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New World, Old Wines

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Friday, November 01, 2013


For the longest time, most serious wine drinkers adhered to the notion that California wines did not improve with age. These offerings were often exciting and much anticipated, but while everyone was tucking their first-growth Bordeaux into the farthest nooks of their cellars to peacefully wait out the decades, the best wines of California were relegated to the shelves designated for immediate consumption. Collectors might impress their guests by pouring a Harlan Estate today, but they cannily reserved the Château Latour for some far-off occasion.

This myth about the age-worthiness (or unworthiness, as it were) of wines from the Golden State persists, because the modern reputation of California was forged in the heady 1990s, when the triumph of the Cult Cabs inspired a kind of trickle-down hedonism that influenced the style of wines at all price points. The wines from this decadent decade were rich, luscious, and instantly gratifying, making the concept of an ideal drinking window for a mature bottle of wine seem antiquated. After all, why put off until tomorrow what can be drunk today?

Consumers, the American wine media, and even the vintners themselves are in part responsible for this attitude: All were so focused on chasing scores that they forgot entirely the classic standards on which the industry was largely founded. This mind-set, however, is now shifting. A recent string of chilly, difficult vintages in Northern California thwarted ripeness, imbuing the wines with more of an old-school character that prompted many of the producers to look to the past for guidance. At the same time, a new generation of winemakers, sommeliers, and consumers—many of whom were not even of legal drinking age in the 1990s—began to find inspiration in the wines of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. These enthusiasts were drawn not only to the more restrained style of these wines but also to their prices: Vintage California wines can be enjoyed at peak maturity for a fraction of the cost of a comparably aged Bordeaux, Burgundy, or Barolo—or, for that matter, even a new Californian release.

Although treasures of the past abound throughout the many appellations of California—where, in decades past, greatness was sometimes achieved by accident rather than plan—the Napa Valley, with its well-structured Cabernet Sauvignons, offers the most reliable source of collectible, age-worthy wines. Anyone seeking to survey classic California viticulture need look no further than the following list to experience the very best of Napa's last five decades.

Colgin 1995 Cabernet Sauvignon Herb Lamb Vineyard

In the mid-1990s, Colgin was on top of the world. A string of successful vintages placed the budding cult label in the oenological spotlight, and all eyes were on the vintner Ann Colgin and her legendary winemaker Helen Turley. These two women were delighting collectors and critics with their intensely sumptuous Cabernets, and many considered their Herb Lamb bottling to be their crowning achievement.

The Herb Lamb Vineyard, planted in 1988, was just hitting its stride with the 1995 vintage. The tiny parcel is remote and surrounded by a thick forest. In order to avoid any shade cast by the trees, Turley worked only with the fruit from the very heart of the property, thereby ensuring maximum sun exposure. This was essential in a cool year such as 1995, whose protracted growing season resulted in the latest harvest of the vineyard's history. This wine was assuredly massive upon release, but now it is settling into a balance that is almost feline in its delicate precision. Earthy elements such as cedar, spent tobacco, and clove are just beginning to sidle around the edges of the wine, whose core remains pure red fruits and flowers.

Colgin regards the wine as a personal favorite and, during a recent tasting, found it remarkably youthful. She believes that it is a good omen for wines that, in the past, were criticized as perhaps "too delicious to age," and she calls the wine a "tribute to the greatness of Helen Turley and what she popularized: small lots of truly great, handcrafted wines." Colgin Cellars, www.colgincellars.com

 By Kelli White

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