A mature red wine from California’s Napa Valley is a modern-day treasure. And when you have an older vintage of a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, you have a very rare treasure. But more than a treasure, it can be a treat for the senses, when served with the right foods.
Creating a dinner around a mature “Napa cab” is something very few people know how to do right. Winemakers and winery owners in Napa have been doing this at home for years, so I went to Napa to talk with them. In addition, I found Sommeliers Kelli White and Scott Brenner at PRESS Restaurant in the Napa Valley town of St. Helena; they are a married couple who relocated a few years ago to this dream position from high profile positions in New York City.
One of the great things about buying wines in California to drink at Press Restaurant, say White and Brenner, is that the wines haven’t been moved around so there is much less chance of having problems with the wines. Whether your older wine has been in your cellar for years, or has just been acquired by gift or purchase, you’ll want to sample it fairly soon; don’t make the mistake of thinking that a red wine can last indefinitely into the future. Worldwide, most wines are made to be consumed within a year or two. Fine red wines like Napa cabs can easily last a decade or two, and sometimes three or four decades– but not always.
First we’ll look at what happens to the wine in the bottle. Then we’ll talk about how to pair these older California red wines at dinner, with California-style foods. The dishes here are not complicated recipes, rather suggestions of types of meat for main courses. Remember that much of California has a climate that yields fresh vegetables year-round. California chefs and customers are used to local, fresh ingredients. They appreciate artisanal foods, including everything from meats and herbs to cheeses and olive oils – as well as their locally-grown vegetables, of course. And because of the freshness of the ingredients, meals may be prepared simply, with meat, fowl, fish and vegetables often grilled over wood or coals to bring out their flavor.
This is a bit of a generalization, but if you have tasted “California Cabs” (as cabernet sauvignon wines are commonly referred to) that were three or five or seven years old, you will recognize the beginning of the wine’s development when you recall their flavors. For the first few years, it’s mainly the fruit flavors and aromas that develop, becoming rounder, fuller and more intense. You may be reminded of strawberries and other fresh red fruits -- even fruit juice -- when you smell and taste these wines.
In addition, the tannins in the wine will be very evident. Tannins are most noticeable first as the sticky substances that you can feel as you run your tongue along the roof of your mouth, especially during the “finish” which begins in the seconds after you have swallowed the wine. Tannins in red wine come from the skins of the grapes as well as from the oak barrels the wine is made in. The aromas from the wood barrels start out as cedar and vanilla, and gradually evolve as well.
At Long Meadow Ranch Winery, second generation winemaker Chris Hall’s family has been making wine since 1994, (though the family tragically lost their vintage wine library in a 2005 fire). His own first vintage was 2004. “Soft fruit” is what he looks for in a mature wine -- though he also celebrates distinctive flavors and aromas from the place where the grapes are grown. So after the first flush of freshness, the fruit flavors and aromas are smoother and more integrated into the other characteristics of the wine. They may remind you more of fruit jam or plump, dried fruits.
After about a decade, “secondary wine characteristics” become the dominant aspects in the nose and on the palate -- though this could occur a couple years earlier or later, depending on the wine. Some decades ago, wine connoisseurs tended to age all their red wines so they always experienced these secondary characteristics. Nowadays, such a large percentage of wine is consumed young that many people have never tasted wine in this wonderful stage. The secondary characteristics, which have been part of the wine, become more apparent as the freshness of the fruit wanes. In its place we notice more complex aromatics, with spices and herbs. And the flavors feel more like fruit-infused tea, with plum or cooked plum often a leading taste element. In the finish, the tannins have become fully integrated so they seem to surround and infuse the wine. As detailed by wine director Michael Ireland (veteran of The French Laundry and Meadowood in Napa), leather and potpourri are also major aromatic and flavor components during this period of the wine’s evolution – when it is around 20 years old.
For food pairings, Ireland balances a lower fat content in a main course such as veal or duck, and he enjoys adding textures such as a grain like quinoa. Plums cooked in a sauce would be a good complementary fruit; he also suggests adding a just a touch more salt to a sauce when fruit is used. Slightly pungent or “foresty” mushrooms like portabellas and chanterelles are also good accessory flavors for this meal. Ireland does advise staying away from peppers: no chili peppers or bell peppers.
A wine may plateau at this level for some years, even decades, becoming infinitesimally more complex over time. Then, after a period of time, the wine will begin to fade and the flavors and aromas will become less intense when its optimal drinking phase has ended. This may take place over many years, or during the course of one year. When you have a case of mature wine you can open a bottle every year or so, and you will be privileged to fully understand the evolution of your wine during its lifetime. But if you find that the wine has reached a level of evolution that you think is perfect, don’t hesitate: drink the rest of the bottles with your friends during the next few months.
Bruce Cakebread, whose family winery Cakebread Cellars was established with their first vintage 1973, has a great deal of experience in this area. For his older cabernet sauvignons – mainly those over 20 years old -- he recommends tasting the wine periodically after pouring it into a glass. He doesn’t recommend just letting it sit in a decanter for a half hour or an hour without tasting, in case the wine blossoms suddenly. He likes to taste wines with food, and recommends foods that are as fresh as possible, simply prepared and not spicy. If the wine has big flavors and tannins it pairs nicely with protein dishes with more fat, such as well-marbled steaks that he gets from local farms.
Cakebread advises that an older wine needs some attention before drinking. Having been stored on its side in a cellar at around 55degrees F (12 C) the wine should be stood upright for one or two days before opening. Keep the wine at 55-65 F (12-18 C) and pour it straight from the bottle. In the glass, do not swirl, but sniff at the aroma. “Be thoughtful. Take your time with it,” Cakebread counsels.
At Press Restaurant, sommeliers White and Brenner have the enviable job of dealing with rare and expensive wines that have been stored well, many of which they have acquired at auctions or by private purchase. They have an encyclopedic knowledge of every vintage in Napa since the 1970s stored in their brains. Which makes it irresistible to ask them questions about each vintage. 1974? “Hot, powerful, the great ones are holding but the good ones are starting to fade.” 1978? “Legendary and holding.” Many of the wines from the vintages of 1979-81 they consider “austere” and “not as joyful to drink,” while 1982 is a “lovely vintage that got lost,” they believe.
Though it would have been tempting to ask White and Brenner to rattle off pairings and descriptions for each vintage, I couldn’t take up all their time so I finally asked for some food guidelines. Brenner likes simple foods with more complicated wines, and he recommends a simple roast chicken with a Napa cab from the 1970s. For the 1980s, he will often suggest a veal chop, without elaborate vegetables or sauces. Napa cabs from the 1990s vintages he pairs with filet mignon. And he looks at a slightly fattier, slightly more flavorful ribeye steak for cabs from the first decade of the 21st century. But he does like mitaki mushrooms as a side dish with the meats; he believes this enhances the wines. For the younger wines, he’ll go with roasted potatoes sometimes cooked in duck fat and roasted garlic as an accompaniment. Green vegetables, he notes, can be difficult to pair with these mature red wines.
When constructing an entire dinner of older vintages, it’s often a good idea to begin by welcoming people with a very small amount of sparkling wine to make sure everyone’s palate is refreshed before the red wine.
Though every wine is different, it’s usually a good idea to carefully decant your older red wine an hour or two before serving. If your Napa cabernet sauvignon is more than 20 years old, you can begin the meal with this wine, as it will be very delicate.
It is also possible to finish your meal with this type of wine accompanying a special cheese course, if you are decanting it for 1-2 hours beforehand. But offer only soft, delicate cheeses to match the delicate aromas and flavors of the older wines; not sharp cheeses like cheddar or blue, and not full-fat cheeses like Brie and Camembert.
If you want to try out various wine and food pairings without a full meal, there’s an interesting wine shop in Napa which does this for you: Ma(i)sonery, which opened in 2008. Located in one of the few existing historic buildings in Napa, this shop specializes in flights of wines with foods. The owners consider an “older vintage” to be about 20 years old, but they have many bold younger wines to sample, as well. For the biggest flavors in maturing and just-matured wines (often 10-20 years old), in addition to meat and game they also recommend pairing the wines with fatty fishes that are braised or stewed.
I’d like to conclude with the advice of a member of Napa Valley nobility: the gracious Janet Trefethen, whose family established its winery here in 1968. Her son Lauren has spent time in China, and she has immense respect for its culture. Integrating it into her own education and personality, she believes that wine is healthy, and that red is a lucky color. Older vintages of red wines, she believes, should be sipped with respect, almost as an aged tea would be.
At Trefethen, cabernet sauvignon is often blended with a small percentage of merlot and/or petit verdot and/or malbec – just as it is in Bordeaux. Trefethen’s ten year old wines are considered mature and ready to drink. Older wines, Trefethen believes, should be served with finely prepared foods on delicate china. Mushrooms can bring out the herbiness in a vintage like 1999. “Lean, simple proteins” like duck breast, pork chops and skirt steak with simple sauces are great pairings. The caramelized proteins enhance the caramelized fruit flavors in the aged wines. This is good to know, because the mature Trefethen wines can hold for many years – with the promise of many fine dinners.
NOTE: If you are visiting Napa Valley you can sometimes take part in a cooking class and/or dinner at Cakebread Cellars http://www.cakebread.com/calendar/cooking_classes.cfm and Trefethen Family Vineyards http://www.trefethen.com/Events/.