Fri 18 Feb 2011
It’s about time I got back to this series.
If your idea of a great cabernet sauvignon is an opulent, vanilla-laced, super-ripe fruit bomb, you might as well stop reading this post and go back to Popular Mechanics or The Robb Report. This post is about balance and elegance, about faithfulness to the grape, about deftness, purity and intensity.
The connection between two iconic Napa Valley wineries, Chateau Montelena and Grgich Hills, ancient history though it may be, is the figure of Mike Grgich, now one of the most venerable patriarchs of the Napa Valley wine industry. An immigrant from Croatia in 1958, Grgich worked at the old Souverain, Christian Brothers, Beaulieu Vineyard (under another influential immigrant, Andre Tchelistcheff) and Robert Mondavi. In 1972, Grgich was hired as winemaker at the new Chateau Montelena, founded that year by Jim Barrett (and investors) in an abandoned Gothic winery north of Calistoga that dated back to 1882. Grgich wasted no time, creating in the Montelena Chardonnay 1973 the white wine that placed first in the famous or infamous Paris Tasting of 1976. Obviously Grgich would become a hot property, and in 1977 he partnered with Austin Hills, of the San Francisco coffee family, in establishing the winery in the heart of Rutherford that still bears their names. Meanwhile, after the four-year tenure of winemaker Jerry Luper, Jim Barrett’s son Bo took over as winemaker at Montelena in 1981. Bo Barrett, somewhat of a patriarch himself, holds the title of Master Winemaker now; winemaker at Montelena since 2008 has been Cameron Parry. Grgich Hills is operated on biodynamic principles; winemaker is Ivo Jeramez.
These wines were samples for review.
It feels as if two bottles of wine were somehow packed into one bottle of the Grgich Hills Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Napa Valley, by which I don’t mean that the wine is super-overwhelming-opulent but that it possesses so much character that it seems supernaturally dimensioned. The wine is a blend of 90 percent cabernet sauvignon, 6 percent petit verdot, 3 percent merlot and 1 percent cabernet franc; it aged 21 months in French oak, 60 percent new barrels. This is a cabernet of sheens and facets, practically smoldering in the glass with intensity and concentration yet wholly generous and expansive. Classic touches of cedar and tobacco, leather and dusty graphite open to reveal hints of black currants and black cherries etched with briers, brambles and walnut shell. Dense, lustrous tannins and polished oak firmly set the stage for ripe and spicy black fruit flavors permeated by leafy and slightly herbal nuances and (again) that graphite-like minerality and earthiness. The body is tremendous but never ponderous because of the wine’s innate vibrancy and vitality, while the depths are fathomless, the texture forms a suitable balance between lushness and spareness, and the finish is drawn-out and fully furnished with spicy/foresty qualities. A model of a Napa Valley cabernet for drinking now through 2018 to ’20. Alcohol is 14.5 percent. Excellent. About $60.
Thyme and cedar and black olive; black currants and plums; walnut shell and dried porcini with a background of cloves and allspice and sandalwood; licorice and lavender and cocoa powder; and sprightly woodland floral elements: all combine to make the bouquet of the Grgich Hills Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Napa Valley, more than classic, beyond seductive, downright exotic, yet once inside, you realize that the wine has its sober, more dignified aspects, too. This is a blend — slightly different than its cousin from 2006 — of 88 percent cabernet sauvignon, 5 percent petit verdot, 4 percent cabernet franc and 3 percent merlot; the aging is the same, 21 months in French oak barrels, 60 percent new. As a great wine should, this one deftly, almost riskily balances monumental bearing with a delicacy of detail that amounts to a sense of decorum, as if a vast ebon cenotaph were etched in fine filigrees of floral motifs and winding tresses. Yeah, yeah, I’m waxing heavily metaphorical here, but I want to give My Readers some sense of the atmosphere and spirit of the wine, that indefinable impression in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, however appropriate or even wonderful those parts may be. This is, as you may infer, a great cabernet sauvignon for drinking from 2012 or ’14 through 2020 to ’22. Alcohol content is 14.8 percent. Exceptional. About $60.
The Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Napa Valley, is a blend of 88 percent cabernet sauvignon, 8 percent merlot and 4 percent cabernet franc; the wine ages 18 months in a combination of new and used French oak barrels. My first note on this wine is “classic … beautiful structure and balance.” The bouquet offers typical yet darkly radiant notes of briers and brambles, cedar and dried thyme, leather and walnut shell in a suave package that includes aromas of spiced and macerated black currants, black cherries and plums and a wafting touch of violets. The intensity and concentration here are awesome, yet the wine is not massively proportioned and even conveys the impression of being fleet-footed (helped by bright acidity); of course the melding of dense, chewy tannins, refined oak and a clean earthy mineral element lends the wine plenty of substance and purpose, but for its size and intent this Montelena Cabernet ’06 is remarkably drinkable. Infused by baking spice, lavender and potpourri, the wine draws out to a long finely-meshed finish. Drink now through 2016 to ’18. Alcohol is 14.1 percent. Excellent. About $49.
LL described the Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Napa Valley, as “plum jam on fire.” I’ll go with that. The wine is a blend of 91 percent cabernet sauvignon, 8 percent merlot and 1 percent cabernet franc; it ages 14 months in French and “Eastern European” — usually meaning Hungarian or Slovenian — oak barrels, only 15 percent of which were new. The wine is deep, rich and spicy, imbued with notes of bitter chocolate, ancho chile, black currants, black cherries and plums, licorice and graphite and the smokiness of smoldering meadows of lavender; try to tear your nose away from that. But do, of course, so you’re appreciate a structure of finely-milled tannins that feels like a handful — well, mouthful, I guess — of velvety dust and intense and concentrated black fruit flavors that take on a high, wild tone of mulberry, all of this broadly permeated by cloves and allspice, black olive and dried thyme and a fat fleshy smear of bacon. These factors are packed into a long, immersive finish that devolves into shale and gravel and dry, brushy forest elements. Despite the panoply of sensuous detail, nothing about this wine is over-stated or exaggerated; all is balance, poise and integration. Save for a couple of years or drink now through 2017 to ’20. Alcohol content is 14.2 percent. Excellent. About $49.