In the early part of my career as a wine writer, when I was reviewing wine for both Vintage magazine and Wine & Spirits Buying Guide, I tasted around 450 wines a month at the office, and I received a few samples at home from producers wishing to be reviewed. Sometimes I’d already reviewed the wine at the office, so the sample went into my cellar. I still review wine, but as our readership is small, so are the samples that arrive at my door. So I’ve been dipping into the cellar over the past three years, re-sampling some of the now well-aged reds from the 1981 through the 1997 vintages. It may seem strange now, but in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s the common consensus was that California wines couldn’t age because they were grown in a warm area and were thus too ripe.
The 1981 vintage in California was maligned at the time as a difficult and very hot vintage. The pundits, including dozens of winemakers, all predicted the wines would not age well. They were wrong. I finished the last of my 1981s last year, most of them Cabernets, but also some Merlots and Zinfandels, and they had all aged supremely well. Not one, of the 20 or so wines I tasted, was over the hill at 27 years of age! An Eberle Cab from that year was one of the best California Cabernets I’ve ever had (out of many thousands). And incidentally, all of them were under 14% alcohol.
In rummaging through the cellar I also found inexpensive wines from 1989 and 1991 that I had simply forgot about. Two, in particular, I remember: a 1989 Round Hill Cabernet Sauvignon, and a 1991 Forest Glen Cabernet Sauvignon, both of which are marketed as wines for current drinking, not designed to age. I opened them with the expectation that they would either be on the decline, or undrinkable. They were wonderful. They had not developed great complexity, but they were remarkably fresh.
This past month I had the opportunity to open two really marvelous bottles. The first was a Bayview Cellars, 1991, Napa Valley, Tradition, Cabernet Sauvignon, made by former Inglenook winemaker, John Richburg. It was complex, nuanced, and perfectly balanced (and just 13% alcohol), and it reeked of Rutherford Dust. In these days of over ripe wines, few Rutherford wines actually display their origin. This one was perfect, with cassis and black cherry flavors, light dusty tannins, and a subtle minerality. The second was a Buttonwood 1996, Santa Ynez Valley, Tres (a blend of 55% Merlot, 36% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 9% Cabernet Franc), weighing in at 13.7% alcohol. It was complex and oh so interesting, with layers of flavors that only come from long aging: threads of soy-Worcester, cloves and caramel run through cherry pie fruit. The tannin has all but disappeared, giving just a hint of astringency in the long, long lingering finish. This is exactly what aging is all about, why we age wine, and what we hope to gain from the exercise. Pretty close to perfect.