Cabernet Tasting Notes, 2008: Ehlers, Phelps, Heitz, Von Strasser, Larkmead

The vineyard view from Ehlers Estate, St. Helena.

I went on a bit of a Cabernet bender today, my first in a while. Typically, I get a pretty decent dose of Cabernet Sauvignon just by working at a Napa Valley winery. Cabernet is the currency here, and the juice is ubiquitous. Since this varietal dominates my nine-to-five schedule, I’m usually motivated to seek out other types of wine on my days off. I go to the Dry Creek Valley on Zinfandel missions, hit up the Russian River for Pinot Noir, or simply head up-valley to Calistoga for Petite Sirahs. But today, Cabernet was the focus, and I found a couple of good ones.

By far, the best wine I tasted today was at Ehlers Estate, with their “1886” Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 leading the pack. The consistency of the Ehlers portfolio instantly made it a new favorite of mine, and a winery that I would recommend wholeheartedly. The Ehlers tasting room is located just north of St. Helena, in an old stone winery that was originally built by Bernard Ehlers in 1886. The Ehlers estate is just 39 acres, planted to Bordeaux varietals and farmed Biodynamically. Each of their wines are delicious, but the “1886” boasts great flavors and was devastatingly smooth, especially for a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. I was amazed that the soft, rounded tannins had not been blended down with any Merlot.

• The Ehlers “1886” is pricey — at least by my frugal standards — at $95 per bottle. However, I feel that this wine represents a terrific value nonetheless. And if you need any additional justification to splurge on a wine like this one, Ehlers is certainly worthy of your hard-earned cash. The winery is a not-for-profit organization, held in trust for the Leducq Foundation, which funds cardiovascular research. Certainly, this business model is unique among the Napa Valley, but the charity should not overshadow the wine (on this blog, anyhow).

• I began the day with a 10 o’clock tasting at Joesph Phelps. Honestly, I was a bit underwhelmed by the wines, although the property itself is always beautiful (even though a smoky haze from forest fires has engulfed the valley this past week). Over the years, I may have simply developed a California palate, since I really do enjoy an element of fruit in my wines. In contrast, the Phelps portfolio features wines that are very earthy, and I find them a touch austere and thin. Even the 2004 Insignia did not really deliver for me (especially at $200 per bottle), and the 2005 Cabernet and the 2005 Syrah did not seem to feature the layers that I expected. I remembered liking the Phelps wines much more when I visited the winery last summer.

• The next stop was at Heitz Cellars, another venue that I had previously visited, although not in quite some time. The wines at Hetiz were solid (as always), and I found the 2004 Napa Valley Cabernet to be far more appealing than the Phelps version. I also tasted a pair of 1998s (a vintage that is often plentiful valley-wide, having fallen between the lauded 1997 and 1999 vintages). The first wine was the 1998 Bella Oaks Vineyard Cabernet, which had an uncanny note of red bell pepper on the finish. The other was the 1998 Trailside Vineyard Cabernet, which was much more straight-forward in its profile. Both wines had a hint of black olive on the nose, which can be typical for a 10-year-old Cabernet. I weighed the merits of all of the Heitz Cabs, but ultimately settled upon the regular 2004 Cabernet.

• After lunch, I drove up to Von Strasser for a one o’clock appointment. Being located about 600 feet above the valley floor (along Diamond Mountain Road), the smoky haze was significantly more palpable in the hills. The Von Strasser wines are well-made, with many small productions of Cabernet dominating their portfolio. I opted to purchase the 2005 Diamond Mountain District Cabernet, which features the density and complexity that I expect from mountain-grown fruit.

• After Ehlers, the last stop of the day was at Larkmead Vineyards, which has a long history in the Napa Valley. Larkmead was one of the four Napa wineries allowed to operate during Prohibition, making sacrimental wines for the Catholic church from 1920 to 1933 (Beaulieu, Beringer and Inglenook being the other three). Leading up to Prohibition, Larkmead Zinfandels had earned several honors at State Fair competitions, so I was slightly disapponted that Larkmead does not bottle any Zins today. But the winery does offer a couple of nice Cabernets, my favorites being the 2005 Larkmead and the 2004 Larkmead Salon.

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