It's time to keep company with Calif. cabernets

VINTAGE POINT

November 30, 1994|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Staff Writer

There is a worthy gentleman of my acquaintance who simply cannot abide California cabernet sauvignon.

In his refined English drawing room voice, he recently explained to me that the cabernets of the Golden State are leaden in their crudity and molten in their alcoholic heat.

No matter that some of these wines fetch $50-$100 a bottle. No matter that some of the leading proprietors in Bordeaux have set up shop in the Napa Valley. To my friend, even the greatest names in California cabernet cannot compare with a middling Bordeaux.

Poor guy. It seems nature itself has turned against him since the glory days of the 1980s and 1990. Since then Bordeaux has gone into a four-year slump. This fall, just as it appeared a string of three subpar vintages would be broken, harvest rains washed away vintners' hopes. It could be a long decade for the Bordeaux-or-bust crowd.

Fortunately, most of our palates aren't nearly as sensitive as my friend's. We veer from California wine to imports and back again, promiscuously loving both. Our dirty little secret is that sometimes we can't even tell the difference unless we peek at the label.

It's unfair, but sometimes fate favors the fickle. This is such a time.

While Bordeaux has battled winter freezes, rampant rot, chilly springs and harvest rains, California has been on a roll since 1990.

Right now, some of the best on the market are the 1991 California cabernet sauvignons that are now proliferating on retailers' shelves.

The 1991s might not be as monumental as the 1990s, but the best of them are showing a degree of structure and complexity that rival or exceed the best of that great vintage.

If any California vintage could appeal to my tender-tongued friend, it would likely be 1991. Instead of a typically blazing summer, the vines of California's North Coast enjoyed a long, cool growing season. With an unusually long "hang time," the grapes were able to develop an abundance of flavor nuances, not just high sugar levels.

None of the 1991s I have tasted recently has been finer than the Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet -- a $40 wine that justifies every penny of its price.

There have been many great Mondavi reserve cabernets over the last two and a half decades, but this ranks among the best. The intense, multilayered flavors of cassis, cedar and blackcurrant do a long, slow lap of honor across the palate. It's a huge wine, but elegant, with the structure to last 20 years or more.

While it is possible the Mondavi could win my Francophile friend's grudging admiration, there's no way that could happen with the 1991 Dalla Valle Maya. This rare and expensive ($45) blend of cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc is a California blockbuster through and through.

The Maya is a huge wine, with deep chocolate, coffee and black cherry flavors barely masking fierce tannins. For now, all a taster can do is admire it. But in 15 to 30 years, it could be pure perfection. Unfortunately, it could be almost impossible to find.

You might have a slightly better chance of landing some 1991 Dalla Valle Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon, a wine that is almost as concentrated and complex as the Maya but about half the price ($25).

Another winery that scored a double triumph in 1991 is Joseph Phelps Vineyards. Its Insignia ($40) is the granddaddy of California's Bordeaux-style blends -- often called Meritage -- and the 1991 is one of the best. Suffused with intense flavors of black cherry, chocolate, cassis and herbs, this seductive wine is supported by a firm structure of tannin. It could last 30 years and never have a bad day.

If you're not a wealthy collector, the most exciting news from Phelps is that its 1991 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($16), is the finest "regular" Phelps since the excellent 1975. With its long, ripe black cherry and mint flavors, it delivers as much complexity and aging potential as many wines twice its price. It could be the bargain of the vintage.

A relatively new name on the Napa Valley wine scene is Saddleback Cellars, but the man behind it is no stranger. As the winemaker at Groth Cellars, Nils Venge has established himself as one of the best cabernet makers in California.

In 1991, he succeeded under both labels. The Saddleback is an exuberant, chunky wine packed with sweet blackcurrant, chocolate and coffee flavors. It might not be the most complex '91, but it's among the most hedonistic, and justifies its $19 price.

The 1991 Groth, also $19, is a trifle more complex, though not as immediately appealing. It shows plenty of black cherry, blackcurrant and sweet oak. Give it 5 to 10 years, and it could be exceptional.

If any California cabernet could fool my Cali-phobic friend, it would be the 1991 from Stag's Leap Wine Cellars ($27). Its flavors of black cherry, cedar and sweet new oak are reminiscent of a St. Julien, and its acidity is higher than one usually finds in the Napa Valley. You could cellar this wine 15 years if you can keep your hands off it.

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