2002 North Coast cabernet sauvignons have talent at the top
May 16, 2012 (The Press Democrat - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Mother Nature can seem like the devil incarnate, but many pro-active winemakers weathered her dark side in 2002 and made great wine regardless.
The top-scoring wines in The Press Democrat's recent 10-year retrospective tasting of cabernet sauvignons and Bordeaux red blends are:
First place: Clos Du Bois Marlstone, 2002 Alexander Valley Bordeaux Red Blend (4.5 stars)
Second place: Shafer Vineyards' Hillside Select, 2002 Hillside Select, Stag's Leap District Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (4.5 stars)
Third place: Joseph Phelps Insignia, 2002 Napa Valley Red Wine (4.5 stars)
A total of 20 wines were tasted. But this year only a handful rated 4.5 stars compared to last year, when seven earned that score and all tied for first place. Last year, there was a common characteristic in each, a unique vibrancy: Bottled youth. This year's tasting was less impressive across the board; however, the top scoring wines were striking.
The retrospective tasting has become a tradition because the 10-year mark is a perfect time to gauge the progress of aging California cabernet sauvignons and Bordeaux red blends. Those with good balance and a solid structure upon release are expected to show well after 10 years, emulating the great wines of Bordeaux that can last decades in the bottle.
The 2002 vintage when it was released garnered mixed reviews from wine critics, with Robert Parker Jr. of "The Wine Advocate" rating California North Coast cabernets 95 overall and Jim Laube of the "Wine Spectator" giving a 93 for Napa County and 82 for Sonoma County.
While Mother Nature was placid during the 2001 vintage, she did create havoc and test the patience of winemakers in 2002. Local vineyards experienced a string of troublesome heat spikes in September, with 100-degree and higher temperatures.
"A lot of people don't have a lot of experience with heat spikes, and if they don't have a lot of experience, the heat can run away from you, and then you get overripe fruit," said Elias Fernandez, winemaker of Napa's Shafer Vineyards. "You lose freshness, you lose acidity. . . . The blackberry and cassis flavors are lost."
Fernandez said he was monitoring the weather on TV stations and online websites and started irrigating early to make sure the vines could withstand the heat wave.
"I have been at Shafer for 28 years, so I've seen the damage Mother Nature can do as well as the gifts she can give," Fernandez said.
Ashley Hepworth, a winemaker with Joseph Phelps Vineyards in St. Helena, recalls the September heat spikes. She said their winemaking team was pro-active and "stalked" the weather.
"I looked at five weather online sites, checking them on my cellphone during harvest, checking the weather a few times a day," Hepworth said. "We also left more leaf cover for protection and we strategically planned irrigation."
Thinking outside the box was key in making a good wine in a tough vintage, Hepworth added.
"It's not really a recipe," Hepworth said. "You have to work with what you're getting, what the weather patterns have been for the growing season, instead of always doing one certain thing every year."
Erik Olsen, who produced the Marlstone, said he didn't have to endure heat spikes as intense as vintners in other regions, but he still benefited from having a big pool of grapes to choose from.
"To make it (the blend) more powerful, rich and ripe in character, I wanted to be able to source the wines that were produced from hillside and bench land vineyards," Olsen said. "Because I was using hillside fruit, I was able to dial up the cabernet percent of the blend and get more blackberry and cassis flavors, and denser but soft tannins."
Olsen, now vice president and chief winemaker with Constellation Wines U.S., was able to sip through 50 to 70 lots of cabernet sauvignon, as well as another 50 to 70 lots of other varietals in making the Marlstone blend. He went through weeks of trials and roughly 250 incarnations before choosing the final blend.
"Balance and harmony are important for all wines at the moment of consumption, but understanding how key elements of a wine change over time is key," Olsen said. "With five to 10 years of aging, the components soften and fruit evolves to something very beautiful and balanced."
You can reach Staff Writer Peg Melnik at 521-5310 or email@example.com.
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