I'm coming to a close on the recap of my Napa/Sonoma trip (5 or 6 more posts after this) and then I've got a bunch of VERY cool things to talk about. Hopefully you're liking this series and aren't bored. If you are, hold tight...international variety is en route.
If you're having Napa ennui from me, let me try my best to spruce it up now and tell you something you rarely hear from my overly honest and, at times, cynical mouth -- sometimes the hype is actually worth it.
After another year and countless more wines tasted, I returned to Chateau Montelena in Calistoga (northern Napa), to see if my opinion had changed from the last vintage. I have to admit that I wondered if my enthusiasm was attributable to my outstanding experience there (although I drink their wines throughout the year and still think they rock so I'm not sure where my self-doubt came from -- if you're a therapist, feel free to analyze). But happily, one taste of these wines and my insecurity faded. I think I may be even MORE into them than I was last year. And if you're bored of California, here's some good news for you -- these wines are closer to European wine styles than any that I've tried from the US (and if you think I'm crazy, consider that about three years ago, the very esteemed Bordeaux Second Growth Chateau, Cos d'Estournel tried to buy Montelena...they saw something here).
Due to an over-scheduled trip, I could only fit the visit in on a Saturday, during the prime visiting hours (and the lush rush, it appeared -- if you don't know what that's in reference to, listen to the podcast with Jim Morris of Michel-Schlumberger), but a crowded room of marginally drunk people looking to taste the famous wines of the Chateau doesn't change the stuff in the bottle. It still kicked ass.
I wrote about the Winery last year, so I'll take excerpts from that post for convenience and then review the newest vintage of the wines after. Here goes...
If you're unfamiliar with Chateau Montelena and why it's kind of a big deal, I'm happy to share! Montelena is famous because its wine won top honors in a 1976 competition between legendary French white Burgundies (Chardonnay) and California Chardonnay (the competition also pitted Cabernets against each other, but that's not part of this particular story). Montelena's wine, tasted blind by French judges, was so wonderful and so close to the historic wines of Burgundy that the competition stunned the wine world and gave California serious street cred.
After this fete, called "The Judgment of Paris," no one could deny that California was capable of making exceptional wine. That's Montelena's unbelievably positive and wonderful legacy -- making California a viable, serious wine region on a global scale.
As an aside, the Winery may also known by some as the basis for the horrific 2008 movie (and I'm sorry if you liked it), Bottleshock, made about that competition. Although the foundation of the story is factual, the movie makes the Winery seem silly, the owners inane, and worst of all, it spreads misinformation about winemaking that I'm sure a lot of people believed. I could barely sit through the whole film but I have managed to Zen it out and separate my dislike of the movie from the Chateau. Just thought I'd mention the flick though, in case you've seen it or were thinking about doing so.
When you drive up to this Chateau (and it is a chateau), way the hell north of Napa in Calistoga, it is imposing and a little intimidating. Bought in 1882 and built up for several years after by a rich San Francisco entrepreneur, Alfred L. Tubbs (BTW, even in the 1880s the story of Napa is the same -- rich dude from San Francisco has dream of setting up winery, spends exorbitant sums, makes it happen...), this place is a class act.
The Chateau made wine in the 1880s, paused for the hell that was Prohibition and started up again afterward. Montelena, named as a contraction of Mount Saint Helena, at whose base it lies, changed hands in 1958 and the owners built a gorgeous Asian-style lake outside the Chateau. Although a little eclectic, it's beautiful and was a good contribution to the property. The current owners (on whom Bottleshock was based) acquired the Winery and made their first vintage in 1972. They weren't at it long before they found success: the second vintage won the Judgment of Paris (1973).
This is an historic and interesting place but the coolest thing about it is the people: Down-to-earth, knowledgeable, super nice, and NORMAL. The first time I came here, I expected stodgy, old, and formal, and I got the exact opposite. It's so refreshing. The people who work here are fun and you'll want to carve out some time to kick it with them if you visit. This is a really different, special place.
And OH the wines. Amazing stuff. Seriously. My mouth was just happy to be there! Here's the lineup:
Wine #1: 2010 Potter Valley Riesling, $25
Color: This was a golden color -- kind of like pear juice. It looked a little richer than a dry German Riesling, for example.
I don't know whether it was the later harvest (the vintage was tough but the grapes hung out on the vine to reach full maturity), the fact that they bought some grapes from a different grower, or some other X factor, but this year the wine was outrageously good and I hope they keep doing what they're doing, since, as you know, I'm a HUGE Riesling advocate.
Wine #2: 2009 Napa Valley Chardonnay, $50
This is Chateau Montelena's "thing." You want to know why they won that competition in 1976? Try this wine and you'll understand. When you taste other Chardonnay in Napa it's hard to imagine that this style is even possible. Montelena does things with this grape that very few can -- and most of those few live in Burgundy.
Color: Light, platinum, and pale, there wasn't any apparent signs of excessive oak or over-ripe grapes here (you can usually spot this by the dark color of the wine).
Smell: The smell could have tricked me in a blind tasting. I would surely have called this French. It smelled like minerals, lemon, lime, and white flowers. I didn't smell much oak at all -- just a light hint of spice but nothing overbearing. It had a sharp, crisp smell.
Taste: And this delivered on the smell. It was dry, sharp, steely, and very clean. Great lemon and lime flavors and a sweet green pea note went well with the minerals and acid in this wine. I didn't sense the oak because it was so well integrated with the fruit and acid.
Drink or Sink: Drink. This wine is awesome. It's a Chablis style -- dry, acidic, clean, and restrained. I love it. Why more people in California don't do this style is beyond me. This Napa Chardonnay is proof that something special happens when grapes are in the hands of the right people...and they all seem to be at Montelena!
My only gripe -- they have some description about how this is a "classic California Chardonnay." Couldn't disagree more. If only everyone did Chard this way in California! Most of the stuff I have is more fruity or more oaky or less acidic, but not balanced like this. There are a few others, but I'll agree with the 1976 French judges...this is something different. More expensive than what I normally drink but worth every penny.
Wine #3: 2007 Napa Valley Chardonnay, $60
Smell: It was a little more mature -- baked apple, sweet lemon, and white flowers jumped out of the glass. There was just a little bit of oakiness to the smell, but it wasn't overpowering at all.
Taste: This was so different from the '09 -- much fuller and richer, as the vintage was a little more consistent and with time the wine had changed to take on different notes. It tasted like ripe apples, sweet lemon, and had some tropical fruit notes (pineapple) to it. The wine tasted a bit like caramel from the oak, but it was all integrated and not out of place at all.
Like most of the top Cabernet producers in Napa, this wine is not 100% Cabernet. Merlot and Cab Franc are used to soften the bold flavors of the Cab. 2008 was a tough vintage because of poor weather. Montelena lost a lot of its grapes, but as a result, the ones that were left made FANTASTIC wine.
The Blend: 86% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc
The Alcohol: 14.2%
Color: A little brownish with a beautiful ruby rim, the wine had lots of pigment but didn't look like blackberry juice. I wouldn't expect Montelena to make a super-dark wine, which usually, in a Cabernet blend, hints to me that there will be too much fruit and not much else (not always the case, but often because the grapes got overly ripe, the skins have a ton of pigment and that bleeds into the wine. So dark in a Cab often = fruit bomb).
Smell: This wine has such a strikingly different aroma from any other Napa Cab I've ever had. It's so fresh. The wine is floral -- like roses and violets -- but also has this note of exotic spice, like Chai tea (cardamom), tumeric, coriander, and cinnamon. I know those are kind of random descriptions, because that's the stuff in your spice rack you may never use, but if you eat Indian food, just think of those spices with some flowers and you're there.
Taste: If you like balls-out, big Cabs this isn't your style. If you like medium, restrained, Bordeaux style wines -- here you go. This wine tasted like it smelled, and the sweet cinnamon and nutmeg flavors were prominent from the oak. It was flavorful, yet very fresh.
Drink or Sink: Drink. To me, this is an amazing, amazing, amazing wine. My notes say "stylish" -- and what I mean by this is that it's more than just a fruit bomb or an alcohol bomb. This wine can't be characterized the same way as other Napa Cabs. It's so elegant, so fresh, and so beautiful without being wimpy. It's a wine to think about -- it's got a lot of layers, yet it's so easy to drink and love in the moment. This is a gold star wine for me (and so much more affordable than other wineries' less good wines).
Wine #5: 2007 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, $135
The difference between the Napa Valley and Estate wine is where the grapes are grown. For the Napa Valley wine, the grapes come from different vineyards around Napa. The benefit is that the winemaker can get the best of the best grapes with which to make the wine. The downside -- there is less consistency and control over the grapes than if the wine comes from one place. Enter the Estate Cabernet -- all from Montelena's vineyards on the property. This is their baby and their big daddy of a Cab, but the wine is still balanced, just like the rest of their line.
Drink or Sink: Drink. This wine is an fantastic balance of fruit, earth, spice, and flowers. 2007 was a solid year in Napa and this wine shows that. Still, despite the fact that this wine is much more in your face than the Napa Valley Cab, it is not over-the-top. Everything in moderation...the way it should be.
What a treat to try the same wine from another great vintage. Although the extra four years makes a difference, the wine shows a real consistency in style...
Smell: More complex aromas than the 2007 -- time is a friend to Cabernet if it's a well-made one! The wine had the characteristic Montelena floral note and it was earthy, but the stuff had more evolved fruit aromas too. Asian pear (which I call a papple because it's like a pear and apple together), raspberry, black currant, and sweet green herbs (like tarragon or mint) were all over this. Then there was this super-strong and pleasant smell of black tea. If you've ever had or smelled Darjeeling tea, that's what this smelled like. Super complex, super fabulous.
Taste: Another ballsy wine -- this was powerful stuff. Tasted like it smelled and it was so mouth-filling with rich, chewy tannins. There was a tobacco and earth note to the wine against the backdrop of the spices I found in the Napa Valley Cab.
Drink or Sink: Drink. The flavor was significantly different from the 2007 -- the wine had matured into something special. It was evolved. What a treat. Proves that when done right, Cab gets better and better.
What else is there to say? Chateau Montelena makes divine wine. It's a jewel in California's crown. I don't know of other wineries that do what they do or make wines that taste anything like theirs. Go up and down the Napa Valley and I bet you won't find another winery like them. Are they boutique, or little -- the thing that so many people seek out? No. But if you want something different, historic, and consistently phenomenal you can't miss their wine. It doesn't hurt that the people are cool, but even if they sucked, this place does something special.
Thanks to Laura, Joel, and especially for Jamie for having me -- especially on a crazy Saturday with the lush rush in full swing!