The Noble Writ in the Lion's Den of California Cabs

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Following up on my post a couple of weeks ago about wine being fun, I decided to have some fun myself. I saw a post on the Wine and Cheese Place's blog about an upcoming tasting featuring the wines of Chateau St. Jean and Beringer. Regular readers of the Noble Writ will likely realize that these producers are outside my normal palate preferences. That we'd be tasting some high-end cabernet sauvignons from these folks moved me even further from my normal hunting grounds.

So, why did this fall into the category of fun for me? Once upon a time, a look at my cellar would have revealed a makeup much different from its current state. About ten years ago, it was largely composed of wines from California, with a disproportionate number of those being cabernet sauvignons of large scale dominated by names like Pride, Phelps, Beringer and Ridge.

Over time, either my palate preferences changed, or as I tasted more wines with more foods, I realized that these wines didn't complement the way I ate and drank in real life. Instead of continuing down the path I knew and had invested in, I shifted my cellar through consumption and, frankly, by selling off at auction a lot of wine that I was no longer crazy about.

The wines being offered at this tasting weren't something I'd buy today, but something I enjoy checking in on for two reasons. First, tastes are always evolving, as are wineries, so I like to explore things I don't think I'll like because it's very possible that I may find something I enjoy.

I also don't think it's fair to base criticism of particular styles or producers based on old experiences. That doesn't mean I feel the need to taste every new release from every winery out there, or that I'll be handing over my hard-earned $50 to $100 at a time to see if these wines cellar into something I like, but when an opportunity for a tasting like this presents itself, I can't resist checking in.

This tasting was organized into two main flights of cabernet-based wine, led by the winemakers via a live Internet feed. Chateau St. Jean was first with winemaker Margo Van Staaveren leading us through a vertical tasting of the 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2006 vintages of her Cinq Cepages, a cabernet sauvignon-heavy blend of five grape varieties. This wine is a perennial favorite of Wine Spectator.

click to enlarge A view from within the lion's den - Dave Nelson
Dave Nelson
A view from within the lion's den
My own recollection of it is of a wine made in a very ripe, very oaky style that I don't enjoy. Unfortunately, this tasting showed my memory to be spot-on. While I found the 2001 drinkable, if oakier than I would have preferred, the rest of the lineup was almost everything I dislike in a wine: lots of fruit, bordering on candied flavors in the youngest vintage; rough, prominent, aggressive oak; and high levels of extraction. However, if the younger releases evolve in the same manner as the 2001, I could see and even understand someone liking them a lot.

The Beringer part of the program was structured differently. Its Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon is a blend of wine from several vineyard sources in the Napa Valley. We tasted the 2005 vintage of that wine as well as unblended 2005 cabernet sauvignons from the three primary source vineyards that make up the Private Reserve blend. While the wines were somewhat closed at this stage in their development, it was fascinating to discover that I was unable to pick out specific elements of any of the component wines in the blended wine. Instead, the blend really was a distinct wine in both taste and aroma.

Also interesting were the distinctions between the component wines, even though they were all cabernet sauvignon and all grown within a relatively small area of Napa Valley. I expected them to be more fungible, but they were all quite distinct, with the wine from the Steinhauer Ranch vineyard being notably complex and refined. It was refreshing to hear winemaker Laurie Hook delve into the nuances of each component with a depth of knowledge that only comes from years of careful attention to detail.

Frankly, I was surprised at how much the style of the Beringer wines fit my preferences. They were much more elegant and complex than the Chateau St. Jean wines, and whatever oak was there was much better integrated, even at this young stage of development. Now, it's possible that retasting on another occasion, particularly beside one of my normal tipples, the Beringers might be noticeably different, but on this night I quite enjoyed being able to taste them.

Overall, this was an excellent tasting. I learned a little, laughed a little, and most of all, had a lot of fun.

Dave Nelson is the author of the blog Beer, Wine and Whisky. He writes about wine every Tuesday.
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