Thursday, February 23, 2012

1999 cabernets from Napa Valley

It's so interesting to talk about vintages. For me, a vintage can be great for various reasons, one of course because its wines are great considering their power and intensity and most likely their ability to age and develop a greater complexity, another reason because they are easy to drink and therefore great to pour at restaurants without further bottle ageing, and yet another because they are so highly rated (by Parker) so consumers can pour them to their friends and tell them what a great wine this is.

After working in the restaurant and wine business for three decades, the latter reason is unfortunately far too common. I just wish that consumers could depend on their own palates, rather than looking for 100 point wines. With that said, points are great references to understand the quality (or style!) of wine at the moment the taster tasted the wine.

The 1999 vintage in northern California was a bit unusual. After the cool El Niño vintage of 1998, the vines were programmed for another cool vintage, and so it was. Already in spring, 1999 was a cool year, and the flowering and fruit set was a bit later than average, followed by a slightly cooler growing season. Most wine growers I have talked to over the years (at least a couple of hundred of people), have told me they really liked 1999. "It was a winemakers vintage", I have been told. And I couldn't agree more. The praise in media didn't show.

For most Californians, the cooler vintages are not by definition the best ones, but for me as a, 1) sommelier and wine lover used to classic European wines, 2) a chef with the ambition to create great combinations with great food, and 3) a genuine lover of California and its wines, I need to find the perfect balance for my taste and purposes.

To me, 1999 is a much superior vintage than the highly acclaimed 1997, which was too warm to create perfectly balanced and elegant wines. In 1999, the wines came out in perfect balance, with a ripe and intense fruit in a style I call "neo-classic" (ripe but not sweet, intense but not overly powerful, elegant but not weak), with a fine acidity, a sense of place and minerality, and with alcohol levels I would describe as moderate and in balance. And, which I find to be a bonus, they seems to age with grace and now offers what I call a "Bordeaux like" complexity.

In a tasting with my wine club, I opened up a bunch of 1999s, and this is the result.

1999 Cabernet Sauvignon Kronos Vineyard / 91 p
Corison Winery
I've always loved the wines from Cathy Corison, they often have that kind of lovely elegance that seems to have been lost in Napa Valley in the hype of the cult wines of the 90s. Perhaps they lack som intensity when they are young, but the grace comes with age. This 1999 is a lovely example of that, even though it was a b it shy in the tasting I arranged. Twelve years old, it still offers primary fruit of good quality with a quite aromatic fragrance of cassis, but it also shows some mature nuances like lead pencil and cedar tree, and it's really deliscious. On the palate, it is elegant, the tannins have started to soften and the texture is almost velvet like. A good thing here, which several tasters indicated, is that alcohol (13.6 percent) is perfectly well integrated, and some tasters called the style "Pauillac like". I totally understand them! It's a deliscious wine.
   The wine is a pure Cabernet Sauvignon from vines planted in the early 1970s on the phylloxera resistent root stock St George (hence the age of the vines) in the 3.25 hectare Kronos Vineyard, right behind the winery off the Highway 29 in the heartland of Napa Valley.
Drink it 2012-2017


1999 Cabernet Sauvignon / 89-90 p
Jones Family Vineyards
The first vintage from Jones Family was 1995, then and still by famous winemaker Heidi Peterson-Barrett. I belive this vintage was made from 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon from the 2.85 hectare parcell they planted in 1991 and 1993 at 180 to 240 meters altitude at the foot of Howell Mountain (it's in the St Helena appellation). Stainlees steel fermented and raised in new French oak barrels for 22 months, this is a serious wine that still offers some oaky flavors. Although the wine is rich with good concentration of dark berry fruit, it doesn't have that depth that comes with vine age, so it lacks a bit of the core I look for. I guess that's why I noted a slight bitterness in the finish. Still it is a good wine, especially with food (which will cover a bit of that hollowness), and I'd like to see it again within a few years. Just because I'm curious.  
   While most of the wines opened up with air, this wine lost a bit of its fruit and became even more bitter.
Drink it 2012-2015

Fay Vineyard

1999 Cabernet Sauvignon Fay / 92 p
Stag's Leap Wine Cellars
The legendary wine estate Stag's Leap Wine Cellars I a reliable source of fine wines that ages with beauty, and they tend to move towards fine Bordeaux's with age. This 1999 still offers a slightly sweetish fruit, quite aromatic and with fine cassis flavors. However, it is the first signs of maturity that impress me and makes me smile. I find notes of cedar, lead pencil and sous bois, as well as a whisper of coffee. On the palate, it is medium bodied with a vital och lively fruit, still with firm but not aggressive tannins and with a fine acidity to create a good balance. The 14.5 percent of alcohol is in good balance with the other components, and even though its higher than in most wines in this tasting, and the aftertaste is a bit dry (actually a bit closed), it doesn't stand out.
   The wines is good to drink today, but I would prefer to wait another year or so, to let the tannins soften a bit more and pave the way for a longer and more seductive aftertaste.
Drink it 2012-2019

1999 Cabernet Sauvignon John G Sullenger / 85 p
Nickel and Nickel
The first vintage from Nickel and Nickel, founded by the Nickel brothers who also owns Far Niente Winery, was 1998. I haven't taste any of the 1998s from them, but a few times wines from the much better 1999 vintage. Last time I was a bit disappointed, the wine I had in my glass had begun to fade away and it was also a bit oxidized. The grapes, exclusively Cabernet Sauvignon, comes from the almost 17 hectare John G Sullenger vineyard next to the winery in Oakville, and the wine was raised in French oak barrels, 65 percent new, and there's still a  touch of coffee from the barrels.
   My previous experiences of the 1999s from Nickel and Nickel stands, the wine does not deliver the energy, power and depths I expect. However there is a fine note of cassis and even a slight complexity, but overall it is mute and short. With that said, it should drink quite well with a meal, but don't expect greatness from it.
   I'd like to add, that I really enjoy the more recent vintages from Nickel and Nickel, to be honest I just love some of them (like the cabernets from Vogt Vineyard and Tench Vineyard).
Drink it 2012

1999 Cabernet Sauvignon / 93-94 p
Far Niente Winery
Let's stay in the family, Far Niente Winery is the older sibling, founded by Gil Nickel in 1979 on a great spot in Oakville, in the southern end of the historic To Kalon Vineyard, next to Martha's Vineyard (of Heitz Cellars) and just below the grand cru of Harlan Estate, and the more recent founded Futo, for which I predict a great future!
´  The Martin Stelling Vineyard, which this wine comes from, is located just a few miles south of John G Sullenger, but its older and the location and soil is better. Also, which I think may have played an important role, is that the Nickels and their winemaker Dirk Hampson knows every inch of this vineyard - this wines is totally superior to the team's wine from Nickel and Nickel. Here you find concentration, richness, depth, a dark and youthful fruit that evolves in the glass, cassis and blackberries, and, which I really like, some mature aromas of lead pencil and chocolate. On the palate, it's much more intense, fresh and lively, tannins are vital but a bit polished and the aftertaste is long with small notes of plums and sweet fruit in the finish.
   A few years ago, I poured this wine (from magnum) in a tasting of 20+ vintages from Château Mouton-Rothschild, including some very classic vintages, and we were all so surprised that this wine outclassed most of those vintages!
   I still needs decanting to open up, and I think it will evolve into something more complex over the next few years.
Drink it 2012-2019


1999 Signature Cabernet Sauvignon / 92 p
Chappellet Vineyards
The 20 minutes drive on winding roads up the Pritchard Hill, to come to Chappellet Vineyards is well worth the efforts. Although this is a historic vineyard, planted already in the mid 1960s with Philip Togni as the first winemaker in 1969 (thru 1974), far too few people knows about them. The vineyard covers 45.60 hectares, located on several blocks with various exposures on 450 to 510 meters altitude, on a volcanic and stony soil which add a certain mineralitet to the wines.
   This was one of the most elegant wines in the tasting, and even the true Francophiles around the table loved this wine for its purity, minerality, finesse and plethora of fine nuances. Thanks to the mountain climate, the flavors are cooler, more aromatic, slightly grassy, fresh and very elegant in a classic way, and the medium full body offers layers of flavors reminiscent of fine clarets. The two single details that kept it out of Bordeaux (if tasted blind), is a slightly higher alcohol (14.5 percent) and a mintiness, but also, at least for me, the volcanic minerality that is so typical for mountain fruit in Napa Valley.
   It's a gorgeous wine, and this is not even their "best" bottling. Still it compared very well with the other wines in the tasting. Good job!
Drink it 2012-2019

1999 Cabernet Sauvignon / 91-92 p
Philip Togni Vineyards
On the other side of the valley, and even higher up (at 600 meters elevation) on Spring Mountain, is where you find Philip Togni. After he left Chappellet Vineyards, he bought a small estate with old wines and planted his own now 4.25 hectare vineyard. Since then he crafts some of the most classic and Bordeaux like cabernets of Napa Valley, known to be age worthy and delicious.
   There is always a kind of grassiness in the wines of Togni, since the site is 5-6 degrees cooler compared to the vineyards on the valley floor in St Helena. Another factor of importance, is that Togni doesn't harvest overripe grapes, he is trained in Bordeaux and lives by his classic palate, and the alcohol level in this vintage is 12.5 percent. There's also a lot cassis flavors, fresh and lively as it the wine was much younger, still in a classic fashion with notes of sous bois, leather and coffee, and there's also some notes of the oak. The tannins are still firm, as expected, it normally takes almost 20 years for the wines from Togni to soften. I really liked this wine, but some tasters found it to be a bit unclean.
   When I retasted it three hours after the tasting, I had soften a bit and was slightly more complex. I just think it need some time in the decanter.
Drink it 2012-2019

1999 Gravelly Meadow Cabernet Sauvignon / 93 p
Diamond Creek Vineyards
Terroir is the true definition at Diamond Creek Vineyards. Yet the late Al Brounstein had to fight for that and his ideas that his five vineyard blocks (totally 8.40 hectares) at his estate in Diamond Mountain gave totally different wines. Now we know, and we have known that for a long time. This year, its 40 years ago he harvested his first vintage.
   This wine, a one hundred percent cabernet wine, comes from the 2.00 hectare Gravelly Meadow Vineyard, planted at an elevation of 220 meters, which is the lowest of the vineyards on the estate, and since the gravelly soil is so well drained and doesn't hold water, it's a bit colder than the other vineyards, and the yields are also very small, normally 15-20 hectoliters per hectare.
   It's a lovely wine with a good density, dark and rich fruit with notes of cassis and blackberries that comes in layers with oriental spices, and a complex minerality of earth and crushed stones, and as always with the Diamond Creek wines, it has a huge structure. Yes, this is tannic, but the quality of the tannins is superb. Still I'd like to come back to this wine in a few years from now, my older references of the wines from this estate tells me that. For instance, I just love the wines from 1992 and 1994, they show just beautiful right now. This 1999 will join them in that, soon.
   Decant it at least 45 minutes before pouring it.
Drink it 2014-2024

Winemaker Chris Carpenter

1999 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon / 89 p
Lokoya
This was the last vintage of the first winemaker, Marco diGiulio, and his assistant winemaker Chris Carpenter took over after him and has been the winemaker since. With the right to select the best grapes in the now late Jess Jackson's vineyard lots in the mountain districts of Napa Valley, these two winemakers created one of the greatest wine estates in the valley, the Lokoya.
   I was totally surprised by this wine, I didn't expect it to be so elegant, so Bordeaux like, and with such a coffee note, and although it had some depths and concentration, it didn't really have that Lokoya thing. However it offered the typical minerality I so often find in the wines from Howell Mountain, also a slight herbaceous note which can be explained by the cooler growing season, and of course the firm tannic structure. I tried the wine later that same evening, and it showed a little bit less coffee toasted then, and even though I liked it, it still didn't impress me the way I expected. I very much more prefer the 1995, 1997 (although heavy weight wines) and the more complete 2001 and 2002 vintages.
   Drink it 2012-2017

1999 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon / 94 p
Shafer Vineyards
This wine shows totally different from the others, it has that Shafer richness, the ripe and lush cassis, blackberry and dark cherry qualities, and still a slightly oaky touch. Compared to all other wines it appears to be several years younger, there so much more primary fruit flavor here, so much more richness, silkiness, intensity, and length. It's a pure Cabernet Sauvignon, predominately from the hillside behind the winery, and it's raised in brand new French oak barrels for around 34 months, which helped to polish the tannins. Style wise it's also the most powerful and the alcohol level touch 15 percent and is of course notable in the finish, but the overall balance is there and it's truly a delicious wine.
   Of all the wines tasted this evening, this was the one that won most of aeration. Even five hours after it was decanted, it tastes lovely.  
Drink it 2012-2022

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