There are times when a splurge is just the right thing, times when a large investment brings a large reward. I’m talking about spending a lot of money on a bottle of very special wine, but when the wine is to celebrate a memorable event or the anniversary of one, or maybe to mark a gathering of several generations of a family, it can be money well-spent.
"A lot" is open to a great deal of debate, but when I go into three figures for a bottle of wine at retail, that’s my definition.
However, in recent tastings, I found a pair of expensive wines that are simply outstanding, far superior to run-of-the-mill, or even very good, bottles. Joseph Phelps 2003 Insignia ($165) is one, Robert Mondavi’s reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, from the same ‘03 vintage ($125) is another. Both are Napa Valley wines that give credence to the old line that you get what you pay for.
Insignia is a Meritage (pronounced in American style, with the accent on the first syllable, to rhyme with "heritage") blend which means that it may or may not qualify to be named after its key varietal grape. Three-fourths of the wine must come from the lead grape to earn the name. And the wine is a blend of several red varietals. The ‘03, which is 84 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, could have been named for the grape, but Craig Williams, the Joseph Phelps winemaker, decided to keep the Insignia name a constant. The wine also includes 10 percent Petite Verdot and three percent each of Merlot and Malbec. Grapes came from various vineyards, most in Phelps-owned vineyards in Napa, some purchased from other growers. The growing year got off to a slow start, with an exceptionally cool and wet spring. Mildew problems caused early crop removal, and a smaller-than-usual harvest. July and August, however, were extremely warm and sunny, and a hot September polished everything off.
The wine was fermented in stainless steel, then aged 24 months in French oak barrels before blending and bottling a year ago. The wine is very rich, with an aroma of blackberries and coffee. Dark chocolate joins the berries and dark cherries on the palate and there is a long, soft finish. It’s a glorious wine in every respect, and will continue to improve for 8-10 years.
If the Insignia is a budget-breaker, there’s a 2003 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon ($48) which may not have the finesse of the Insignia, but it’s a terrific wine to accompany red meat, or dark chocolate, or strong cheese. The blend is a little different, with 85 percent
Cabernet Sauvignon, 11 percent Merlot, three percent Petite Verdot and one percent Cabernet Franc. The wine aged 20 months, which left it with a little more tannin than the Insignia, but still with impressive flavors and indications of improvement for several years.
And don’t forget the Mondavi, from grapes in the same neighborhood. The blend is slightly different, involving 89 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 11 percent Cabernet Franc. It’s slightly bolder than the Insigina, with black cherry and currants in the aroma and flavor, and some chocolate in the finish. Both of these wines should be decanted, or opened about an hour before drinking to allow oxygen to do double-duty, opening the flavors and curbing the tannin.
Winning wines. . . .
Recent tastings have brought some different, and interesting table wines, good accompaniments to meals, or to desserts, or just to quaff before a fireplace on a chill evening.
Some whites have made an impression, and I’ll look at them first, in no particular order.
Franciscan Oakville Estates: 2004 Cuvee Sauvage Chardonnay fom Napa Valley ($33) is fermented using wild yeasts, a challenge for the winemaker, and this one was met easily. The wine is crisp and in the true Chablis style, with overtones of vanilla and a fine finish.
Oakville Ranch: 2004 Napa Valley Chardonnay ($35) is more in the California manner, showing big, buttery, slightly oaky flavors that are packed with citrus overtones. An excellent wine with grilled fish or oysters on the shell, or as something to prepare the palate for dinner.
Andeluna: 2003 Reserve Chardonnay ($23) from Argentina comes from vines at 4200 feet of elevation in the Andes Mountains. Aged in French oak for a year, the flavor of the wood is present, though not to an objectionable amount, and there’s a gentle feeling of butter on the palate, again in a just-right performance.
J. Lohr: 2005 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc, Carol’s Vineyard ($18), and 2004 Chardonnay, Arroyo Vista ($25) are fine examples of Jerry Lohr’s wines. The former displays the crisp, mineral feeling of a good Sauvignon Blanc, with citrus aromas and a bright, fresh flavor. The Chardonnay is on the austere side, avoiding the palate-cluttering, heavily buttered tones of many California Chardonnays. A little oakiness keeps it in fine balance.
Dry Creek Vineyards: 2003 Zinfandel, Beeson’s Ranch is a rich, hearty Zinfandel from a small Sonoma Valley vineyard. There’s mint on the palate along with the expected flavors of plummy dark fruit, balanced by blackberry. Fine with rich roasts.
NEW WINE RETAILERS: A pair of new, and new-style, wine retail stores have opened in the St. Louis area, offering different places to visit for those of us who enjoy prowling the racks, looking at new and old friends, and hoping that something very special will just jump into our hands. Both are franchise operations.
WineStyles is in Chesterfield Oaks, on Clarkson Road south of the Highways 40 and 64, 636-536-0711.
Vino 100 is in Florissant, in the Jamestown Mall, 314-741-0899, www.vino100.com