A few years ago, I took a 40-year-old bottle of Spring Mountain Vineyard Cabernet to a restaurant in the charming, wealthy little town of St Helena, in the middle of the Napa Valley. The wine was the celebrity of the evening. I offered a glass to the sommelier, and our neighbouring tables got wind of it, then the cooks. Soon there were people coming from far corners of the dining room to beg a taste of the fine old wine. California, and especially Napa, is famed for many things, but it’s rare to taste older bottles – and even more so from the smaller properties, which in the early days were far too preoccupied with selling the stuff to lay down decent libraries. Even today, winemakers frequently complain that they can’t persuade their owners to save enough cases of each vintage.
If old bottles are rare in their home state, they’re even rarer abroad. But they are available if you know where to look. Luckily, on our doorstep we have two establishments with world-renowned collections of American wine: the Vineyard hotel at Newbury, an hour to the west of London, and Hedonism in Mayfair. Romain Bourger, UK Young Sommelier of the Year in 2016 and the Vineyard’s head sommelier, offered his premises and some wonderful bottles; Alistair Viner of Hedonism pulled out some fine dusty specimens; and Dave Allen, director of specialist California importer the Vineyard Cellars, completed the panel.
And what a tasting it was – unpredictable and fascinating. We tasted non-blind, but the fact that there were four of us made it perfectly objective. It was pleasing that the Peter Michael Les Pavots was one of the very best wines on the table. (Sir Peter is the owner of the Vineyard, and his property and his property in Sonoma’s Knights Valley is one of the most beautiful in the county.) Equally pleasing was the excellence of two of my favourite wineries in Napa: Corison and Heitz. There were surprises. I’ve always thought Staglin a bit overextracted, made more for the domestic market than the European, but the 1994 was a triumph – elegant but with the weight and acidity to guarantee a long life ahead. Expectations were fulfilled: Shafer’s Hillside Select showed how Napa pioneers such as John Shafer knew exactly what they were doing: the ’88 is rich and restrained still, a masterful combination of winemaking and commercial savvy.
There were common stylistic features to the best wines. The finest – like Les Pavots or Corison – had that wonderful combination of freshness and exotic fragrance that is the hallmark of great Napa. The essential quality in all great winemaking, anywhere in the world, is restraint. It was noticeable that we mentioned oak only once during the tasting. If there was overextraction, it showed in stewed fruit, Porty flavours and a drying end – but again, that afflicted only a couple of wines.
The original impetus for the tasting was to look at older California vintages. In the event, all the wines except two came from Napa, for the simple reason that outside of Napa only a handful of wineries were producing quality wines in the sort of quantity that would guarantee their presence on a European wine list after
All the wines here are readily available; they give a snapshot of a style of winemaking that has been rare in this part of California. For almost a generation, freshness has not been a word that could be readily used in connection with Napa, but tastings like this prove that, in the right hands, this lush, sun-baked terroir produces wines that are capable of retaining their brightness and vigour for decades.