We are about to embark on a series of Taste & Talk posts and videos on wines that are recent releases. These will include conversations and interviews with the people behind the wine because, as I am sure you know, we believe in sharing the stories and placing the wine tasting note in context.
We will occasionally inject some more mature wines into the mix as well because we want to share wines from different vintages, different price ranges and hard to find wines to help you make informed decisions if you have these in your cellar, come across them on a wine list somewhere or are looking for a special occasion wine.
Since we will be starting into a string of recent releases soon I wanted to share my experience a couple weeks ago with a 10 year old Cabernet Sauvignon from one of my favorite California producers, Chateau Montelena.
First, some context to put the tasting note into perspective. If you need immediate satisfaction and just want the tasting note go to the bottom of the post.
Chateau Montelena is in Calistoga at the northern end of the Napa Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area). Napa Valley has a very Mediterranean like climate that, combined with unique geographic and geological factors, make it one of the world's premier wine growing regions. Within the Napa Valley there are many other AVA designations that are worth familiarizing yourself with if you haven't already.
As noted above, Napa Valley has a very Mediterranean like climate but within this general climatology (big word, we had to look it up) good old mother nature has created some very unique micro-climate conditions. Calistoga, the location for Chateau Montelena and it's Estate Vineyard, is located in the northern end of the Napa Valley which is more enclosed and sheltered from cooler ocean air by the convergence of the Vaca and Mayacamus Mountains. These two mountain ranges hook up to form Mount Saint Helena which towers above Calistoga. This mountain shelter and the higher elevation versus the southern floor of the Napa Valley create warmer conditions; a unique situation for growing Cabernet Sauvignon. I knew those terrain analysis and topography classes at West Point would pay off some day.
Calistoga itself has cooler and wetter winters than the southern end of the valley and the summer is usually very dry, thanks in large part to the mountainous terrain and higher elevation. For those of us in the midwest the definition of cooler and wetter winters in northern Napa Valley is VASTLY different than what we know but it plays a significant role in producing great wine. During growing and ripening season the day time highs reach 90 °F or higher quite consistently while the night time temperatures get quite cool, often dropping into the lower 50’s. This temperature shift is important as we will find out in a minute. The area gets an average annual rainfall of around 38 inches. All in all these are pretty ideal conditions for growing Cabernet Sauvignon.
Vineyard and Grapes
The Montelena Estate Vineyard is a single site vineyard situated right up against Mount Saint Helena which is the highest elevation in Napa Valley. This offers a very unique and ideal terroir (micro-climate) for growing Cabernet Sauvignon. Cold air from the mountain rushes down into the vineyard at night, cooling the ripening grapes off from what, as we noted above, are some significantly hot 90°+ daytime highs. Talk about a monster temperature swing! This monumental daily "mood swing" from mother nature creates some powerful, intense, yet refined, well balanced and age worthy red wines.
The Estate Vineyard sits on some very diverse terrain that includes a rather steep hillside gently sloping downward to flatland. Here lies some sedimentary soil that was left behind by and ancient lake or ocean. Primarily the Estate Vineyard is planted on alluvial soil (produced by a river or other running water source) with some of the outlying areas of the vineyard planted on volcanic soil. These seemingly schizophrenic soil conditions work together in amazing harmony to produce a very unique, full and intense soil covered berry character to Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon.
Overall Chateau Montelena has 120 acres planted to vineyards and has an annual production, of all wines, between 30,000 – 36,000 cases. Their top varietal offerings are Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay under the Chateau Montelena brand. The wine offerings include bottles labeled Napa Valley Chardonnay, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Montelena Estate Zinfandel, Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (the focus of this tasting note) and Potter Valley Riesling
The Winery, The Wine Makers and The Wine
Chateau Montelena has arguably the most interesting and historic past of any Napa Valley winery. Alfred L. Tubbs bought the 254 acres of land for Chateau Montelena (which is a contracted form of Mount Saint Helena) in 1882. Tubbs planted his vineyards, built his Chateau, hired a wine maker from France in 1896 and in less than 10 years he turned his wine making dreams into a reality. When prohibition came along all wine making came to an end. After prohibition the family harvested the vineyard, made small quantities of wine and mostly sold their harvest to other winemakers in and around Napa Valley. In 1958 the family sold Chateau Montelena.
It wasn't until the early 1970's that Chateau Montelena began to once again realize its full wine making potential when, under the leadership of James Barrett, the vineyard was cleared, replanted and the Chateau was updated with more modern equipment. In 1972 wines were once again being made at Chateau Montelena.
The rebirth of Chateau Montelena, and the birth of California as a dominant force in the world of wine making, came in 1976 when Montelena's 1973 Chardonnay bested the finest white burgundies from France in a head to head blind tasting judged by some of the best known French names in food and wine. It became known as the Judgment of Paris and was the basis, although as LOOSELY as possible without being fraudulent, of a recent movie called Bottle Shock.
Jim Barret, now a Napa Valley icon, remains as the Owner and Managing Partner while his son, Bo Barrett is the Winemaker and Operations Manager. Dave Vella, who met Bo Barrett and became friends while studying Enology at Fresno State, is the vineyard manager and Cam Parry round out the team most closely associated with making the wine.
So let's get to the tasting note shall we?
1999 Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon The Montelena Estate
The Cabernet Sauvignon for this bottling was harvested between September 30th and October 18th, aged for 18-20 months in oak barrels, bottled in August of 2001 and released in March of 2003. There were 6,500 cases produced, it is 14% alcohol by volume and the release price was $125 a bottle. For more technical information go here.
I decanted for about an hour and I was really looking forward to this wine as I have had it in my cellar for nearly 9 years. It did not disappoint. In the glass it was deep purple edging toward black with some red hue toward the edge. Really beautiful to look at. Nosing the wine brought an intense and focused aroma of earthy and fertile soil covered ripe blackberries, plums and black cherry with some cocoa powder and vanilla lingering around for complexity. Full bodied with just a wonderful silky smooth mouth feel of juicy blackberries, black cherry, chocolate, vanilla and mint with hints of cedar all just wrapped in arms of earth. The finish was long and extracted with more dark fruit, chocolate, vanilla and a hint of anise. Wow, really a long, elegant and supple finish. Tannins are really soft and well integrated and their is a bright and lively acidity that keeps it all in tremendous balance. This is a stellar Cabernet in true Montelena style. No doubt this baby was built to age and I am sure has another 10-15 years of life in it. Wish I had a case left! 50+5+14+18+8=95 pts.