A few years ago, I was at Château Palmer tasting the new vintage of Bordeaux reds during the annual barrel sampling week, Primeurs, when a member of the château’s winemaking staff noted that, “A good wine tastes good from the beginning.” Sounds obvious, but that’s not always been the way Bordeaux producers, or most wine critics, viewed the matter.
Older readers may remember a time when a young red wine from Bordeaux, especially from the Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated Left Bank, was supposed to be a tannic monster in its youth. If it tasted really good early in the spring, only a few months after the previous harvest, it most likely wasn’t cellar-worthy.
That era ended when Robert Parker raved about the 1982 Bordeaux vintage, a risky move since his American critical competitor, the late Robert Finigan, as well as most of the English critics, thought otherwise. They argued the wines were too easy-
drinking now to be long agers. Parker turned out to be right – an age-worthy wine could taste good even when it’s a baby.
But there is a codicil implicit in the winegrower’s comment: A red wine that tastes good in its youth isn’t guaranteed to age well. It first needs to have the proper balance between fruit and structure in its youth in order to be good decades down the road.
Added to that is an important footnote to the codicil: While a wine that is delicious and well-structured in its youth should be just as good – although significantly evolved – 10, 20 even 30 years later, don’t expect it to necessarily be fantastic the moment the cork is pulled. Even great wines from great vintages open up differently as they get acclimated to a big dose of oxygen after years of not having breathed anything but head space. (I learned this the hard way in the 1980s, thinking that a few Burgundies I had from the 1970s needed to be drunk quickly before they died when all they needed was some time to wake up.)
The 2013 vintage in Napa Valley for Cabernet Sauvignons was predicted to be both good early and good later, almost from the time the Napa Valley Vintners association reported the year’s growing season as being “early, even and excellent.” Their vintage report noted that “a warm, dry spring brought early bud break, helped with canopy vigor and berry size and created ideal conditions for flowering and fruit set under sunny skies. With the exception of one heat spike in late June/early July, temperatures were consistently in the zone for optimal vine activity, resulting in notably healthy vines as fruit went through veraison and started ripening. The August 1 start of harvest was the earliest in recent history. White wine grapes came in at a furious pace throughout that month, moving on to lighter reds by early September.”
“Two brief mid-September rains had virtually no impact on the grapes,” the report continued. “The vast majority of the more delicate-skinned grapes had already been harvested, and sunny weather with breezes followed the rains, allowing for the mostly Cabernet Sauvignon that remained to dry out almost immediately. The cooler, sunny weather throughout October allowed the final grapes still on the vine to linger longer, developing more phenolic and flavor maturities with sugar levels remaining steady.”
Earlier this year, I attended a vertical tasting of Inglenook’s Cabernets in New York conducted by estate director Philippe Bascaules, who is fortunate enough to have the same position at Château Margaux, where I was able to taste the 2013 Rubicon. I was able to collect eight more Napa Cabs from the 2013 vintage. I was also able to sequester three friends – Jeff, Michael and Glenn – who have good palates and good cellars to come by the house on a weekday morning to join me in tasting the 10 wines. The only condition I had was no ratings and no rankings – just give all the wines serious consideration. The bottles were opened a couple of hours in advance, but not decanted.
Here are my notes and their comments in the order the wines were tasted, roughly from up-valley to down-valley.
Priest Ranch Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2013:
Good sweet fruit, though a little light and seemingly a bit short with not much intensity first go around. However, the Priest Ranch proved to be one of those wines that need air. Mike, especially, kept coming back to it after we had tasted through. “Wow, it’s really grown,” he says, “and might be my favorite. “Certainly a good start.
Rombauer Vineyards Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2013:
Having been schooled on Bordeaux reds from the 60s and 70s, I love barrel flavors that integrate into the fruit, and this one fell into that category – smooth cherries, well-rounded, medium body, noticeable but well-integrated tannins. In short, supple and fruity without being sweet or extracted.
Rombauer Vineyards “Stice Lane” Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2013:
“Good now, maybe even better later.” Lilting flavors, but nevertheless a wine of substance – well constructed with lots of fruits and lot of tannins and great mouth feel. Upon airing, it developed notes of brown sugar or caramel, but in taste only, not sweetness.
Lail Vineyard “J. Daniel Cuvee” Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2013:
Although we stayed true to no rankings, this was a favorite for many of us. Definitely tight at first pour – gathered and concentrated – with flavors of blackberries and black raspberries and hints of gingerbread along with excellent texture and more minerality than any of the others. Second go-around, it developed hints of mint, opens beautifully, still concentrated but more relaxed.
J. Lohr St. Helena Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2013:
Again, nice barrel aromas rushing out. Definitely on the cassis side of Cab, lingering long after the swallow, with almost a simple sugar note of sweetness. It’s tasting mature now, but it has a lot of tannins to get it through a few more years.
Joseph Phelps Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2013:
Like the others, the aromas were reticent at first pour. It had great structure – very linear for good or bad – with lots of concentrated fruit, though not heavy and with enough acidity to keep its freshness. There were some nice Baker’s chocolate dustiness in the finish. With airing, it developed nice savory notes up around the gills.
Inglenook “Rubicon” Rutherford Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2013:
Perhaps the most elegant of the group, with great depth but less complexity. Very light in the approach but with a rush of fruitiness in the finish – blackberries which linger on and on. If it were in Bordeaux, there would be murmurs of “classic vintage,” perhaps even “classic Margaux cru in style.”
Far Niente Oakville Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2013:
A wine not to be under-estimated – the most tangy aromas and flavors of the lot, very, very fresh, somewhat lean but not frail, mainly red fruits. Since we’re making comparisons, perhaps a Pessac-Leognan in its leanness. My guess is this wine will have great longevity.
Gamble Family Vineyard “Paramount” Napa Valley Red Wine 2013:
A bit of a lightweight in this crowd, but it is the one that – at 10 years of age – had me salivating for a bloody steak. Lean, with good Cab flavors and a good finish, but lacking real heft.
Eleven Eleven Oak Knoll Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2013:
Probably the most layered of all, an excellent wine with which to finish. Mouth-filling rounded cherry and very ripe blackberry flavors, but not fruit-forward, with a floating layer of creaminess (blackberries crushed in cream) with milk chocolate in the finish.
The guys all picked a favorite bottle remainder to take home. Next day, I got a note from Jeff. “The Eleven Eleven got even better on Day 2. The primary impression for me is about texture -- dusty, velvety. A good balance between jammy and earthy. Debbie loved it.”
A great wine tastes great 10 years later – even 10 years and an extra day.