One could make a strong case that Peter Michael Winery is the best in California.
All of its wines are routinely outstanding. Many are sensational. The winery puts tremendous effort into its vineyards, winemaking and marketing, and the wines, irrespective of varietal or composition, readily reflect an identifiable and consistent house style.
But time can be tough on even the best wines. Last week a vertical tasting of Michael’s Les Pavots demonstrated that some of its earlier wines, despite being impressive upon release, had not aged very well. A few vintages from 1989 to 1996 were borderline in quality. One culprit: brettanomyces, a spoilage yeast that can wreak havoc on any wine, particularly reds.
The later vintages, from 1997 through 2008, the current release, show Les Pavots at its best. This Bordeaux-style mix of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot from the Sonoma winery’s Knights Valley vineyards is often a brilliantly crafted and styish wine. It accomplishes what its owner, Sir Peter Michael, set out to do: Make a Bordeaux-style red in California, specifically from his hillside vineyards that lie north of Mt. St. Helena.
Any vertical is likely to provide a few surprises, both good and bad, and that was the case with the Les Pavots tasting. Most wineries’ wines are only reviewed on release. But some merit a second look, to see how the wines have aged and how they’ve changed. Verticals are a way to study a wine’s personalities in different years and, ultimately, to determine whether the wine is worth aging and, if so, what are the peak drinking opportunities.
This tasting, not blind, was hosted by winemaker Nicholas Morlet at the winery and covered wines from 1989 to 2008. Only one wine, the first vintage, 1988, was missing. The early vintages came from young vines and were overseen by Helen Turley (1988 and 1989), followed by Mark Aubert (from 1990 to 1998), Vanessa Wong (1999 and 2000) and Luc Morlet (1999 to 2005). Nicholas, Luc’s brother, has been making Peter Michael's wines from the 2006 vintage through today. The first years, 1989 to 1991, are 100 percent Cabernet, but then the blends change by year. Usually Cabernet is between 65 and 80 percent of the blend, but can be as low as 62 percent or up to 91 percent.
The vintages from 1989 to 1991 are marked by dry, leathery flavors and similarly dry and extracted tannins. There are wines that I marked as good to very good, but the level of earthiness from brettanomyces in all three wines (the 1990 as well) makes them marginal for me and Morlet, who described those wines as having high levels of brett. He says he does far more lab analysis of the wines than before, knowing that bacteria can get into the wines.
The next three vintages, 1992, 1993 and 1994, are more complex, with a wider range of vibrant flavors and less leather. The 1995, an elegant, refined wine with complex flavors, was the first outstanding wine on my scorecard.
The 1996, though, is problematic, with its elevated level of volatile acidity, something both Morlet and I agreed was excessive. The once juicy sour cherry flavors are now simply sour and dirty. Depending on one’s threshold for VA, or brett, for that matter, this wine might be drinkable.
Once we got to 1997, the tasting settled down into a lineup of very good to outstanding, even classic, wines. But this group also had some surprises.
The 1998 is typical of that cool, challenging vintage. If offers earthy, herbal, dried berry and peppery notes. The 1999 was perhaps the most divisive wine in the tasting. From a cool vintage, Morlet found the bell pepper flavors too prominent; for me it is very complete.
The 2000, from another cooler year, is also very complex. It's somewhat trimmer on the palate, but still very focused and persistent.
The 2001 has long been my favorite Les Pavots. It is drinking exceptionally well and has reached a nice plateau.
The 2002, conversely, has always puzzled me, as well as Morlet; since it was such a hot vintage, the flavors were so ripe that at times they’ve bordered on being volatile. It has always been a solid wine, but lacking the finesse and polish of the 2001. In this tasting, however, it offered lots of currant, black cherry and blueberry pie flavors that were refined and complex.
More surprising was how well the 2003 tasted. It has never shown well for me in multiple tastings. “We thought this was going to be a catastrophic vintage with all the rot [from the cold, damp weather],” Morlet recalled.
The 2004 resembles 2001, a wine of power and finesse, with loads of flavors. “The differences between 2004 and 2005 were like night and day,” Morlet said. 2004 was a small crop in a warm year. 2005 was a milder year but with a very large crop.
The 2006 is a tight bundle of energy from a difficult year. Morlet recalled that 50 mph winds decimated the leaves on the vines as they were being picked. It is deeply concentrated, powerful and rich in flavors.
The 2007 showed identically to how it tasted last year when reviewed. It is a classy wine—“more intellectual, very tactile,” said Morlet. It combines the power, richness and muscle of 2001 and 2004, yet with the finesse of 2005.
The 2008 is yet another very strong vintage, both charming now and offering wonderful purity of flavors.
The lessons for me remain those I abide by. I prefer wines in their youth, when the flavors are the purest and most vibrant. Most California Cabernets drink well early on and reach a peak by age 10. But with age, wines become less predictable.
Here are my notes:
1989: Fully mature, complex, very herbal and very Bordeaux like, with a mix of berry, herb, mineral, wet clay and cigar box, ending with firm, leathery tannins. Drink up. (88 points, non-blind)
1990: Similarly drying, even more so, with the leather have a bitter edge. Good but nothing more. Drink now. (82 points, non-blind)
1991: Also very, firm and dry, with herbal-dried berry and pencil lead notes. Ends with a clipped finish. (83 points, non-blind)
1992: Modestly complex, elegant, delicate and medium bodied, with cherry, wilted rose, gravel, pencil lead, fading on the finish. Drink now. (87 points, non-blind)
1993: Better balanced, another very good wine that has peaked, with high-toned dried berry, cherry and spice, ending with firm, drying tannins. Drink now. (87 points, non-blind)
1994: The best wine so far, with the most depth, but it is quite muscular and tannic, with loamy earth, dried berry and herb, touches of clay. Drink now. (89 points, non-blind)
1995: First outstanding wine on my scorecard. Elegant, refined and delicate, it offers fresh aromatics of spicy oak, currant and flowers. Drink now. (90 points, non-blind)
1996: Poured from magnum. The winery no longer has any 750s. Once a favorite, it has taken a turn for the worse; the level of volatile acidity spoils the flavors. While once juicy and ripe flavored, it now shows sour cherry and a brush of dirtiness. May have limited appeal. Drink now. (82 points, non-blind)
1997: On the plus side, dense, firm, concentrated, dried currant, olive and anise. Still rustic, it ends with chewy tannins. Drink now through 2016. (92 points, non-blind)
1998: Awkward, with earthy, dried berry and herbal-peppery scents that shows the difficulties of a cool year. Drink now. (85 points, non-blind)
1999: Very complete, wonderfully complex and well-focused, smooth, with currant, fresh tobacco leaf and sweet pepper, ending on a pleasantly earthy note. (92 points, non-blind)
2000: Impressive showing, very complex, trim and balanced, with ripe currant, spice, loamy earth, black licorice and refined tannins. Drink now through 2015. (92 points, non-blind)
2001: Still my favorite of the lineup. Wonderful aromas of fruit purity, red and black, plum and cherry with touches of mocha, chocolate and espresso and black olive, ending with great persistence, focus and flavors that sail on. Drink now through 2017. (97 points, non-blind)
2002: Much better than it showed in its youth, very ripe, with currant, black cherry, blue berry pie and spice, supple and refined, the finish is a bit clipped. Much more to like now than early on. Drink now through 2017. (92 points, non-blind)
2003: A cool year, this is another impressive showing for this wine. Firm, dense, rustic and earthy, deeply concentrated, firmly tannic, with chewy, dried currant, black licorice and herbs, yet it continues to offer complex, subtle flavor nuances. Drink now through 2019. (92 points, non-blind)
2004: A wine of immense power and finesse, much like 2001. It’s rich and plush, with well-defined currant, blackberry, black olive, mocha, toasty oak and chocolate evenly distributed on the palate. Gains velocity at mid palate, ending with a long finish. Drink now through 2024. (95 points, non-blind)
2005: Remarkably graceful, supple, elegant, similarly complex, with tiers of fresh, ripe red and black fruit, blackberry, raspberry, ending with a smooth, lingering finish. Drink now through 2025. (95 points, non-blind)
2006: Deeply concentrated, rich and complex, with loamy earth, dried berry, currant and black licorice, firming up nicely on the finish. Drink now through 2026. (95 points, non-blind)
2007: Offers the wonderful purity of youth, rich and focused with layers of blackberry, wild berry, currant and cedar. Full bodied, firming on the finish, where cedar and mineral join firm tannins. (95 points, non-blind)
2008: Due for a fall release, this is already a charmingly rich, supple and layered, with wonderful purity of flavor, currant, black berry and black licorice that continue to develop depth. (94–97 points, non-blind)
John Padgett — Melbourne Fla — April 5, 2011 7:58pm ET
Andrew J Walter — Sacramento, CA — April 6, 2011 8:53am ET
David Rapoport — CA — April 6, 2011 11:17am ET
John G Lawson — N, CA — April 6, 2011 12:23pm ET
Matthew Slywka — Seymour, CT — April 6, 2011 4:21pm ET
Ron Lippitt — Warwick, RI — April 6, 2011 10:16pm ET
George W Arnos — Alva Florida — April 21, 2011 7:18pm ET
James Laube — Napa, CA — April 22, 2011 7:21pm ET
Troy Campione — Boston, MA — December 20, 2011 6:08pm ET
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