Last night I attended what amounted to a crash course in Napa Valley Cabernet. Four wineries and the same four vintages from each were poured at dinner at La Toque, Ken Frank’s sensational restaurant in Rutherford, Calif. The seven-course dinner was part of an auction lot from the Central Coast Wine Classic and hosted by its director, Archie McLaren.
The four wineries—Blank, Barbour, Grace Family Vineyard, and Vineyard 29—are all fairly small-production companies and the vintages served, 2004 through 2001, were both fun to drink and instructive about winery house styles and vintage differences. We had the usual mix of surprises in both the plus and minus columns. The 2004s seemed to win on most people’s scorecards, with 2003 being both distinctive but also the least similar to the other three vintages.
The link with all four wineries is that Grace Family winery has ties to each. One theme was that each of the wineries’ vineyards are planted to the same clone, and that is to my mind a point of contention.
The Grace Cabernet, grown on a 1-acre site near St. Helena, was planted in 1976 and first made into wine in 1978 at Caymus Vineyard and bottled with the Grace Family Vineyard designation.
The clones and cuttings for Grace came from Bosche Vineyard in Rutherford, which is bottled under the Freemark Abbey label. It's a vineyard that was once famous for long-lived, elegant and supple wines.
However, vintner Dick Grace began marketing the aforementioned wines as being made from the Grace clone. In my mind it’s the Bosche clone, but this is how information is manipulated and passed along. So take your pick: Bosche or Grace.
We tasted each winery’s vintages with a menu designed to pair well with young Cabernets, which it did.
After an amuse bouche offering that included my first taste of foie gras corndogs, we had a course of diakon radish salad with sesame vinaigrette, Japanese pickles and thick-sliced Atlantic fluke, with a great DeSante Old Vine Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2005, an excellent Loire-style wine that was intense and concentrated. Then we tasted the Blank wines.
The wines, made at Grace from a vineyard in Rutherford (and occasionally referred to as Grace Blank Vineyard, though the bottles poured Sunday simply said “Blank”) are notably minty, a sign to me of a wide range of ripeness levels, mint being more in the herbal spectrum and at the opposite of riper Cabernet flavors.
Here are my notes, with all scores non-blind. The wines were served with Scottish salmon, braised salisfy, yellow-footed chanterelles and thyme jus.
2001: Pronounced minty aromas and flavors, though more supple in texture on the palate, with some ripe currant notes. 88 points, non-blind.
2002: A rich, more complex and fleshier wine, which still has a minty profile, but more currant and mint chocolate notes. 89, non-blind.
2003: Sturdy and dense, yet it shows a more herbal oregano flavor than pure mint. Very tight and tannic. 86, non-blind.
2004: Returns to the mint and chocolate notes, with some pepper and spice. Young and tight. 88, non-blind.
Jim Barbour is one of Napa's top vineyard managers, with two dozen or more prestigious clients and Heidi Peterson Barrett overseeing Barbour’s winemaking. The Napa native’s vineyard is south of St. Helena. I’ve enjoyed the Barbour Cabernets from the 1990s more than the wines from 2000 on. Yet the 2004 was terrific. The wines were served with Niman Ranch short ribs simmered all day with soft polenta.
2001: Dense and earthy, with mineral, dried currant and firm tannins. Needs time. 87, non-blind.
2002: Richer than ’01, with purer fruit and currant-laced Cabernet flavors and better balance. Ends with an earthy mineral character. 88, non-blind.
2003: Elegant for the vintage, with well-focused currant and berry fruit. 88, non-blind.
2004: A big step up in quality. Richer and more concentrated than the previous wines, with deep, penetrating currant and red cherry fruit that’s beautifully defined. 93, non-blind.
Next came Vineyard 29 Estate Bottled Cabernets, also grown north of St. Helena, which were served with seared New York strip and cheddared pearl tapioca.
2001: Pure, rich and focused, with great balance, depth and concentration, showing off ripe currant, mineral and dark berry flavors. 92, non-blind.
2002: Pushes ripeness a notch higher, with flavors that flirt with jam and prune. But with air it tasted a bit tamer and ended up showing an elegant mix of fruit and fine-grained tannins. 90, non-blind.
2003: Well made, intense, with spicy herb, currant and firm, dry tannins. Elegantly balanced. 88, non-blind.
2004: Very rich, intense and loaded with ripe plum, blackberry and black cherry fruit that gains depth and length. 93, non-blind.
Last came the Grace wines, served with roasted local spring lamb and cumin-scented carrot puree, chickpea fries and green garlic.
2001: While very dense and concentrated, with air it showed an earthy, leathery flavor that was troubling. May have been an off bottle. 84, non-blind.
2002: Intense, rich and sleek, marked by spicy herb, dried currant and savory notes. 90, non-blind.
2003: Impressive for its bright, rich, vibrant black cherry and wild berry and fine-grained tannins. 90, non-blind.
2004: Much better than when I tried it blind. Ripe, rich and pure, with pretty creamy oak, excellent concentration and length. 93, non-blind.
Roy Piper — March 31, 2008 7:14pm ET
Chris Buddress — April 5, 2008 10:02pm ET
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