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Cabernet Sauvignon: Chateau Souverain's Reserve Wins Taste-Off
For a winery that's had its ups and downs since its founding, Chateau Souverain is now definitely in an up cycle. This grapes to riches story is a version of Geyser Peak Winery's turn-around, its neighbor in the Alexander Valley. So far in 1995, Chateau Souverain has won two of the Vintners Club's prestigious taste-off tastings -- the Merlot taste-off with its 1991 Alexander Valley Merlot and the Cabernet Sauvignon taste-off with its 1991 Alexander Valley Reserve Cab.
In a sense, Chateau Souverain had an edge in the Cab taste-off. Three of its Cabernets had won the right, during elimination tastings, to compete for the big prize. This is an extraordinary accomplishment. The taste-off is the culmination of a year's worth of tastings which focus on a particular varietal. The first and second-place wines from each of six elimination tastings (12 wines each for a total of 72 wines) are reassembled for a final blind tasting of the top 12.
The Vintners Club began its taste-off program back in 1973, and has faithfully pursued the concept ever since. Past Cabernet Sauvignon taste-off winners include the greatest names in California winemaking: Caymus (a three-time winner), Terraces (a two-time winner), Heitz, Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, Joseph Phelps, Ridge, Grgich Hills and Chateau Montelena, among others.
Between 1970 and 1986, under various owners and at several locations, Chateau Souverain's wines were mostly unremarkable, if not downright dreadful. The winery established its current location (on the west side of Highway 101 about seven miles north of Healdsburg) in 1973. There, a magnificent winery building blends French-style elegance with Sonoma County's rustic hop kiln chimney-roof design. Things began to get better after the winery was acquired in by Wineworld, Inc. 1986. Wineworld is a subsidiary of Nestle, which also owns Beringer Vineyards in the Napa Valley and Meridian Vineyards in San Luis Obispo County.
Nestle's 1986 acquisition of Souverain did not include any vineyards. In short order, the winery purchased 500 acres in the Asti area as part of a long-range plan to upgrade production that focuses on the concept of "terroir" -- that is, making wines that reflect the unique qualities of a particular vineyard site -- the coming together of grape variety and clonal type, soil, microclimate and exposure.
Chateau Souverain's estate hillside vineyards are meticulously cultivated, as winemaker Tom Peterson firmly believes that superior wine can be made only from superior grapes. Additionally, Chateau Souverain canvasses all of Sonoma County -- hillside and benchland -- for equivalent fruit. With a modern, state-of-the-art winery funded by millions of Nestle's dollars, Chateau Souverain can take full advantage of the county's well-deserved reputation as a source of excellent cabernet sauvignon, merlot and zinfandel grapes.
1991 Chateau Souverain Cabernet Sauvignon, Winemaker's Reserve, Alexander Valley ($16).
The ripening period in 1991 was one of the longest and coolest on record in Sonoma County, with growers fearing rain as the season reached late October before harvesting could begin. Fortunately, a warm "Indian summer" finally pushed the grapes to complete ripeness, and the extra "hang time" contributed to one of the most concentrated vintages in recent memory.
All of the grapes (including ten percent cabernet franc in the blend) came from four hillside sites -- Stuhlmuller, L&L-Lish, Oakridge and Chateau Souverain's Asti vineyard. Winemaker Tom Peterson fermented the juice on the skins at warm temperatures and, after fermentation, the crushed berries were gently pressed to achieve the desired flavor and color extraction. The wine was aged for 23 months in Nevers French and American oak barrels.
Deep purple in color, the wine's appealing scents focus on boysenberry and black cherry fruit, chocolate, cedar and vanilla. Very extracted on the palate, the fruit echoes the nose and is balanced by substantial ripe tannins and soft acidity. The wine's initial tannic power softens as it is allowed to breathe, although this big wine will be better after five years of cellaring. A Best Buy at $16.
1991 Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($21).
Forward, fragrant, complex nose of black cherry and cassis and lots of vanillan oak, with appealing notes of cedar, cinnamon spice and mild herbaceousness. Rich, round and smooth in the mouth, exhibiting generous, slightly spicy, cherry-cassis fruit and medium tannins mingled with very evident oak. Delicious and finely balanced, although still at least five years away from its full potential.
1991 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cask 23, Napa Valley ($70)
The 1991 growing season was pretty much the same in Napa Valley as in Sonoma County -- an exceptionally long maturation period consisting of mild daytime temperatures and cool nights, with a few hot days in late summer pushing the grapes to ripeness a little earlier than in Sonoma. The '91 Cask 23 thoroughly benefited from this slow ripening process and is arguably the finest Cask 23 to date.
Deep garnet in color, the '91 Cask 23 offers wonderfully complex and appealing aromas of deep cassis, raspberry and cherry fruit, nutmeg spice, vanillan oak, violets and mild herbaceousness. With five percent petit verdot in the blend, the wine is elegant, rich and round on the palate, with ripe, medium tannins and good acidity, yielding delicious, ripe blackberry-cherry fruit, spice and very forward vanilla from more than 18 months of barrel aging. For the serious collector who knows the Cask 23 wines and will cellar the 1991 effort for at least five years, this is a superior bottling that justifies the price.
1991 Oakville Ranch Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Lewis Select, Napa Valley ($28).
This was the darkest, most opaque Cab in the tasting, suggesting and delivering a ripe, extracted wine of considerable depth and concentration. Aromatic, fruity nose of ripe cassis, plum and red cherry, plus vanilla, cinnamon and cocoa. Deep, ripe cassis-cherry fruit on the palate, along with evident oak and notes of orange rind, chocolate and tobacco leaf. A big, yet supple, wine that requires at least five years of cellaring.
1991 St. Francis Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma County ($24).
Fragrant and appealing scents of toasty oak, vanilla and shy cassis-berry fruit, mingled with mint, cedar, and mild cigar-box-like herbaceousness. The flavors replicate the nose, with the oak nicely integrated. Elegant and delicious.
1991 Cafaro Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($24).
Joe Cafaro is one of Napa Valley's finest winemakers and is known for his superb Merlots, as well as his excellent, almost dense Cabernet Sauvignons which are assembled from various vineyards. Although only 49 years old, he is a veteran winemaker, having made wines for Charles Krug, Chappellet, Keenan, Acacia and Robert Sinskey Vineyards. He is now the winemaker for Oakville Ranch Vineyards and makes wine under his own label.
Cafaro's '91 Cab is dark ruby in color, with a shy nose that opens with airing to offer fragrant, youthful black cherry and cassis fruit, warm spice and smoky oak. Big and quite brawny at this point, the wine's flavors replicate the nose, but with the oak and tannins tending to intrude. With all this stuffing, the wine deserves at least five years of cellaring to show its potential.
1991 Kendall-Jackson Cabernet Sauvignon, Grand Reserve, California ($30).
Forward, fragrant vanilla dominates the nose with shy cherry-raspberry fruit just showing through, along with cigar-box herbaceousness and a hint of chocolate. Rich, creamy and supple in the mouth offering bright cherry fruit and muted oak. A delicious effort that can be consumed earlier than the wines described above.
1992 Chateau Souverain Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley ($12).
This is a much better wine than its eighth-place ranking might suggest. Wonderfully fragrant aromas of ripe cassis, mildly smoky oak, mint, anise, cedar and a hint of pleasant earthiness. Smooth, fleshy and elegant on the palate showing good depth of black cherry-cassis fruit. Not meant for the long haul, this is a wine that drinks deliciously now and can improve over the next couple of years. A Good Value at $12.
1992 Guenoc Cabernet Sauvignon, Beckstoffer Vineyard, Napa Valley ($35).
Not as evolved as some of the 1991 vintage Cabs made in this big style, the Guenoc nevertheless shows promise of delivering as much pleasure down the line as the wines in the upper rankings.
The gently slopping Beckstoffer IV Vineyard, which provided the grapes for this wine, is located in the Rutherford Bench district on the west side of the Napa Valley where it benefits from optimum morning sun exposure. The soil here is particularly gravely, allowing for excellent drainage, and possesses a good balance of minerals and nutrients for producing rich, intense cabernet sauvignon grapes.
The nose takes a while to open, eventually showing fruity black cherry, spice, mint and cedar, along with vanillan oak. Smooth and moderately elegant on the palate even now, the wine's flavors focus mostly on sweet black cherry-cassis fruit and light spice.
1991 Chateau Souverain Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley ($11).
Abundant, ripe black cherry fruit defines the nose, which also offers hints of coconut and dill suggesting American oak, clove spice and a touch of smoke. Generous on the palate with flavors that replicate the nose, the wine has good acidity and medium tannins, and finishes with hints of dill and mild herbaceousness. Best for near-term enjoyment and priced right.
1990 Raymond Private Reserve Meritage, Napa Valley ($40).
A blend of 73 percent cabernet sauvignon, 16 percent cabernet franc and 11 percent merlot, the wine exhibits pleasant, though diffuse, fruit scents, enhanced by notes of crushed violets, sweet vanillan oak, black pepper and green olive herbaceousness. Comparatively overripe on the palate, and just a bit too thick, the lack of varietal definition brought the wine down in the rankings against wines with more Cab character.
1992 Rodney Strong Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma County ($10).
Although it did quite well in its elimination tasting, this straightforward, well-made Cab doesn't have the strength and complexity of the higher ranked, more expensive wines in this taste-off. The pleasant nose of ripe cassis and sweet vanilla with a hint of violets leads to similar flavors on the palate that are almost jammy with a slight note of bell pepper. An excellent Cab for everyday drinking with the potential for developing more complexity over the next couple of years.
Steve Pitcher is a freelance wine writer based in San Francisco. He is vice president of the Vintners Club and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the German Wine Society.