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Caymus Special Selection 1988 - 1997


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These are notes from a delightful dinner arranged and hosted at a local restaurant by a wine friend whose axis is located for the most part straight through Burgundy and Bordeaux.

We were told only that the seven wines were from one property and that the tasting was a vertical. That was the full extent of our knowledge going in! A definite challenge. I found that the wines naturally arranged themselves into two groups, a young segment, characterised by riper noses, and an older group characterised by slightly assertive terminal acidity and a quite different aromatic profile, much more French in style. Very perplexing. They were announced toward the end of the meal as being Caymus Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon.

All of the food courses were calculated to complement red wines and I shall recite the food as well, as these choices merit recognition.

Lamb Carpaccio, roasted garlic, capers, Dijon aioli, Manchego cheese

Assuntine (pasta) duck confit, ramps, tomato sauce, parmesan

Buffalo tenderloin with wine tip mushrooms and huckleberry sauce

Venison chop, fingerling potatoes, red wine sauce

Lemon tart and blueberries

We started off with a rather fine palate cleanser:

1990 Dom Perignon – showing a little colour, and with a nose of clean lemon scented fruit, showing only slight maturity, with a really creamy smooth mouth feel and a crisp clean elegant finish.

You will have to forgive us our thrashing and flopping about trying to decide if it had any Merlot (the nose on some definitely pointed one in that direction), was it a Bordeaux (the last three tempted one to conclude this, yet the first three were clearly riper Southern types), was it perhaps South American or even South African; all came up for discussion. We were left to taste as we wished throughout the meal and I opted to start at the oldest, as is my wont, lest I miss any nuance by beginning at the other end with more powerful and less subtle wines.

1988 – I got a pretty classic claret cabernet sauvignon nose off this one. There was slight lightening but little browning at the edges, and the tannins are mostly gone, the finish riding instead on acidity which with time became slightly assertive. The thought was later offered that it was the custom to acidify these wines in some vintages and the question was raised as to whether that sort of added acidity melds less well with the wines than does a natural grape acidity. This wine and the next two as well, were of low enough pH to have me casting thoughts in the direction of the Cape of Good Hope. 1988 was a decent but certainly not top vintage, and while this wine had early appeal, it was the next wine that ultimately garnered my vote for best of the early crew.

1990 – a lovely red plummy nose (this started me and another chap off on merlot theorising), showing good complexity, and on palate the wine was more harmonious, the acidity better blending in, with a lively finish of good length.

1991 – quite similar to the 1990, with perhaps a slight green note in the nose and just a hint of mint. Good length, but the acidity was not as well integrated in this wine.

1992 – this was my watershed wine, segueing from one style to the next. I can’t attribute the change to winemaking as the same person made all of these wines, so it must be simple ageing, but the difference was quite striking. The 1992 was immediately remarkable as being an even better wine than the 1991, although I valued the complexity and development on the latter wine enough to make it my favourite. The 1992 had a darker colour, a nose with depth and sweetness, and there was great flavour concentration. It was also the first wine, looking at things from the other end, that I considered to be at prime drinking plateau, the younger vintages needing more time as they do.

1994 – switch back to a lighter sort of nose in this wine, and the oak is noticeable, even a bit to the fore for the first time. It developed with time in the glass (all these were opened an hour before the dinner commenced). The tannins are softer than the younger wines but still meaty and indicate that this vintage needs more time, both for the tannins to further soften and the complexity in nose and on palate to develop. It had excellent balance and has all the signs of being special in a few more years.

1995 – a riper, rounder nose, now with some currants rather than plums, and sweeter, which is what made me think of hotter climes than Bordeaux. The tannins are still quite hard, though certainly ripe. It is a fat wine with good middle and firly good length. Needs time.

1997 – this is the only wine that I hadn’t tasted before, as I stopped buying California wines with the 1996 vintage when they exceeded sensible price levels compared to similar wines from other areas. There wasn’t much happening in the nose at first, but with time it opened up and developed a profile quite similar to the 1995 – ripe, sweet, and full. The entry on palate was also sweet, but the tannins clamped down almost immediately, allowing a taster only a scant moment to enjoy the fruit before it was rudely snatched away, or rather enveloped by the looming tannin. I could detect, I thought, the same good balance that characterised the other wines.

So what did I learn from this fascinating tasting? That Caymus stands if not alone, certainly in the minority among the upper ranks of California Cabernet producers, in making a wine that values elegance and style above raw power. You can (and we did) mistake these for Bordeaux once they have a few years on them – I’d say 15 is when a good vintage reaches maturity - something you would never be able to say of most of the brawny fruit bombs that otherwise populate this stratum of California cabs.

We learned that acidification is not conducive to harmony, although it doesn’t necessarily rule it out. In fact the perception of terminal acidity is highly food dependent as we observed in this menu in a way that made an impression on us. Most of us had written off the first three wines after an hour or so in the glass as being just a bit too acidic for us to really enjoy them and we concentrated on the younger vintages. Then the venison arrived and the older wines that had stayed too edgy with the other courses including the buffalo, absolutely bloomed, the acidity was transformed and the wines became more enjoyable than they had been all night.

We finished up the evening with a special bottle that another attendee had brought along:

Tarquinio T. da Camara Lomelino Ltda. 150th Anniversary Madeira Boal 1820 – this is a solera that was begun in 1820 and bottled in 1962, and apparently sold to celebrate the 150th anniversary of this firm (presumably no longer extant) in business in 1970. Great brown wine with an intense hot alcoholic nose, medium body and very, very intense flavour. Imagine that you were drinking vanilla extract (no, the flavours aren’t vanilla, I am just trying to convey the sort of flavour intensity in this wine. Any of you who HAVE drunk vanilla extract need not join in this mental exercise....). The wine ended much more smoothly than it began and had truly exceptional length, lingering for minutes in the mouth. A special experience and a fitting end to a singular tasting.

What a wonderful learning experience and opportunity! As I also own the 1990, 91, 92 and 94, it was also a great opportunity to gauge the readiness of my bottles.

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