Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Chateau Montelena - Estate Cabernet, Mini-Vertical

Montelena Estate Cabernet is perhaps the best produced in California. I think the wine could hold its own with Bordeaux that sells for much more money. I find generous fruit and lush mouthfeel as one would expect from Napa Valley, but I also find terroir, something unique to the estate. Part of that uniqueness comes from Brettanomyces (or Brett) an organism that can ruin wine or add complexity. Brett can add tobacco and earth to the fruit aromas but can also make a wine stink of old, tired, rotten fruit or manure. It will not make you sick, but you are unlikely to enjoy the wine if Brett has taken over. Wineries all over the world have Brett present in their cellars, and therefore their wine, but most of the time it remains under control. Bo Barret is aware of the presence and monitors it carefully at the Chateau. A debate raged years ago over some Montelena wines where Brett supposedly dominated the fruit. I hesitated to bring this up at all, and I have never had a spoiled (or even corked) Chateau Montelena wine. As I found myself tasting earth, leather, and cellar in one of the wines though, it seemed appropriate to mention.

The wines are presented in the order they appeared that night. The Cabernets were decanted and open about an hour before we sat down. Montelena blends Merlot and/or Cabernet Franc into their Estate Cabernet in various proportions. I recall them publishing the exact breakdowns at some point, but could only find two blends in my records. The 2005 has a mere 2% Cabernet Franc with 98% Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2000, strikingly, contains 21% Merlot and no Cabernet Franc.

Estate Cabernet 1999 - Brian Baker made the case that each of the older wines represented a strong microcosm of their respective vintages - as one would hope and expect from a winery that does not make formulaic wines. 1999, he pointed out, was a cool year for the most part with a heat spike in September. I found no edge on the wine despite being nearly ten years old, and the core is still completely opaque. I smell leather, cellar and a hint of bricky fruit but the strongest component is clearly the bright, juicy fruit still present. The leather and cellar notes were clear, pure and pretty with no funky edge that sometimes comes with those descriptors. Clay, reminiscent of right bank Bordeaux, also peeked out from time to time. The tannin became more evident but even as it emerged the wine remained lovely. From my notes, "Damn, that bright fruit is still there." I found this wine riveting, and my favorite of the night. If I had some in my cellar, I would drink it in the next year or two. Although it will clearly last for another seven to ten years, I find the tertiary flavors and aromas of earth, etc. too perfect right now while the fruit still shines. This wants a big slab of meat, I'm thinking flank steak. $175

Estate Cabernet 2000 - Brian Baker reminded us about 2000 being an El Nino vintage. There were frost issues on the early side, a long, cool growing season, some heat spikes, and a two month harvest at the estate. Many people avoided the vintage from California due to lack of critical excitement. The classic complaint focused on their ageability. Here we are, nine years later and while the wine showed slightly lighter than the 1999, it proved delicious. More pure fruit showed in the 2000 than the 1999, juicier and lusher on the nose; round, juicy and nearly lip-smacking on the palate, perhaps due to the round middle Merlot provides. Each sip brought a slightly goofy smile to my lips, a welcome result. I do not often focus on very specific fruit, but red plum jumped at me, perhaps a berry note as well. Wow, this is so lush and approachable. Clearly some tannin there, but very fine and very mild. This is a really tasty bottle of wine. Simpler, somewhat lighter food would work beautifully here, roasted pork loin with some herbs de Provence anyone? Perhaps prime rib? $140

Estate Cabernet 2001 - A tough start to the vintage with rain, frost and then excessive heat during flowering led to a small crop. The rest of the vintage progressed well, with a long harvest again. I found this wine more high toned than either the bass notes of the 1999 or the luscious middle sweet spot of the 2000. Although the wine showed some roundness, it also proved lighter and tighter than the two previous wines. The middle and most of the finish showed some silkiness and elegance. Much more complexity here than in the 2000, with the trade being the loss of the sheer gulpability. Lovely, bright, red fruit on the finish stops short of blooming or bursting forth as it likely will with a few more years of age. I found the 2001 just a bit tight, but clearly with the right ingredients to emerge and shine in the future. I would wait on this, but if you want to drink it, try it with a nicely fatty piece of red meat to help balance the tannin. Rib-eye comes to mind. $150

Estate Cabernet 2005 - "A perfect growing season", according to Brian Baker. Again I found plum in the glass, but darker than the 2000. The wine is rich, lush, complex, intense, and a bit raw. Not unbalanced, just unpolished due to its youth. This is the current release. The integration of all the parts is nearly complete enough to be tempting to open a bottle now, but I know time will serve it well. Directly from my notes, "Wow, damn! Fireworks, fantastic." The wine is a bit enigmatic in that I clearly could not access all of its subtlety and nuance yet, but so much leapt out and happily assaulted the senses it gave the illusion of being ready to go. $135

The older vintages here will be available through the winery and fine retail soon as a six-pack, two bottles each. Would I buy one? Not at the moment, but I'm unemployed. I would think seriously about it because the wines are magical and essentially ready to drink after being aged in perfection at the winery.
Final word, were they worth it? Did I buy any? Yes I did; I purchased two bottles of the 2005. Unemployed or not, that wine is fantastic, one of the best I have ever tasted from Chateau Montelena. By the way, they were on sale that night for a lot less than the list price and I also had a discount coupon from the tasting.

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