Flavor Notes by Robert Rich: Food, Wine, Restaurants & Recipes


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Napa - Mayacamas Mountain Tasting
"Napa Valley with Altitude" April 2008

Some of my favorite wines in the Napa California region come from the mountains above the valley, where nights get colder, soils are less rich, yields are lower, often creating more intense and structured wines compared to the plush fruit-driven creations from the valley floor. The tasting notes that follow come from a 2008 trade tasting for the marketing cooperative of the Mayacamas appellations of Mount Veeder, Spring Mountain, and Diamond Mountain. Notes for other vintages of these wines appear elsewhere on this site. These impressions come from this one day, which means they may be less precise but offer insights into comparative qualities.

Needless to say, these notes barely scratch the surface from a tasting like this. Below I feature the most interesting of those I was able to explore this afternoon.

Mount Veeder District

4550 Silverado Trail, CAlistoga, CA 94515

2004 Brandlin Cabernet Sauvignon is very ripe with rather high alcohol (15%) exhibiting some characteristic heat along with a soft seductive strawberry-chocolate and rasperry fruit profile which almost resembles Zinfandel. Some brambles, crushed blackberry tea leaves, a hint of kafir lime and smooth rich tannins. A bit overripe but well structured.

Chateau Potelle
3875 Mt. Veeder Road, Napa, CA 94558

Always clean and elegant, made in a French style that avoids the overripe. Founding winemaker Marketta Fourmeaux recently sold her share of Chateau Potelle to the Kendall Jackson winegroup, so this year may be the last chance to purchase her bright clean estate wines. I look forward to tasting the results of her next venture, when she gets settled again. I consider her Chardonnay to be among her best wines, with its bright lemon and hazlenut profile. In general, her wines show a higher acidity than some California buyers are accustomed to, which makes them age longer and pair better with food. Kudos.

Tom Meadowcroft with his namesake wine, 4-year barrel aged.

1446 Industrial Ave., Sebastopol CA 95472

Tom Meadowcrofts's wines definitely stood out from the crowd this day. This year he has just released his 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon, which is blended with a bit of Merlot and barrel aged for a whopping 4 years. This doesn't smell like oak, however. It smells like a first growth old wine, beautifully softened by the slow exposure to oxygen but not at all portlike, cooked, nor oxidized. The ageing process must have been managed very well. This has a complex bouquet, with dusty fragrances of plum and cassis, dark chocolate, a gravel road in summertime. Flavors harken to Slivovitz and Kirch (fruit brandies, basically) and complex herbal notes of Greek oregano and earth. This already tastes like a perfectly aged wine, so I can't guess about ageing potential - but it's lovely. Meadowcroft also offered barrel samples of his 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, a year before he'll put it in bottle. This vintage shows the spicy blackberry and brambles more typical of the region, with hints of cassis -- bright, rich, and herbal. Yet another pre-release sample, a huge viscous 2007 Viognier showed layers of floral notes such as rose petals, white peach, orange peel, meyer lemon, and a mouth feel reminiscent of egg custard. Very impressive. These are excellent wines, worth seeking out.

Postscript: Meadowcroft sent me some samples to re-taste several months later, and I'm still impressed. 2007 Meadowcroft Viognier at 13.9% alc. showed notes of custard and green apple, clean notes of lemon and honey, a bit of mangosteen earthy darkness, clover and sweet peas. Smooth tropical flavors include reminders of coconut, banana, passionfruit, pineapple and lichi. It has none of the bitter smokey quality that Viognier tannins tend to show, mostly smooth and buttery in the lingering fruity finish. Excellent. 2007 Meadowcroft Chardonnay is a study in balance between the buttery and fresh styles of this grape. Smooth buttery and nutty smells, chestnut butter, vanilla, musk, winter spices, alongside green apple and starfruit, with fresh sweet notes of pineapple. Flavors are long lasting and full, with a finish bending towards caramalized walnuts yet cleanly dry. Elegant and opulent. 2005 Meadowcroft Cabernet Sauvignon Mt. Veeder Estate (14.5% alc.) - re-tasted just after bottling. The nose is slightly grassy, herbal and dusty, with notes of black olive and leather. Fragrances begin to bloom over time with oily Greek oregano, rust, cigar box and blueberry fruit. Very complex and pleasant, on the masculin side of the spectrum. The palate is round and spicy, yet also open and bright. Tannins are smooth and soft; oak does not dominate despite long time in barrel. At this age, the high acids give a hint of rhubarb on the palate, but the wine promises much more complexity in a few years. This is not a fruit-driven wine, already surprisingly complex. Try pairing with smoked meats, maybe duck leg.

Paras Vineyards
1150 Lombard St. San Francisco CA 94109
2006 Viognier showed balanced ripe tones of lemon and sweet apricot with a fresh mineral undercurrent. 2005 Syrah tasted rich and redolent of chocolate. 2005 Merlot may have been my favorite from Paras, with characteristic rose bower and raspberry brambles in the nose, and substantial tannins giving support to the full dark fruit on the palate.

Robert Craig Winery
625 Imperial Way, Suite One, Napa, CA 94559
2004 Cabernet Sauvignon had a very smooth full mouth feel, with blackberry fruit and fine dark chocolate, silky tannins and complex herbal notes of crushed dry berry leaves. Top Notch.

Yates Family Vineyard
4723 Redwood Road, Napa, CA 94558
I was consistently impressed with these wines. 2005 Alden Perry Reserve ($45) is built from the standard Bordeaux varieties, with 60% Cabernet giving a backbone to the rose and violet fragrances of Cab Franc and the smooth milk chocolate notes of Merlot. 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon ($60) shows rich dark fruit with black cherry and creme de cassis, tar and molasses, a hint of iodine and dust. Tannins finish a bit bitter but should resolve in a few years. 2005 Fleur de Veeder ($45) offers layers of floral notes, perhaps from Cabernet Franc, resembling beeswax, plum and blackberry fruit with graphite tones in the finish. 2005 Cheval ($45) seems driven mostly by very well structured Merlot fruit, with licorice and chocolate profile, bergamot orange, red berries and lingering herbal finish high in tannins. I liked all of these wines.

Diamond Mountain

I tasted through many of the '01-'02 vintage Diamond Mountain wines at a trade tasting in May 2005, with notes appearing on my Napa wines page. Therefore I moved quickly through the Diamond Mountain room today, mostly to say hello to our friend Richard Graeser, whose crisp bright wines we know and love. One new winery, Coho, surprised me with some of my favorite wines in the region.

Coho Wines
P.O. Box 5726, Napa, CA 94581
2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, SummitVine Ranch offered big deep fragrances of black currant and blackberry with a hint of anise, a somewhat wirey tight structure but rich in the finish. 2005 Headwaters, a Bordeaux-style blend, showed great complexity, with raspberry, black pepper, mint, cocoa powder, licorice, coriander and winter spices (from the oak.)

Diamond Terrace owners with Dyer in the background.

Diamond Terrace
1391Diamond Mountain Road, Calistoga CA 94515
Three years ago these were among my favorite wines in the appellation, and I'm happy to say I still like them very much. 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon had intense tannins, resolving in a slight bitterness that needs some time to settle. Dark cherry, leather and anise fill the mouth. 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon has a slightly richer profile, with more oak, more blackberry notes in the fruit, and somewhat more gentle tannins.

Dyer Vineyard
1501 Diamond Mountain Road, Calistoga, CA 94515
Another favorite of mine from the previous tasting, Dyers wines are intense and age worthy. 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon still tastes very young, with tannins that linger for ages in the mouth. The fruit around these tannins gives hints of oily milk chocolate, blackberry and brambles, anise, and an integrated subtle oak profile that supports but doesn't overtake the fruit.

Richard and Rebecca at Graeser

Graeser Winery
255 Petrified Forest Road, Calistoga, CA 94515
Richard Graeser and his partner Rebecca Ahl have become friends of ours since we met them three years ago. It's hard to write in a neutral way about his wines, because I find them to be bound so closely to his personality. Today he was pouring his 2001 Cabernet Franc, 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon, and 2003 Coeur de Leon Bordeaux-style blend. These wines all show a medium body, low oak, feisty acidity and spicy, leathery, almost herbal fruit character. Charming and individualistic, a bit like Richard himself.

J. Davies Vineyards
1400 Schramsberg Road, Calistoga CA 94515
2003 Cabernet Sauvignon showed some hints of VA that I don't remember from previous J. Davies Cabernets. Dark tarry notes in the fruit, with blackberry and milk chocolate, mint and licorice.

Spring Mountain

When I think of Spring Mountain, I think of the immense chocolate and black cherry flavors in the Merlots from Pride and Paloma, or the silky smooth intensity of Marston's Cabernet. To be honest, I might have had enough time to taste more of these incredible wines if I hadn't spent so much time over at Marston, almost hypnotized by their library sample of 1998 Cabernet. Yum.

Fantesca Estate & Winery
2920 Spring Mountain Road, St. Helena CA 94574
2006 Chardonnay shows the rich and buttery side, very smooth and viscous in the mouth, nutty with butterscotch scents. 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon tasted like rich dark chocolate, with oily anise-like undercurrents. Very mouth-pleasing.

Frias Family Vineyards
275 Magellan Ave., San Francisco CA 94116
I met Manny Frias at a friend's house a few years ago, where he brought a bottle of his family's excellent big Cabernet (I believe it may have been a 2001 vintage.) This time I saw that Frias pouring a 2006 Rosé, one of the few rosés in the tasting. I confess that I prefer a French style dry rosé; whereas the Frias rosé had quite a bit of residual sugar, coming closer in style to the dreaded white Zinfandel. Fragrances of strawberry dominated the nose, with some pleasant floral tones.

Marston Family Vineyard
3600 White Sulphur Springs Road, St. Helena CA 94574
If I had to name a single favorite wine this day, I think Marston would win. My usual analytical approach to flavors and smells flew out the window. The 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon just felt so seductive, smooth and velvety, with layers of milk chocolate and deep round fruit, tasting not of other things, but of itself. As if to prove that this smooth roundness need not indicate a wine without age potential, Marston also poured a library bottle of their 1998 Cabernet Sauvignon, a much maligned vintage in terms of point scores. This 10 year old wine still tasted young, still smoothly textured with milk chocolate, anise and vanilla toffee notes, round, elegant, with subtle herbal dustiness resembling Greek oregano in the finish. Its color was still pure and deep, without a hint of bricking or oxidation. I suspect this wine could last well for yet another decade or more, if one could suppress the desire to open it sooner.

Newton Vineyard
2555 Madrona Ave., St. Helena CA 94574
I tried their 2004 Puzzle, a very ripe blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Merlot, 10% Cab Franc, 3% Petite Verdot. I could smell the 15.5% alcohol right away, and with its nose of strawberry, black pepper and brambles I might have mistaken this for a big zinfandel.

Pride Mountain Vineyard
4026 Spring Mountain Road, St. Helena CA 94574
I'm always happy to taste the latest liquid artwork from Robert Foley, who usually manages to pull off some sort of miracle to make such big wines simultaneously approachable yet balanced and well structured. 2005 Pride Merlot had that classic dark chocolate and cherry fruit, with tones of raspberry and brambles, a smooth but lingering tannin and sweet oak finish. 2005 Pride Cabernet Sauvignon also showed an immediate friendly mouth feel tied to expressive and deep fruit, with black licorice, tar, chocolate and a hint of cloves.

Terra Valentine
3787 Spring Mountain Road, St. Helena CA 94574
2005 Cabernet Sauvignon showed chalky young tannins alongside characteristic chocolate and rich creme de cassis flavors. 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon, Yverdon, had an intense profile, quite interesting and almost rustic compared to the wines nearby. Tight fisted and tannic, with bright cherry and cassis, black licorice and an almost animal muskiness. This could prove very interesting in a few years. 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, Wurtele, tasted yet again individualistic, quite different from the other two, with low frequency tones of coffee, blueberry, smoked bacon, dark loamy earth and bramble.

My apologies to the dozen or more vineyards that I could not cover this day.

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