Here are I posed the question “Is There Such A Thing As A Great Wine”. After 30 years, I would say that the question is just as relevant today as it was way back then. And, it also relates to the entire concept of “scoring” wine. I encourage you to read the article in its entirety (to do so click here ), but here are the highlights:
- Not all wines are created equal. Some are bottled at different times and some are bottled from different barrels.
- Not all people have the same ability to taste.
- There are no great wines, only great bottles.
In a review of Vintage Ports I said that Vintage Port was “A cross between a stroke of genius and an act of desperation…” I reviewed how Vintage Port is made and how it was created. Then I went on to review some 3 dozen ports from three then currently available vintages – 1977, 1975, and 1970.
The review of the 1977 Vintage Ports began with the conclusion that 1977 seemed to be destined to become one of the all time classic vintages. Of the 11 wines reviewed, 7 were rated Outstanding and 4 were rated Very Good. At the top were Dow, Fonseca, Gould Campbell, Graham, Sandeman, Taylor, and Warre. The 1975 vintage was in a lighter style and was believed to be relatively short lived as compared with the 1977 vintage. There were 2 wines rated Outstanding – Fonseca and Warre – while 9 others were rated Very Good. Regarding the 1970 vintage, it was noted that it was an excellent vintage with the grapes harvested under perfect weather conditions. There were 5 wines rated Outstanding – Dow, Fonseca, Graham, Taylor, and Warre – while 9 others rated Very Good.
I would say that these initial assessments of the vintages were on the money. The 1977s have proven to be gorgeous wines with depth, balance, and richness. Most all of them are now fully mature, but I have no doubt that the best of them will hold for another 20 years or more. At this point, 2 of my favorites are Graham and Taylor. The 1975s were lovely to drink for most of the last 30 years, but today the 1977s and 1970s are of much more interest. The 1970s have evolved beautifully. The best of them are aromatic, silky and beautifully balanced. Current favorites are Graham, Taylor, and Fonseca.
1978 RED BURGUNDIES
Next was the second review of 1978 Red Burgundies. There were not as many great wines in this group as there were in our first 1978 Red Burgundy review which featured the first ever reviews of the stunning 1978 Red Burgundies from the late, great Henri Jayer. (To read that Retrospective Review click here )
This review included notes on 72 wines with 3 rated Outstanding – Madame Pierre Gelin Chambertin Clos de Béze, G. Barthod Noellat Chambolle-Musigny, and Georges Lignier Clos de la Roche, 43 were rated Very Good, 23 were rated Good, and 1 was rated Below Average.
Here are my notes on the Outstanding wines:
Chambertin “Clos De Beze” (P. Gelin)._ In recent vintages this has consistently been amongst the top wines. So it is again in 1978, although it is not the sheer strength and power in this wine that form an immediate impression. Rather it is the style and promise of elegance. The color is dark and the nose is deeply perfumed showing a plummy/berry/spicy quality. There is loads of berry-like fruit in a medium to full-bodied style. The flavors are deep and hints of spice promise more complexity with time. The balance is not to be faulted and with 5-6 years this should be a lovely, velvety wine of class and style.
Chambolle-Musigny (G. Barthod -Noellat). This is a real sleeper. Not a big label, but a big wine. With a dark color and an intense. perfumed, berry/cassis aroma, it immediately stands out. True to form, the taste follows through -heaps of fruit, olallieberry flavors, deeply chisled, firm, tannic, and long on the palate. This is a keeper. Not to be disturbed for several years. What a wine this should be; and, an added bonus, you don’t have to mortgage the ranch to buy it.
Clos de la Roche (G. Lignier). Simply put, this is a marvelous Burgundy. The color is dark with just a hint of amber at the edge. There is a huge , intense, perfumed, spicy/ berry nose with a bacon-like complexity, Loaded with fruit, the wine already shows a spicy complexity with a deeply imbedded aftertaste. With excellent tannin/ acid balance and a solid structure, this should develop for 8-10 years.
Here is my note on the only wine rated Below Average:
Nults-Saint-Georges “Clos des Porrets-St. Georges” (H. Gouges). Once a producer of big, old style, Burgundies, recent vintages have been mediocre to poor in quality. This falls into the latter category with a light reddish/orange color, a fruity/ toasty nose, a slight petillance, and a tart, rubbery flavor.
In my commentary, I said that the 1978 vintage offered the opportunity to make great wine, but commented on the large number that fell short. This I attributed mostly to a lack of concentration in many of the wines. Also, the then current news of scandals in Burgundy wine making practices led me to conclude that “…it won’t be surprising to find many more Burgundy scandals…”
1978 WHITE BURGUNDIES
Our third review of the 1978 White Burgundies was more favorable. I offered the opinion that “It is hard to remember a vintage were there were so many really good wines. Out of 56 wines reviewed 4 were rated Outstanding – Francois Jobard Meursault Genevrieres and Meursault Porizot, Remoissenet Batard Montrachet, and Michelot Garnier Meursault Perrieres – 34 were rated Very Good, 17 Good, and 1 Below Average. The top rated wine was the Francois Jobard Meursault Genevrieres. Here is my review: “A fabulous wine and a fabulous bargain at the $18 price, this Meursault has everything. With a light yellow gold color, the nose is perfumed with a spicy fruity quality showing a hint of tangerines – most attractive. There is an abundance of ripe fruit and delicious, lingering flavors that are very nearly perfectly balanced. This should be ambrosia in 4 -5 years.”
And I might add that this wine is still a great wine today. This style of Meursault and that of others such as Coche-Dury were the early indicators of what was to come. The richer Meursault style, as exemplified by producers such as Michelot Garnier, were very different. And even though many of us loved them at the time they did not age gracefully.
The Below Average wine was a Rodet Corton Charlemagne. Here’s the review of that wine: “It’s very hard to tell what happened to this wine -certainly nothing very good. It has a light yellow gold color and a stinky, rancid, peanut oil nose. It is tart with a peanut flavor. Maybe somebody should send a case to Jimmy Carter.” Also, it should be noted that this wine sold for nearly twice the price of the great Jobard Meursault!
CALIFORNIA CABERNET SAUVIGNONS
Next was another review of California Cabernet Sauvignons. There were 40 wines reviewed – 19 were rated Very Good, 18 Good, and 3 Below Average. Previously California Cabernets had been reviewed by vintage, but with this article a switch was made to review current releases as not all wineries released the same vintages at the same time. Hence, in this article the vintages ranged from 1974 late release wines to current release 1978s. The 1978 vintage came after the two drought years of 1976 and 1977. It was a wonderful harvest and the wines showed great balance from the beginning. Prices were breaking through into double digits and Heitz Cellars released both the 1976 Martha’s Vineyard and the 1976 Bella Oaks Vineyards (the first release for this wine) at the astonishing price of $35 per bottle! I estimated that the vintage would result in the production of some 400-500 different Cabernets. So my conclusion was: “In view of all the wine, it is hard to see how prices can continue to increase at the rate of recent years.” Well, so much for that forecast! California Cabernets would continue to escalate beyond anyone’s imagination into triple digits and then quadruple digits. All the while, production would also explode with the number of different wines increasing 10-20x!
Here is my review of the top rated 1976 Heitz Cellars Bella Oaks Vineyards:
This is a new vineyard designation for Heitz. When It comes to Cabernet, Heitz on the label most always means a lofty price tag and at $35 per bottle Bella Oaks Vineyard is no exception. However, it is a very fine wine – probably the best 1976. It has a dark color and initially shows very little aroma. With air a fruity/berry nose develops showing a hint of eucalyptus. The wine is loaded with ripe fruit flavors exhibiting a chocolate quality. It is marvelously balanced with a long lingering palate impression With 4-5 years bottle age the wine should be approaching maturity.
There were also some real duds. Here are my reviews of the 2 lowest rated Cabernets, 1979 Lawrence Winery San Luis Obispo and 1978 Sanford &Benedict Vineyards Santa Ynez Valley:
“A 1979 Lawrence Winery San Luis Obispo Cabernet won a gold medal at the 1980 LA County Fair. So far there doesn’t appear to be any bottles available for sale that even remotely resemble a medal winner of any sort in any competition. The wine is, in a word, awful and not as good as a mid-grade jug wine. It has a medium dark color and a grassy nose. In the mouth, the wine is flat and slightly sweet with Kool-Aid flavors and a bitter finish.”
“1978 Sanford & Benedict Vineyards Santa Ynez Valley. Give this wine points for color and not much else. It has a grassy/stemmy nose and ripe, herbaceous/vegetative, late harvest flavors.”
In this Cabernet Sauvignon review, I think the individual wine ratings and reviews were quite accurate with one glaring exception. For some reason, right after bottling most of the 1978 Diamond Creeks that had been so terrific out of barrel did not show so well. They proved to evolve and become great wines and remain so today.
Also reviewed were 47 California Chardonnays. The only one rated Outstanding was the 1978 Hanzell Vineyards. There were 15 Chardonnays rated Very Good (including 1979 Chalone Vineyard and 1978 Stony Hill) and 3 rated Below Average. Here is the review of the top rated 1978 Hanzell Chardonnay:
“1978 Hanzell Vineyards Sonoma. Again in 1978 Hanzell has produced a rich, flavorful wine, and, despite being relatively high in alcohol (NOTE: The alcohol was 14.8%), there is no harshness. It has a light yellow gold color and an intense, rich. oaky/pineapple nose with just a hint of anise -very intriguing. The flavors are rich and deeply imbedded and the wine is loaded with ripe fruit. A mouthful of complex flavors, the wine already drinks well, but should round out and show improvement for several more years.”
And, like was most often the case with California wines in those days, there were several decidedly unattractive Chardonnays. And, the crazy thing is that many times these wines were priced above the best wines! Here are the notes on the 3 lowest rated (Below Average) Chardonnays:
1979 Parducci “Mendocino County.” Something went wrong here. The wine has a skunky/grassy/ floral nose and flat, one-dimensional flavors with a slight petillance.
1978 Sanford & Benedict Vineyards California. The $13.75 price for this poor wine is outrageous. Is this winery becoming the Martin Ray of Santa Ynez? The color is medium gold and the nose is oxidized, grassy and dank. Not pleasant to drink, it has the same oxidized, grassy, musty flavor with an added tartness.”
1979 Martin Ray “Dutton Ranch.” This property has produced many memorable Chardonnays including 1976 Burgess, 1978 Matanzas Creek, and 1979 Kistler. This wine is a total waste of the grapes. Frankly, it’s hard to understand how any wine merchant who tasted the wine would buy it at any price, much less the absurd $18 retail tag. It has a light yellow gold color and a sulphurous nose. There are oaky/ fruity flavors with a curious petroleum distillate/ airplane glue aftertaste. Only glue sniffers are likely to love this wine.
BARRELS AND BOTTLES
The last article was a feature which I had started in Volume I called Barrels and Bottles “A Guide to Some of the Best Pre-release California Wines”. Since the wines were either not bottled or not released for sale, I offered notes with no scores. These included notes on Cabernet Sauvignons from two new California wineries – Duckhorn Vineyards and Shafer Winery. And, included here was the first note on the great 1978 Diamond Creek Lake Cabernet Sauvignon tasted from bottle. In Volume I, Number 6, I offered the first notes on the 1978 Diamond Creek Cabernets tasted from barrel. (To read Volume I, Number 6 click here  and to read the Retrospective Review click here ).
Here is what I had to say about the 1978 Diamond Creek Lake shortly after bottling:
“…As fate would have it at this early stage the Lake seems the best of the 1978 Diamond Creek Cabernets. In blind tastings on two occasions, the 1978 Lake bested all the Cabernets reviewed in this issue and was the only wine to be rated Outstanding. So it is with mixed emotions that we review the wine here. On the one hand, it is most unfortunate that so little wine exists and that so few will be able to taste it. While we usually can’t take responsibility for the small quantity produced of some really great wines, this is the exception. For this, we are to be either loved or hated. Under either circumstance, tasting notes on the wine follow.
1978 Cabernet Sauvignon ‘Lake.’ With a dark color and a deeply perfumed, ripe, fruity/cedary/ sandalwood nose this wine has loads of fruit with great depth of flavor. It is already showing some cedary flavor complexities and is beautifully balanced and very long on the palate.”
Today the 1978 Diamond Creek Lake is absolutely stunning. It is, for me, certainly one of the very best, if not the best, of all Cabernets produced in California in the late seventies to late eighties period. Today, it is a luscious and seductive with a great depth of flavor and exquisite balance. And, it is likely to remain so for decades to come. Alas, there are likely only a miniscule number of bottles remaining of the original 300 bottles produced. But, this was the very first Lake and since then it has been produced in only 13 vintages. There are many great Lake bottlings in this group (to see notes on some vintages of Lake recently tasted click here ), but the 1978 is the first and still the best of all.
Below is the story of The Underground discovery of Diamond Creek Lake Vineyard as taken from Diamond Creek’s website. (To read the entire article featuring a complete history of Diamond Creek, notes on many vintages and wines, and a great dinner with Diamond Creek wines click here )
“…When John and Laurie Tilson, Ed Lazarus and Geoffrey Troy first visited in the early 1970s, the Diamond Creeks were controversial. Wrong climate for Cabernet, too tannic, and too expensive ($7.50 per bottle retail) were often heard comments. The first vintage, 1972, they bought, tasted and loved the Volcanic Hill. Ditto the 1973. Then the widely heralded 1974s (probably overrated with a few exceptions including Diamond Creek). The 1975, the drought years of 1976 and 1977, and the fantastic 1978s, including the first bottling of Lake — ultra rare, only one barrel or 25 cases produced. In order, the 1975 vintage produced yet another great Volcanic Hill that has proven better than the more acclaimed 1974 which is still a great wine, as is the 1974 Red Rock Terrace. The star of the difficult 1976 and 1977 drought years is Gravelly Meadow. Both wines are among the all-time great Cabernets of the 1970s. Then came 1978.
Again, John and Laurie Tilson, Ed Lazarus and Geoffrey Troy were there to taste from barrel and Al gave them the keys to the cellar, glasses and a wine thief (for extracting the wine from barrel). Tasting the three different vineyards from barrel, they knew they were in the midst of greatness. Never before had they experienced such profound Cabernet from barrel. Sampling different barrels of the vineyards, everything was uniformly great. And, near the end of the tasting, they came across a barrel stamped “Lake.” Not knowing what it was they decided to “give it a shot.” Wow! Off the charts. Here they are reveling in the midst of the greatest Cabernets they’ve ever tasted from barrel and this one barrel stands out as the ne plus ultra. They retasted Red Rock Terrace, Volcanic Hill and Gravelly Meadow against the Lake, even mixing them up and tasting them blind. The results were simply astounding. Where did the ‘Lake’ come from?
Rejoining Al, he asked how they liked the wines. Their response was ‘Your best ever! But what is Lake?’ ‘Oh that,’Al responded. ‘It’s a little vineyard of less than one acre that has trouble ripening in some years. When it ripens it’s such a small amount we blend it with Gravelly Meadow.’ The group responded, ‘this is the best wine in the cellar. You’ve got to bottle it separately.’ Al answered, ‘I’m already being criticized for having three different vineyard bottlings based on the differences in soil and climate in the vineyard. What would people say if I added another, and only one barrel. It does not seem worth it.’ They persisted, ‘First, who cares what people say. What counts is what’s in the bottle. Since 1972, you have proven the wisdom of the three vineyard bottlings and now that you have a great vintage with the Lake vineyard you should bottle it. Second, having only one barrel is a high class problem. It’s your best wine. Great wines are often produced in very small quantities. And, it is, after all, still Diamond Creek and can only serve to further your reputation as a great Cabernet producer who continues to confound all the critics. Go for it!’
Al, a man of forceful opinion, simply smiled and replied with a ”well….I dunno.’ ‘Well we do,’ they said. ‘If you won’t bottle it separately, how about selling it to us? We wouldn’t even need a label!’ A secret as it were. By now Al’s wheels were turning. ‘You guys really want to buy the whole barrel?’ he asked. ‘Yes, what do you want for it?,’ the four replied. ‘I’m not sure,’ he said and they continued their conversation. As they left, one parting shot: ‘What about the “Lake?’ ‘Well, I’m thinking maybe I will bottle it. Do you really like it that much?’ ‘Yes!’ The rest is history. Al bottled the 1978 Lake and a case was sold at the second Napa Wine Auction for the then record price of $5,400. Today it has evolved to become one of the most profound California Cabernets ever made….”
And, to conclude this edition, I offered the following image and thought: