Not long ago, I had a chance to share some more mature wines with one of our tasting groups. And it was another example of how interesting good wines can become as they age. Some of these were highly rated (the '96 Chateau St. Jean Cinq Cepages was a Wine Spectator Wine of the Year)--some weren't. But ratings are one person's opinion of a moment in time…and have only marginal relevance to what they will be like in 15 or 30 years.
The Cinq Cepages was indeed lovely. Not really a surprise. It still had good concentration and fruit, but had gained some earthy tertiary flavors. But the '83 Brane Cantenac and the '85 D'Issan based on the projections of experts might well have been over the hill. Though solid vintages, they were not projected to be the longest lived of wines from Margaux. Some suggested they'd go over the cliff in the 2003 to 2005 timeframe.
Anyone who attended the dinner might have paraphrased Mark Twain: "Reports of their death have been greatly exaggerated." Both wines still had good aromatics and moderate intensity. The fading fruit suggests that they've probably started down the backside, but there was still more than enough balance and complexity to make them interesting and enjoyable. I still have one '85 D'Issan left and I look forward to opening it…but will do it within the next six months or so. No point in pushing my luck.
Even though among the younger wines of the night, the '98 Chateau Leoville Poyferre may also be starting to fade just a touch…it was never a big wine, but as I've drunk it over the years (perhaps two cases) I've found it a nicely balanced, graceful wine. It still is…but you have to listen just a bit more carefully to hear the music.
The biggest wine of the evening was probably the 1998 Philip Togni. Togni might be the most respected winemaker in Napa that most people have never heard of…in my opinion, a brilliant producer who started as the winemaker at Chappellet in the 1960s…then Cuvaison in the '70s…then on to his own Spring Mountain property that straddles the Napa-Sonoma line. Most of his wines are built to last 30-50 years. The 1998 will not go that long---it's probably at its peak right now--but I don't think there's any rush to drink it. Nice, elegant, restrained.
To me, the wine of the night was the 1990 Joseph Phelps Backus Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. The ripe fruit has mellowed into balance, and the hints of mint and chocolate have been joined by tobacco and truffle in a lovely, complex wine. It's like a well-dressed, elegant man or woman dressed for the ball…it doesn't want or need to show off…you just smile and nod...and say "Right...that's the way it should be."