Last year I was lucky to have suffered from an excess of riches, but my travel schedule pushed reporting on many events to the bottom of my pile. I'm only now catching up with all of my notes, so while these notes are delayed, they certainly warrant publication. Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon is considered one of the blue chip Napa Valley Cabernets, with a long history of producing distinctive wines that age like few others.
Originally founded in 1882 and operated through Prohibition, Chateau Montelena was shuttered as a winery until 1968, when new owners began the arduous process of bringing the property back to life. Mike Grgich was hired in 1972 to oversee the first modern vintage of the winery. As luck would have it, and of course skill and expertise, Chateau Montelena's Chardonnay from its second vintage,1973, figured prominently in the famed judgement in Paris, capturing first place among the Chardonnays tasted.
The rest, as they say, is history. Blessed with an excellent vineyard site in the Calistoga AVA, Chateau Montelena has continued to produce benchmark Napa Valley Cabernets that are typical of the region. For Calistoga, a decidedly warm part of the valley, that means wines that are opulent and intense. The estate vineyards offer a diversity of soils as they move away from the Napa River and into the edges of rolling hills that slope up towards Howell Mountain. The blend of volcanic, alluvial and sedimentary soils afford the winemakers at Chateau Montelena with base wines that can be blended to support the classic fruit that their site expresses so well.
Winemaking and oak aging at Chateau Montelena are all designed to leave a gentle imprint on the wines. These are neither particularly extracted, nor heavily oaked wines; they represent a rather powerful expression of Napa Valley Cabernet, trading some elegance for power, and sheer intensity of fruit for complexity. Certainly among the top wines produced in Napa Valley, they truly are a benchmark for classic Napa Valley Cabernet. I was fortunate to have been able to taste nearly two decades of their Estate Cabernet, a wine that has consistently shown a fine ability to age gracefully.
1978 Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon
Lots of coffee greets the nose along with noticeable VA that adds some lift to the smoked chili and tar accents here. A bit lean in the mouth, this still has plenty of fine tannins giving the big cherry-filled mid-palate a bit of a chewy texture. Tactile and rich, this seems fairly extracted, with layers of herb, earth and blue fruits on the moderately long finish. Powerful if a bit rustic. 89 points
1980 Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon
Sweetly fruited and wide open on the nose with pretty currant fruit topped with notes of wood spice and a big black tea note. On the palate this is a touch lean, yet very fresh with nuanced bay leaf and cedar notes framing sweet black cherry fruits that really persist on the finish. Small scaled and a tad simple, this bottle is nonetheless at peak and shows excellent length on the finish. Elegant and complete. 91 points
1983 Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon
Low and leafy on the nose with strong dill, herb, and cherry oak aromas. In the mouth this is a bit astringent and medicinal, showing some black cherry fruit supported by rough and rustic tannins. This is tough going with green tannins dominating the finish. Shows only modest ripeness. A bit like drinking chainmail. 83 points
1984 Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
Jammy on the nose with rich blackcurrant fruit over notes of leather, mint and cedar, turning fresher with air as it reveals more red fruit. Fresh, bright and tense in the mouth, this is still youthfully opulent with meaty hints and a chocolate edge framing the core black currant and black cherry fruit that has a gentle, lingering sweetness to it. Smooth, ripe and very well-balanced, this is at peak. 93 points
1985 Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
A bit brothy on the nose with lots of toasty spices and sweet oak-derived aromas. Smooth and finely balanced in the mouth, this really exhibits lovely balance with a touch of leanness across the mid-palate that gives this a bit of Bordeaux character. The finish shows the classic black currant and black cherry fruits but is a bit on the short side. A bit tough and monolithic. 88 points
1987 Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
Intensely aromatic, this is layered with notes of leafy herbs, big black fruit, roasted coffee, cedar, leather and a hint of mushroom. Exploding on the palate in opulent style, this is rich and chewy packed with blackberry, black currant and black cherry fruits that remain ripe and supported by ripe tannins. The finish is long and fruit-driven. A seductive wine. 94 points
1989 Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
A little oxidized on the nose, with lots of earthy, leathery, mushroomy dried-out aromas. While the palate is rich and smooth, it offers flavors similar to those found on the nose with no nuance or detail, finishing abruptly on the short finish. Probably a bad bottle. 78 points
1990 Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
Tight on the nose, with hints of celery seed and cedar wood spice framing sweet black cherry and currant fruit. Rich and chewy in the mouth, this shows off powerful fruit, backed up with lots of oak in a round plush style that ends up being a bit chunky and sweet. While many will find pleasure here, the truth is it’s not very interesting and shows a bit of heat with its formidable power. 89 points
1991 Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
Seared black fruit greets the nose, layered with hints of vanilla cream, jammy fruit, and sweet toasty oak spices. Youthful and bright in the mouth, this shows off some blueberry notes over a core of young, tense, black fruit. Everything is in place and well-proportioned here, offering up a seamless blend of elegance and power that can stand another decade in the cellar. The finish is particularly noteworthy, long and fresh with lovely purity of fruit. 94 points
1992 Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
A bit dull on the nose with a hint of celery under lots of toasty spices, notes of burnt marshmallow and subtle black fruits. In the mouth this is intense and focused, and far fresher than one would guess from the nose. There's big fruit paired with big oak here, a little thick and astringent across the palate. This has a bit of a coarse edge to the rather long finish, but should still improve with time in the cellar. 91 points
1994 Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
Aromatically this remains coy, hinting at wood spice and licorice over a core of fine blue and black fruits. The aromatics carry over into the mouth, where this exhibits attractive spice notes over a palate that is as much about cedar and wood spice as it is about black raspberry and cherry fruit. There's a lot of dry tannin here to burn off, and there seems to be enough fruit to handle it, but it's a bit of an iffy proposition at this point based on this bottle. Based on track record, however, I expect this to pull itself together nicely by about 2018. 91 points