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Why We Age California Cabernet

Cellaring wines for your children can be a history lesson
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jun 20, 2012 10:00am ET

With all the great California Cabernet Sauvignons that came after, people tend to forget the 1991 vintage, but it was an excellent one. California Cabernet came into its own with the 1985s, but for me the early benchmark was always 1991.

From the start, the wines showed great depth and balance, and were immediately drinkable, but you had the sense they would age gracefully. For me they had an additional significance: My daughter Sophie was born in 1991.

We celebrated her 21st birthday last week and I opened a few of the 1991s I've had in my cellar since they were released. The bottles were in great shape and the wines had aged beautifully. They made up for all those bottles I've opened with anticipation over the years only to be disappointed.

Before I talk about the wines, I have to admit that I didn't have many choices for the cellar in 1991. It was a lousy year in Bordeaux, and only average for Burgundy and Tuscany. The only shining light in Europe was Vintage Port, which Wine Spectator rated 93 on our 100-point scale. I have a few Ports in the cellar that I'm keeping for later. No hurry with those.

That said, the 1991 California Cabernets aren't wines that should be lingering in your cellar. They were at their prime a few years ago, I'll admit, but that doesn't take away from how delightful they were to drink, even if you don't have a child born that year.

It was a tough call, but my favorite of the 1991s was the Dominus Napa Valley Napanook Vineyard. It offered delicacy and structure, with notes of cherry and tea. A close second was the Stag's Leap Cask 23 Napa Valley, which was more dense and earthy but remarkably supple. Sonoma showed well too, with the Laurel Glen Sonoma Mountain 1991. It wasn't as elegant as the others, but it retained its mountain backbone and bold fruit and it remained remarkably youthful.

I imagine that few of you have 1991s left in the cellar. I couldn't resist all of them myself over the years, but I think it's worth confirming that California Cabernets—despite what skeptics say—can age splendidly in the cellar.

As for my daughter, she drank them dutifully and bragged about her good fortune on Facebook. I'm not sure at her age I would have enjoyed them as much.

Paul M Hummel
Chicago, —  June 20, 2012 11:05am ET
The Dominus is great, but so are Ridge Monte Bello, Diamond Creek, and Caymus. also Arrowood from sonoma
Very under-rated vintage !
Josh Moser
Sunnyvale, CA —  June 20, 2012 12:15pm ET
Tim - One of the greatest bottles of wine I have ever had, was a 1975 Silver Oak, Alexander Valley, C/S out of a magnum in 2003. The wine was 28 years old and it was fantastic. Thanks for sharing.

Josh Moser
Founder of VinoServant
Pahlmeyer Winery
Napa, CA —  June 20, 2012 1:29pm ET
On my 21st my father opened a 3L of 1983 Chateau Mouton he had cellared for the occasion. Although I do remember it was very special, I have to admit wines like that and the ones you cellared for your daughter are wasted on most 21-year-olds! (I know I was more excited about a cosmo martini at age 21!) However, they are certainly not wasted on the parents - they are not only wonderful, aged wines but sentimental as well. (Another idea for cellaring wines - buy wines from the year you married and enjoy with your spouse on your anniversaries!) Cleo Pahlmeyer
David A Zajac
Akron, OH —  June 20, 2012 3:19pm ET
I had many wonderful 1991's as they were my favorite vintage of the early 90's, I have finished them all off now but two that always stood out to me were those of Philip Togni and Seavey, still have great memories of those wines!
Elyse J Ward
Buffalo Grove, IL —  June 20, 2012 4:48pm ET
I have one 1991 Shafer Hillside left. I opened one about 18 months ago and it was absolutely perfect. I have no idea when I'll open the last one, but it won't be for awhile. Great story.
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  June 20, 2012 6:49pm ET
Thanks for the comments everyone. It seems as if we've all shared common experiences.
Mark Horowitz
Brooklyn, USA —  June 21, 2012 12:35pm ET
We opened a 91 Martha's Vineyard this past weekend and what emerged was a classic Heitz Martha's, with the usual lushness, chocolate, cherry and mint notes. It was shared with dear friends, making the experience of drinking it all the more pleasurable.
Daniel Sherer
Healdsburg, CA, USA —  June 21, 2012 3:02pm ET
Good timing (for me)….just two weeks ago 3 of us had our bi-monthly-boys-night-out [really down to just twice-a-year now] and the theme was Early 90’s. My two favorites were Robert Mondavi Reserve 1991 still showing intense dark fruit, truffles and minerals. Second place went to Leoville Las Cases 1991. As soon as we opened to decanter we could smell the floral bouquet (unlike 3 other Bordeaux, not to be named) and knew we hit the jack pot. Soft tannins, delicate fruit of black cherries and just down right yummy. So kind of a hit-or-miss for the night. Six wines and two showed extremely well. The other wine was a Burgundy from 1990 that had turned.
Ron Lippitt
Warwick, RI —  June 21, 2012 9:40pm ET
I had a bottle of the 91 Cask 23 about 5 years ago and I thought it was the best Stag's Leap i have ever had.
Six months ago I had my last bottle of 91 Diamond Creek Red Rock Terrace- still delicious but definitely past it's prime.

Michael Bennett
Houston, TX —  June 22, 2012 1:03pm ET
Great story. I've been buying bottles to save for significant landmark's in the lives of my children as well. I'm still trying to round out 2007 for one child born then. Tougher for me, since I'm not going to buy Bordeaux from that year. California seems like a good option and I've purchased some. Any specific suggestions from the group? Looking for wines that would likely be good 18-21 year agers like the 91s that have been discussed.
Peter Vangsness
Springfield, MA —  June 22, 2012 3:05pm ET

Older cabs that have matured evenly become lithe, silky wines with a more gentle edge and rounder mouthfeel. They resemble well made Medocs of a similar age. We seek them out regularly, always willing to take the chance that they haven't "turned the corner".
They pair well with lighter dishes that, in their prime, they may have overwhelmed. Our latest was a 1985 St. Clement with an oven roasted rosemary-seasoned chicken.
Matt Ploetz
Milwaukee, WI —  June 24, 2012 8:07pm ET
Michael- try Brunello! 2007 was a great year. The original brunello (Biondi Santi) is always a real ager, and generally needs 20 years to show its beauty. You could also wait for the riservas which will roll in next year. Good luck!
Richard Kim
Anaheim Hills, CA —  June 25, 2012 10:51pm ET
Dunn and Anderson's Conn Valley Vineyards are 2 more excellent California cabs that age well. I find Dunns age with power and Anderson's age with grace
John Mullino
Savannah, GA —  June 27, 2012 11:45am ET
I must admit that I have "over cellared" quite a few wines over the last 30 or so years that I have been settled enough to store some wines. I think that the more expensive and or more highly rated the wines are, the more I have been inclined to save them for a special occasion. I remember a 1994 Turley Hayne Vineyard Zinfindel that I had read would keep for 10-15 years! Of course that is not the case for most zins. I had saved it for a close friend's 50th birthday since I knew she loved Turley. My mistake. While it was certainly good, it was not the wine I feel certain it would have been at perhaps 5 years of age vs 12. I essentially did the same thing with a horizontal of Diamond Creek 1984's! I had been advised that these were some of the last DC's that not only would take some long aging but in fact would really be preferred due to the high tannins. I tried the first (a Gravelly Meadow) at 10 years and it was outstanding. I tried a Red Rock Terrace at 15 years and felt that it was a little past it's prime. The 3rd was the Volcanic Hill which I also had at 15 years and found it to be amazing! I had a 2nd bottle of Volcanic Hill (1984) in 2009 my (60th bday) and while it might not have been quite as good as it was at 15 years of age, it was still quite enjoyable especially for 25 years of age. The lesson for me is that life is short, and you never know what tomorrow might bring, so I'll be drinking my wines more often and perhaps putting less emphasis on saving them for a special occasion. Cheers!
Richard R Freedman
metro NYC —  June 28, 2012 1:26pm ET
Agree that 1991 Dominus is still in a great place, probably at peak. Thanks for the story.
William Matarese
Florida, USA —  July 6, 2012 11:03am ET

If you are looking for an ageworthy 2007, I would recommend the Tenuta Sette Ponti Oreno. It's not a Cali Cab (so I'm a bit off topic here) but it is very Bordeaux-like.

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