by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)
Due to computer/technology problems, apparently last week’s post never make it online. So, with my apologies, here it is:
I don’t think anybody that knows me would describe me as a particularly romantic guy, but I do take Valentine’s Day seriously for some reason. So every year, I take my wife out to wherever she wants to go and we enjoy a nice dinner together.
Unfortunately, Suisun Valley is not blessed with a plethora of fine restaurants. It’s easy to count them on one hand. One opened up fairly recently called Salvio’s at the Rock, which is where we went for this Valentine’s Day.
Since it was something of the special occasion, we dug down into our stash of wines, and decided to take a Robert Mondavi 2002 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. I bought a case of this when it was a much a much younger wine, and have been going through it periodically ever since. I’ve had a number of earlier vintages of this wine, and, in my view, it is one of the best that Napa Valley has to offer. I’ve even tried the more expensive Mondavi Cabernet’s, but for some reason they have never struck me as being quite as good as this lower-priced alternative. So when we opened and tasted it, I was hardly surprised that it was, in a word, wonderful. I recently wrote on what it takes to be a really top rated wine, disagreeing with Steven Heimoff on the subject. Heimoff off cited concentration, I cited balance.
And this wine is incredibly well balanced. Even at this age, the bright cherry, though not nearly as intense as it once was, was still in full evidence. Nothing about this wine was out of whack.
If there was a criticism to be made, it was this: a slight hint of Brett. While many people find a touch of Brett to be attractive, I do not. However, in this wine, it was fairly subdued, and, if not a big plus, it was not a big minus either.
Of course, a wine must be judged not just by its first taste, but by its last. Unfortunately, this is a truism that is largely ignored in wine ratings, since basically nobody is going to be able to rate a bunch of wines while drinking the whole bottle. Or even a significant part of a bottle.
So how did this wine do in that respect? I would have to say reasonably well, although not pefectly. The main problem was that Brett. What was just a hint at the beginning became a little bit overwhelming as we progressed toward the bottom.
And it is a fact of life that what may be viewed as relatively tiny negatives at first taste tend to increase in perception as you progress through a bottle. So it’s not necessarily real surprising that what was a hardly noticeable hint of Brett at the beginning became the dominant feature of the wine towards the end.
I couldn’t say that the wine ceased to be enjoyable, because it did not. Though it was not quite as enjoyable as at the beginning.
This wine is an excellent example of how difficult it is for wine to age gracefully. Using this wine as an example, Brett tends to increase over time. Therefore, a wine with Brett when young may show little or no evidence of it. However, over time, the Brett increases.
Working hand-in-hand with the increase in the Brett is a factor of wine tasting referred to as masking. Some aspects of a wine can affect the perception of, or even entirely cover up, up other aspects. Therefore, you can have two wines with the same amount of Brett, one loaded with fruit and the other relatively fruit challenged. The fruitier wine will be perceived as having less Brett. The fruit “masks” the Brett.
But all wines will see their fruit decline over time. Even the most highly endowed will eventually turn into little more than alcohol, acid, and water. When that happens, other aspects of the wine, most often flaws, will come to the forefront.
These are challenges faced by all wines, but more so here in California. One of the things that is often the most appreciated about California wines is their soft, velvety texture. But this does not lead to long-term aging. And as those wines lose the punch that they originally had, other factors, not necessarily positive ones, take over.
So this Mondavi wine, which for all intents and purposes is 11 and half years old, really needs to be drunk up now. A few more years maybe, but then it will be definitely on the downward slide to senility.
And this wine is probably one of the most balanced California wines there is. Most California wines, having even less acid, and being even less well-balanced, can expect an even shorter lifecycle.
But despite everything I’ve said, this was still a wonderful wine, and, when you think about it, how many wines make it this far in life and still have much to show for themselves?
As a point in evidence, last night, in the middle of a power outage and with nothing much else to do, we broke open a bottle of a Montes Alpha 2003 Syrah.
I can’t describe myself as being a big fan of Chilean wines in general, but Montes Alpha has always been an excellent producer. And I had this wine several times when it was younger, and it was, in a word, excellent.
But no more. The fruit had largely fallen out of this wine, and while it didn’t exhibit any terrible flaws, it had lost most of what was enjoyable about it.
So it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that aging wines from the new world is pretty much a crapshoot, with the house having the advantage. That’s not to say that old world wines consistently avoid this problem, because they do not. But new world wines are, as a general rule, even more age challenged.
Of course, all general rules suffer from a plethora of exceptions. But I think a good rule of thumb is that new world wines should be at their best at about five years, stay there for a few more years, and then start heading downhill. The fact that the Mondavi Cabernet exceeded these time frames is testament to how good a wine it is.