Sunday, April 15, 2012

Tasting in the Napa Valley: Chateau Montelena

Even back in the days when I could afford Napa Valley Cabernet, Chateau Montelena was usually out of my range. Although it was always one of my favorites at large tastings, the price ($18 to $20 compared to $10 to $12 for Conn Creek or Burgess Cellars) kept me from buying regularly. I recall, though, a time in the early 1990s when the 1978 Montelena Cabernet was available at auction for $120/case. After thinking seriously about it, I finally decided I really didn't have the $120 nor the cellar space to spare. That was a really bad decision, of course, because I would still be enjoying that wine today.

Located just outside Calistoga, on the north end of the valley, Montelena is one of the true aristocrats of the appellation with a personality that has changed little over the past three or four decades. It's a distinctly New World style that attracted me in the early 1980s. And I must admit that it's still immensely appealing even though my tastes now are generally oriented toward more restrained European qualities.

The 2009 Napa Chardonnay is pleasant. Like many California wineries, Montelena now avoids the big, buttery style of the past by avoiding malolactic fermentation. I get aromas and flavors of white peaches, citrus and flowers. Aged in 100% French oak, but only 9% new barrels, the wine is still a bit too oaky for my taste.

The 2008 Montelena Estate Zinfandel is a particularly fine example of an elegant, fruit-oriented Zinfandel. It has the dark berry qualities of Zinfandel and just enough oak to frame it. As an added treat, the wine clerk gives us a taste of the 2007 Petite Sirah. After double decanting, the sweet blueberry traits of Petite Sirah show nicely.

But clearly the star of the tasting is the 2008 Napa Valley Cabernet. Other appellations can make better Chardonnay, but Cabernet is what Napa is about. It's deep and purplish in color, and the aromas and flavors are suitably lush with dark cherry, cedar, vanilla and leather. There are firm tannins, but they don't get in the way of the ripe fruit flavors. The cuvee is 98% Cabernet Sauvignon and 2% Cabernet Franc, aged for 22 months in 100% French oak, 34% of which are new barrels. The barrels are a major reason for the high price, of course; and without the high percentage of new oak, the wine would not be as lush and attractive, particularly in its youth.

The soil and micro-climate, however, are clearly capable of greatness. A handout gives a useful explanation of the estate's basic soil types--alluvial, volcanic and sedimentary--and what they contribute to the characteristics of the wine. Most of the Cabernet grapes come from alluvial soil--"earthy, aromatic, complex and concentrated." Volcanic soil around the edges of the estate add "spicy, cedary, often minty" qualities. (The minty qualities, though, seem to be less prominent than in wines such as Turnbull, Mondavi and Groth from the Oakville area.) Only a small number of vineyards are on sedimentary soils "formed by the settling of an ancient sea or lake." These vines contribute the strongly flavored "ripe berry & fruity, can be herbal." All together, these make up Chateau Montelena. Yes, I wish I had bought the 1978 Montelena Cab.

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