The Wine of the Week & The Napa Follies

The Wine of the Week & The Napa Follies

Errazuriz 2005 Carmenère **** ($13.95, LCBO #16238, Aconcagua Valley, Chile)And now for something very affordable. New to the LCBO general list and a huge value if you like your reds black and deep and even. Chile has struggled to tame carmenère—the late-ripening, often green-tasting monster that is becoming its signature. But like the Concha y Toro 2005 Carmenère I heavily recommended before Christmas, this new Errazuriz version finds the handle at an amazing price. The nose drenched in cassis, mint, leather and wood smoke—all well proportioned. It’s full bodied, dense and elegant with firm but deeply embedded tannin. Considerable oak on the finish is the element that ties it all together but fruit is not lost. Excellent length. Drinkable now, best 2008 to 2012, ideal for a lamb roast.

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I first traveled to Napa Valley, California, in 1978 when wine was new and exciting, when the Robert Mondavi winery was less than 10 years-old; when once legendary names like Inglenook and Beaulieu were the establishment, and new enterprises like Grgich Hills, Joseph Phelps, Cakebread and Heitz were just beginning to generate some buzz. It was a time of wonderment, promise and innocence, with a sense that this bucolic crease in the coastal ranges north of San Francisco might one day be able to produce great cabernets and merlots to rival Bordeaux. There was not a lot of self-confidence back then, but there was plenty of humility.

No longer. A generation later, Napa is top dog of the New World; its wines have achieved the qualitative, cultural and economic stature of Bordeaux. Indeed Napa’s big reds are at least as expensive as Bordeaux, at almost every quality and production level. But the wine universe no longer turns on the Bordeaux-Napa axis, and Napa, as well as Bordeaux, both now struggle to prove, in my opinion, that the wine in the bottle is worth the hype and price. The average price of the reds shown at a big Napa tasting at the Rosewater Supper Club on Thursday was about $60. My average rating was about 89 to 91 points out of 100—or four to four-and-a-half stars—very good to excellent. Sorry Napa, but there are many, many other regions that achieve this at half that average price. For $60, we should expect excellent to outstanding quality almost every time.

I am not going to publish ratings and review individual wines here. The jam-packed tasting was not the place to form definitive opinions, and the vast majority of the wines are not currently available anyway. This event was aimed at restaurateurs looking to pad their lists with big names, and, hey, that’s show biz. But what were the organizers thinking to invite so many people to a room so small, knowing full well that a free Napa tasting would draw every wine professional in the city. As well as being insufferably hot and crowded, the event was weak on information. No prices or availability in the tasting catalogue; some people pouring who knew nothing about the wines; wineries pouring that were not listed in the catalogue. And there was a scant 150 minutes to taste over 100 wines.

So I focused only on Napa’s calling cards: cabernet sauvignon and merlot. In fact, few other red varieties were shown, indicating Napa has found its nerve centre. Some were downright delicious and very finely made indeed; but several also showed flaws related to oxidation, over-ripeness and bacterial issues. A few were still inspired by the dour tannic, earthy Bordeaux model of yesteryear (Clos du Val, Grgich Hills, Keenan). Others like Pine Ridge, Silverado and Cain have captured finesse and fruit based on Califronia’s sunshine. There were also very fine examples from newcomers like the biodynamically farmed Ehlers Lane, Laird Family Estate and Miner Family Vineyard. And three classics still showed their mettle: Heitz 2001 Martha’s Vineyard (my favourite and only potential five-star wine of the day), Beringer 2001 Private Reserve Cabernet and Robert Mondavi 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve. Most innovative was Viader 2004 DARE Cabernet Franc, a very sensuous, tender and aromatic wine from a grape not much respected in Napa.