Randall Grahm is always interesting, sometimes at the expense of his wines.
I confess I hadn't had a bottle of his Rhone blend Le Cigare Volant in several years before being invited to a 23-year vertical of the wine recently (officially it was 25 years, but the '07 and '08 were barrel samples.)
At the dinner, Grahm told us about an interesting new vineyard project, which I have a story about today on Palate Press. This, though, is about the wines.
This was unlike most vertical tastings, where you get a sense of a vineyard because the wines all come from the same place.
Grahm has used, by my count, 31 different vineyards from 11 different counties in Le Cigare Volant -- the wine he calls Bonny Doon's "spiritual center." Not one vineyard provided grapes to every vintage, though Besson Vineyard in Gilroy -- a town better known for garlic -- came close, as a source of Grenache from 1984 to 2006.
Then there are grape choices. Grenache, Mourvedre and Syrah have been the main grapes, but he has also used five others, although 3 appeared in only one vintage each. And while GSM are often blended together in both France and Australia, they are three very different grapes: Grenache delivers bright fruit, Mourvedre is earthy and funky, Syrah tends toward bold masculine flavors. As the ratio changes between them, you could taste the different characters in ascendancy.
What I learned was an evolution not of a vineyard, but of Grahm and Bonny Doon.
Like a rock and roll band, Grahm was brilliant right out of the gate before he really knew what he was doing. Then he learned the industry and got a little business-cynical, and it showed up in lower quality wines. Eventually he listened to his inner voice and brought the quality back up again, but he has yet to recapture, let alone surpass, the greatness of the first two wines. Johnny Cash eventually did, so there's hope for Grahm yet.
Here's a rundown of the wines.
1984: 72% Grenache, 25% Syrah, 3% Mourvedre, 1200 cases
The first vintage of Le Cigare Volant was the best wine of the night, and I'm glad because Grahm said the 6-litre bottle he brought was the last bottle of any size that he had.
Grahm started making Le Cigare Volant based on the old-vine Grenache from Gilroy. In 1982, Grahm had leased space from Josh Jensen at Calera to ferment some Grenache.
"It smelled like raspberries. I thought, 'This is good'," he said. "I ended up blending Cabernet to it and screwing it up."
It wouldn't be the last time. Had Grahm maintained Le Cigare Volant as a 1200-case Grenache-based wine, it might today be considered one of America's greatest. You'll see from the stats that he started tinkering with a successful formula within just two years.
Grahm said '84 was a difficult vintage, and the Grenache didn't ripen as much as he wanted. Perhaps that's why it aged so well.
The last night of this wine's life was superb: pretty on the nose, with strong licorice notes along with raspberry, black cherry, earth and fresh herbs. The mouthfeel was sensuous, the raspberry fruit was delightful, and the strong anise/licorice notes kept it interesting throughout the long finish. I thanked this wine for letting me drink it. 98
1985: 77% Grenache, 18% Syrah, 5% Mourvedre 1450 cases
Grahm discovered Contra Costa County Mourvedre for this vintage (the '84 Mourvedre was from San Martin), and it has played a role in every vintage since. It gives the wine a much rougher, earthier character than the pretty 1984, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.
We drank this out of a 12-litre bottle that some very happy waiters must have been able to finish. It was my second-favorite wine of the night: Medium-bodied, with darker cherry fruit, some earthiness and a bit of sun-dried tomato on the nose, and an elegant, medium-long finish. 94
1986: 86.7% Grenache, 10.5% Mourvedre, 2% Syrah, 0.8% Cinsault 1600 cases
We drank this out of a 750 ml bottle and it was oxidized. Done and gone.
1987: 38.5% Mourvedre, 35.8% Grenache, 25.7% Syrah 2400 cases
A big upswing in Contra Costa County Mourvedre supported the 50% jump in production. This wine has more oomph than the previous ones, but still has elegant raspberry fruit. In fact, it smelled like Grenache: bright and lively. 94
1988: 54% Mourvedre, 39% Grenache, 7% Syrah 2400 cases
This is the first wine that really has the Mourvedre character out front: funky, earthy, savory and sweaty. The black cherry fruit built with air; I liked it more the more time I spent with it, and probably would have enjoyed it a lot had it not been on the table with superior older wines. 90
1989: 44.6% Grenache, 43.2% Mourvedre, 12.2% Syrah 3200 cases
Another 33% jump in production size, and the quality drop is noticeable. The palate was nice, with raspberry fruit, savory notes and a gentle mouthfeel. But the peppery, closed, alcoholic nose kept it from being a winner. 87
1990: 42.6% Grenache, 38.7% Mourvedre, 18.7% Syrah 3600 cases
Here's a shift in gears in taste; I wonder if people noticed at the time? This is the first spicy wine, perhaps from the additional Syrah vineyards, but that's not a bad thing. The fruit is ripe cherry, with a molasses note on the finish. 89
1991: 45% Grenache, 24% Mourvedre, 24% Syrah, 7% Cinsault 3800 cases
Grahm was into spiciness in the early '90s. This one ripples with black pepper and cinnamon, while the Grenache character comes through in the raspberry fruit. Nice long finish. 92
1992: 45.7% Mourvedre, 30.7% Grenache, 11.9% Syrah, 11.7% Cinsault 4000 cases
The production is edging up, Grahm's getting busy, and you can see the impact here. There's nothing wrong with this wine, but there's no complexity: it's like cherry juice, bright but simple. 88
1993: 36.9% Mourvedre, 25.9% Syrah, 23% Grenache, 13.5% Cinsault, 0.7% Charbono 4200 cases
This wine did not age well: it's earthy, with some black currant and violet fruit. Not dead, but not exciting. Note the high percentage of Cinsault. 85
1994: 41.5% Grenache, 33.2% Mourvedre, 24.7% Syrah, 0.6% Cinsault 5488 cases
Production jumps again by nearly 30%, but this wine from a good vintage could handle it. The body is much fuller than previous wines, but there's nice ripe, rich raspberry fruit, with some star anise on the finish. Grahm prefers Old World wines, but this one's pretty New World, and was better without food. 91
1995: 45.5% Syrah, 36% Mourvedre, 17.6% Grenache, 0.9% Roussanne 6000 cases
Beginning of the dark ages. Note the not coincidental jump in percentage of Syrah -- a grape better suited for New World type wines.
"Part of that was greed on my part in making more Cigare," Grahm said. "But also I switched from large tanks to barrels. I ignored the wisdom of the Old World. Larger tanks keep their freshness better."
Unpleasant drying tannins made me sorry to taste this wine. NR (not rated, because I didn't like it enough)
1996: 49.8% Syrah, 34.5% Grenache, 8.2% Cinsault, 7.5% Mourvedre 7312 cases
Another 20% increase in production. Smells like Port that was left open. NR
1997 40.2% Grenache, 34.5% Syrah, 13.6% Cinsault, 6.7% Mourvedre 3812 cases
Grahm started using wood chips and organoleptic tannins. "In my Sorcerer's Apprentice-like frenzy to improve matters, maybe some things just got worse," he says. The worst decision was to use plastic "corks," which turned out to be terrible long-term because they start to fail after just a couple of years. This wine smelled like rubber and plum chewing gum. NR
1998 49% Grenache, 37% Syrah, 14% Mourvedre 4684 cases
This vintage also was cursed by plastic closures, but we tasted it from a 1.5-litre with a real cork, and it was drinkable, tasting of plum liqueur with a raw-meat low note. Not bad considering the context. 87
1999 36% Mourvedre, 34% Syrah, 30% Grenache 4541 cases
Grahm apparently got religion about non-interventionist winemaking in 2000, which makes this the most manipulated wine of the whole vertical: he added what he calls "an absolutely lethal dose of organoleptic tannin," and also says it was the year before he got serious about improving his grape sourcing.
I expected it to be awful. A purist would hate it on principle. But it wasn't bad at all: black cherry and plum, violet notes, some spiciness. I believe Grahm had finally mastered all the high-tech winemaking tricks he misemployed in the 1990s, ironically just before backing away from them. 90
2000: 39% Grenache, 32% Mourvedre, 28% Syrah, 1% Viognier 5914 cases
Grahm moved to screwcaps, which requires an adjustment in winemaking because they allow no oxygen at all. He didn't realize that yet. This wine was very reductive on the nose, smelling like earth and sulfur and little else. The bright cherry fruit on the palate made me wonder how the wine would have tasted after decanting for 12 hours. 86
2001: 34% Grenache, 33% Syrah, 27% Mourvedre, 2% Viognier 5424 cases
Grahm wrote, "The critics never cared for the 2001, but it is one of my favorite Cigares." He likes a slight mineral note on the nose. The fruit is bright cherry and pleasant. I'm with neither Grahm nor the critics. 87
2002: 36% Mourvedre, 34% Syrah, 22% Grenache, 7% Cinsault, 1% Counoise 4965 cases
For me this is the best Cigare of the '00s, and the first of the good wines that might still be hanging around in a few readers' cellars. This is a dark, savory wine -- very Mourvedre-like -- with black plum fruit, licorice and smoked ham notes and an earthy, funky aroma. 91
2003 35% Mourvedre, 32% Syrah, 26% Grenache, 7% Cinsault 6579 cases
The aroma of this wine was a turn-off; it smells cheap, like cherry Lif-Savrs. I like the darker black plum fruit on the palate and the rush of acidity at the end, but this was a step down for me. 86
2004: 38% Grenache, 35% Syrah, 12% Mourvedre, 8% Carignane, 7% Cinsault 5828 cases
Finally the Grenache character makes a comeback, probably helped by the discovery of some old-vine Carignane from Contra Costa County. This wine is pretty, with raspberry fruit, violet notes and an elegant mouthfeel. It's a throwback, in a good way. It's interesting because Grahm says the wine stunk during fermentation and he added copper sulfate just before bottling to try to prevent it from stinking in the bottle; it must have worked.
If you want to imagine what the mid-'80s Cigares were like, this is the closest to them. 91
2005: 50% Grenache, 24% Mourvedre, 22% Syrah, 3% Carignane, 1% Cinsault 2641 cases
If you want to know where Grahm is going with Le Cigare Volant, then try this one, because he loves it: He wrote, "The '05 is just plain wonderful."
This is a very savory wine; it reminded me of Swedish salted black licorice, with notes of black plum and floral hints. There's also a grilled lamb note to it. I respect this wine, which is muy macho, but I prefer the prettier, more elegant Cigares, and I feel mournful that we won't get more of those save by accident. 89
2006: 43.6% Syrah, 43.5% Grenache, 11.7% Cinsault, 1.1% Mourvedre, 0.1% Carignane 4646 cases
This wine was reductive, mushroomy at best, sulphuric at worst. I confess I didn't give it the chance to improve with air. NR