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Thursday Thorns
Amazingly Beauty in 40 and 50-Year Old California Cabernets

By Charles Olken

At the invitation of John and Janet Trefethen, the Olkens ventured up to the Napa Valley last Friday night to dine with famed English winewriter, Hugh Johnson. We gathered in the Trefethen’s hillside home, whose surrounding vineyards have yielded the Halo Cabernet that regularly tops of the CGCW tasting charts.

Mr. Johnson who, for most of us who have ever put pen to paper and scribbled out our thoughts on wine, is a close as there is to a diety, has enjoyed a hallowed spot in our lives for decades and decades. In my case, make that decade and decade and decade and decade. The ostensible reason for this soiree was nothing more than his presence among us. But, Mr. Johnson is not a man whose presence goes without attention, and for whom, there will be large quantities of interesting wines to taste.

While I am tempted to bore you with the full and complete details of our conversation, suffice it to say that he espouses the now familiar concerns about California ripeness—albeit with less condemnation than some of our own writers who see excess in every grape that has ripened fully. Mr. Johnson asks questions rather than rattling off narrow philosophies, and, given the many older wines, most of the conversation centered around questions about ageworthiness.

While we all mostly agreed (there were twelve folks gathered around the table all of whom know what they are talking about), that the last decade and a half has yielded wines that are riper than their predecessors, there was no general agreement as to the aging potential of those wines. On that front, it was more questions than answers, and even the most optimistic of us, which would be yours truly, had to admit that we are just now entering the middle age of the riper wines that emerged in the mid-90s.

The wines we tasted on the night gave us good clues, but not definitive answers. Yet those clues are, to me, sufficiently instructive to come up with a defensible theory. Some of the wines tasted carried typical California ripeness about them, but their age meant that they do not come with the elevated alcohols that we see almost across the board today. That said, here is what those wines have taught me yet again.

The oldest of the wines was 1955 Inglenook Cask Cabernet. The wine was in perfect condition, assuming that you will accept that its primary fruit is no longer evident, with rich, focused aromas and a wonderful sense of balance and poise. At 57 years old, it is enjoying a long plateau of useful drinkability, and its currant and tea focus was about as classic as one gets.

Served next were a trio of Beaulieu Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernets, dated 1968, 1969 and 1970. With fills up into the neck and corks that came out in near pristine fashion for the 68 and 70 but crumbled for the 69 yet was not a leaker, the bookend vintages, at least, were still loaded with drinking pleasure.

The 1968, at 44 years old, was a joy to behold. Its ripe aromas were deeper and more concentrated than the Inglenook and reminded in focus of the top wines coming from the West Rutherford area today. Dirt is dirt and Cabernet is Cabernet, and while better plant materials, modern trellising systems and global warming may all be contributing to riper grapes at harvest, those influences have not changed the character of the wines coming off the bench so long as they are picked before the grapes wither on the vine.

1969 did not hold up as well and was past its prime but not destroyed, and the 1970 continues to be an exemplary wine. For sure, it is forty years old and counting, and its American oak influence accounts for some of it tangy edges, as does the passage of time, but it was, as it has been for decades now, a clear example of the fruit and tea-leaf complexity that its label has yielded time and time again.

Its still-alive structure led to a comment by our guest that the 1970 California Cabernets had held up better and longer than their fabled Bordelais counterparts. And that comment then led to the question of the evening. Did I think that the current crop of Cabernets, with their higher alcohol levels would be ageworthy? Please note that he did not ask me if they would live forty or fifty years.

And here is why I differ from all the naysayers who predict dire aging results for today’s top wines. Back forty years ago, when the 1970 California and Bordelais wines were both quite successful and the California wines were winning comparative tastings, folks who favored the French wines, meaning Europeans and American wannabes, all said, “Well, they (California wines) might be good today, but they are too ripe and they will fall apart”. Funny thing, the California wines have not but the Bordelais have.

So here we are, today, with a similar set of comparatives. The better California wines do just fine in side-by-side blind tastings with their French counterparts, and they are still getting dinged for being riper. And the same folks who said that the California wines would not age back forty years ago are still saying the same thing today.

Now, let’s be clear that I am not talking about overripe, 15% and up wines in general, although some of them are also going to age just fine, as I will explain in a minute. The majority of collectable-quality Cabs from the Napa Valley and elsewhere are not overripe, dried grape concoctions. They are ripe, and they have fruit, depth, structure and balance just as they did forty years ago. There is no reason to think that today’s ripe and deep wines like Pride, Shafer Hillside, Continuum, Chappellet Pritchard Hill, Hobbs ToKalon, Rubicon, Beaulieu Private Reserve, Staglin and hundreds more like them will all fall apart at ten years old. There was precious little empirical proof back in 1970 that our wines would, in large numbers, be able to age for two, three, even four decades. Today we have that proof.

The 1968 BV smelled ripe the other night. It also was alive at forty-four years. It was, as we sat there, an unmistakable, undeniable hint that today’s wines are really not all that much different. One degree of alcohol higher has not spoiled Bordeaux, and it has not spoiled California Cabs.

That’s my story, and I am sticking to it. One final note: the BVs were all from my cellar and had been stored at fifty-five degrees. Good wines and good storage lead to wines that age well.

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by James C. Coleman
Posted on:10/28/2012 8:27:30 AM

Hello Mr. Olken,

Your comments on the Inglenook Cask Cabernet were interesting because of a similar experience I had with an Inglenook bottling that I thought I would share with you.

When my wife and I were in Minneapolis last summer celebrating my 73rd birthday with family and friends we were delighted when a friend (in the wine business) presented me with a 4/5 pint bottle of 1939 vintage Inglenook Napa Valley Red Pinot.

Naturally we had the sommelier open the bottle and split it between 7 glasses so he could sample it also.

Not knowing what to expect we all started the tasting process and were more than pleasantly surprised.

While the wine was past it's prime, it was still a full bodied red wine with a very nice nose and a long finish.  If we had been doing a blind tasting I'm not certain any of us would have identified it as a Pinot.  It had a slight earthiness reminding us of a good Rhone wine that had aged and lost it's fruit but had smoothed out.

The others at the table finished their portion but I was curious what would happen after it had breathed for 30 to 45 minutes so I set my glass aside after a small first taste.

When I tasted it again 45 minutes later it had smoothed out even further and was even better than when originally opened.  No signs of turning bad when exposed to air.

We were all amazed that it had survived 73 years and was still enjoyable, especially after it had been in the glass for awhile.


Jim Coleman

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