Monday, February 28, 2005

California: The Pioneers and Perfectionists

Although California today is, without a doubt, considered by wine aficionados everywhere to be one of the world’s premier wine growing and producing regions, it hasn’t always been that way. It has only been in the past 40 or so years that California, and Napa Valley in particular, has established ascendancy. It is due to the efforts of a few key wineries, and the effects of a few key wines, that we are able to enjoy the breadth, scope, and outstanding quality of wines that we take for granted today.

Some of the biggest players in California’s climb to the top have a 100+ year history and have set the foundation for, and helped, the blossoming of the industry in the middle part of the last century. Of these, the efforts of Beringer, Beaulieu Vineyards, and Charles Krug wineries have been extremely influential. Others have histories reaching back less than fifty years yet have created now legendary wines that have set the standard for the region’s winemaking. These wine prodigies include the likes of Silver Oak, Joseph Phelps, Montelena, Heitz Cellars, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Caymus, and Opus One, to name a few, and should receive special attention for their outstanding wines that helped change the world’s palate and perception. Finally, Robert Mondavi Family Vineyards stands alone among all these as the winery that has perhaps had the most influence in the creation and shaping of California’s wine industry into what it is today.

The Wineries

Beringer Vineyards

Beringer is the oldest continuously operating winery in Napa Valley. Founded by Jacob Beringer in 1876 on the volcanic soils ideal for growing the great varietals of Europe, Beringer Vineyards has produced wines for the casual drinker and connoisseur alike. Beringer’s most notable wines include Beringer Sbragia Chardonnay, Beringer Third Century Cabernet Franc, Beringer Private Reserve Chardonnay, Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, and Beringer Knight’s Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Many of these wines are still stored in the caves laboriously dug out by Chinese workers more than a century ago providing perfect temperature control. Also of note are Beringer's Founder’s Estate wines produced as affordable, quality everyday wines.

Best vintages: Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet: 1991,1992,1994,1997, 2001

Beringer Sbragia Chardonnay: 1992,1993, 1994, 1995, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2002

Beaulieu Vineyards

Beaulieu Vineyards, or BV as it is known, was founded in 1900 with the purchase of land in Napa Valley by George de Latour. Ever since then, the accomplishments of this winery have been a prodigious string of firsts. Of note, BV was the first to bring Bordeaux grapes to Rutherford, the first to build a cold room to maintain freshness of white wines, and the first to age wines in French oak barrels – all practices standard today. In the 1930’s BV hired Andre Tchelistcheff who not only produced beautiful wines but also became the teacher and mentor to winemaking legends Joe Heitz, Robert Mondavi, and Mike Grigich. Their premier wine today is without a doubt the BV Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. Other wines of note include the BV Clone 4, BV Clone 6, and BV Tapestry wines. Their extensive wine lines include the BV Signet Collection and BV Coastal estate wines that are affordable and of high quality.

Best Vintages: BV Georges de Latour Cabernet Sauvignon: 1951, 1985, 1994, 1997

Charles Krug Winery

Charles Krug Winery was founded in Napa Valley in 1861 making it one of the oldest wineries in the state. Like BV, its history is marked by a string of firsts in the California wine industry. As the first winery in Napa Valley itself, Krug introduced the cider press for more efficient wine making, was among the first to carefully select rootstocks, and pioneered the use of cold filtered sterilization of off-dry wines and the use of glass-lined fermentation tanks. The Mondavi family purchased the winery in 1943 and it is still being run by Peter Mondavi today. Some Charles Krug wines of particular note are the Vintage Select Cabernet Sauvignon, and the Family Reserve Generations, Merlot, and Chardonnay.

Best Vintages: Charles Krug Vintage Select Cabernet: 1981, 1986, 1991, 1997

Charles Krug Reserve Merlot: 1996, 1997, 1998

Charles Krug Reserve Chardonnay: 1990, 1991, 1992

Robert Mondavi

After a legendary falling out with his brother Peter, Robert Mondavi left Charles Krug and went on to become one of the best known and most instrumental winemakers in California. His establishment in 1966 of the first large winery in the Oakville area after prohibition was the true start of the modern-day California wine business. Today, Mondavi brands are global in scope. Some of Mondavi’s most well known and higher end wines are his reserve series consisting of Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, Mondavi Pinot Noir Reserve, Mondavi Chardonnay Reserve, and Mondavi Fume Blanc Reserve. On the lower end are his easy-drinking everyday Woodbridge wines.

Best vintages: Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve: 1987,1991,1994,2001

Mondavi Pinot Noir Reserve: 1992, 1995, 1997

Mondavi Chardonnay Reserve: 1993, 1994, 1995, 1997

Mondavi Fume Blanc Reserve: 1992,1993,1994,1996

The Wines

Opus One

Opus One, the winery and the wine, is the result of a brilliant collaboration between Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Chateau Mouton Rothschild. Opus One became America’s first ultra-premium wine priced at $50 a bottle and above reaching an auction price of $250 in 1995. It established the category for the California wine industry.

Best vintages: Opus One: 1990,1991,1992,1994 and 1996

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars S.L.V

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars gained the respect of the wine world for California wine by winning the historic 1976 wine tasting event in Paris. The tasters of this event were world renowned and famously disdainful of California wines. The results of the blind tasting shocked them, and the world, thereby setting the stage for California’s rising star. Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars continues to craft great wines to this day.

Best vintages: Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars SLV: 1990, 1993, 1992, 1994

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Fay Vineyard: 1990,1991,1992,1994

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cask 23: 1978, 1984,1985,1991,1992

Joseph Phelps Insignia

Joseph Phelps made a name for himself by introducing some of the first Bordeaux style wines to California in the 1970’s with his flagship “Insignia” wine.

Best vintages: Joseph Phelps Insignia: 1976, 1992, 1994,1995,1997,2001

Chateau Montelena Chardonnay

In 1976 Chateau Montelena joined Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars on the center stage in Paris and came away with the top prize for its chardonnay – another shock to the esteemed judges. This winery produces fantastic wines to this day.

Best vintages: Chateau Montelena Chardonnay: 1992, 1993, 1996, 2001, 2002

Montelena Estate Cabernet: 1986, 1987, 1992, 1997, 2001

Heitz Cellars “Martha’s Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon

Joe Heitz, the founder Heitz Cellars, is a Napa Valley legend and the wine that catapulted him to this fame is his Martha’s Vineyard designate cabernet sauvignon.

Best vintages: Heitz Martha’s Vineyard: 1974, 1976, 1984, 1985, 1997

Heitz Bella Oak’s Vineyard: 1976, 1982, 1985, 1996

Heitz Trailside Vineyard: 1990, 1992, 1993, 1997

Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon

Silver Oak deserves recognition for its unprecedented decision to not only to focus on just making cabernet sauvignon, but also to create a cabernet that is smooth and drinkable immediately upon release. They succeeded where many thought they would fail.

Best vintages: Silver Oak Napa Cabernet Sauvignon: 1981, 1985,1991,1995,1997

Caymus Special Select

Caymus Vineyards was instrumental in putting California cabernets on the map with its extraordinary run in the early 1970’s. Robert Parker, one of the world’s premier wine critics has this to say about Caymus wines: “Few wineries in the world can boast such an enviable record of consistent excellence as that of Caymus.” It was this time, and this winery, that marks the beginnings of California cabernet fame.

Best Vintages: Caymus Special Select Cabernet: 1975, 1976,1978,1992,1994

Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon: 1984, 1987, 1992, 1993

Caymus Conundrum: 1991, 1992, 1994

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Bordeaux: the First Growths

In 1855 the wine producers in the Medoc region of Bordeaux were classified based on the quality and market price of their wines. This five-class ranking system (first growth, second growth, etc.) remains in place today, with the exception of the notable elevation of Chateau Mouton Rothschild in 1973 to premier cru status. The other first growth, or premier cru producers, are Chateau Haut Brion, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Lafite Rothschild, and Chateau Latour. Bordeaux has long been the focus of the worlds wine palate and the 1855 classification unequivocally labeled these wineries the best of the best.

It is remarkable that even today, after many changes in ownership and 150 years later, the wines from these top chateaus still demand the prices and esteem that led to their initial ranking. Although there are other chateaus in the Bordeaux region that produce wines of equal stature and quality, such as Chateau Ausone, Chateau Lafleur, Chateau Cheval Blanc, Chateau Petrus, and Chateau Le Pin, the first growths remain some of the most famed wines in the world.

Chateau Lafite Rothschild

Chateau Lafite Rothschild is located in the Pauillac area of Bordeaux. After a long, and sometimes bloody history (a previous owner was guillotined during the French Revolution), it was purchased in 1868 by the Rothschild family. Some of the best vintages for this chateau include 1953, 1982, 1986, 1996, and 2000. Lafite received 100 point scores from Robert Parker for these vintage years designating the wines as “perfect.” One could easily spend anywhere from $350 - $1000 for a bottle. Not to mention waiting to drink the wine for another 20 years when it is considered mature. To spend less and to try a Lafite that is ready now, consider some other vintage years that tend to be over shadowed. Try a 1983 Lafite (93 points) or 1988 Lafite (94 points) vintage – you could probably purchase both bottles for the price of a 2000 and even be able to drink them now as they are in early maturity. Or the 1998 Lafite. It received 98 points, an awesome score, and will be ready to drink in a couple years.

Here’s what Robert Parker says about the 1998 Chateau Lafite: “... in a less than perfect Medoc vintage, it has been spectacular since birth, putting on more weight and flesh over the last year. This opaque purple-colored 1998 is close to perfection. The spectacular nose of lead pencil, smoky, mineral, and black currant fruit soars majestically from the glass. The wine is elegant yet profoundly rich, revealing the essence of Lafite's character. The tannin is sweet, and the wine is spectacularly layered yet never heavy. The finish is sweet, super-rich, yet impeccably balanced and long (50+ seconds). Anticipated maturity: 2007-2035.”

Chateau Haut Brion

Located in Pessac, Graves, Chateau Haut Brion has a history dating back to 1525. Marked by an illustrious series of owners, from archbishops to ambassadors, Haut Brion is currently American owned. It is notable that in an area steeped in tradition, this chateau was one of the first to adopt stainless steel fermentation vats. Chateau Haut Brion's top vintages include 1945, 1961, 1989, 1990 and 2000. Again, try some of the less famous vintages such as the 1995 Haut Brion (96 points) or the 1998 Haut Brion (96 points) for substantial savings. The ’95 in particular is also drinking well young.

Here’s what Robert Parker says about the 1990 Haut Brion: “Haut-Brion has been the most consistent first-growth over the last decade, producing top-notch wines, even in such tough years as 1987, 1993, and 1994. I have had a tendency to forget just how exceptional the 1990 Haut-Brion is because of the huge shadow cast by the 1989...the 1990 proved itself to be a great wine. Its price has not risen nearly as much as one might expect given its quality. The 1990 is a decadently ripe wine with much more evolution to its fragrant cassis, mineral, smoked-herb, hot rocks, tobacco, sweet, toasty nose. Fat, rich, and medium to full-bodied, this superbly-concentrated, forward, awesomely-endowed wine requires 4-6 years of cellaring; it is capable of lasting for 20-25+ years. It is an unheralded, underrated 1990 that deserves more attention.”

Chateau Mouton Rothschild

Like all the first growths, Chateau Mouton Rothschild has an impressive history. Originally know as Chateau Brane-Mouton, it was purchased in 1853 by the Rothschild family and renamed Chateau Mouton-Rothschild. It is the only chateau in the 1855 classification to be elevated to premier cru status. Some of the best vintages include 1945, 1959, 1982, 1986, and 2000. Try the 1989 Mouton (90 points) or 1995 Mouton (95 points) as wines that are drinkable now and cost significantly less than the more famous vintages.

Here is what Parker says about the 1995 Mouton: “Bottled in June, 1997, this profound Mouton is more accessible than the more muscular 1996. A blend of 72% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Cabernet Franc, and 19% Merlot, it reveals an opaque purple color, and reluctant aromas of cassis, truffles, coffee, licorice, and spice. In the mouth, the wine is "great stuff," with superb density, a full-bodied personality, rich mid-palate, and a layered, profound finish that lasts for 40+ seconds. There is outstanding purity and high tannin, but my instincts suggest this wine is lower in acidity and slightly fleshier than the brawnier, bigger 1996. Both are great efforts from Mouton-Rothschild. Anticipated maturity: 2004-2030.”

Chateau Latour

Originally built as a medieval fortress to repel pirates, Chateau Latour has obviously come a long way. By 1670 most of the estate was dedicated to wine production. Latour reached legendary status by the mid 1800’s and has retained its reputation to this day. Some of its greatest vintages include the 1961 and 1982, although the 2000, 1996, 1949, and 1899 come in a close second according to Robert Parker. Give the 1988 Latour (91 points) a try for something to drink now or pick up a bottle of the 1994 Latour (94 points) to keep in your cellar for a few years. Although the 1988 and 1994 are not the highest rated wines they are less expensive and still show the distinct qualities that define the Latour experience.

Here is what Parker has to say about the 1994 Latour: “This is an interesting as well as great vintage for exhibits an opaque dark ruby/purple color, and a backward, intense textbook nose of walnut and cassis scents complemented by smoky pain grille notes that build in the glass. This full-bodied, powerful, layered Latour reveals high tannin, but no bitterness or astringency. The superb purity, fabulous precision, and remarkable length should ensure 35-40 years of longevity. Readers will find more fat, flesh, and glycerin than usual for a young Latour (save for such great vintages as 1982 and 1990), but don't be deceived, this wine requires 8-10 years of cellaring. Anticipated maturity: 2005-2035. “

Chateau Margaux

In keeping with the rest of the first growth fraternity, Chateau Margaux’s history is lengthy and elaborate. Founded in the 1400, the chateau changed hands many times, even once being the residence of the King of England, finally settling down in the 1970’s with its current owners, the Mentzelopoulos family. Some of the best vintages include the 1900, 1986, 1990, 1996 and 2000. Margaux’s wines tend to mature a little earlier than other first growths. For value and drinkability, try the 1994 Margaux (94 points) or even the 1999 Margaux (94 points).

Parker has this to say about the 1999 Margaux: “The sexy, dark plum/purple-colored 1999 Margaux is already revealing complex aromatics. This surprisingly charming and round offering is reminiscent of a vintage such as 1985. Although neither a blockbuster nor a heavyweight, it grows in the mouth revealing tremendous length as well as purity. Administrator Paul Pontallier prefers it to the more austere 1998, as do I. This is an archetypical Chateau Margaux of richness, finesse, balance, and symmetry. It can be drunk young, but promises to age nicely for two decades...”

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

What are the Top Five Champagnes?

In our opinion the five most famous and highly regarded Champagne houses are Louis Roederer, Moet & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Bollinger, and Taittinger.

Louis Roederer makes one of the most expensive Champagnes on the market, Cristal. The Cristal Cuvee was created in 1876, when Louis Cristal II created the Cristal for Tsar Alexander II. Today, Cristal remains the most sought after Champagnes in the world, often the bubbly of choice by Hollywood elite and socialites. Cristal is made according to the strictest criteria, based on a drastic process of selection applying to the vintage, the cru, the village, the grapes and finally the wines. Only Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes from the Louis Roederer’s 10 most celebrated crus are used in the production of Cristal. The top vintages of Louis Roederer Cristal are 1975, 1979, 1982, 1985, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1993, 1995, and 1996. The best Cristal Champagnes made come from the 1988, 1990, and 1996 vintages. Of the 1990 Louis Roederer Cristal, Robert Parker says “The Louis Roederer 1990 Cristal is awesome! A classic of power and finesse, richness and delicacy, it may be the greatest Cristal I have ever tasted!” and gives it 97 points. Cristal is considerably more expensive than most other champagnes with the current vintage of 1997 ranging in price from $150-300.

Moet & Chandon is best known for Dom Perignon, or simply “Dom” as it is lovingly referred to. Current releases of Dom Perignon generally sell for $85-150 depending on the vintage. The best vintages of Dom Perignon during the past 30 years are 1975, 1979, 1982, 1985, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1993, 1995, and 1996. Some people will argue that the finest Dom Perignon made in recent years is the 1996 vintage, followed by 1985 and 1990. The Wine Spectator scores the ’96 Dom Perignon vintage 93 points and Robert Parker gives it 98 points and says “I have had a lot of great vintages of Dom Perignon, but I do not remember any as impressive as the 1996. Even richer than the brilliant 1990, the 1996 is still tightly wound, but reveals tremendous aromatic intensity, offering hints of bread dough, Wheat Thins, tropical fruits, and roasted hazelnuts…” Currently, the retail price for the 1996 Dom Perignon is just under $100 and the complete price range is $89-160. Considering this is one of the finest Champagnes produced from 1996, the price is actually reasonable. As a comparison, a red wine from Bordeaux of equal stature and quality would be priced at around $300, such as the 1996 Lafite Rothschild; a white wine from Burgundy, for example the 1996 Sauzet Montrachet, is around $400; your typical high quality red wine from Napa, such as the 1996 Opus One, is $200. Suddenly, $100 for one of the finest Champagnes in the world is not so bad. And keep in mind, that to make vintage Champagne is a costly and very time consuming ordeal. For instance, the 1996 Dom Perignon is still the most current release from Moet & Chandon, while on the non-bubbly market, most other fine wines have released their 2002 vintage.

Another great Champagne house is Veuve Clicquot. Their Prestige Cuvee is the Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame. The best vintages of La Grande Dame are considered to be 1975, 1979, 1982, 1985, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1993, 1995, and 1996. In recent years, the best La Grande Dame made are considered the 1985, 1990, and 1995 vintages. Of the 1995 Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame, the Wine Spectator calls it “Very distinctive. Bold and complex, exhibiting roasted elements of toasted bread, nuts and coffee, along with dried fruit and citrus nuances. The structure is firm and fresh, with a super long finish evoking walnuts…” and gives it 94 points. This Champagne will probably last another 5-10 years. The price range for the current vintage of La Grande Dame, which is 1996, is about $85-140. The distinctive yellow-orange label of Veuve Clicquot has always been a consumer favorite and today, Veuve Clicquot is one of the world’s top selling Champagnes.

Bollinger, one of the last family-owned and independent houses of the Champagne trade, makes several famous cuvees. One Cuvee, created back in the 1960’s is the Bollinger R.D. (Recently Disgorged). Remaining for a minimum of eight years on its lees, the R.D. acquires a greater aromatic complexity and length. On the other hand, the recent disgorging - the date of disgorging is inscribed on the back label - gives the wine an exceptional freshness. The best vintages of Bollinger R.D. are 1975, 1979, 1981, 1985, 1988, and 1990. The single best Bollinger R.D. is considered by many to be 1990, of which the Wine Spectator says “A full-bodied, powerful Champagne featuring biscuit and ginger aromas and flavors, picking up a grilled nut character on the finish. Very firmly structured and dry, yet with the flavor intensity and fine texture to match, this is a tour de force. Endless finish…” and gives it 97 points. Relative to the Cristal, the Bollinger R.D. is fairly well priced with a retail price range of $125-200.

Taittinger, established back in 1734, makes a premium cuvee called Taittinger Comtes de Champagne. This Champagne is made entirely from the Chardonnay grape and like the other Champagnes we have discussed is only made in select vintages. The best vintages of Taittinger Comtes de Champagne are 1979, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1985, 1988, 1990, and 1995. The current vintage, 1995, goes for around $90-150 per bottle. The Wine Spectator scores it 94 points and says “Absolutely delicious. A combination of intensity and impeccable balance is the hallmark of this 1995 blanc de blancs. Precise aromas and flavors of citrus confit, vanilla pastry and hazelnut get a boost from the firm structure, and it keeps unraveling its charms through the long finish…” For whatever reason, Taittinger has not been able to establish quite the same level of fame as the other Champagnes we have mentioned and thus, the price is on the lower end of the spectrum. We consider this champagne to be a “sleeper” champagne at a high end, yet more affordable price comparable to the others in its class.