot-based wines is to make them like cabernet sauvignon. Try this perhaps from 2012 or ’13 through 2016 or ’17.

I rate both of these merlots Very Good+.
____________________________________________________________________________________________________ 1. Emblem Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Napa Valley. 100% cabernet. 14.3% alcohol. $50. and 2. Emblem Oso Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Napa Valley. 100% cabernet. 13.7% alcohol. $50. Winemakers are Michael Mondavi and his son Robert Michael Mondavi Jr. of Folio Fine Wine Partners.

The Rutherford district, progenitor of the famed (or infamous) “Rutherford dust” character, marks the heart of the Napa Valley. Named for the small, unincorporated community on Hwy 29, the district stretches in a broad band across the valley from the foot of the Mayacamas mountains in the west to the smaller Vaca Range on the east. The grapes for the Emblem Rutherford Cabernet 06 derive from a single, unnamed vineyard on the eastern side of the Napa River. This feels, indeed, like classic Napa/Rutherford cabernet, with a nose of cedar and black olives, mint and cloves and very intense and ripe cassis and black cherry scents wrapped in spicy oak and (yes) a dusty, leafy graphite quality. The oak treatment is 22 months in French barrels, of which 66 percent were new. At first, Emblem Rutherford 06 is pretty luscious and juicy, but strapping tannins expand rapidly and take up all the available space, turning the wine austere to the point of astringency. It is, in a word, huge in oak, huge in tannin, huge in that dusty, granite-like mineral element. It’s the old iron-fist in the iron-glove thing. Try from 2012 or ’14 through 2018 or ’20. For now, Very Good+.

Cousinage between these two Emblem wines consists of the factor of 100 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes and some resemblance in the oak regime, which for the Oso Vineyard 06 is also 22 months in French barrels, but 45 percent of the barrels are new. No matter. The Oso is another substantial, oak-bound, formidably tannic and granite-like wine that’s even more closed, more brooding and more austere than the Rutherford 06. The grapes come from the Mondavi family’s Oso Vineyard in the northern part of Napa Valley, near Calistoga. Considerable time will elapse before it softens and unfolds a bit, though I’ll grant that the wine’s supple texture — the tannins are more velvety than grainy and gritty — is very attractive. Another Very Good+ and hoping for the best after 2013 or ’14.
_____________________________________________________________________________________________________ 1. Northstar Merlot 2006, Walla Walla Valley, Washington. 78% merlot, 17% cabernet sauvignon, 5% cabernet franc. 14.4% alcohol. 1,200 cases. $50. and 2. Northstar Merlot 2006, Columbia Valley. 76% merlot, 19% cabernet sauvignon, 3% petit verdot, 2% cabernet franc. 14.7% alcohol. 10,00 cases. $41. Winemaker is David Merfeld. Northstar is a sister winery to Chateau Ste. Michelle.

The point here is that since Walla Walla is a smaller appellation within Columbia Valley theoretically a Walla Walla merlot will be (or could be) better than a merlot from the larger, more diversified region; how else justify the difference in price and packaging? As it happens, in this blind tasting, Benito and I tried the Walla Walla version before the Columbia Valley rendition, and while I’ll give the Northstar Walla Walla 06 a slight edge over the Northstar Columbia 06, these were both very well-made wines with a pleasing sense of detail and dimension. Walla Walla is, as many devotees of merlot know, a potentially superb area for the grape. Do these Northstar merlots, especially the Walla Walla, evince a definite regional character, points that one would pick out as “Walla Walla”? I would say not. While immensely enjoyable, there’s not much to distinguish these merlots from dozens, if not hundreds, of other examples.

To follow the tasting order, the Northstar Merlot 06, Walla Walla, ages 17 months in French oak barrels, 56 percent new. The grapes for the wine derive from nine blocks within four vineyards. The color is dark ruby-purple with a slightly paler purple rim; the bouquet is intense and concentrated, a tightly furled amalgam of iodine and iron, licorice and lavender, and very ripe and penetrating scents of black currant and black cherry. The wine is deeply rooted in baking spice and macerated black fruit flavors permeated by polished oak, graphite and dense, supple tannins, all ensconced in a sumptuous, velvety texture. Drink now through 2015 to ’16. Very Good+.

Surprisingly, my first notes on the Northstar Merlot 2006, Columbia Valley, are “color is even darker; more intense — more concentrated.” This is actually an incredibly dense, fervently eloquent expression of the merlot grape that, for once, doesn’t seem like just another cabernet in disguise. The wine sees a little more oak than its stablemate — 18 months in 70 percent French and 30 percent American oak barrels, 65 percent new — but it does not come off as besotted or imperiled by wood; in contrast, it feels as if you’re drinking tapestry loaded with cassis, Damson plums, potpourri, mocha and bitter chocolate with a slightly piquant spicy edge and a lacy etching of iron filings. Nothing over-ripe or exaggerated here, and, in fact, this may be the most elegant and balanced wine of the tasting. Drink now through 2015 or ’16. Excellent.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________ 1. Rodney Strong Rockaway Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County. 97% cabernet sauvignon, 2% malbec, 1% petit verdot. 15.4% alcohol. $75. and 2. Rodney Strong Brothers Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County. 100% cabernet sauvignon. 15.4% alcohol. $75. Winemakers are Rick Sayre and Gary Patzwald, with David Ramey as consultant.

Alexander Valley is a narrow, 12-mile long region that stretches southeast to northwest into the upper reaches of Sonoma County. At its lower end, Alexander Valley is buttressed by Knights Valley on the east, Chalk Hill and Russian River Valley to the south and southwest and Dry Creek Valley to the west, but it rises above this crowd and reaches in isolation up to the border with Mendocino County. The Russian River runs right down through the center of Alexander Valley, providing a moderating influence to temperatures that are generally warmer than the rest of the county.

The Brothers Ridge Vineyard, in what we’ll call the northern quadrant of Alexander Valley, lies east of the town of Cloverdale — pop. 6,831; motto “Genuinely Cloverdale” — in hills that reach nearly 1,000 feet elevation. The soil is loam over layers of sandstone, shale and “ancient” greenstone, that is, basaltic rock that was once deep-sea lava. The vineyard faces mainly west. In contrast, the Rockaway Vineyard, which slopes primarily northeast and southwest, lies over a gravelly clay subsoil atop fractured sandstone. A few miles southeast of Brothers Ridge and slightly lower — 750 feet at the highest elevation — Rockaway is a bit cooler. Do these factors of climate and geography produce different wines? Don’t forget the element of oak aging; 22 months in French barrels, 42 percent new, for Brothers Ridge, 22 months, in French barrels, 47 percent new, for Rockaway.

Rockaway 2006 starts with toasty, sweet oak and sweet, ripe black and blue fruit scents straight out of the gate; this bouquet is deliriously seductive, broadly and deeply spicy, with violets, crushed lavender, licorice and an exotic touch of mocha and smoky, incense-like sandalwood. Soon, however, one reaches an impasse; yes, there are the generous spicy nature and glimmers of cassis and blue plums with a hint of fruit cake, but mainly the wine at this point is tightly, massively structured, and three days in the bottle did not do a lot to help it unfurl. On Sunday morning, Rockaway 06 still offered an intensely spicy character that permeated black cherry and red currant flavors, but the tale was told in chewy, grainy tannins and formidably austere oak. Try from 2012 or ’13 through 2018 to ’20. Very Good+ for now.

Brothers Ridge 2006 felt a little looser, a little more open and approachable than its cousin. Here we perceive leather, plums with hints of espresso and prunes — the summer of 2006 was historically hot — the depth and range of the spice cabinet, touches of menthol and cedar. After three days of sweet-talking and coaxing, though, however much the attractive points of macerated and roasted berries became evident, Brothers Ridge 06 remained all about oak, which coated the mouth with austerity and astringency. It’s difficult to imagine that the wine will ever achieve the equilibrium it requires to become palatable. Try, with hope in your hearts, from 2013 or ’14 through 2018 to ’20. Very Good+ for now.
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1. Piña Cellars Buckeye Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley. 100% cabernet. 15.1% alcohol. 840 cases. $85. and 2. Piña Cellars D’Adamo Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Napa Valley. 100% cabernet. 15.4% alcohol. 1,085 cases. $75. Winemaker is Anna Monticelli.

The Buckeye Vineyard, high atop Howell Mountain — vineyard elevation up to about 2,200 feet — is a far cry from the D’Adamo Vineyard, nestled in the foothills between the Silverado Trail and Atlas Peak. One feels that difference immediately in this pair of wines from the Piña family, who have been tending vineyards in Napa Valley since the late 19th Century. The Buckeye Howell Mt. 07 displays bastions of resonant tannins for framing and foundation, like the deepest bass notes of a grand pipe organ, yet the bouquet draws you in with bacon fat, lavender and licorice, smoky charcoal, roasted meat (lamb, I would say) and very intense and concentrated elements of black currants, black cherries and plums. By the third day after being opened, this Buckeye Howell Mt. 07 had evolved into a real classic of mountain-grown cabernet, with high notes of cedar, tobacco and mint leading into spiced and macerated black currants and plums; the wine was still inky and granite-like, still awesome with oak and tannin, yet its innate elegance and balance were clearly evident. Of the 12 wines under consideration in this post, this was my favorite. Try from 2013 or ’14 through 2020 to ’22. Excellent.

Not to stint, however, on the virtues of the D’Amado 07, which opened seeming a little sleeker, a little smoother and more supple than its stablemate; in fact, you could swim in this ripe, rich, spicy and floral bouquet, though seemingly fathomless tannins come into play fairly quickly and dominate the wine after 15 or 20 minutes in the glass. Three days later, that bouquet still simmers with spice, cloves and mocha and macerated black fruit, but the bitingly austere tannins, the oak, the mineral qualities had not abated an inch. Give this considerable time, and call it Very Good+ for now with the potential for an Excellent rating.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________ 1. Markham “The Altruist” Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Calistoga, Napa Valley. 100% cabernet. 14.8% alcohol. 507 cases. $53. and 2. Markham “The Philanthropist” Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Yountville, Napa Valley. 100% cabernet. 14.8% alcohol. 506 cases. $53. Winemaker is Kimberlee Nicholls. These wines are dedicated to Markham’s 2008 “Mark of Distinction” award winners, Table to Table in Ho-Ho-Kus, N.J., and the Bartlett Arboretum in Bell Plaine, Kansas.

These wines aged in French oak barrels 28 months and 27.5 months respectively, longer than any of the other wines tasted for this post, and the extra time shows in the intractability and impenetrability of their textures and structures. These are two freakin’ big tannic, oaken, dusty-iron-and-granite-girt wines! Will they ever come around? Making two 100 percent cabernet sauvignon wines from distinct areas in Napa Valley — Calistoga, north of St. Helena, and Yountville, in the central south –and treating them much the same in the winery would seem to point to the notion of emphasizing the wines’ origins in different micro-climates and soils, but the imposition of long oak aging and of deeply extracting tannins rendered that potentially interesting point moot, null and void. These cabernets are about their making, not about their vineyards or locations. As much as I played with them from Thursday afternoon until Sunday morning, I could elicit from them only the stringent rigor of their fabrication. Try, if you will, from 2014 or ’15 to 2020 or so, and let me know what happens. You know where to find me.
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