Saturday, September 12, 2009

Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon vertical 1984-2004

Vertical tastings of Bordeaux wines are quite common, but the chances to follow the evolution of a great California cabernet wine over decades, is rare. Most of the older vintages of Californian wines are gone, either consumed or over the hill for one reason or another. Also only a few wines have a longer history than let’s say ten years, of 15 at most. You have to look for the classic wineries in Napa Valley, such as Mondavi, Beaulieu, Phelps, Clos du Val or Dunn to find older vintages, or to the still family owned Shafer Vineyards.

The latter company was founded by John Shafer in 1972, and almost without any deeper knowledge in viticulture or wine making, he started to replant some vineyards in his newly bought estate in what later would be classified as Stags Leap District. The first wines was made in 1978, only two years after the now renowned Paris Tasting (which gave hope and pride to the Californian wine industry), and within a few years the Shafers had gained some reputation for their cabernet wines.

With the 1983 vintage the decision was made to make a separate bottling of the cabernet wine from the steep slope right behind the winery. That was the birth of Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine that since then has become one of the finest examples of the greatness of Napa Valley cabernets. John Shafer was right in his beliefs that mountain vineyards would produce a much more intense and structured wine, and especially in this corner of Napa Valley, where cool breezes from San Pablo Bay in the south, the western exposure to the afternoon sun, and the high content of minerals in the rocky, volcanic soil gives unique qualities and complexity to the wines.

Since 1983, Hillside Select Cabernet has been made every single vintage, and it has been made in more or less the same way also. It’s a pure Cabernet Sauvignon from low yielded wines, rigorously selected (the selection has been more strict in recent years) and then fermented with its indigenous yeast in stainless steel tanks. The wine is then transferred into new French oak barrels to undergo malolactic fermentation and ageing during 30 to 32 months. It’s bottled without fining or filtration.

When I told Doug Shafer about this tasting, he was not very comfortable that I wanted to include the older vintages. “We didn’t really know how to do before 1990, and I don’t think the older wines have kept very well”, he told me a few month before the tasting took place. For sure the quality of the more recent vintages is much higher, but I was not actually that surprised that some of the older vintages were good and even enjoyable, although fully mature and not able to keep more than a few more years. Of course his pride over how the quality has taken major steps up since 1990, or to me since 1991, then after the monumental vintage of 1997 and again in the 21st century, is easy to understand. Still I can’t help being impressed with what they did in the early days, years before Napa Valley had gained the reputation as one of the greatest wine regions in the world. Back then, there were few to ask, and few who were willing to pay the price of high quality – that came in the early 90s. To be honest, most wineries were still trying to find their style in the 80s, and as Shafer, most of them were writing the first chapter in their own history books.

1984 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon / 86
Given you like fully mature wines, the 1984 is actually a quite good wine. On the nose, the wine shows a noble maturity with hints of black truffles and leather, but on the palate, the fruit is beginning to fade away – although there is still enough fruit to balance the tannins, which still are present. The wine does not keep well in the glass. Good bottles would be nice to drink now.

1985 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon / 84
At first, the 1985 offered a very fine, mature and elegant nose with just a hint of oxidation, and it showed both complexity and fine notes of semidried fruit. The tannins are still here, and they hold up the structure in a good way. However the body and fruit slowly fades away and what was great about this wine the first ten minutes, slowly dried out and leaves a leathery and quite dry, rustic aftertaste. Drink now.

(1986 was not part of this vertical tasting)

1987 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon / 88
Towards the end of the 80s, quality has improved, and 1987 turned out to be a very good wine and vintage. Although the wine today shows a fine maturity, and I love to use the term “Bordeaux like” here, the body and fruit shows more vitality here compared to the older vintages. There are still some notes of dark berries and even red berries, but of course some leather and tobacco join these more youthful qualities in the 22 year old beauty. Tannins are relatively silky, and the acidity is still quite refreshing. Drink it now thru 2012.

1988 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon / 89
I was so surprised over the absolute purity of the fruit – I couldn’t imagine that this wine was over 20 years old! The color is of course mature, and the intensity is not that high. On the nose the fruit also shows maturation, but there is still young and fresh sweetness to be found. On the palate there is some tannins left to give the wine a good structure, but the overall impression of this vintage (now) is that it is seductive, lush and delicious with a slight sweetness, good but no to strong acidity and a long an silky aftertaste. Drink it now thru 2011.

(1989 was not part of this vertical tasting)

1990 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon / 87
Here maturity and a slight oxidation combines with notes of dried fruit, tobacco and some fine chocolate, and in comparison with the younger vintages, this is the last vintage made in a more traditional style. There was a lot of sediment in this wine, and it need to be decanted, but not in advance (it will not keep well in the decanter). On the positive side, it is very true to its vintage and age, but is has somewhat a strangely marked acidity in the finish. I’m not sure this wine will evolve to anything better. Drink it now.

1991 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon / 92
This wine can best be described as a very fine, classic and still dark and lively wine. It has much darker color than the older ones, also a deeper and more intense nose with more vital and sweeter fruits qualities, and a more firm structure. It also shows more minerals than the previous vintages, and its aftertaste lingers for a minute. Drink it over the next 3-5 years.

1992 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon / 94
One of the hidden treasures of the 90s, is the now mature but still intense and fruit driven but very complex vintage of 1992. When this wine was young, it was tannic and acidic, but now when it is at its peak, it show as profound nose with a deep fruitiness with lovely notes of cassis, cherries and some chocolate. The structure is still firm, but it is much more seductive than it was. It’s worth mentioning, that this wine evolved in the glass for almost one hour! Drink it now and thru 2012.

1993 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon / 80?
This was a real disappointment, both on the nose and on the palate, where it showed notes more likely to find in older bottles of an average Nebbiolo! Not that the wine I completely dull, but it does not live up to the standard of a high end Napa Valley cabernet, The fruit is light and sour, and tannins are dry. Avoid.

1994 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon / 96
To me, the first truly great vintage of Hillside Select is the glorious 1994. This is first of all an excellent vintage, and secondly is the first vintage of winemaker Elias Fernandez. He is a very modest man, and when asked how to make a great wine, he just say “It’s all about the grapes”. Of course that’s true, to a certain point, but his arrival as head winemaker marked a new era of the estate. He is relentlessly focused on the smallest of details, which may be one reason for this wine to shine. The nose is exquisite, pure and elegant with depths and good intensity, where also higher notes of lighter fruits. This is also the first vintage (at this age) where the oak is present, still in a fine way, and although the tannins are quite marked and promise another ten years at least, the balance is just great. Drink it now thru 2018.

1995 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon / 87-92?
Tasted at several occasion the last two years, with various notes and scores, this 1995 have either been a lovely wine with an almost Bordeaux like finesse, or quite dull and a bit too premature like the one in this tasting. Good bottles has shown a fine tuned dark fruit, a delicate oak character and silky but not fully mature tannins, but the bottle in this grand tasting also showed a slight oxidation in the finish. Drink it now thru 2014.

1996 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon / 92-94
Of all vintage tasted, the 1996 is the most odd. On the nose, there is a quite distinct note of eucalyptus, which is a bit odd, almost like in Heitz Martha’s Vineyard, but the overall impression of this wine is that it’s structure and fruit qualities is very typical for the age and vintage. It shows a good deal of complexity, and maturity, and should be drunk within the next 3-6 years.

1997 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon / 100
Already when newly launched, this wine was absolutely stunning! It was, and still is, pure and intense, with a massive, dark och ripe fruit and just a hint of sweet oak. Today there is much more complexity on the nose and on the palate, and although the structure still is very serious, the word seamless comes to mind. The tannins are as massive as the fruit, but ripe and very well integrated, and so is the oak. Almost 12 years old, the fruit still shows a youthful sweetness and intensity, and the finish lasts for minutes! Even after 2 hours in the glass, the aromas are strong and intense. This is a fabulous wine, one of the very best of the vintage! It should keep well for more than 10 years from now.

1998 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon / 92-93
There is a lot to say about 1998 – but the most important is that so many American wine writers decided that this El Niño vintage was poor and that the wines came out green and unripe. I guess to most American wine writers, most complex European wines are that way. I have no problem at all with 1998 – especially not today when most of the wines have entered their first stages of maturity. Contrary to what has been said about 1998, this is a vintage now shines just because the wines are showing their secondary aromas – which doesn’t include the ripe and sweet fruit some people are looking for. There are many great examples of Napa Valley cabernets from 1998, and Shafer Hillside Select (together with a dozen of others) is a very good wine. I guess good vineyards and vineyard management, and a very strict selection is to be found behind this wine. The wine shows a good but not overly big body, a fine acidity and well balanced tannins, and it’s more about finesse and complexity that pure power and length. I really enjoy this wine! Drink it now thru 2018.

1999 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon / 95
It’s a bit sad to see such a great vintage fallen in the shadow of the magnificent 1997. This was the first wine in this vertical tasting to be slightly closed. With some aeration a lovely bouquet of quite rich and dark berries opened up, at this stage with a slightly smoky oaky aroma. The wine is still very young with marked tannins, young and fresh acidity and a rich, but tight dark fruit. The fact that the aftertaste is so long and packed but yet delicate is very promising for the future. Drink it now thru 2020.

2000 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon / 93
Again, a quite uneven vintage forced the growers to a strict selection, and again Team Shafer did a great job. The wine shows a quite good intensity, however it doesn’t show the depth of 1999 or 2001. There is a slightly paler and more acidic touch in the fruit, yet some darker qualities with nuances of blackberries and black currant, not very far away from what could be expected in Pomerol. It’s still youthful with a firm tannic structure and a spicy oaky flavor profile, and for sure this wine needs some more bottle age. Drink it 2010 thru 2018.

2001 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon / 96-97
The 2001 vintage will most likely be a long runner – and it marks a new era of the Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon. All its way from the barrels, this wine has been outstanding, rich and lush, very dark and fruit driven but also well structured with a fresh acidity. Today it is more seamless, elegant and complex, and the just a few years ago more marked oak flavor is now much more integrated, to a better overall finesse. Although there is small notes of a first maturation, the wine is still young a will need several more years before it shows all there is. The finish is long, seductive and offers layers of dark fruits. It’s truly a great wine. Drink it now thru 2026.

2002 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon / 98
When I tasted this wine just before release, I was so impressed I gave it a perfect score, 100 points. Tasted it several times after that, I’m still impressed, but compared to the glorious 1997 it’s just not that perfect. Needless to say, it’s one of the best wines ever made at the estate, and I guess it will improve to greater complexity (and higher scores?) in the near future. There was a stage when the oak flavor took over – as it didn’t just one year before – and I thought the wine were going out of perfect balance. Today the wine is back where it all started, and it really shows the beauty of the slightly cooler growing season of 2002. It’s so elegant, pure, well balanced, youthful and almost shy, and it took almost two hours in the glass before the wine showed it true personality. This is an outstanding wine with a body and structure that’s almost perfectly balanced. Drink it now thru 2030.

2003 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon / 93-94
At the moment, the oak is a bit upfront in this very young vintage. However, that’s nothing to worry about, oak is something that will be absorbed by the fruit and with age, and there is still a lot of richness and finesse in the wine. At first, the fruit was overly dominant and lush with sweet notes of dark cherries, and I guess the wine needs some more bottle age to enter a more complex phase. It’s a very good wine, but it will not be one the more classical wines from the estate. Drink it from 2012 thru 2020.

2004 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon / 94-96
It’s not really fair to judge such a young wine, no matter how great it is. It boasts of ripe, sweet fruit, and tannins are massive, yet one is able to taste the fantastic structure and balance of it. As in almost all young Napa Valley reds, the oak is very obvious here, but still there is so much more to see. The first impression is that the fruit is very intense, but not overripe as one can expect from a warm vintage such as 2004, but there is enough of acidity, tannins and also minerals to balance the sweetness and alcohol. This is not a wine for immediate consumption – it needs some more bottle age to let all its components to find their right place. It should be keep it in the cellar for another two to four years, and then be drinking well over the next 15 years or so.

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