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A Quarter-Century of Spottswoode

On the winery's anniversary, a vertical tasting shows why California Cabernet is worth cellaring

Tim Fish
Posted: February 22, 2007

When Spottswoode hosted a 25-year vertical tasting of its Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons this week, founding winemaker Tony Soter was asked for his perspective on the wines. He mulled it over for a moment. "This is kind of like a high-school reunion. Tasting some of these wines, I remember them a lot younger," he said, with a wry smile. "Some have seen better days, and some are still vital."

The ageability of California Cabernets has been a popular topic on this website lately. Senior editor James Laube recently reported on how the 1996, 1986 and 1976 wines were faring and discussed the potential longevity of the wines with readers on his blog. I tasted many of those Cabernets with Laube, and we found them generally disappointing, neither improving nor gaining nuance with age.

Disappointing is not a word I would use for the Spottswoode tasting. Although some wines certainly were tired and past their prime, the winery demonstrated well why it has a reputation for producing cellar-worthy Cabernets.

In celebration of their winery's 25th anniversary, the Novak family poured every Cabernet Spottswoode has made, from the first vintage in 1982 to a barrel sample of the 2006. On hand were all of Spottswoode's winemakers over its history--including Soter, Pam Starr, Rosemary Cakebread and current winemaker Jennifer Williams--as was David Abreu, Spottswoode's vineyard manager for many years.

Abreu, the valley's most sought-after vineyard consultant, said he considered Spottswoode's vineyard to be one of the top in Napa. The vineyard is certainly key to the wine's success. Located on the western outskirts of St. Helena, the site has well-drained soils that are a mix of gravel, loam and clay. The resulting wines traditionally have shown a high degree of natural acidity, which Soter believes contributes to the Cabernet's ageability.

Since the early 1990s, the vineyard has been extensively replanted, but the Novak family has taken pains to preserve what they see as the fundamental qualities of the estate. About 80 percent of the vineyard is propagated from the estate's original Cabernet clone. While many Napa growers switched to vertical trellising during the 1990s, when problems with phylloxera prompted widespread replanting in the valley, Spottswoode did not, fearing that increasing the grapes' exposure to sun would produce a riper style of wine than the winery customarily made.

Nonetheless, the style of Spottswoode Cabernets has evolved over the years. When a winery has had four different winemakers and experienced every type of growing season, from cold and rainy to blistering hot, that's bound to happen. The wines of the early 1990s seem to be denser and more compact, perhaps because the more mature vines were lost as the vineyard was replanted. Starting around 1997, the wines seem to be riper. The winemakers say there hasn't been a conscious decision to produce a riper style; Soter says the weather in Napa is just hotter, plain and simple.

All that said, the wines did seem to have a common thread, offering a balanced, often elegant structure, but with an underlying density. They typically show a slightly wild blackberry quality along with herbs and minerals.

Of the wines in this tasting, a few were tired, particularly the 1982, 1983, 1988 and 1989. All were bricklike or brown in color, and bereft of fruit.

The 1984 was elegant and still pretty, while the 1986, which seemed oxidized and over the hill when Laube and I tried two bottles for the 20-year Cabernet retrospective, had a better showing on Monday; it was dense and still fairly rich. Drink 'em if you got 'em. The 1999 and 2001 are both powerhouses that seem to be brooding a bit right now.

My favorite wines were the 1991 (supple, structured, ready to drink), the 1997 (ripe, powerful and still rockin') and the 2002 and 2005, both of which are rich, ripe and concentrated.

Spottswoode has demonstrated it has a great vineyard, and even with different winemakers the strength and character of this site show through. That's the sign of a great wine: providing pleasure in its youth and new discoveries as the years go by.

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