Cellar adventures: 1997 Napa Valley cabernet

The 1997 vintage in the Napa Valley and elsewhere in California’s North Coast was both large and of excellent quality, a combination that doesn’t come along all that often.

The sheer size of the 1997 harvest also had a side effect that played a role in influencing winemaking trends. If you ask a winemaker who’s been around for a few decades why California wines have gotten so ripe, you’ll hear a number of reasons, ranging from healthier, virus-free vines to climate change to consumer preference. But some will also bring up 1997, when wineries ran out of fermentation tank space for all those grapes and were forced to let at least some of the crop hang longer than many growers would have liked. The weather cooperated, so the grapes remained in good shape. But the longer hang time also meant higher sugars, so the resulting wines were riper, flashier and more opulent.

Well, many of the critics went crazy for the wines. In 2000, Wine Spectator even called 1997 California’s “vintage of the century.” The light bulb went off: Riper wines equal higher scores.

These riper vintages produce fleshy wines that are often pleasurable when they’re young but don’t improve much (or at all) with age. Sometimes they even fall apart prematurely.

By today’s standards, the 1997s were only modestly ripe. Napa cabs with alcohols in the high 14s and low 15s aren’t uncommon now. Still, I was interested to see how a bottle of 1997 Quintessa that I pulled from my cellar recently would fare at 22 years of age.

The Quintessa estate, on the eastern edge of the Rutherford AVA, is planted with five Bordeaux grape varieties: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot and carmenere. (Carmenere was one of the traditional Bordeaux grapes but largely disappeared after phylloxera forced replanting of most vineyards in the late 1800s. Now it’s mostly found in Chile; Quintessa’s founder and proprietor, Agustin Huneeus, was born in Chile and spent the early part of his wine career there.) The Quintessa blend varies depending on the vintage.

The 1997 Quintessa clocked in at just 13.5 percent alcohol and had a youthful color. On the palate, it was ripe and plump but not overly so. The red fruit was still quite fresh, but the wine had developed some savory, earthy flavors, too. The fine tannins supported a long finish. A description of past vintages on the Quintessa website notes that the 1997 “will stand the test of time and continue to develop for five to ten years in the bottle.” I’d say it has far surpassed that time frame.  (The 2016 Quintessa is $190.)

Intrigued, I searched for another 1997 from Napa and found the 1997 Paradigm Cabernet Sauvignon from Oakville. Superstar winemaker Heidi Peterson Barrett has been Paradigm’s winemaker since the beginning, in 1991. This wine had slightly higher alcohol, at 14.1 percent, but, if anything, it tasted slightly fresher than the Quintessa. The wine, which still had great color, displayed lively red fruit, a note of tea and some developed, earthy flavors. The tannins were very approachable, and there was a long finish. All in all, a delicious bottle of wine. (The current release, 2015, sells for $84, not unreasonable for Oakville cab.)

Obviously, two wines do not a vintage assessment make. But they point to great potential for other high-quality Napa Valley cabs from 1997.


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