This tasting, held at Vintage Wines of San Diego on September 9th, was described as “John has been pulling bottles from his cellar for the sale. Come try 6 wines that are sure to be interesting, and maybe some Gems!” John Lindsay is the owner of Vintage Wines and every now and then holds a sale of wines that are rarely available for sale at retail wine stores. Serving the wines as the regular $5 Saturday tasting meant that this was going to be not only a splendid opportunity to taste old wines but also excellent value.
I try to taste through the wines at these tastings blinded to everything but the theme of the tasting. But as soon as I walked in the door I was told that a 1984 Magill Estate Shiraz was on the list, and then when I walked into the tasting room the magnum of Cuvaison Chardonnay was thrust into my face so that I could not avoid reading the label. Oh well, there would be four wines that I would not know about. It turned out to be six wines as the tasting was of eight wines in total. I’ve listed the wines in the order they were tasted along with their identities, and prices if known.
1975 Cuvaison Chardonnay, Napa Valley, California (Magnum) (13.7% alcohol)
Golden in color with secondary flavors of honey and marmalade beneath a nutty almond note that was mixed with some hints of wax and glacé fruits. Medium weight on the palate and although its showing its age there is still some vibrant acidity and nice length to the finish. Holding well but won’t go too much further. 2, 2, 4.0, 10.1 = 18.1/20, 90/100.
1991 Mount Eden Vineyards, Pinot Noir, Santa Cruz, California (12.2%) ($39.99USD)
Mahogany with an orange brown edge. Distinct spicy Pinot aroma over earthy notes, Quite ripe and very impressive. Does not seem very old at all. Really impressive presence of flavors on the palate, very firm tannins and great length. Excellent wine. 2, 2, 4.3, 10.3 = 18.6/20, 93/100.
1989 Nuits St. Georges, Emmanuel Rouget, Burgundy, France (13%)
Lighter colored, almost tawny, with an orange brown edge. Pinot Noir but the flavors are more in the burnt spectrum, caramel, bacon fat, freshly burnt gun powder. Medium weight with overt, juicy acidity. Lacks character on the mid-palate and fades a little on the finish. Not the quality of the previous wine. 2, 2, 3.9, 9.7 = 17.6/20, 88/100.
1989 Ravenswood Zinfandel Old Hill Vineyard, Sonoma, California (13.9%)
Looks old. The orange brown on the edge carries into the core of the wine but it is still quite vibrantly colored. Caramel, smoked meats, bonox, over licorice; great depth of flavor. Overly acidic to my palate, feels like its past its drinking window. But the tannins still hold a finish that is flavorsome. Some may like its appeal. 2, 2, 4.0, 9.5 = 17.5/20, 87/100.
1997 Ravenswood Zinfandel Old Hill Vineyard, Sonoma, California (14.5%) ($49.99USD)
Much younger wine. Dense cherry red with just a slight fading of orange to the edge. Big and opulent with dark fruits over black currents and a little nail polish (ethyl acetate) and vanilla oak. Nicely structured with good presence of flavors on the palate, firm tannins and a lengthy finish. 2, 2, 4.0, 10.0 = 18.0/20, 90/100.
1985 Concerto di Fonterutoli, Mazzei, Chianti, Italy (13%) ($99.99USD)
Dense red-brown with orange brown edge. Initially unyielding, but a little air brings up the ripeness of mint, cedar and some dusty oak. Definitely Cabernet. A real mouthful of wine with big, firm tannins but lacking depth to the midpalate. Nicely flavored finished. 2, 2, 4.1, 9.8 = 17.9/20, 89/100.
1984 The Magill Estate, Shiraz, Penfolds Wines, South Australia (12.5%) ($99.99USD)
Almost burgundy in color with a slight orange brown edge. Hmmm, sweet toffee over licorice and damp earth. Very appealing. Medium weight with wonderful carry of flavors onto the palate. Holding well, with nice acidity and great length. A very nice old wine. 2, 2, 4.2, 10.2 =18.4/20, 92/100.
1974 Burgess Cellars Petite Sirah, Napa Valley, California (13.2%)
A light cherry red fading to orange brown. Very forward, aromatic, and spicy, almost sweetly so, over milk coffee and raisins. Very unusual but very appealing. Wow, great, lively mouthfeel with excellent presence of flavors and a beautiful lengthy finish. Definitely the wine of the tasting. 2, 2, 4.3, 10.5 = 18.8/20, 94/100.
Nothing in the world of wine is ever simple. When I went up to the serving bar to put some names against my tasting notes I was told that the last wine was the Magill Estate! Well OK, but if that was so then the wine had aged in a remarkable and completely unexpected way. And I definitely wanted some, and a few bottles of the Mount Eden Pinot as well, please.
At home I opened a bottle of the Mount Eden. The cork was stained its entire length, but the wine was a twin of the glass tasted earlier in the day. I told Miranda, “You think this is good? Just wait until we open up a bottle of the Magill.” It was decided that we would take one to a restaurant the following evening where we would celebrate a friend’s birthday.
The ullage level on the Magill was to the neck, so a little crust under the capsule was no surprise when the sommelier pointed it out. When the cork broke half way along its length, I simply noted that Penfold’s corks were notorious for doing that, and getting the rest of the cork out would test his skill. He did an excellent job, getting the other half out in one piece.
Then he let me taste the wine. My turn to show a little skill, because this was not the wine I was expecting. I recognized the wine. A really nice old wine with notes of toffee, a little licorice and damp earth. It may have seen better days, but it was going to be quite happy to kick up its heels for the next couple of hours. But should I confess that this was not the wine that I had told them to expect? After all, the mistake was not mine, the error had occurred the day before when wines at the tasting had been mixed up, besides this wine was much more in the style of an aged Shiraz. In the end it did not matter. The wine was a hit.
But the question for me became just how much of mix up had there been at the tasting? Well, I can be confident with the first three wines. The Chardonnay can’t be in error and neither can the Mount Eden, having tasted a separate bottle. The Bugundy was a Pinot. The two Zinfandels? I would not have picked either as Zins, but the color on the 1997 showed it to be the youngest wine of the group. The Super-Tuscan had Cabernet, no problem there. The Magill is correctly identified after tasting the separate bottle. That just leaves wines number 4 (1989 Ravenswood Zinfandel) and number 8 (1974 Burgess Cellars Petite Sirah). Tasting notes on the Burgess from the Gang of Pour pretty much nail it as the last wine in the tasting.
One other point that some might have noticed about most of these wines is the alcohol content. Apart from the 1997 Ravenswood at 14.5% everything else is below 14%. The Mount Eden and the Magill are both well below 13%. Makes you wonder why winemakers seek high alcohol content in wines intended to rest in cool dark cellars for decades. They can’t be using the past as a guide.