Two California Cabs, and the Unpredictability of Expectations

The wine world used to be so easy to navigate: With a handful of exceptions, speaking in generalizations about broad swaths of it wasn’t too inaccurate, and divisions between the so-called Old World and New were pretty clear.
Big fruit? California.
Deep earthiness? France.
Idiosyncrasy and demanding of food? Italy.
But then, somewhere along the way, things began to shift, and the assumptions that so many of us grew up knowing as iron-clad truths were no longer necessarily so.
This is a good thing.
These days, the world of wine is both astoundingly diverse and exceptionally complex. It’s no longer enough just to understand the overall nature of specific regions, as there can be some pretty serious differences in wines between appellations that directly neighbor each other. In this sense, the ever increasing granularity of the wine world has led to a broader range of expressions, even when dealing with the same grape variety or even the same producer. As the map of the wine world has grown increasingly parceled, so, too, has the range of wine styles that consumers have access to.
Even producers have been affected by--and had an effect themselves on--these changes. The majority of producers I’ve spoken with--from America to Europe to South America--claim these days to want to make wines that are as expressive of the land as possible. In other words, there’s often a blurring of the lines between winemakers’ stylistics goals and nature’s demands. The best, it seems, want to make wine in a style that pays homage to the land in which they are rooted. In hierarchical terms, the land, as often as not, dictates the style of the best wine, with the winemaker facilitating that process, not unnecessarily manipulating it.
This is all to say that, as expected, my recent tasting of two standouts from California left me both very excited and incapable of generalizing what the state is capable of. No matter: With wines this good, it’s best to simply stop talking and enjoy the juice.
Purple berry and plum fruit are still peeking through here, but this six-year-old beauty is starting to don more mature robes, with aromas of cigar tobacco, cedar, light leather, and eucalyptus, that last one keeping it remarkably fresh. The fruit on the palate, however, is still ripe and sweet, and carried along on a silky texture embedded with mature tannins. It tastes of sweet cherries, cassis, and a hint of chocolate. The eucalyptus of the nose turns more in the direction of grilled sage on the finish, which lingers beautifully for some time. This SIMI is classic California in the best sense, but with a Bordeaux-inspired soul: Expressive, giving, complex, and subtle all at once. You can hold this for a few more years, but it seems to me that it’s in its peak condition right now, the balance of fruit and more secondary characteristics in very appealing harmony.
Recommended Pairing: Strip steak grilled over an open flame and anointed, once plated, with a delicate sage-butter sauce studded with caramelized shallots.
Right away, this speaks of dark cherries and purple berries rolled in smoky cocoa, and then, with air, garrigue and more Mediterranean aromas, even a whiff of flowers. There’s pencil lead, too, as well as a hint of cedar. For all that, however, it’s still holding something in reserve, as if it’s not quite ready to speak in the full-throated manner it most certainly will with more time in the bottle. That youth comes out on the palate, where the deep cherry, crushed blackberry, and back raspberry flavors are both sweet and sheathed in tannins that clearly need more time to unwind. A sneaky strain of minerality is there, too, if you look for it. Really, this is a wine that shows ample promise for the future, its balance impeccable, its inherently powerful character worn, paradoxically, with a lithe touch. This is a remarkably self-possessed wine despite its youth, and I expect it to evolve into a very serious, thoroughly accomplished expression of the Mondavi Oakville bottling, which, year after year, is one of the best values in California cabernet. Drink 6 - 10+ years.
Recommended Pairing: Venison with a light cherry gastrique.