Diamond Creek Vineyards has been one of my favorite wineries since I first tasted their wonderful Cabernets many years ago. The reason that I love the wines is not only because they taste great but also because all the wines show their distinctive terroirs clearly.
One of our regular customers who is a savvy California wine lover held a wine party the other night at Hortensia where I work as Head Sommelier. I didn't ask him if I could use his name in this blog so I would call him "Dr. K."
Dr. K has been a serious California wine lover for a long time during which he has collected amazing selections of California wines, ranging from a vertical selection of Harlan estate, many vintages of Screaming Eagle, Dalla Valle Maya or even a rare bottle of Araujo "Viognier" Eisele Vineyard.
Dr. K had been dreaming of having a special wine party dinner where he could share his favorite wines with his friends, comparing rare bottles of Diamond Creek "Volcanic Hill MICROCLIMATE" '02 and '99 with normal Volcanic Hill of the same (or similar) vintages as well as again, very rare old vintages of the same vineyard, Volcanic Hill '94, '91 and '81.
All the Diamond Creek wines are difficult to get because of both its popularity and rarity but Microclimate series is the one that is almost impossible to find, especially outside the US. The Microclimate wines are special cuvees that are produced once in a while when the winemaker finds a particularly outstanding barrel of wine from a certain section of the vineyard and bottles it individually rather than blending it with wine from other sections. It doesn't take a genius to figure out how rare the wines are, considering the fact that even the blended ones have a cult status.
Dr. K was (or has been as usual) so generous that he offered me to taste all the wines he brought for the guests.
Here are my tasting notes;
Diamond Creek "Volcanic Hill" 2002 (decanted 2 hours before serving)
Densely packed and structured. It has just started revealing subtle earthy bouquets of tobacco, dry leaf, lead pencil yet still retains ripe yet fresh fruit aromas such as cassis, blackberry and black cherry at the forefront. It holds a firm tannin structure that restrains the ripeness of fruit on the palate. Very concentrated and wild.
Diamond Creek "Volcanic Hill" 1999 (decanted 2 hours before serving)
Tightly knit yet graceful. It shows a higher ratio of earthy bouquets than '02 because of the longer bottle age in a more developed style such as cigar box, humus and oriental spices along with ripe yet fresher cassis and blackberry aromas with higher acidity that proves that '99 was a cooler year than '02. Very complex yet still has a long life in the future.
Diamond Creek "Volcanic Hill Microclimate" 2001 (decanted 2 hours before serving)
Dense, intense and substantial. It has even more concentrated yet detailed aromas and flavors in a much bigger scale. Amazing depth and staying power. Very focused with tightly knit fruit and nuanced subtle bouquets with an overtone of earthiness. It still retains a massive tannin structure at the core packed with ripe and rich fruit.
Diamond Creek "Volcanic Hill Microclimate 1999 (decanted 2 hours before serving)
Refined, seamless and complex. More elegant and subtle than '01 yet retains the same intensity and concentration. It shows more complex bouquets of cigar box and dry leaf with mature fruit flavors mixed with dry flowers and roasted bay leaf and sage. Very complex. On the palate, it is tightly focused with great fruit purity that is still there, being pushed forward by the ripe and fine grained tannins, leaving complex earthy bouquets in the finish that is quite long.
Diamond Creek "Volcanic Hill" 1994 (opened 2 hours earlier and decanted right before serving)
Elegant, harmonious yet broad. The ratio of fruit aroma and earthy bouquet is now reversed, showing more cigar box, dry leaf and oriental spices than fruit aromas that are more developed into mature fruit flavors that give UMAMI-like impression on the palate. The style is very similar to '99 yet is more developed because of the age, suggesting that '99 might be maturing in the similar way. But who knows? The similar kids can be very different in 5 years. The same thing happens to wine as well.
Diamond Creek "Volcanic Hill" 1991 (opened 2 hours earlier and served directly from the bottle)
Polished, discreet yet plush. Gorgeous aromas of ripe black fruits that have been mature enough to be nicely intermingled with earthy bouquets of cigar box and humus are jumping out of the glass. Very impressive. On the palate, it is a bit dry fruit cakey. And it has a seamless tannin structure that gives the smooth mouth feel yet still retains a firm core at the center that prevents itself from falling apart or being flabby. The finish is amazingly long.
Diamond Creek "Volcanic Hill" 1981 (opened 30 minutes earlier and served directly from the bottle)
Extraordinarily pure yet tremendously complex. I am literally speechless not because English is my second language but also even in Japanese I would be so. So would be everyone else. Who said that California wine cannot age well? I would be happy to go to the Narita airport flying to Paris with this bottle of wine and put some in as many glasses as possible to give to the biased wine lovers on the Champs-Élysées street, showing how beautifully California wine can age or even on the street in front of this restaurant in Tokyo. (Japanese French wine lovers are even more prejudiced on American wines in general.) It is incredible that the purity and the complexity, the completely different or opposite elements, can co-exist in just one wine. Amazing.
Some guests at the table said that the wines are more like Bordeaux than California Cabernet. To the extent that I'm doing the "Bridge Wine" thing in my wine program at the restaurant to make it easier for Japanese French wine lovers to understand California wine, I agree. I'd give two to three bridges to all the Diamond Creek Cabernets. But, to be very honest with you, well, I don't think so. It is the way a classic California Cabernet ages with time.
California Cabernets that many people think of are the ones that are made in the excessively modern way that could be made anywhere in the world as long as the vineyard can get a lot of sunshine and there is a winemaker with a master degree of enology (and a deep pocket) with no respect to the wine culture. Given that, yes, the Diamond Creek Cabernets are closer to Bordeaux than modern California Cabernets.
But it doesn't mean that it tastes like Bordeaux. It absolutely tastes Californian. The wines that we tasted that night are the ones that cannot come from anywhere else but the small vineyard high up in the mountain in Napa Valley that has a distinctive microclimate or terroir. The wines don't taste like Bordeaux in that the wines have riper and richer fruit and more generous, mature tannins with great purity in fruit that cannot be achieved without the California sunshine yet still can reveal complex classic Cabernet bouquets without crossing the fine line between great Cabernet and just great red wine.
All the guests at the table seemed impressed by the wines that Dr. K generously offered. So was I. Probably, it was the best wine tasting dinner that I have ever attended. And I felt that this kind of a wine party could not happen in my life time. But Dr. K said to me at the end of the dinner "Would you be interested in a vertical tasting of *Lake vineyard Cabs?"
*Diamond Creek "Lake" Cabernet has been produced only 10 times in the past. Obviously the rarest wine.
How could I not be?
Some people love a certain wine because the wine is made in a certain region that they like. But, not all the wines reflect where they come from or terroir.
One of our guests tonight brought a bottle of wine for the dinner.
The wine was Chateau Lascombes 2001, a 2nd growth of Bordeaux from the Margaux village. 2001 in Bordeaux is a classic year that produces an accordingly classic, terroir-oriented style of wine rather than big and rich ones that are more likely to be made in a hot vintage such as 2003.
The wine is 10 years old, which means it is supposed to show classic nose of mature Bordeaux bouquets such as cigar box, tobacco and oriental spices with integrated tannins.
They looked happy to drink the wine through the dinner, saying how wonderful the wine is!
The guest offered me to taste the wine. Since I mostly have American wines on the list and more importantly I mostly recommend American wines to guests, I have fewer chances to taste French wines recently. Of course, I got excited!
"Sweet aromas of blackberry jam, crème de cassis, reduced port wine sauce, mixed with sweet vanilla, chocolate from new oak. Ripe, rich texture on the palate with low acidity."
Is this really Bordeaux??
It surely tastes like what's called "Bordeaux blends" but not ones made in Bordeaux. It is more like Cabernets made in the New World such as California.
I would think that it is a good wine in a blind tasting but not a Bordeaux. In other words, it's a good wine but not a good Bordeaux. The wine doesn't show terroir.
The bottle was finished before their main courses so that the guest decided to buy a bottle of red wine from our list. And he asked for my recommendation.
I asked him if they wanted to drink a similar wine or a completely different one. His answer was "both." But, he added that both must be Cabernet.
As for a completely different one, I chose Chateaux Leoville Barton 2001. And for a similar one, I brought Spottswoode 2004 Napa Valley, California!
The guest told me that I mistook one for the other. He thought that the Bordeaux was a similar one and the Napa Cab was a completely different one.
I said "NO."
Ch. Leoville Barton is a same 2nd growth of Bordeaux as Ch. Lascombes but is a very classic style that shows earthy cigar box and tobacco with rich yet fresh cassis and blackberry as opposed to Spottswoodes that is more fruit-driven with rich and ripe black cherry and crème de cassis with integrated oak flavors though it is more restrained than other Napa Cabernets.
The label of Ch. Lascombes is obviously more similar to Ch. Leoville Barton but what's inside has more in common with Spottswoode.
The guests tasted both wines. And the opinions were divided. Three of them preferred Leoville Barton and the other three liked Spottswoode better.
They asked me which one I like better. I said that I like both very much despite the fact that they taste completely different. A polite sommelier's ubiquitous way to answer (or avoid) that kind of a question obviously made them bored. (usually, it's followed by "they are just different!") But, it is true that I like both very much for the same reason.
Both wines express where they come from clearly, in other word, terroirs. Ch. Leoville Barton tastes like Bordeaux and Spottswoode tastes like Napa Cabernet both in a very high level.
For exactly the same reason, I didn't like Ch. Lascombes despite the fact that I liked the taste of the wine.
It tastes more like California but the label says that it's Bordeaux.
Apple should taste like apple.
Orange should taste like orange.
I would send back a bottle of orange juice to a grocery store if it tasted like Apple juice no matter how delicious it was.
That the wine is "famous" doesn't guarantee that you can get a right wine. In other words, wine is all about preference.
I can clearly remember a bad experience that I had two years ago when I was working for the restaurant Citabria. The gentleman that we had as a guest in the restaurant asked a waiter to bring Ridge "Monte Bello" Cabernet Sauvignon 1990. The waiter told me that there was a savvy wine lover at the table in the private room so a sommelier should open the wine for the guests because the wine is so expensive.
I slowly and gently brought the wine to the guests waiting in the private room and showed it to the gentleman who had ordered it. He seemed very excited and so did everyone else, which of course made me excited too because the wine is one of my favorites! (In a way, I felt sad because it was the last bottle!)
He tasted it after carefully cleansing the mouth with water and abruptly looked at me with an unsatisfied face, saying "is this really the "famous" wine that beat the famous French Chateaux in the blind tasting?
There was a blind tasting competition "California VS Bordeaux" both in Napa Valley and London several years ago to see how the wines of both regions have evolved since the Paris tasting in 1976 where Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon from California won the 1st place. And it was the Ridge "Monte Bello" Cabernet that won the highest praise in the tasting this time.
Obviously, the guest was not happy with the wine. Initially, I thought that the wine was not open enough to show its real quality and asked the guests to wait about 20 minutes so the wine would gain more depth and complexity, showing more flavors with rounder tannins. They accepted my suggestion.
In the meantime, I had a chat with the guests, asking what their favorite wines are.
Shafer "Hillside Select," Caymus "Special Selection," Lewis "Cuvee L" and their most favorite is Harlan Estate.....
I was shocked to hear those names not only because the wines are all super famous (and expensive) but also because the wines are all super big and rich Cabernets whose style is completely different from that of Ridge, quite the opposite.
Ridge "Monte Bello" is located in the cool region called St. Cruz Mountain, the same area as Mount Eden that I introduced in the last blog.
Ridge "Monte Bello" is as high a quality as the famous Napa Cabernets but it is never super big and rich with ripe, sometimes jammy black berry aromas and showy oak flavors. It is more old world-like, revealing ripe yet fresh cassis aromas with classic cedar, tobacco and dry leaves, a lot of earthy non-fruit flavors that are missing in the modern California Cabernets. (Three bridge wine when it's old. Two until 10 years after bottling.)
I told the guests that the wine would never be to their liking no matter how long they wait so I'd like to offer a different wine instead of the Ridge Cabernet. (It was obviously our fault since a waiter recommended a wrong wine.) I chose the Ovid Cabernet, a new wave winery in Napa Valley with a modern style Cabernet.
They loved the modern Cabernet very much, which made me relieved.
There are many wines out there that are "famous." But if the style doesn't fit your taste, the wine is worth nothing no matter how much you spend or/and how long you wait both at the table and in the cellar.
On the night, I served the Ridge Cabernet by the glass to other guests, mainly Bordeaux lovers (especially who were drinking an expensive Bordeaux.) As you can imagine, they loved the wine, being surprised to know the fact that California could make such a great wine with a restrained body and complex bouquets reminiscent of Bordeaux. They added that they had misunderstanding about California wine. To some extent, they are right.
But, the other side of the coin is that they would never accept California wine if they first tried Ovid or Screaming Eagle!
Chief sommelier of a French restaurant "Hortensia" at Azabu-juban, Tokyo. Kaz Chiba started his career as a sommelier at the French restaurant Scene in Tokyo. After working for the Westin Hotel for 4 years, he was trained as a sommelier at Auberge du Soleil which is one of the best restaurants in California Napa Valley. When he came back to Japan in 2007 to join Citabria as Head Sommelier, he created a wine list that introduced many little-known California wines.
Advanced Sommelier of The Court of Master Sommelier
Semi-Finalist of The Japan Best Sommelier Competition 2011
An instructor of Academie du Vin, a leading wine school in the world.
"Hortensia"-French restaurant at Azabu-juban, Tokyo
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