Wine production came to an end with Prohibition, and after repeal the production wasn’t important at all – the Tubbs family made some wine for their own consumtion, but most of the grapes were sold to other producers. Then came World War II, and with that a new era of difficulties. In 1958 Tubbs sold the property, but not even after that wine was produced here.
The change came when Chateau Montelena was sold to Leland Paschich and some private investors in 1969. One of them was James Barrett, a lawyer from San Francisco. His intention was to produce wines, and therefor Jerry Luper was hired as winemaker in 1972. The year after, the young Croatian winemaker Miljenko Grgich was hired to make the white wine and with his 1973 Chardonnay the internation break through came – that chardonnay was the winner of the now famous Paris Tasting in 1976.
The estate vineyard at Chateau Montelena, in the warm northern part of Calistoga, covers 39.70 hectares, of which 36.00 hectares are coverd with Cabernet Sauvignon. The soil is poor, gravelly and volcanic, in which the vines suffers and gives small grapes with thick skins and intense flavors. Almost all vines are planted on St George rootstocks, therefore the vines are old, actually among the oldest in the valley since they were not attacked by the phylloxera.The philosophy is very classic, the grapes are harvested at around 23.5 to 24.5 Brix, so tannins will always be firm and alcohol levels moderate. The juice is fermented in steel tanks, but the malolactic fermentation takes place in wooden tanks, before the wine is transferred into small French oak barrels, only 25-30 percent new, to age for 18-20 months. Production varies from 8 500 cases (in 1999 and 2000) to 13 000 cases per year (1998).
This vertical tasting showed four things, 1) the quality and style is very even over the vintages, 2) even in cooler or more difficult vintages, the wine is very good and capable of ageing, 3) the wine is remarkable Bordeaux like, especially with some age, and 4) this wine ages very well.
2005 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon / 94-95 p
Harvested throughout September, from 4th to 27th at high 26 Brix, the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes produced a quite dense and rich, yet elegant och well structured wine with fine acidity and lingering mineral notes, and it’s surprisingly charming and open for being so young. Even though there are notes of milk chocolate and fudge on the nose – which is not the typical type of flavors in the wine from Chateau Montelena – there’s also a complex touch from the volcanic soil, also fine notes of lead pencil and ink. It’s very good already today, still I recommend to waint at least a few more years for the typical complexity and bordeauxlike flavors to evolve even more. Also, there’s no risk of waiting too long, I suspect most bottles will be drunk long before the wine has come closer to its optimium age. Drinking it withing the coming 5-10 years, I’d give it a good hour in the decanter, at least.
Drink it 2012-2030.
2002 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon / 95 pThis was a quite regular growing season, with a harvest that stretched from mid-September to mid-October. Although eight years old, the wine still appears a bit closed – at least compared to the younger vintages – but it is very elegant. The typical stony, mineralic and classice notes are here, as well as a lovely note of violets, and the dark fruit is sweetish on the nose, but very dry on the palate. This is typical in young vintages such as this, where the huge (but elegant) tannins hold the fruit back. In the lingering aftertaste, you’ll find cedar tree, dark fruit, tanniner and a very fine acidity. Decanting is necessary for this youthful wine.
Drink it 2010-2022.
2001 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon / 96 p
With a frost in May, and a heat spike around flowering, the yields turned out to be small. And that’s a good thing. At Montelena, this resulted in a wine of god concentration and a firm structure. Today it’s still young, but a beauty. Tannins are firm, much more present than in the 2002 and 1999 vintages, but it’s also a lot of stony mineral notes and good acidity to build the structure, and to make the ripe fruit taste dry and restrained. Even though it’s very classic and complex already today, it’s recommended to keep this wine a few more years, and it needs air when it’s served. Decant it a good half hour, or even an hour, prior to serving it.
Drink it 2012-2026.
2000 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon / 92 pThe long and relatively cool growing seasing resulted in grapes harvested over a period from September 15 thru Octoeber 27 (which was the longest harvest over the last three decades), at low 22.1 to higher 25.9 Brix. For those who claim that cooler vintages in California aren’t that good, I’d like to say; Oh yes, they are! This wine as well as the cooler and more diffuclt 1998 vintage are perfect examples on that.
On the nose, it’s elegant with fresh notes of blueberries and cassis as well as more complex nuances of cedar tree and graphite, and just a whisper of stony minerality. On the palate, its medium bodied, intense and quite deep and dense, still so elegant and fine tuned. There’s just a hint of sweetness, but thanks to the acidity, fine mineral note and the youthful tannins, there’s enough structure to give this vintage a more classic taste – which is just fine. However, the typical “American palate” would most likely call this vintage a bit weaker. I noticed that the wine opened up and showed a more elegant och complex nose and taste after 30-40 minutes in the glass, and that evolution is promising. Therefore one shouldn’t be afraid of keeping the wine, or decant it before serving it. It’s good, but I don’t think it will be a very long lasting and great vintage.
Drink it 2011-2020.
1999 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon / 95 pOver the last 7-8 years, I have noticed that the 1999 vintage is a great vintage – at least for those who value finesse and complexity over pure power. Still, this vintage is much deeper and more intense the the 1998 and 2000 vintages, and the wine is loaded with ripe and intense but not sweet scented dark fruit (both cassis and dark cherries), and more complex aromas of cedar, graphite, rocks, walnuts and black olives – and I just love when I find so many fine tuned notes in the wine. On the palate, it’s medium bodied with great depth och body, still youthful and a bit closed – much due to the lively acidity, salty mineral notes, and firm (but ripe) tannins. On the nose, it was delightful at once, but it took a while before the wine opened up fully in the glass. Compared with the younger vintages, this wine doesn’t taste older – at least not more mature. Therefore, I recommend at least one or two more years of cellaring, but the true greatness will not come out when the wine reaches its perfect maturity another 5-6 years from now. This is a true, modern classic vintage.
Drink it 2012-2024 (or more).
1998 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon / 90-91 p
The El Niño vintage was cool and damp, and to the growers of Bordeaux varietals a very challengeing vintage, since it was so late that the grapes didn’t ripen perfectly. At least that was the case for Cabernet Sauvignon. But, there’s no rule withtout exception. Growers who were brave (and smart) enough to wait until November to harvest, could harvest grapes with if not perfectly ripe grapes, so at least grapes where the greenish methoxypyrazine flavors were burnt off, and the bitter tannins had ripen into something more enjoyable.
I’ve only tasted the 1998 Chateau Montelena at one time, a little less than two years ago and from a five liter bottle. I tasted it blind, and found the wine to be delicious, classic and elegant with typical notes of cedar tree, cigar, graphite some mineral notes. The fruit was dark and elegant, but it didn’t have that depth and concentration found in other vintagrs. What I really enjoyed, was how pleasant it tasted, although the nose was slightly better than the taste, which was a little bit weak and short – but good.
Based on the fact that I tasted the wine from a large format bottle kept in a perfect cellar, I believe this vintage should be drunk now and over the next year. And, it should only be decanted to remove the sediment – it really didn’t improve with air too mych.
Drink it 2011-2016.
1997 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon / 97 pOne of the best vintages I have ever tasted from Chateau Montelena is this 1997. Grapes were harvested throughout September at 23.5 to 24.5 Brix, which resulted in a wine with around 13.5 percent of alcohol. In a vintage where so many estates pulled out wines with 15-16 percent of alcohol, or even more, I’d like to applause the team at Chateau Montelena for making this wine! With this wine they showed that it is possible to make a great wine in Napa Valley without overripenss, concentration and a heavily use of oak. Of course this wine offers a great concentration, and it’s richer and denser compared to other vintages. Still today, there’s a sweetish and youthful primary fruit flavor, now with some earthy nuances and the (at Chateau Montelena) typical Bordeaux like notes of graphite tobacco and stony mineral. It’s just outstanding, and this is – and will stay for a long time – a true classic!
It still benefints from decanting a good half hour prior to serving it.
Drink it 2011-2025.
1996 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon / 90 pThe 1996 vintage have proven to be somehow uneven – some wines are still just great, but quite a few have started to fade away. Already when I poured this wine, it showed more maturity and a slight oxidation than both the 1997 and 1995 vintages – still it’s elegant and, to be honest, very complex. Sun dried raisins, tobacco, just a hint of cassis (not too sweet though) and a dash of stony minerality was noted in my tasting book. When tasted, I noted a medium body, again with the almost salty minerality, a medium intense but slowly fading fruit concentration which is starting to dry out a bit. There’s enough body to be enjoyed, but the finish lacks intensity and fruit, which tells you it’s time to uncork your last bottles.
Drink it 2011-2014.
1995 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon / 93-94 pBy far the 1995 vintage is more impressive than its one year younger sibling. The vintage is great, overall perhaps a bit neglected due to the fact it came after the glorious 1994, 1992 and 1990 vintages fresh in mind – and, realeased the year then the outstanding 1997 was harvested. It wasn’t an easy task for the 1995 vintage, still I have enjoyed so many great 1995s over the years, and this is just one of them. The body is medium full, wuite intense and still primary in its deep dark purple fruit, which is more ripe and sweetish than in the 1996. Tannins are still there, not firm, but still important enough to hold the wine together for another decade, perhaps, but most important – it’s really good to drink today, when the balance between the fruit, body, tannins and acidity is just fine. A particular asset in this vintage is the finesse, which is the result of the long, relatively cool vintage. Grapes were harvested from September 28 thru October 29, at 23.2 to 24.4 Brix, and the alcohol level stopped at 13.5 percent. Bravo!
Drink it 2011-2025
1994 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon / 93 pIt is amazing to see the evolution of this estate wine. Tasted blind, most tasters would end up in Bordeaux – at least before they really taste the wine and discover the structure of tannins and minerals, typical for the well drained volcanic soil of this northern situated wine estate. The dark but slightly tawny colored wine shows a medium intensity on the nose, clearly with a great deal of maturation with earthy, leathery and chocolaty notes, and there is also the same kind of gravelly dust you’ll find in fine wines of Médoc with some age. On the palate, the wine still show some sweet dark berry fruit, and the tannins are firm (as they normally are here) in a classic cabernet way. Acidity is relatively fresh and the finish is medium long, dry and very complex. It is truly a very well made, well kept and lovely wine.
Drink it 2011-2024
1992 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon / 96 pWhat a lovely wine! The combination of depths, intensity, pure power and the extraordinary complexity that comes with age is awesome. In a way, it’s as concentrated as the other great vintages from Chateau Montelena, but the overall elegance and complexity is what you taste and feel. The very fine tuned notes of cedar tree, lead pencil, tobacco and stony minerality is dancing over the matured but still vital body – and more than in the younger vintages, this smells, tastes and feels like a first growth Pauillac! On the palate, the tannins still give some resistance, but I’d rather call them smooth and velvety like that rough of aggressive, and more than anything, you’ll most likely be blown away by the great, long and wonderfully elegant and complex finish. At the moment, it’s one of the greatest wines to drink from this estate. It’s a great example on how great the classic made wines, with alcohol levels around 13.5 percent, can age.
Drink it 2011-2022
1991 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon / 93 pThis bottle wasn’t part of the big vertical tasting – the tasting note is six months older. The wine had been kept in a very good, cold cellar for, I guess, at least 12 years, so it had been kept very well. We decanted it right before tasting it and it was of course matured, but in a very good condition, still youthful in the sense it was rich and dense, and, which I found quite extraordinary, with a dash of primary fruit aromas. Of course the mature notes were much more obvious, and secuctive. Tobacco, leather, lead pencil, sous bois and stil a stony minerality are noted in my book, and the structure is still important although much softer than in the past. It’s a marvelous wine, quite Bordeaux like (I poured it blind to several of my sommelier friends – among them Masters of Wine and World Champions) and at first, everybody took their guess at Bordeaux from a ripe and now mature vintage. I’d still give it half an hour in a decanter, even though it has reached its peak now.
Drink it 2011-2019.
1987 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon / 96 pAs the 1992 vintage this is a classic, but harvested at higher Brix and fermented to an alcohol level just above 14 percent, so it’s a bit riper, richer and fruitier. Still the color is dark and dense, although not purple at least younger than expected. From a visible point of view, it’s actually only the sediment that reveals the age of the wine. On the nose it shows a lovely combination of youth (dark, sweetish cheery and plum like fruitiness) and maturity (some earthy notes, as well as tobacco), but there is also a slight touch of vanilla from the oak. The medium bodied taste is still intense and, a bit surprisingly, also tannic – but not in the dry way you normally find in wines that has started to dry out, it’s just a very well structured wine. Also, there’s a lovely energy from the almost salty minerality, and the finish is long and still alive and kickning. Right in the end of the taste, there’s a small mintiess, a note I normally find in slithgly richer vintages of aged cabernet wines. Although mature, the wine took the aeration in the glass in a very good way during the tasting, so I guess it will keep pretty well for some more years in the bottle.
Drink it 2011-2019.
1984 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon / 96 pI have had this wine many times, served open or poured in blind tastings. One time I poured it blind next to 1989 Château Haut-Brion, one of the greatest wines in Bordeaux in modern time, and the 1984 Château Montelena didn’t fall into the shadow at all! Of course it show a good portion of maturity – you’ll find notes of leather, tobacco, lead pencil, sundried chile, and what the French call sous bois, the earthy forest floor – but still there’s a whisper of sweeter almost primary fruit aromas. It’s just that combination that gives this wine its great complexity. On the palate it still offers a good tannic structure (a few years ago, I had a dozen fine 1984 cabernets from Napa Valley in a tasting – and the one from Chateau Montelena was in comparison the youngest), as well as a lively acidity and fine mineralic saltiness and energy. One thing that surprised me, was how well the wine kept in the glass – not even one hour after I poured it, it started to fade away. This is one of the most impressive vintages I have yet tasted from Chateau Montelena, and I have tasted it on several occasions.
Drink it 2011-2019.
1982 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon / NR
With older wines like this, you always have to consider bottle variation, and perhaps that’s the case with the bottle I had in the vertical tasting. It was significantely more mature than 1984 and 1987, and already 15 minutes after I poured it, it started to oxidize and fade away. But before that, I found it to very very attractive thanks to all its noble maturity; leather, tobacco, cedar tree, dried fruit and sous bois, but on the palate it was for sure telling me a different story. Tannins were still there in a quite dry way, and the fruit had started to dry out. Perhaps it was the bottle, I don’t know, but I have recently had similar experiences with other 1982s from Napa Valley.
Therefore I didn't rate the wine.
Drink it now.
1981 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon / NRThis wine was even a bit weaker, and as mature towards too old as the 1982. For a while, I enjoyed the notes of prunes, tobacco, lead pencil and forest mushrooms, but already after 10-15 minutes, most of those lovely aromas had been exchanged into oxidation, rust and not too pleasant earthy notes. On the palate, tannins were dry and a bit harsh, and as with the 1982 vintage, this wine should have been drunk a few years ago. Again, it could also be bottle variation, so I didn't rate this wine.
Drink it now.
But here’s the good news, having bottles of too old wines doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy them. Serving them to the right food, you can choose to enhance the finer part of the wine (the complex maturity) and hide the less wanted parts (the dry fruit, the tannins). If you have something with a creamy texture (a sauce, a purée of potatoes with butter and cream, or a risotto) the tannins will be absorbed and then the wine will not taste harsh at all. The next step is to workv with ingredients that mirrors the mature flavors of the wine. Mushrooms, truffle, roasted root celery or Jerusalem artichokes, air dried ham, salami (especially with truffle), and aged hard cheese, all shares matured or earthy aromas. Also, you can use an oxidized fortified wine like sherry in the red wine sauce, to mirror the oxidation in the wine. When you taste a fully matured wine to dishes like this, you will not recognize too much of the oxidezed flavors in the wine, and the tannins will not bother you at all.