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1985 Was a Very Good Wine Year : Vintage Offerings of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon

July 31, 1986|NATHAN CHROMAN | Chroman is a free-lance wine writer and author who also practices law in Beverly Hills

The genuine star of the recent Napa Valley Wine Auction was not the generous outpouring by bidders of more than $400,000 for lavishly packaged big monied bottles. Nor was it the three-day showering of hospitality at winery open houses.

Rather it was the 1985 vintage with still-in-the-barrel Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays that collectively may turn out to be the best since the fabled vintage of 1974. This is the kind of vintage consumers should collect, cellar and if possible, purchase as futures--the Bordeaux-conceived practice of buying wine before bottling on the strength of authoritative vintage reports.

No doubt this is a "Cab" vintage to reckon with, much like such heralded vintages as 1968, 1958, 1951, 1947, 1941, and, of course, 1974. All produced exceptional valley Cabernets that are now benchmarks of vintage greatness, and the kind that challenge claret for aging ability and complex development. Much has already been made of the 1985 Bordeaux vintage, but here is an opportunity for Napa Valley vintners to turn the tables on the French and offer a vintage that will be heralded before release.

Bruce Cakebread, wine maker of Cakebread Cellars, said it best: "The 1985 is a textbook vintage when grapes ripened perfectly in just the right time sequence for just the right moment for picking."

Other valley wine makers agreed, including Tom Selfrige of Beaulieu Vineyards, Greg Upton of Franciscan and Bo Barrett of Chateau Montelena.

Coolness Extended Season

"We just didn't have the usual heat this year," added Barrett. "The vintage got off pretty hot during the day a few times but it was always cooled off at night. The coolness extended the season a little, too. The crop was fairly light but it was great and well spaced so we did not have to work around the clock trying to get everything in."

Vintage Wine Merchants, 1985 harvest report, described the vintage as a "classic growing season provided by a long, slow, generally cool summer and evidenced by very deep green foliage, probably the deepest yet seen in a decade." The vintage that began Aug. 20 was so controlled it was probably the best paced ever, allowing vintners a less hectic harvest when every grape seems to ripen at the same time.

"Early September rain did not impair the harvest," viticulturist Roy Raymond of Raymond Vineyards added, "the storm that came to us was not warm and humid, but very cool weather after it prevented a great deal of rot that otherwise might have occurred. There was also a surprising lack of rot, very high acids and a reversal of usual September conditions."

Luscious, silky, mouth-filling character with richly concentrated fruit best describes the '85s. Frankly, I found it to be similar in its overall style to the vaunted 1982 clarets that contain fruit to burn. These '85s not only have fruit, but apparently ample soft non-aggressive tannins that should make the wines age with nuanceful complexities. Perhaps it is a bit early to acclaim the wines, but it is not difficult to be impressed not only by the soft, seductive, youthful charms of these lovely appearing deep purple wines, but also by their firm structure and good balance. Surely, they are winners.

Overflowing With Intensities

One of the best is Phelps, Insignia, Auction Reserve, made specially and only for the auction, which sold for $700 per case. This is a big-tasting, minty red with length and depth and overflowing with the intensities of appealing mint and eucalyptus, which even at this stage can be smelled across a room. It is gloriously lush, silky and indeed in the best tradition of Phelps Insignias, beginning with the magnificent 1974. All the Insignias were fine wines, some better than others, but this one should be the best.

Regrettably, this blend of 50% Cabernet, 40% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc will not be available to the public, but only to the winning bidder. The '85 Insignia (the so-called non-auction reserve), however, will be and is likely to be similarly styled with a blend of 50% Cabernet, 30% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc. Similar or not, the '85 vintage for claret-styled wine at Phelps is clearly a success and definitely worth the $25 a bottle when released.

Another stunning, superb, exciting winner is Beaulieu, Cabernet Sauvignon, Private Reserve, which makes a super statement for the '85 vintage. Riches of fruit are massive enabling the wine to develop beautifully right alongside its acclaimed predecessors after and during the Andre Tchelistcheff era. A smooth taste of Rutherford cherry coupled with firmness of structure and a long, lush consistency throughout should make for one of Beaulieu's best. Generally a "Private Reserve" is not offered for tasting until wood and bottle aging is complete prior to release several years down the road, but with obvious taste magnificence, there was no risk.

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