Few wineries have played as large a part in American wine history as Chateau Montelena. When I was invited to attend a tasting including five decades of the Napa Valley winery’s Cabernet Sauvignon, I couldn’t say “yes” fast enough. So earlier this summer I buckled up for a wine event of a lifetime.
Our Master of Ceremonies was none other than Bo Barrett, Montelena’s CEO and Master Winemaker. His family bought Chateau Montelena in 1972, with Beau’s father Jim Barrett making the transition from practicing law to owning a winery.
Of course it was a great treat to have Bo introduce every wine. I enjoyed his candor, humor, and liberal peppering of sports analogies throughout his commentary. Discussing Montelena’s consistent elegant, restrained style, particularly in light of the massive oak/fruit/alcohol bombs of the last 20 years, he made a baseball comparison. To paraphrase, as a hitter you can’t always pound it into center field. Sometimes you have to dink it over first base.
While the wines of Chateau Montelena may be more in a Tony Gwynn/Rod Carew mold, I’m going to call the event itself a home run. Perhaps a Joe Carter-esque home run. (Great call, BTW: “Touch ’em all, Joe! You’ll never hit a bigger home run in your life!” )
Let’s get to the wines, now that you are sufficiently in the mood. Oh, one more thing. All the wines were poured from MAGNUMS. Wow!
Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon Tasting 1974-2013
- 1974 Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon
- 1975 North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon
- 1979 Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
- 1980 Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
- 1983 Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
- 1988 Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
- 1990 Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
- 1994 Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
- 1996 Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
- 2001 Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
- 2005 Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
- 2007 Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
- 2009 Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
- 2011 Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
- 2013 Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
Selected short notes and thoughts
The 1974 is actually a Sonoma wine, made with fruit from what is now the Russian River Valley and Alexander Valley. It was still alive, with nice fruit and a touch of balsamic at the end. “Pretty high acid held it together,” Bo explained. This was a hell of a start! A very good wine, an extremely auspicious beginning. The 1975 was much more aromatic than the 74, yet more subtle on the palate, lower acid. Lingering.
1979 was the first Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet tasted. (The vintage prior was the first bottling of the estate Cab.) Surprisingly, this seemed more aged than the 74 and 75. Dark chocolate, a more prominent balsamic note. Bo also noted the low-tech, DIY spirit of the winery. Describing the scene in 1979, he said, “We’re still broke….We still have the same nasty equipment.”
A fantastic Cabernet nose and noticeable tannins were the highlights of the 1980. ‘Twas a warm year following a cool one. Fruit starts to show more prominently from the 1983 on, rather than the wines being dominated by savory notes. 1988 was a drought-plagued vintage with tiny yields. The resulting wine is dark and brooding.
Still quite young, the 1990 has that brooding character of the 88 with toast and coffee notes. In his notes on the vintage, Bo calls the 1994 the most balanced of the outstanding 1990s vintages. A summer that would destroy my heat-adverse soul, 1996 had at least ten days where temperatures were over 100 degrees from June to August.
“Tastes like it was bottled a year ago, ” Bo says of the 2001. Very dark, primary fruit on the 2005. This was one of my favorites. Really like fine red wines in this decade-ish window. Conditions were just right for the 2007 vintage. As Bo refers to it, a “Goldilocks” year. The 2009 is very tannic for being nine years old.
I loved the 2011 for its elegance. Tasting the 2013, I couldn’t help thinking about my mom. Is that strange? She prefers wines that are rich and smooth, not over the top. Like this bottle. 97% Cabernet with 1.5% each of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.
Sometimes the frequency of describing an event as “honor” and/or “privilege” to attend/be a part of gets mawkish, strains credulity. When everything is a dang honor/privilege, then nothing is, OK?
Having said that, it was a TRUE honor and privilege to attend this tasting. This was a very good summer of classic Napa Cabernet for me, enjoyed in air-conditioned comfort.
Photos courtesy of the winery. The gram is mine, duh.