Note: Back when I reviewed them, I set aside a few wines to taste when they were more mature. In this occasional series I report on what they’re like now.
I don’t know if it was vogue at the time or if several of my wine-obsessed friends and I just got into them, but the late 1970s and early 1980s saw some exciting experimentation by a small group of California vintners making sweet botrytized wines.
Among the leading lights were Dick Arrowood at Chateau St. Jean and Leo McCloskey at Felton-Empire. Phelps and Clos du Bois got into it pretty well, too, but I was also interested in a number of less obvious producers.
Because they came almost exclusively in 375ml bottles, they would fall through the standard-bottle racks in my wine cabinets, so I slipped them into the floor of the temperature-controlled boxes. And there many of them have lain for around three decades. It became apparent many years ago that few guests at my dinner parties wanted to drink a sweet wine at the end of a meal.
These wines were heady and luscious on release, but my friends and I believed they would mellow and become more elegant with time. Most of the ones I have opened, however, were more exciting to drink in their exuberant youth. On the other hand, they are still alive and kicking, and deliver some real pleasure even after long cellaring.
For academic interest, and in the hope of finding at least one compelling bottle, I opened four of them at random for a tasting today. The good news is that they were all drinkable, even one that looked a bit cloudy. In order of sweetness, here are my tasting notes:
Matrose Symphony Sonoma County 1984 (residual sugar: 5.37 percent): Matrose was a separate label of the winery owned by late comedian and sometimes presidential candidate Pat Paulsen. Winemaker Jamie Meves experimented for several years with a grape variety called Symphony, a UC Davis cross of Muscat of Alexandria and Grenache Gris, grown at a vineyard near Santa Rosa. The Grenache probably accounts for the pale coppery color. The wine smells fresh and spicy, dry, even a bit tart in the mouth, a delicate style that emphasizes savory spice, rhubarb and grapefruit flavors against a hint of caramel. Pleasant, but not a wow. Reminds me of a tangy Madeira. (87 points, non-blind)
Charles Lefranc Johannisberg Riesling San Benito County Paicines Vineyard 1979 (residual sugar: 11.7 percent): Charles Lefranc was the upscale label of the mass-market Almaden winery. It made several vintages of lovely late-harvest wines from its mountain vineyard in San Benito County, south of San Jose. Tawny, with a khaki edge to the color, molasses and dried apricot aromas, the wine is still sweet but with a refreshing balance and an open texture. It’s not unctuous but delicate, with caramel and molasses notes and a range of flavors reminiscent of pear tart, lingering deftly. (90 points, non-blind)
California sweet wines three decades old vary tremendously in color. From left, Matrose 1984, Charles Lefranc 1979, Felton-Empire 1980, Chateau St. Jean 1984.
Felton-Empire White Riesling Santa Barbara Tepusquet Vineyards Select Late Harvest 1980 (residual sugar: 18 percent): Tepusquet was the pioneer independent vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley in Santa Barbara County, and still produces terrific wines. Relatively light color, with a yellow tinge to the tawny color, this bottle is a bit cloudy, with muted spices on the nose, delicious sweetness and lightness in the mouth. Lapping lakelike waves of dried apricot, pear, crème fraîche and walnut flavors continue through a lovely finish. This one sneaks up on you, but stays with a warm embrace. (91 points, non-blind)
Chateau St. Jean Johannisberg Riesling Alexander Valley Robert Young Vineyard Select Late Harvest 1984 (residual sugar: 18.4 percent): I have had some great bottles of this wine, but in most cases they were less than eight years old. This one is very dark tawny color, much like an older Aussie Muscat, typical of Arrowood’s sweet wines of this era (perhaps because he tried to minimize the use of sulphur). It has floral, coffee and spice overtones to the dried pear aromas, very sweet and unctuous, with an acidic sting running through the rich caramel, molasses and spice flavors. Seems to have lost its integration, but still has some nice flavors. (88 points, non-blind)
My recollection of all of these wines is that they are not as exciting to drink today as they were in their ultrasweet, heady youth. On the other hand, if you demand a little more delicacy, aging them is not a bad idea.
Jason Zeledon — Berkeley, CA — March 18, 2010 4:03pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — March 18, 2010 4:10pm ET
John Albritton — Irvine, CA — March 19, 2010 2:25am ET
Jason Zeledon — Berkeley, CA — March 19, 2010 12:51pm ET
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