Tasting 15 Vintages of Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon

by Fred Swan - Guest Blogger

When Chateau Montelena held what they called a “Dream Tasting,” I was happy and privileged to attend., It covered five decades of Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon. And it was indeed a dream.

Bo Barrett, CEO and Master Winemaker, presided over the tasting, adding comments and taking questions. Bo has been present at Chateau Montelena from the very beginning of his family’s ownership. His father Jim bought the Calistoga property in 1972. Bo made many of the wines we tasted. Also present was Matt Crafton, who’s been there since 2008 and has served as head winemaker from 2014.

1974 Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon

The first Cabernet Sauvignon released by Chateau Montelena, they sourced fruit for it from Napa Valley, Alexander Valley, and Russian River Valley. According to Bo, they picked at around 23 brix, but there was also more acid at that sugar level than there is now. He’s always tried to bring the Cabernet Sauvignon wines in at 14% alcohol or lower.

Dark garnet with intense aromas of cedar, chocolate, tobacco, graphite, spice, and tart, slightly stewed, black fruit. Medium-bodied in the mouth with excellent flavor intensity. Structure comes from fine, soft, chalky tannins and generous acidity. The flavors match the nose, adding chocolate, earth, red cherry fruit, and sweet herb. A very nice wine—juicy and complex with satisfying texture and length. At peak. 94 points

1975 Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon North Coast

The vintage is 1975, but the wine aged two years in oak, was bottled in 1978, and not released until August, 1979. By then, Bo says they’d won the 1976 Paris Tasting (for Chardonnay), winemaker Mike Grgich had left to start his own winery, and the AVA system was in place, (though the first AVAs wouldn’t be granted until 1981).

In the release notes for this wine, Bo suggested people give it at least another two or three years of bottle age before drinking. Apparently, 40 years is okay too.

It’s a lovely wine with tart red cherry, black currant, drying leaves, spice, earth, and crushed violet on the nose. The palate is nearly full-bodied with plenty of acidity and loads of fine grained tannins that are still somewhat firm. Flavors match the nose. The fruit is good and juicy, but not quite enough to balance the structure. Drink soon with food. 93 points

1979 Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

Beginning with 1979, Montelena moved to a program of using the same winemaking and aging regime each year for all lots, in order to better highlight differences between vineyards and vintages. They settled on 20% new oak for the maturation.

Inclement weather early in the vintage caused shatter, which reduced Montelena Cabernet yields by 40%. But that allowed for faster ripening, which meant all the Cabernet had been harvested before that year’s late-season, surprise rainstorms.

Still ruby in color. Powerfully aromatic with graphite, earth, Worcestershire sauce, and medicinal herb, but a focus on slightly sour black fruit. Flavors resemble the nose, but are more appetizing and umami-laden than they may sound. There’s also a lot of mocha. Body and acidity are medium-plus and, again, the fine grained, grippy tannins are dominant but will go well with food. It becomes more herbal with air. Drink soon. 92 points

Chateau Montelena Estate Vineyard

1980 Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

By 1980, the complement of barrels at Montelena included some 12-year old wood. Those neutral barrels allowed the wine’s texture and flavors to soften, but didn’t contribute tannins or flavors of their own.

The wine is dark ruby with a generous, pretty nose of cedar, graphite, dry leaves, spice, dried dark berries, and floral highlights. Medium-plus body in the mouth with tannins that are structural, but very fine, soft, appetizing and well-balanced. Flavors are mocha, spice, and berry pie filling. This is a very good wine, long with very good intensity of fruit. It’s at peak, but will hold for several years. It gets thin with air though, so I’d not decant it. 95 points

1983 Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

1983 ended with rain in October and has been labeled a marginal year, but most all the Montelena fruit was in before the storms. Aromas of cedar, graphite, earth, celery seed, and dark fruit that’s somewhat tart and stewed. The palate is full-bodied and absolutely loaded with  tannins of fine- and very fine-grained chalk. The black fruit flavors are both jammy and appetizingly tart. Chocoloate, mocha, and leather round out the appealing palate. This one still has a little room to develop, but is close to peak. Drink within the next 5-8 years. 94 points

1988 Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

1988 was the second year of a drought and, according to Bo Barrett, Chateau Montelena had no drip irrigation at the time. Perhaps as a consequence, this Cabernet is intense, concentrated and tannic. Barrett attributes some of the tannins to “stem chips” as, their antiquated de-stemmer didn’t always do a complete job.

That said, this is a great wine. It’s opaque ruby-black in the glass with a nose of syrupy black fruit, medicinal herb, spice, cedar, and graphite. The full-bodied palate is all of that plus mocha.The tannins, while considerable, are fine-grained and softly chalky. I’d say the wine is near peak now, but the plateau will be very long and there is still some room development. 95 points

1990 Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

The drought continued into 1990, except for Memorial Day when a deluge disrupted bloom and flowering. That wiped out about half of Chateau Montelena’s crop. On the bright side, they invested in what Barrett calls a “fancier, state-of-the-art de-stemmer.

The nose shows red and black cherries, cherry skin, tobacco and a touch of menthol, while the flavors are all about black cherry, chocolate, and spice. Whereas everything in the 1988 is dialed up to 11, the body, intensity, and tannins of the 1990 are all medium-plus. The texture is very fine and soft, though it gains strength from mid-palate (and with air). Overall, this wine is in a very nice place, midway between youth and maturity. 94 points

1994 Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

Considered to be one of the best, perhaps the best, vintage of the ‘90s in Napa Valley, the year offered near-perfect weather. A little shatter at the beginning of the season limited crop load just enough to make thinning unnecessary. 1994 was also the first year Chateau Montelena included a considerable amount (10%) of fruit from the hillside vines they’d added in 1989.

The dark ruby wine smells of dried black fruit, spice, and mint. In the mouth, body is medium-plus with attractive viscosity and very fine, soft, chalky texture. The fruit flavors are black, like the nose, but ripe and fresh, rather than dried. A dollop of chocolate adds to the appeal and the finish is long. 94 points

1994 Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

Bo Barrett says that, by 1994, they were phasing out long macerations. Whether due to that, the vintage, or both, this wine is very pretty. It begins rich in the glass with jammy blackberry and cherry (black and, especially, red) wafting from the opaque ruby-purple liquid. And the palate is nearly full-bodied with a corset of very fine-grained and soft, chalky tannins reigning in voluptuous red cherry, dark chocolate, and spice. The wine soon evolves, offering a profusion of lovely floral notes. Superb. 96 points

2001 Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

2001 was a good while ago, but with that vintage we see a change in the wines being tasted. It, and the more recent wines, remain quite youthful and their prime drinking periods lie in the future.

Yields were down in 2001, due to frost damage and heat-spike-induced shatter. Various vineyard sections ripened at considerably different paces too, making harvest a five-week process. But the result was concentrated fruit with mature tannins.

The wine is opaque ruby in color with aromas of red cherry, carob, spice, vanilla, and milk chocolate. The nearly full-bodied palate bursts with red and black cherry. There’s a nice counterpoint of medicinal herb. The framework of chalky tannins is fine, soft, and chewy. 94+ points

2005 Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

Bud break came early in 2005 for Montelena. But weather varied a lot month-to-month and include cool spells, so harvest came late, culminating at the end of October.

Intense notes of very ripe black cherry, spice, moist tobacco on the nose reappear as the full-bodied palate’s core flavors. Cherry is especially prominent. Mocha and a very attractive wet, leafy component add complexity. The voluminous tannins are very fine, soft, and chalky, but moderated by juicy acidity, and don’t get in the way of the very long, powerful flavors. 96+

2007 Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

Youthful and still a bit tight on the nose, showing ripe black fruits, particularly black cherry. The nearly full-bodied palate is replete with very fine, soft, chalky texture and flavors of ripe, black cherry and medicinal herb. 95 points

2010 Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

I noted a change in the wines’ texture from 2010 on and asked Bo about it. He said his father had challenged them to create the most polished tannins possible, but without resorting to excess ripeness or high alcohol. Achievement unlocked! Alcohols remain moderate and the textures are swoon-worthy.

Proudly aromatic with heady, purple fruit, leather, earth, and exotic spice. The nearly full-bodied palate offers beautifully soft, creamy texture and drop-dead gorgeous flavors of luscious black fruit, exotic spice, dark flowers, chocolate, and coconut. Super long. 98 points

2011 Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

2011 is a notorious vintage in the North Coast for its inclement weather which few but the area’s Bordelais winemakers could consider normal. Bo says they “walked away from almost 40 tons of Cabernet Sauvignon” grapes and their production was the lowest ever. That’s the way great producers produce great wines in difficult years. As Bo said, the wine isn’t green because “the green flavors never went in.”

The red-fruited nose offers cherries and berries with a dusting of spice and a chiffonade of medicinal herb. Gorgeously soft, creamy tannins envelope flavors of milk chocolate, cedar, red fruit and herb on the palate of medium-plus body and slyly refreshing acidity. 95 points

2013 Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

Opaque ruby-purple in the glass and bursting with aromas of red cherry, raspberry, vanilla, sweet herb, and briar. On its way from attack to the very lengthy finish, the palate offers several different flavor profiles: some black-fruited, some red-fruited, some savory. But the primary look is that of ripe, yet tangy, red fruit with ample spice and savory, drying herb. 96 points

JJ Buckley always has a range of Chateau Montelena wines on offer, including current and back vintages.

JJ Buckley guest blogger Fred Swan is a San Francisco-based wine writer, educator, and authority on California wines and wineries. His writing  appears in The Tasting Panel, SOMM Journal, GuildSomm.com, Daily.SevenFifty.com, PlanetGrape.com, and his own site, FredSwan.Wine (formerly NorCalWine). He teaches at the San Francisco Wine School. Fred’s certifications include WSET Diploma, Certified Sommelier, California Wine Appellation Specialist, Certified Specialist of Wine, French Wine Scholar, Italian Wine Professional, Napa Valley Wine Educator and Level 3 WSET Educator. He's twice been awarded a fellowship by the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers.

Images courtesy of Chateau Montelena Winery