April 18, 2008
Discoveries on the Wine Trail

Let's end the week with a couple of hopefully helpful notes for fellow wine enthusiasts:

- If you still have a bottle of the Shafer Vineyards 1986 Napa Valley Hillside Select in your cellar, this might be the weekend to pull it out and polish it off. To judge by one we tasted Wednesday night, it's showing well and isn't likely to improve. The fruit is more austere than concentrated, but it has wonderful aromatics and has hung on to its fine form. When the wine was released 20 years ago, critic Robert Parker Jr. predicted that "it should age nicely for up to a decade." It's lasted longer than that, and isn't showing signs of falling apart imminently, but in the future probably won't provide any more impact than it is right now. Decant and serve with lighter cuisine. The tasting included several other Shafer cabernet sauvignons, though no other Hillside Selects. The favorite in the rest of the field looked to be the 2002 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, largely for its fleshier blackberry and cherry fruit and softer tannins, though a current release, the 2005 Napa Valley Stags Leap District One Point Five, also had its partisans for the youthfulness and juiciness of its fruit, its complexity and its finish, the freshest and longest of the night. Though the alcohol levels of the wines rose over the years, from 13.5 percent for the 1986 Hillside Select to 14.9 for the 2005 One Point Five, Shafer remains a Napa Valley brand that still can be counted on for grasping with balance and style a sense of place and personality, which is the sunshine of Stags Leap and the focus and commitment of the Shafer family.

- I'm about convinced that the "Sideways" effect - a boost in the popularity of pinot noir at the expense of merlot, so lacerated in the movie - actually has been benefical for merlot. The film's dismissal of the varietal, coupled with other subsequent criticism and a slump in the wine's popularity, apparently has rattled vintners into paying more attention to merlot. At least, I've been more impressed by younger merlots I've been tasting this year. The latest evidence arrived last night during a dinner touting the wines of the Napa Valley's Beringer Vineyards at the Sutter Club. Not that Beringer ever has taken merlot lightly. Its Howell Mountain merlot long has been one of the valley's truly iconic wines. It, however, wasn't poured last night. But the Beringer Vineyards 2004 Knight's Valley Alluvium Red was. A blend of 74 percent merlot, 23 percent cabernet sauvignon and dashes of malbec and cabernet franc, the Alluvium was alluring in smell and captivating in flavor - fat with suggestions of plums, sprightly with refreshing acidity, and round and supple in feel. It had the structure and fruit to go with the challenging dish with which it was poured - spears of asparagus wrapped with strips of smoked duck prosciutto - but it also had the assertiveness and depth to stand up to rack of lamb crusted with black sea salt and pepper and accompanied with dried apricots and cherries. Indeed, the Alluvium went better with the lamb, I felt, than the wine chosen specifically to accompany the meat, the Beringer 2004 Napa Valley Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. That's no slam on the bright cabernet, generous with oak, just that the Alluvium was a more compelling companion for the busy huskiness of the lamb. The Alluvium, incidentally, generally is selling for between $18 and $22 in the Sacramento area.

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