Friday, January 6, 2012

Echoes from the past - Louis M Martini wines with age

Only five wineries survived the prohibition. Two of them was in Napa Valley, Beringer Vineyards (founded 1876) and Beaulieu Vineyards (founded 1900). After prohibition, just a few wineries came back in production, and by 1960 there was just around 250 wine producers in California. In Napa Valley, there were a dozen. The new golden age wouldn't come until early 1970s, in the footsteps of the opening of Robert Mondavi Winery in 1966, and some years after the Paris Tasting in 1976, wine had become a more significant part of the culture in California.  
   Back in the 1950s and 1960s, the wine scene looked much different than it does today. I Napa Valley, some good wines was made at Beringer Vineyards, Beaulieu Vineyards, Christian Brothers, at the legendary Inglenook, by the Mondavi family at Charles Krug Winery, and at Louis M Martini in St Helena.

Louis Martini established his wine company already in 1923, when he bought a small winery in Fresno in Central Valley and started to buy, pack and sell grapes to home winemakers all over the country. Ten years later, after repeal, he moved to Napa Valley, which at that time was a rural valley with orchards, walnut farms and cattle ranches. There were only a few wineries, but no market for fine wines.

In 1940 Louis Martini begun to bottle some of his wines under his own label, and over some years he also bought several vineyard and more land to plant vineyards in Napa County (he was one of the pioneers in Carneros), Sonoma County (notably the famous Monte Rosso Vineyard) and in Lake County. 
   The Louis M Martini Winery reached its peak during the 1950s and 1960s, at that time the only wineries that could compete with their quality was Inglenook and Beaulieu Vineyards. In the late 1950s, Louis Martini was the first winemaker in California to install stainless steel tanks to ferment his wines in - up to that date, only old redwood tanks or cement vats were used.

When Louis Martini retired in 1959, his son Louis Peter Martini took over and was in charge of the wine making until 1977, when his son Michael Martini took over. He's still in charge of the production, even though the Gallo family bought Louis M Martini Winery in 2002.
   I decided not to rate these old wines, how does one do that? What does the scores tell you? These are old and rare wines, echoes from the past. They are part of the Napa Valley wine history, of the California wine history. Bottles like these are not easy to find, they just show up if you are lucky. I was blessed by the opportunity to buy parts of an old cellar, and it was worth every dollar. Memories from the past are in my world not subjects for judging, for scoring, or for even consider if they are worth the prices asked for or not. For me, they are part of the lifelong education, and they tell you something about where we are today. If these wines have kept so well, I guess we don't have to worry too much over more recent vintages.

1966 California Mountain Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon / NR
As for the 1958 wine, this bottle was also in good shape with a firm (but short) cork and good level. Surprisingly, it was almost a bit closed the first ten minutes in the glass - I decanted it from its sediment right before serving it - but it opened up just fine over time in the glass. It wasn't as intense and concentrated as the 1958, but it shared the same earthy and sous bois complexity and that kind of sweet fruitiness and tobacco aromas that matured wines shows. I followed this wine over almost an hour in the glass, and it didn't fade away, which I find to be remarkable. On the palate, it's lighter that the 1958, totally mature with silky tannins, a quite soft acidity and a fine sweetness, and the aftertaste is good but not as long and complex as the one in the older vintage. I wasn't around in the wine world at that time, so my knowledge and experience of the vintages is limited, if not non existing. However, I guess that 1966 wasn't as great vintage as the 1958. Still this is a delicious wine that all my wine loving and wine collecting friends were totally overwhelmed by. I would definitely buy another bottle if I come across one.
Drink it over the next few years

1958 California Mountain Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon / NR
The bottle was in good shape, the level was high shoulder and color looked reddish through the bottle. Of course there was some sediment in the wine, but it looked just fine. It was surprisingly easy to pull the cork, it came out in one piece without any problems. I needed to decant the wine to remove the sediment, but since it was a 53 year old wine, I only decanted it just before serving it. Far too many old wines has died on their way from the bottle to the last served glass, and I didn't want that to happen with this rare wine.
The wine has a bright, clear and mature appearance with tawny brick color with just a slight brownish nuance. The nose was surprisingly clean and vibrant despite the fact that is shows a distinct maturation with notes of prunes, sweet tobacco, chocolate, sous bois and truffles. It may have been a desire or imagination, but I actually felt a totally clean and sweet red fruit aroma as well, which to me indicated the wine was still alive and kicking.
The most interesting detail about this tasting, was that it was poured blind next to another wine, which was younger and more lively, a very good wine but actually not that much more exciting. That wine was the 1976 Château Petrus from Pomerol. Good God!
Well, back to the 1958, on the palate is was just lovely with a seductive texture, just like velvet. The tannins were fully matured and silky, yet they added a certain structure to the superb, slightly sweet fruit. By all means this wine is fully mature, and will not gain anything from further ageing, but I have to say I was more than surprised to see how well the wine kept in the glass, and the decanter, for more than one hour! Even what was left with the sediment in the bottle survived in a surprising way to the day after. I guess this bottle was a great one!
Drink it over the next few years


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  2. My friend’s husband opened a bottle of 1940 this last weekend and it was amazing...just stunning.