Les Oenarchs Wine Group Blind Tasting

I am a member of a wine group called Les Oenarchs, which meets every six weeks for a blind tasting. The theme at this particularly meeting was several mini-verticals of great California Cabernets. No one was able to identify the wineries except for one - Heitz. The host had cleverly planned a tasting of some great older California Cabernet Sauvignon vintages from three producers that today are not producing cutting edge wines. Consequently, we had 1984 Groth Reserve1985 Groth Reserve (the first California wine I ever gave 100 points), and 1986 Groth Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve. The second flight was Heitz Martha's Vineyard 1996, 1976, and 1974. That was followed by Diamond Creek 1975 Cabernet Sauvignon Red Rock Terrace and 1978 Diamond Creek Gravelly Meadow Cabernet Sauvignon. That flight was followed by the 1975 and 1976 Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon. Those who think Cabernet Sauvignon from California does not age, or that these wineries were not making great wines during this period, should have been at this tasting.

The 1985 Groth Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve is a seamless classic, but it is fully mature, and not likely to get any better. It seemed to be at its peak 3-4 years ago, but it is still a gorgeous wine. The 1984 Groth Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve revealed a touch of cork, which undoubtedly held down its score, but it is an opulent, loosely structured effort. The sleeper was the 1986 Groth Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, a wine with great intensity, richness, and vigor.

With respect to the Heitz Martha's Vineyard, the 1996 is the first serious wine produced at this estate in nearly a decade. Readers should definitely check it out, although at $150 a bottle, it's no bargain. The 1976 Martha's Vineyard is still somewhat monolithic, exhibiting the style of that drought year. It is dense, full-bodied, and super-concentrated, but is not developing the complex aromatics one expects. That's not the case with the 1974 Martha's Vineyard, which was reminiscent of a Mouton-Rothschild with its minty, eucalyptus nose intermixed with lavish quantities of cassis fruit. The color remains a dense ruby, nearly purple. The wine reveals fabulous concentration, full body, and a lush texture. It is in impeccable condition, and although fully mature, it is capable of lasting another 15-20 years.

During the seventies, no one loved Diamond Creek Cabernet Sauvignons more than me. The greatness of that decade was evidenced by how well these two bottles showed. The 1975 Cabernet Sauvignon Red Rock Terrace is terrific stuff. Even better is the 1978 Cabernet Sauvignon Gravelly Meadow. It is a dead-ringer for a California version of La Mission-Haut-Brion in its scorched earth, roasted black fruit, earthy, full-bodied, pedal to the metal/balls to the wall style. This super wine will last for another 20 years. By the way, I think 1978 may be my favorite vintage for Diamond Creek Cabernet Sauvignons.

Lastly, whatever happened to Mayacamas? The 1975 and 1976 Cabernet Sauvignons are enormous, dense, unctuously-textured wines with huge quantities of black fruits. There has not been much aromatic development, but these are still youthful Cabernets. These remarkable efforts give rise to the argument of how differently great California Cabernet Sauvignon age compared to Bordeaux. You can't really compare them, but certainly Bordeaux seems to lose more fruit and develop more subtleties and aromatic nuances, whereas California wines rarely develop aromatic subtleties, but do hold onto their fruit for an astonishingly long time.

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