This was a holiday luncheon and tasting to see how the 1994 California Cabernets and Merlots are aging (contrary to the "doom and gloom" skeptics who do not believe a New World wine can age like a classic from Europe, the top wines are still infants). This was my first visit to one of Baltimore's top restaurants, Abacrombie, and we enjoyed quite a feast. My favorite dishes included the chestnut soup, grilled salmon, beautiful pork loin, and the various beef courses.
We cleaned our palates with two stunning Chardonnays, the DuMol Russian River and Aubert Ritchie Vineyard. I'll keep my tasting notes brief. As stated above, the top 1994 Cabernet Sauvignons are still infants. The stunning 1994 Abreu offered a spectacular nose of minty crème de cassis, and loads of flavor. The lean, austere 1994 Alexander Valley was unexciting. Even worse was the overly oaked Altamura. Perhaps the most underrated California Cabernet is Arrowood's Reserve Spéciale. The beautiful 1994 offered Bordeaux-like notes of cedar wood, cassis, and spice box. This dense, opulent, rich wine should improve over the next decade, and last for 20 more years. A ringer in this tasting was from Maryland's finest winery, Basignani. Bert Basignani's proprietary Bordeaux blend, called Lorenzino after his son, exhibited a Colgin-like blueberry and acacia flower-scented nose, and elegant, medium-bodied flavors. While it was better than some of these wines, it was over-whelmed by the finest California Cabernets. The woody, dry, hard, excessively tannic, soulless Beaulieu Private Reserve was disappointing. Beringer always seems to do well, especially for such a large firm, and their Merlot Bancroft Ranch was superb, as was their Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. Both wines were still young, although the Merlot appears to be on a faster evolutionary track.
One of the most prodigious wines of the day was the 1994 Bryant Family Vineyard, which was reassuring as I had had a bottle several weeks previously that did not show that well. In this tasting, it was a wine of great intensity as well as remarkable concentration, offering a beautiful perfume of crème de cassis and blueberries with well-integrated oak. Sadly, the 1994 Burgesswas lean, hard, tannic. I fondly remember wetting my palate on some beautiful Burgess Cabernets from the early and mid-seventies, but over the last two decades, they have been monolithic as well as abrasively tannic. A superb wine, the Château Montelena remains young, rich, and dense purple-colored, with another two decades of life ahead of it. Montelena has been California's most consistently great winery for Cabernet Sauvignon for 25 plus years. I was disappointed in Corison's hard, tannic, lean, emaciated Cabernet as well as Conn Creek'ssimple, one-dimensional offering. A Russian River surprise was Dehlinger's Bordeaux Blend, a pretty, solid effort offering loads of fruit, complexity, and texture. It blew away some of the better-known Napa efforts. Ironically, Tom Dehlinger seems to have mixed emotions about continuing to make this wine as the vineyard sits in the heart of Russian River Pinot Noir and Chardonnay terroirs. The brilliant Dalla Valle Cabernet Sauvignon was youthful, rich, and full of promise (the 1994 Maya was not included in this tasting). Fully mature but fabulously complex (one of the most complex bouquets of the entire tasting) was the 1994 Dominus. It boasted great fruit, supple tannin, full body, and loads of complexity as well as richness. It should drink well for another decade. Both Dunn cuvées revealed this estate's ferocious tannins and brooding backwardness, which cause skeptics to wonder if these wines will every come around. I think they are meant to be drunk after 20-25 years of bottle age, so call me an optimist. The Napabottling was certainly inferior to the brilliant Howell Mountain. The latter wine displayed a dense purple color along with loads of cassis, mineral, and flower characteristics. This huge, rich 1994 is too young for current consumption.
Etude's full-bodied, pure, pretty 1994 Cabernet Sauvignon offered abundant amounts of cassis fruit. It is just approaching full maturity. As usual, Fisher's Lamb Vineyard Cabernet was a dead-ringer for a La Mission-Haut-Brion. Still tannic, backward, and dense, it did not perform as well as it has in previous tastings. Nevertheless, it is a beautiful, outstanding wine that requires another 5-6 years of bottle age. The same can be said for Fisher's Wedding Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, a backward, rich, dense, unevolved effort. The stunning Flora Springs Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford Reserve is drinking beautifully, revealing notes of spicy oak, cedar, sweet cherries, incense, and currants. The Trilogy is an elegant, stylish effort that performed beautifully in this tasting. Forman's 1994 Cabernet Sauvignon revealed this estate's classic, elegant style with loads of fruit, but restrained, polished flavors, and sweet tannin. The disappointing Freemark Abbey was another example of a famous name that has fallen on hard times. The same can be said for the thin, woody, acidic 1994 Jarvis Cabernet Sauvignon.
One of the finest wines of the day was the gorgeous 1994 Harlan Estate. Kudos to Bill Harlan and his winemaking team for this prodigious effort. Still young yet incredibly complex, rich, and full, it represents the best of Bordeaux and California Cabernet, a synthesis in two contrasting worlds of wine that is nearly impossible to pull off. La Jota's 1994 Cabernet Sauvignon Anniversary Selection was beautiful. A big, burly, masculine, Lynch-Bages-styled wine, it possesses loads of saddle leather, crème de cassis, earth, and tar characteristics. Both Joseph Phelps cuvées were top-notch, with the Backus eclipsing the Insignia. The dense, stony 1994 Backus exhibited loads of blue and black currant fruit along with hints of raspberries and flowers. Although powerful and full-bodied, it remains young. More evolved and approaching full maturity is the 1994 Insignia, which revealed notes of cedar, dried herbs, crème de cassis, and black fruits. The disappointing Laurel Glen 1994 Cabernet Sauvignon was austere, lean, hard, and literally devoid of fruit. The same can be said for the Matanzas Creek and the Murphy-Goode Murphy Ranch. I was also disappointed in Newton's Merlot, which seemed to be falling apart.
A sublime offering, Philip Togni's still youthful 1994 Cabernet Sauvignon boasted a dense purple color along with extraordinary aromas of sweet crème de cassis, tapenade, new saddle leather, and earth. Backward, youthful, and tasting like a 3-4-year old wine was Ridge's Monte Bello. Although it still reveals copious amounts of American oak, that component should become fully integrated with another 4-5 years of bottle age. The Harlan Estate received the group's top score for the day, but the Shafer Hillside Select and Screaming Eagle were close runner-ups. These two offerings could not be more different, even though their vineyards are only a few miles apart. Of course, Screaming Eagle is on the valley floor, and Shafer's vineyard is on the hillside. The Screaming Eagle is pure crème de cassis, and its purity, richness, and seamless personality are awesome. This beautiful wine is fabulously concentrated, yet not heavy. The Shafer Hillside Selection is another adolescent. Spectacularly concentrated with notes of crème de cassis, truffles, incense, and graphite, it is beautifully rich and full-bodied. I rated it alongside the Harlan as the top wine of the day.
The Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon was strong, elegant, and rich, but I believe the wines being made today are even better. Both Spring Mountain and Staglin were good, but unexciting.
The general conclusion from the group was that 1994 is a great vintage, and at ten years of age, the top wines are aging beautifully. Of course, the wines that were under-fruited, over-oaked, over-acidified, or lacking concentration a decade ago were displaying their flaws even more dramatically at age 10 than upon release.
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