Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Big-name California Cabernet-blend blind tasting: Harlan, Insignia, Opus One. Who wins?

This was the kind of tasting Robert Mondavi used to host: his wine, blind, against the first-growths of Bordeaux.

It's too expensive today to hold that kind of tasting to prove yourself. Trying to prove the worth of his Livermore Valley Cabernet-based blend Lineage ($145), Steven Kent Mirassou last week put the 2009 up against 2009s from some of the big names of California: Harlan Estate ($800), Opus One ($230), Joseph Phelps Insignia ($150), and Continuum ($175), as well as a random Saint-Estèphe a PR person had sitting around (true), Château Cos Labory ($50).

I know what you're expecting me to write, and certainly what Mirassou was hoping for: Lineage smoked 'em. Unfortunately, considering the money he laid out for this tasting, that didn't happen.

There were four other wine writers there, and Mirassou and his experienced PR rep/wine educator Paul Wagner also tasted with us, and we all, unanimously, liked ...

Opus One.

None of us saw that coming. The last time I had Opus One, I thought it was very oaky. But this time, it had easily the best aroma of the group: elegant, complex, dark cherries in a warm cedary drawing room. And the flavor delivered complexity as well. The tannins on the finish were a little strong, but this isn't a wine meant to be drunk on release, plus I went back to it an hour later and they had loosened up.

So, a big win for Opus One. The Harlan Estate, I'm sorry to report, finished last and tasted weird; we all hated it. I just wrote about Harlan Estate a couple months ago and I have respect for what they do, but in a blind setting, I have to hope this was bottle variation. If I had spent $800, I'd be pissed.

The Phelps Insignia tasted generic: solid, boring, could be a Cab blend from anywhere, which makes sense given that it's a many-vineyard blend. I guess people pay for surety with this brand and at that it succeeded.

I liked Tim Mondavi's Continuum more than the other tasters did. It's very New World, ripe, dark fruit, well-balanced. Another taster called it the kind of flashy California wine that tastes great with one sip but you can't have a second glass of it. Well, maybe; I went back to it later and still liked it.

You'd think the Saint-Estèphe would have stood out in this group, and maybe it did in retrospect, but when we blind-tasted we didn't actually know where any of the bottles were from save "Northern Hemisphere." None of us jumped up and said, "Ah, back to France!" This wine was the simplest up front but also the liveliest, with a nice fruity finish. It was the easiest to drink and possibly the easiest to finish a bottle of.

That leaves our host's wine, the Lineage. It smelled and tasted of candied fruit to me; Virginie Boone from Wine Enthusiast called that same flavor "liqueur." Language is so important in the wine experience. Virginie writes a lot more wine reviews than I do these days and "liqueur" is the lingua franca. I liked the flavor better than the aroma, but I don't know if the tasting accomplished what Mirassou wanted.

Stephen Kent Mirassou
Mirassou said, "I'm not expecting to win the tasting. But if people think we belong on the table, that's a win for Livermore Valley." Fair enough.

Mirassou is a huge booster of Livermore Valley, where his father moved shortly after selling the family's eponymous winery (Gallo owns it now.) Pre-Prohibition, Livermore Valley was about as respected for fine wine terroir as Napa Valley.

But while the Wente family has done a nice job of getting Livermore Valley in every airport wine shop in America, the high-end industry has never taken off. It's not because of weather (Livermore has a similar climate to St. Helena) or soils; it's size of the industry and marketing. However, it's also a self-fulfilling prophecy: if people pay $150 for wines, wineries can invest in personnel and equipment that wineries which make $20 wines can't afford.

Mirassou has been trying to beat the drum for a decade for the Steven Kent label Cabernet he makes from Livermore; Lineage is a step up in price even on that. It's a Cabernet-dominted blend of all five Bordeaux varieties mostly from the 64-acre Ghilmetti Vineyard. The '09 was a single-vineyard wine but after a short Cab harvest in 2010 he added grapes from two other vineyards. I wonder about that decision, as he made only 150 cases of it, but I guess "single-vineyard" doesn't mean much to high-end California Cabernet buyers.

He made 300 cases in 2011 and 400 in 2012, and sells most of it through the Steven Kent wine club, although he did get the wine in restaurants in a few markets that he enjoys traveling to: Las Vegas, Chicago, New Orleans, Washington, DC.

We drank the first four vintages of the wine, 2007-'10, with lunch, and I really enjoyed the 2007, a balanced, elegant, lively wine with raspberry character and nice supple mouthfeel. Mirassou is trying to make an age-worthy wine: "One thing we pay attention to is we don't bottle the wine with a 3.9 pH," he said, casting aspersions at certain Napa producers. So maybe the '07's character is a good omen.

I also went back and retried the other wines with lunch and still loved the Opus, still liked the Continuum, and still hated the Harlan. Mirassou laughed: "I'd be a liar if I said that wasn't gratifying." You take your victories where you can.

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Randy Caparoso: said...

As Blake mentions, there were "other writers" there, including myself. I, too, lauded the '09 Opus One for its fluid yet grippy texture and coffee bean spiced raspberry composure, but found it flawed by low key yet distinct notes of Brettanomyces (leather on the palate, animal in the nose). To me, that's alarming, because blemishes like this can vary from bottle to bottle - in one bottle can be overwhelmingly stinky, and in another so subtle that it's barely noticeable. Anyone can enjoy wines like this, but you also need to accept the unpredictability.

The '09 Insignia, on the other hand, was at least spot-clean in its vivid, smoky oaked, blackcurrant concentration, and was voluminous yet impeccably balanced in the mouth. Big, youthful tannins, but nicely tucked into place. It was my favorite.

My other favorite was, in fact, the '09 Lineage, which I found zesty and silky -- better "acid balance" than any wines in this flight -- and sweet toned in its raspberry liqueur-liked intensity. Compared to the Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons, it didn't have the big weightiness, which is fine with me since I prefer a zestier, more laid back Cabernet Sauvignon anyway.

In the past I have found Lineages to be quite deep and concentrated in their youth. I was pleased to find the '07 as well as '08 Lineages, tasted with lunch, taking on an even silkier sense of balance, after starting off as more rambunctious wines just after bottling (I have been following their progress over the past three years).

The Harlan was also a fine wine -- thick and musclebound with tannin as well as cassis, tobacco and spice complexities. Perhaps not a "favorite," but most certainly worthy of prestige associated with the name.

Neither the Cos Labory nor the Continuum could be considered "weak." In fact, both were densely packed, rich and supple. However, the Continuum seemed leaner in the middle than all the rest of the wines -- indicative of both style and, perhaps, a "down" period.

But as everyone knows, you can take the same wines (from different bottles, of course), taste them double-blind next week and come out with the opposite results: the Continuum showing best, and Phelps or Opus One showing the weakest.

That's the agony and ecstasy of first class wines, and also why numerical ratings are such a load of bullcrap. Honestly made wines at this level will vary in sensory complexion as much as the people who are tasting them. Anyone who says otherwise simply doesn't know what he/she is talking about.

Mike Dunne said...

One correction: Opus One wasn't a unanimous choice. I remember one writer present as favoring the Lineage. But he's a little guy, easily overlooked. That would be me. I appreciated the grace of the Insignia, the spunk and structure of the Opus One, and the balance, spirit and length of the Chateau Cos Labory, but the Lineage was my favorite on the strength of its expansiveness, accessibility and persistence.

winesmith said...

I've had the Opus, and I agree with Mr. Caparoso. Maybe I'm just sensative to Brett in wine, or that old world charm isn't to my taste. Bottle variation? I'd hate to pay that much for a wine that can have that much variation.

Amy Sherman said...

Livermore has a problem alright. Starting with the name.

Unknown said...

A little brett is like being a little pregnant, eventually it gets to full size. Have no idea how any wine writer or serious wine geek can ever tolerate brett. Personally, any whiff of brett to me and it clearly shows winemakers have not done their job.

Playing "favorites" when a bottle is seriously flawed is really surprising, perhaps find a different profession if your nose and palate are not working. No one likes spoiled food, have no idea why in this day any professional EVER argues that "some brett is not an issue". Time to put this issue to bed and weed out those wine reviewers and ask them to find another hobby, one they can actually perform.

I will offer same bet and challenge I have offered Parker years ago, I will brown bag single varietal bottles and all I will ask you to do is identify each varietal. Simple test and challenge and yet I can also bet heavily any of these self appointed experts will refuse to take. As did Parker, who in same thread claimed his bottle of Pegau is pristine at the same time Laurence was posting that ALL Pegau wines have brett (in real time as it happened, hilarious and very educational to those following our exchange at the time). Enough with this fooling and conditioning consumers into accepting spoilage yeast where same consumers will run away from spoiled food screaming. Spoiled is spoiled. No such thing as a "little brett".

W. Blake Gray said...

Yeah, you know Greg, I can't BELIEVE there are movie critics who disagree with my opinion. How dare they have blogs? I ought to make them all take a test.

rapopoda said...

Mr Piatigorski
Spoiled food represents a health risk to consumers. Brettanomyces, does not. Nor will "spoilage" with lactobacilli, pediococcus, etc.

So there is a considerable difference.

Your self righteous pontifications against those who might find brett a pleasant component (note, that there are lots of drinkers of tradition Lambics, and the constructed "wild" ales which followed, who are quite fond of 4-EP, 4-EG, etc), to be laughable.
So thanks for the laugh!!

Mike Dunne said...

Greg Piatigorski: Please provide the scientific data to back up your statements that there is no such thing as a "little brett" and that it is like being a little bit pregnant; that is, bound to become more obvious. By my experience, brett shows itself in various degrees, and whether it grows in a bottle is open to debate; thus, I seriously want to know the foundation for your conclusion that it does. Many years ago, at the opening of the Los Angeles County Fair Competition, director Nathan Chroman gave a brief lecture on how judges might consider brett. He likened a minor degree of brett - "minor," as all things in wine, being relative - to the broken windshield wiper on a new Cadillac in a showroom. If you loved everything about that Cadillac - authority, power, balance, grace - would you not buy it for that flawed windshield wiper?

tom said...

Perhaps "liqueur" is more of a combination of candied fruit sweetness plus higher alcohol content. They probably co-occur often.