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Senior editor James Laube, Wine Spectator's expert on the wines of California, joined the magazine in 1983.
James Laube

A Memorable Merlot Worth Cellaring

Duckhorn Howell Mountain Merlot 1999

James Laube
Posted: June 8, 2010

The swings in temperature we had in Napa Valley in May—sunny, warm, even hot days and then cool, sometimes rainy periods—lent themselves to afternoons and evenings perfect for grilling and firing up the heat lamp.

At a small party on a recent Saturday night, friends helped me drink a mix of 2008 California Pinot Noirs, all of which were excellent. For a change of pace to go with the grilled beer-can chicken, salad and a cheese course, I uncorked and decanted a 1999 Duckhorn Howell Mountain Merlot, which is grown atop the mountain range east of Napa Valley proper.

This wine is in great condition, impressively youthful, complex and distinctive. Pure, rich, ripe and layered, it exhibited a mix of aromatic red and black licorice, blackberry, currant and a loamy, earthy herbal component that reminded me of the smoldering embers as the mesquite burned out. The texture is both smooth and structured, with the tannins having softened and allowing the fruit to flow smoothly until the final note, where the tannins then show their grip. This was one of the most memorable of many Howell Mountain Merlots I’ve tried. Wines from this appellation can and do age well. If properly stored, the ’99 Duckhorn should age another six to 10 years with ease. 94 points, non-blind.

WineSpectator.com members: Read the original blind-tasting review for Duckhorn Howell Mountain Merlot 1999 (92, $65 on release).

• Plus, get scores and tasting notes for more recently rated Napa Merlots.

Phil Roberts
Palatine, IL —  June 8, 2010 11:10am ET

Hi James,

sounds delicious. I'm curious about your philosophy on assigning drinking windows. In the original note you suggested drinking by 2009. Now it's 2010 and you're saying it has another 6-10 years easily. On this particular wine were you deliberately conservative in your initial note, or in general do you think these drink better young? How does that translate to drinking windows on other wines?

James Laube
Napa, CA —  June 8, 2010 12:22pm ET
Phil, I've written about this many times (http://www.winespectator.com/magazine/show/id/11045)
but briefly, I use narrow windows because I think most wines are best in their youth and the description provided with the tasting note applies to the wine the day I tried it. I don't try to project how wines will age, but merely recommend most wines be enjoyed early on.

Experienced drinkers know at what stage they like their wines; some like them mature, others don't. Storage, of course, plays a crucial role. If you have ideal conditions your wines will have a wider window.
Wayne Grout
Derry, NH —  June 8, 2010 4:35pm ET

This may sound like a stupid question, but what is it about the mountain wines, from Howell Mtn, or even Mayacamas comes to mind, that tends to make them "agers" and less accessible early-on?

James Laube
Napa, CA —  June 8, 2010 5:57pm ET
Wayne, a couple of things to consider. Mountain vineyards tend to be shy bearers. It's hard to hang a big crop and the berries tend to be smaller as well. Mountain vineyards set and start later and ripen later than those on the valley floor. Think of Howell or Mount Veeder as rugged terrain; Oakville or Rutherford as pretty comfy, with deep loamy soils. Because the grapes ripen later, they retain acidity longer and are less likely to be opulent; they can also be very tannic, sometimes to a fault. That said, there are no hard-fast rules that mountain wines age better than those grown elsewhere. But they are different. There are those (Caymus comes to mind) who prefer to blend valley floor with hillside, getting the best of both worlds.

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