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Mature Burgundy: Barolet, DRC, Giroud, Roumier, and more

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A group of us recently gathered to taste mature bottles of Burgundy.  Due to everyone’s generosity, several different flights were formed.  We began with a blind flight of three different Champagne from the 1996 vintage.  This was followed by the main focus on both the 1965 and 1966 vintages of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, La Tâche and Romanée-Conti.  A very old bottle of Burgundy was then served.  A pair of Champagne Brut Rose was served while dinner was prepared.  After a slew of dinner wines, both young and old, dessert wines were deployed.  Several of the wines were off but due to everyone’s generosity, there was plenty to drink at a generally high level of pleasure.

1996 Champagne

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We kicked off the evening with a trio of Champagne from 1996.  The guest who generously brought these bottles poured them so we could taste them blind.  Of course I had no chance of guessing correctly, I have far too little experience with Champagne.  But I suspect with that experience these wines could have been identified blind.  The Gosset is mature and vinous, a wine to drink now. The Billecart-Salmon is elegant and lively, delivering its tart and chalky flavors with verve.  The Philipponnat is intense, rich and ripe, yet balanced by green apples and lemons.  I particularly enjoyed the last two.

Blind #1 – 1996 Gosset, Grand Millésime, Champagne Brut
Imported by Vieux Vins.  Alcohol 12%. A touch of stink eventually blows off. In the mouth are mature flavors followed by ripe fruit in the middle. Age has given it a vinous quality. Additional air reveals this is a wine to drink now.  *** Now.

Blind #2 – 1996 Billecart-Salmon, Cuvee Nicolas Francois Billecart, Champagne Brut
Imported by Vieux Vins.  Alcohol 12.5%.  Elegant on the nose with a fine mousse and lively precise nature in the mouth. The flavors cut through the palate, supported by acidity. Quite enjoyable with attractive verve. It wraps up with tart citrus and a chalky finish. **** Now – 2029.

Blind #3 – 1996 Philipponnat, Clos des Goisses, Champagne Brut
Alcohol 13%.  A touch more aged yellow in the glass. The most intense nose with an intense offering in the mouth. The bubbles explode upon drinking, leaving a short-lived mousse which is replaced by a green apple note. It moves on to rich and ripe flavors with a lovely lemon finish. **** Now – 2029.

1965 and 1966 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti

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I was fortunate to purchase a small parcel of old wines including the following quartet of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. The wines were originally purchased by a couple in the Washington, DC area who bought their wines from MacArthur Beverages. For decades these bottles were stored in the basement.  I am not sure what happened during those years, perhaps a basement flood, for the labels and fills varied.

These were not the best looking bottles but given the scarcity and generally insane pricing of these wines  I had to organize a tasting around them.  For I doubt I could ever again taste the 1965 and 1966 vintages of Romanée-Conti and La Tâche in one sitting.  And what a pairing of vintages, the disastrous 1965 with the very good 1966.  But I had another reason for pairing the two vintages.

Neal Martin wrote in Fermented Grape Juice: Romanée-Conti 1953-2005 how Aubert de Villaine recently served the 1965 Romanée-Conti to a large group.  Michael Broadbent rates this soggy vintage zero stars yet the very late October picking resulted in a wine that Neal Martin found “mocks its vintage reputation and defies all expectations.”  One guest with deep Burgundy experience believes he had never before tasted any Burgundy from the 1965 vintage.

The wines were single-decanted then immediately poured.  With all four glasses in front of us it was obvious our bottle of 1965 Romanée-Conti was flawed as was the 1966 La Tâche.  The 1966 Romanée-Conti was suffering a bit but the 1965 La Tâche was in fine form.  Despite being less than ideal, the 1966 Romanée-Conti  initially offered a complex nose I had trouble describing.  The 1965 La Tâche was the star of this flight for me.  A lovely wine all around and complete shock given the vintage.  Compared to some of the other wines with similar age, this has quite a bit of substance.  I held on to my glass for a long time.

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1965 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, La Tâche, S/N 01281
Imported by Frederick Wildman. Very clean on the nose, revealing incense and perfume. Elegant yet with depth. This is a mid-weight wine which still sports some supporting tannins. With air it reveals a silky nature, infused with fat, and a baking spiced finish. **** Now but will last.

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1965 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Romanée-Conti, S/N 00578
Imported by Frederick Wildman. The stink on the nose is hard to get around. Shame as it is round and dense in the mouth with a mineral cut. The flavors have power but the nose reveals it is a flawed bottle that eventually falls apart. Not Rated.

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1966 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, La Tâche, S/N 03090
Imported by Frederick Wildman. Shame, the worst nose and gross in the mouth. Not Rated.

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1966 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Romanée-Conti, S/N 01221
Imported by Frederick Wildman. An exotic nose with perfumed aromas that I have difficulty describing. In the mouth it is supple and elegant with some spice. *** Now.

A Blind, Rather Old Bottle of Burgundy

After the DRC flight we were treated to a bottle of Burgundy served blind.  Two lines of inquiry developed as to the vintage and appellation.  Though one guest eventually narrowed in on Pommard, I do not possess that sort of experience so I focused in on vintage.  It was certainly older than 1964.  Based on a handful of bottles I have tasted from the 1940s and 1930s I decided it had to be older, perhaps 1920s or even 1910s.

The bottle was revealed to be 1928 Collection du Docteur Barolet (Henri de Villamont) Pommard-Epenots.  I was excited to guess the general age but more so to finally have tasted a Dr. Barolet wine.  The excitement level rose even more when we next learned that it was acquired at the 2006 Acker auction of Rudy Kurniawan’s “THE Cellar”.  I will write more about this particular bottle in a subsequent post but whether it be a real or fake bottle, it was very good.  Michael Broadbent writes that the 1928 Epenots and Rugiens were among the best of original bottles at the 1969 Christie’s auction.  At our tasting, it was one of the best bottles as well.

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1928 Collection du Docteur Barolet (Henri de Villamont) Pommard-Epenots
Purchased at “THE Cellar”, Acker-Merrall & Condit, January 2006. The lightest and most mature brick color of all wines tasted this night. Clear in the glass. A fine, scented nose with ripe hints. It develops with air showing apple orchard and hints of red fruit. In the mouth it is red fruited, tart with some vein of very old wine flavor. There is a meaty note. Precision comes from the spine of acidity. It focuses with air.  **** Now but will last.

Champagne Refreshment

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A pair of Champagnes acted as a palate refresher while the preparation of the Coq au Vin was finished.  The Paul Bara, Special Club is on the sweet side for my preferences.  I can imagine serving it outside at a BBQ.  I prefer the Tattinger, Comtes de Champagne.

2012 Paul Bara, Special Club, Champagne Brut Rose
Imported by Envoyer Imports. Alcohol 12%.  A burst of sweet fruits comes with the initially firm bubbles.  A creamy mousse persists along with the sweet fruit.  *** Now – 2024.

2006 Tattinger, Comtes de Champagne, Champagne Brut Rose
Imported by Kirkcrest Imports.  Alcohol 12.5%.  Aromatic.  Focused flavors and firm bubbles lead to dry, baking spices.  There is a vein of sharp acidity around which rounded, berry notes form until picking up a racy hint in the finish.  ***(*) Now – 2029.

Dinner Wines

With dinner we moved on to several old and a few young Burgundies.  Some of the oldest Burgundies I have drunk comes from Maison Camille Giroud.  Founded in the 19th century, this negociant firm still believes in long barrel aging.  They hold back stock, releasing some wines decades after the vintage.  The 1949 Camille Giroud, Volnay Santenay Premier Cru and 1966 Camille Giroud, Volney 1er Cru Clos des Chenes reflect perfect provenance.  Both wines sport some old-wine concentration but the 1949 is more tangy and elegant from age whereas the 1966 is completely different with its attractive baked cookie notes.  It was my second experience with the 1978 Mongeard-Mugneret, Grands-Echezeaux and I still like it very much.  It is a hedonistic wine for drinking now.  In moving forward nearly two decades, the 1994 Domaine G. Roumier, Chambolle-Musigny is certainly younger but still full of character.  I particularly liked the scented nose and understated complexity.  In contrast, the 2002 Domaine Annick Parent, Volnay Les Fremiets  is very young and tonight, in need of more age.

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1949 Camille Giroud, Volnay Santenay Premier Cru
Burgundy Wine Company Selection.  Round with sweet and sweaty flavors with a beautiful, old-wine concentration.  The finish is initially a little short and there is some heat but there is plenty to engage with.  The wine does flesh out with air, taking on tangy citrus, spices, and stones in the long, lifted, ethereal finish. **** Now.

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1966 Camille Giroud, Volney 1er Cru Clos des Chenes
Imported by USa Wine Imports. Burgundy Wine Company Selection.  A deep mahogany color.  The array of spices on nose reminds me of Nurnberger Lebkuchen.  A round and sweet start brings on some old-school flavors carried by a structural vein.  Sandalwood. **** Now – 2024.

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1978 Mongeard-Mugneret, Grands-Echezeaux
Shipped by Robert Haas Selections. Imported by Vineyard Brands.  Exotic perfume on the nose.  The cherry fruit flavors persist with good acidity.  This is a weighty, expansive wine with fat in the finish.  Hedonistic and drinking well right now.  **** Now.

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1994 Domaine G. Roumier, Chambolle-Musigny
Alcohol 12.7%.  Nice with a strawberry scented nose.  An elegant wine with some gravelly density.  It balances youth with complexity leaving the impression of a lovely, characterful wine.  ***(*) Now – 2029.

2002 Domaine Annick Parent, Volnay Les Fremiets
Very youthful, pure, almost candied with flavors of red grapefruit.  In the end, I think this wine needs more time.  *** 2022-2032.

Dessert Wine

With a chocolate tart we had a small grouping of dessert wines.  In order of age, the 1946 Bodegas Albala, Don P.X. Convento, Montilla-Moriles is perhaps the most concentrated wine I have drunk.  With notes of dried figs and baking spices, this unctuous wine has enough acidity to keep it balanced.  There is so much flavor packed in that you only need the tiniest of pours.  The 1964 Hermannshof, Niersteiner Kehr und Flaschenhahl Riesling Auslese, Rheinhessen continues to deliver unctuous flavors with tea notes but this bottle showed a touch less acidity than before.  It is always a treat to taste these old bottles of Riesling.  Finally, the 1968 Lodovico e Piero Antinori, Vino Santo Rosso Riserva offered a good surprise.  The nose was pungent, evocative of Madeira, with dried fruit and spices, along with a touch of red fruit.  I had no idea what to expect so I was pleased.

1946 Bodegas Albala, Don P.X. Convento, Montilla-Moriles
Imported by Classical Wines.  Alcohol 17%.  Bottled in 2011.  Surely, the most concentrated wine I have tasted.  Incredibly dark and viscous enough to stain the glass brown.  Lifted aromas of dried figs and baking spices.  An acidity driven start followed by a knife-edge of acidity pierces through the unctuous and sweet flavors.  Fresh, wet baking spiced flavors coat and persist in the mouth for a long time.  One of the most concentrated wines I have ever dried, you only need a tiny pour.  **** Now until whenever!

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1964 Hermannshof, Niersteiner Kehr und Flaschenhahl Riesling Auslese, Rheinhessen
Shipped by Allyn & Scott Wines.  Imported by Wine Cellars. From the Don Stott Cellar.  A youthful yet aged golden yellow color.  Baking spices on the nose.  A sweet core with weighty flavors of apricot and tea.  A bit soft, plumped up with fat and perfume.  There is less obvious acidity but the tea and tannins keep the wine fresh.  *** Now.

1968 Lodovico e Piero Antinori, Vino Santo Rosso Riserva
Imported by T. Elenteny Imports.  Alcohol 16%.  Wow, of course I like this wine for the pungent aromatics remind me a bit of Madeira.  There are flavors of sweet, spiced, dried fruit and plenty of texture around the fuller bodied wine.  There is enough acidity to be supportive.  The wine tastes of mature flavors with old leather and old-school notes in the finish.  Towards the end this viscous wine becomes more red-fruited.  ***(*) Now – 2039.

Wines That Were DOA

The following three bottles were bad!

  • NV (1970s) Simi, Burgundy, Sonoma
  • 1978 E. Guigal, Hermitage
  • 1985 Comte Armand, Pommard 1er Cru Clos des Epeneaux

A disintegrating label yet solid 1966 Lafite Rothschild

A widow recently sold off the small remains of her wine cellar.  The wines were originally purchased from MacArthur Beverages a long time ago, then stored in the basement of her house. There was nearly a case of 1966 Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Pauillac with labels varying from largely intact to disintegrating.  I picked bottles with the best fills, which coincidentally had the worst labels.  Last month, I opened a bottle with the lowest fill to gauge what I had purchased.

The 1966 vintage of Lafite was available in Washington, DC for several years.  In 1970, you could purchase 1966 Lafite for $9.50 a bottle.  By 1971, the price had crept up to $12 before skyrocketing to $20 in 1972.  You can understand how this massive increase in French wine prices, in part, led to more people buying Californian wine.

Under the capsule, the top of the cork was covered with mold which was working its way down the long cork.  While not the best preserved cork, at least half of it was still in business.  I decanted the wine into a flask then took a sniff of a freshly poured glass.  It smelled clean.

Edmund Penning-Rowsell writes that Lafite went through a bit of a bad spell between 1964 and 1974.  David Peppercorn reports that 323 tonneaux were produced that vintage which is a greater than in 1982.  I relay this information because I found this bottle just moderately good.  It did smell and taste of good condition despite the fill and label.  My impression seems to follow others on Cellar Tracker.  While the wine is now in a tertiary state with cigar box, earth, and meat, there is good weight and even a sense of fat.  I happily drank it with relishing thoughts of what is in the other bottles.

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1966 Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Pauillac
Shipped by Laurent Lescure.  Imported by Capitol City Liquors Co.  This is a blend of mostly Cabernet Sauvignon followed by Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot.  Upper to top shoulder fill.  A garnet-mahogany color.  A slight herbaceous edge to the nose but also earth and meat.  The flavors are light yet the body is weighty and develops a round edge.  With air, flavors of tart red fruit take on cigar box by the middle and graphite in the end.  A pretty wine, completely smooth, which becomes meaty with luxurious, ethereal fat in the finish.  **(*) Now.

The First Release: 1974 Sonoma Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander’s Crown

July 25, 2019 2 comments

When Rodney Strong created Sonoma Vineyards in the 1960s, he already had years worth of experience at multiple wineries.  In fact, Sonoma Vineyards represents the rebirth of his successful Windsor Vineyards.  Based on his winemaking experiences Strong built a new, practically designed winery in which he installed the latest winemaking equipment including temperature controlled stainless steel tanks made by his own company.

The Sonoma Vineyards name was inspired by Strong’s increasing acquisition of vineyards throughout Sonoma County.  Strong believed, based on European ideas, that each vineyard should be planted with the grape variety best suited for it.  Two of his vineyards were of particular high quality, Chalk Hill for Chardonnay and Alexander’s Crown for Cabernet Sauvignon.  As a result of his terroir driven interests, Strong began his vineyard designated series with Chalk Hill in the 1960s.  This was followed by the Alexander’s Crown Cabernet Sauvignon series in the 1970s.  In fact, the 1974 Sonoma Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander’s Crown, Sonoma County represents the first release of this series.

By releasing the 1974 Alexander’s Crown, Strong created the first single-vineyard wine from Alexander Valley.  The AVA was to follow some 10 years later.  For this vineyard, Strong had purchased 180 acres of which 61 acres was planted in 1971.  He felt the red, iron oxide soil produced big, forward Cabernet wines.

This bottle of 1974 Sonoma Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander’s Crown, Sonoma County had fill in the neck with a beautiful, well-seated cork for its age.  One quick sniff and taste confirmed it was in fine condition.  It is a deep flavored wine with a fine mineral note.  It is generously fruity, berrylicious in fact, with all structure resolved as it is in the last stage of its fully mature plateau.  It is a lovely surprise to discover this wine.

The background information in this post comes from Carole Hicke’s 1993 interview of Rodney Strong which you may find here.

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1974 Sonoma Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander’s Crown, Sonoma County
This wine is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon that was aged in 60 and 120 gallon French oak barrels.  Alcohol 13.7%.  Immediately deep in flavor with minerals and earth evident, followed by full flavored, cherry core.  There is good complexity from the first pour.  With air the flavors become bluer and more minerals come out.  If I find fault it is with the finish that is a touch soft but this is likely due to it being near the end of its fully mature plateau.  It remains berrylicious and satisfying to the last drop.  **** Now but will last.

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A Vertical Tasting of Giacomo Conterno, Cascina Franca Barbera d’Alba 2006-2012

With the last set of 900 pages read through, I have moved on to another group of letterbooks regarding the Madeira wine trade.  These letters are from the early 19th century.  While much of content is dedicated to the flour and corn trade, the Madeira wine bits scattered throughout, can be quite detailed.  I find a strong desire to keep reading through each page to see what I come across. Today I take a break from reading to post about some wines I recently tried.

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One month ago, I was the guest of Alessandro for his group’s monthly wine tasting.  With plates of attractive Gorgonzola we sat down to a blind grouping of wines.  There were one or two wines which stood out to me as Barbera but I was certainly confused as to what the theme was.  An all Giacomo Conterno Barbera tasting, I certainly did not hone in on.  The inclusion of two bottles of Scarpa certainly added to the confusion!

I have already proved to myself that Barbera of great age, that of 50 to 60 years, may survive but not be too pleasurable.  If there was a theme tonight, I would say the older vintages were a little unsettled with the younger ones, 2009-2012, my preferred grouping.  It is the 2011 vintage I found to be the best, nearing its peak with slowly increasing power, complexity, and easily approachable strawberry flavors that fill the mouth.  This is the wine to buy closely followed by the 2012 and then the 2010.

The Scarpa wines are of a different nature which I like as well.  This is in part due to Scarpa’s La Bogliona vineyard being sourced in Monferrato and Conterno’s Cascina Franca in Serralunga.  Sadly, a bottle of 2009 Conterno, Cascina Franca Barolo was cooked.  Many thanks to Alessandro for including me.

2006 Giacomo Conterno, Cascina Franca Barbera d’Alba
There is concentration and a savory aspect to the focused, tart black fruit.  There is a good aftertaste present from the first pour.  With air this becomes a substantial, weighty wine with some developing sweet-tartness. *** Now – 2024.

2006 Scarpa, La Bogliona Barbera d’Asti
A nose of blood then a sweet wood box note.  Also a big wine but with sappy acidity, wood box, and an oily nature.  It is ripe, sweet with fruit, and round, yet the acidity keeps things fresh.  It is taking on age.  *** Now – 2022.

2007 Giacomo Conterno, Cascina Franca Barbera d’Alba
Dark with a young core of color.  A ripe nose that of modern, concentrated aromas.  The flavors are really packed in, with extract on the tongue, and a stand-out personality.  It is less elegant as a result.  **(*) Now – 2025.

2008 Giacomo Conterno, Cascina Franca Barbera d’Alba
There is a dark core with a garnet hint.  Mixed herbs on the nose followed by tangy fruit in the mouth.  The red fruit flavors fill the mouth.  Modern, in a way, like the previous wine. **(*) Now – 2023.

2009 Giacomo Conterno, Cascina Franca Barbera d’Alba
Nearly as dark as the 2008 vintage.  In the mouth dark with berry extract, ripe fruit, and ripe structure.  Astringent in the end, not my favorite.  ** Now – 2027.

2009 Scarpa, La Bogliona Barbera d’Asti
The lightest color of what we’ve tried.  Aromatic on the nose and elegant in the mouth.  Not as complex as I’d like but the tart strawberry and candied red fruit are enjoyable.  The acidity is support, the finish short yet clean.  With time it builds glycerin-like body and ethereal power.  ***(*) Now – 2027.

2010 Giacomo Conterno, Cascina Franca Barbera d’Alba
A dark, grapey core.  Very youthful, certainly the youngest tasting yet with youthful concentration.  (You get the idea).  Ripe, grapey weight with a lively texture from the acidity.  Mostly red berries and grapes.  Not quite to the level of the 2011. ***(*) Now – 2026.

2011 Giacomo Conterno, Cascina Franca Barbera d’Alba
Slowly building power with flavors of ripe strawberries that fill the mouth.  The wine is hitting its prime with more complexity than any vintage yet tasted.  A delight.  **** Now – 2024.

2012 Giacomo Conterno, Cascina Franca Barbera d’Alba
This is finely articulated with mixed red fruit and acidity which brightens everything.  Lovely to drink.  It need a year or two to show best at which point it will deliver more and not doubt be rated higher.  ***(*) Now – 2024.

2009 Giacomo Conterno, Cascina Franca Barolo
This looks very old in color, as if from the 1960s.  Turns out it is a cooked bottle. Not Rated.

“One of the best we’ve ever made”: 1978 and 1977 Cabernet from Sunrise Winery

Since my last post of one month ago, I have spent all of the time I usually dedicate to the wine blog transcribing 18th century letters related to the Madeira trade in America.  To lend you a sense of the effort, just two of the sources I am using, one letterbook and one partial collection of letters, encompass nearly 900 pages.  While I am not transcribing every single line, I am attempting to read each one.  Sometimes an interesting statement regarding Madeira may be hidden amongst a paragraph about fish and flour prices.  It is compelling work but my tasting notes of both young and old wine are piling up.

While the name of Sunrise Arata has been stuck in my head for some time, I cannot recall having drunk a single vintage.  I resolved this issue the other week when Sudip came over.  Sunrise Winery was founded in 1976, at the old Locatelli Winery, by Eugene Lokey and Keith Holfeldt.  In 1977 the Stortz family was brought in as participants due to the unexpected startup costs of the winery.

The Locatelli Winery ceased producing wine by the 1960s.  When Sunrise Winery started up, there were only a handful of vines left but the fermentation building still stood with both redwood and concrete vats.  The concrete vats were of larger capacity than needed and too deteriorated for use.  The redwood vats were taken apart, cleaned up then installed inside the concrete vats.  Small oak barrels were also brought in.  The first vintage was produced that first year in 1976.

During the summer of 1978, the house above the wine cellar caught on fire.  It only burned one wall of the fermentation building but the debris fell down into the cellar where barrels and bottled wine was stored.  Much of the bottled wine was destroyed by the firemen entering the building.  The tops of many barrels were burned to destruction but there was salvageable wine in barrel.  With the help of Martin Ray, Ridge, Woodside, and others, pumps, hoses, and portable tanks were set up to rescue the remaining half of the wine.

They repaired what they could in time for a very small crush that fall of 1978.  A little white wine, some Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon from Arata, and the 1978 Cabernet Sauvignon from Frey Vineyard were all that was made.  Ronald Stortz called the 1978 Frey Cabernet “probably one of the best we’ve ever made” during his 1993 interview now found at the D. R Bennon Trust Fund website.

True to history, the 1978 Sunrise Winery, Cabernet Sauvignon, Frey Vineyard, Mendocino is good!  At first I was underwhelmed but one hour after I double-decanted the bottle it was fully open.  No doubt there is good, clean flavor and attractive grip.  The 1977 Sunrise Winery, Cabernet Sauvignon, Arata Vineyard, Saratoga, Santa Clara Valley did not fare as well.  Whether it was weak fruit to begin with or torture from the fire and salvage effort, I do not know.  It did, however, evoke old-school cooperage like the old redwood vats it was fermented in.  I find that rather cool.

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1978 Sunrise Winery, Cabernet Sauvignon, Frey Vineyard, Mendocino
This wine is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon aged for 20 months in 50 gallon American oak barrels.  Bottled November 1980.  Alcohol 12.6%.  Dark black fruit in the mouth while initially firm, fleshes out with air.  After one hour, this initially firm wine shows good Cab flavor and still has structure that lends texture in the end.  What was a short finish lengthens and offers grip.  I would not have expected such good, clean flavor.  *** Now but will last.

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1977 Sunrise Winery, Cabernet Sauvignon, Arata Vineyard, Saratoga, Santa Clara Valley
This wine is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon aged for 16 months in 50 gallon American oak barrels.  Bottled August 1979.  Alcohol 12.8%.  Funkier with vintage perfume and very ripe aromas on the nose.  Tart, fresh fruit greets in the mouth with both a greenhouse and old wood cooperage note.  Clearly learner than the 1978, it becomes more herbaceous and ultimately falls apart as the 1978 improves.  * Now drink up.

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Wente’s 1978 Centennial Reserve Petite Sirah delivers

I recently pulled out the pair of 1978 bottles from Wente Bros. for dinner after a tasting with several friends.  I thought I would write about these wines separately, as the history is a bit interesting.  Wente Bros. of Livermore, California was founded in 1883 by Carl Heinrich Wente who came over from Hanover, Germany.  His background was in husbandry but as cellar man to Charles Krug he learned to make wine.  Nearly 80 years later, his grandson Karl Wente took over the management of the winery.  In 1975, Karl Wente was named Wine Man of the year.  This was just the second award given out by the Friends of the Junior Art Center for the first went to Andre Tschelistcheff.  The distinguished company is is not surprising for historic newspaper accounts reveal the high regard held for the wines of Wente.

Carl Heinrich Wente brought cuttings from France to California to plant in his vineyards.  The alluvial deposits of the Livermore Valley were regarded as similar to the soils of Graves thus early plantings included Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and even Chardonnay. It was through the mid 20th century that Wente’s fame came from its Semillon.  In 1939, The Marquis de la Saluces, of Chateau d’Yquem, even visited Wente to see how his Semillon cuttings were coming along.   In the 1940s, you could purchase the “Cali Chateau Yquem” from the “famed” Wente Brothers.  Jane Nickerson commented on the various Wente white wines, noting the Semillon wines were the closest category to French Sauternes.

Second generation, Hermann Wente passed away in 1961.  Third-generation Karl Wente subsequently modernized the winery in 1964 and 1965.  This efforted included a new, large insulated and air conditioned winery, stainless steel presses and stainless steel tanks with temperature controlled jackets.  There was room for one million gallons of wine in tank and 50,000 bottles.  Of course, the old oak oval barrels still had their place in the winery.

In the late 1970s, neighboring Joe Concannon advocated for Petite Sirah from the Livermore Valley.  The Petite Sirah name was often lent to the “more vulgar” cousin Duriff which grew throughout California.  Petite Sirah and Duriff were typically used as a blending wine but Joe Concannon started to bottle Petite Sirah as a single variety.  After many years of bottle aging it would provide a wine with a “dependable bottle bouquet”.  Concannon’s Petite Sirah became a benchmark for the variety.

The fourth generation of Wente brothers took control of the winery in 1977.  Wente followed Concannon for they chose to release the 1978 vintage of Petite Sirah on their centennial anniversary.  Wente had planted Duriff in 1916, which was used in their Burgundy, but it was pulled out for Petite Sirah in 1940.

This choice paid off for 1978 Wente Bros., Petite Sirah, Centennial Reserve, Livermore Valley showed well at our dinner.  After double-decanting, it slowly improved over the course of an hour.  It is a dark flavored wine, supple and dense, yet eminanting from it is an attractive, floral quality.  There are many years of life ahead.  While I do not know if it will ever become more complex, it speaks entirely of 1970s California which I like.  Sadly, the 1978 Wente Bros., Cabernet Sauvignon, Livermore Valley has not held up.  It is dark and rich with almost no supporting acidity.

1978 Wente Bros., Petite Sirah, Centennial Reserve, Livermore Valley
This wine was aged for 6 months in small oak barrels then a further 2 years in large oak and redwood cooperage.  Alcohol 12.5%.  Perfumed on the nose, with air dark fruit with floral notes lifting it up.  Supple in the mouth but dark and dense with ripe spices and a lovely, inky nature.  It is perfumed in flavor and expansive in the mouth.  ***(*) Now – 2024.

1978 Wente Bros., Cabernet Sauvignon, Livermore Valley
Alcohol 12.5%.  Dark in color, dark in aroma and flavor.  Unfortunately, this wine is past prime, you can smell it on the nose and in the mouth it is flabby with almost no supporting acidity.  It might have been a very fruity, forward wine in youth.  Not Rated.

A lively 1964 Luigi Nervi, Spanna

I was in New York the other week for a midday tasting of some seriously fine and old Rioja.  That evening, I was to meet my friend William for dinner.  In need of some wine to help me transition from very old to young vintages, I stopped by Chambers Street Wines for a bottle. I knew from another friend that they are happy to double-decant wines for their customers which is exactly what they did with the 1964 Luigi Nervi, Spanna.

Luigi Nervi & Figlio was founded in 1920, eventually becoming the largest vineyard owner in Gattinara.  This bottle is simply named Spanna, which is the local name for Nebbiolo.  The Spanna bottlings are more generic than Gattinara so its possible for other varieties to have been blended in.  According to the Wasserman’s, the Nervi’s ranked 1964 as amongst the very best vintages.

This bottle was tasted after four to six hours of decanting.  It is a lighter flavored, greenhouse accented wine which does not have the fruit nor the depth of the 1964 Nervi, Gattinara.  What it does have is that undeniably attractive, Alto Piemonte acidity and structure.

1964 Luigi Nervi, Spanna 
Imported by T. Elenteny.  Initially dusty on the nose.  After a few hours, a bit herbaceous with greenhouse aromas on the nose.  These eventually resolve to celery.  The nose carries into the mouth where there are tart flavors with good acidity and grip.  There is some weight and old leather but any fruit has largely faded away.  There is plenty of presence in the mouth with enough flavor to hold interest.  **(*) Now but will last.