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WINE

Hailing a Cab

March 17, 1994|DAN BERGER | TIMES WINE WRITER

If you've toyed with the idea of starting a wine cellar, you might want to start soon. The current vintages of California Cabernet Sauvignons are among the best I have tasted.

Once you get a taste of some of the best recent Cabernet Sauvignons from California's north coast regions, it's difficult to avoid buying a few bottles and stashing them away for a few years.

Because of the moderate heat and lack of rain at harvest time, 1990 and 1991 produced some terrific wines. Some believe that 1985 and 1987 were better, but the voluptuous 1990s and the deep, classic 1991s are my favorites.

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Moreover, carefully selected 1989s (an improperly maligned vintage) can be great values.

The most remarkable thing about the 1990 and 1991 wines is the amount of fruit they contain; this means that if you age the wines five to 10 years, there still will be fruit left when you drink them. By then, much of the astringency will have gone, making the wine smoother and less gritty on the palate.

However, the texture of these wines already is so appealing there is a temptation to drink them now.

I have tasted a wide range of 1990 and 1991 Cabernets in the past two months and find the 1990s drinkable now, with plenty of room for improvement in the bottle. The '91s are deeper and loaded with concentrated fruit, but almost all need more time in the bottle to smooth out.

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An interesting thing occurred after my blind tastings. Normally, I leave most of the bottles on a counter for another day or so to see if the aeration helps or hurts the wines. Usually, about half the wines of any group begin to oxidize after a day, a few are about the same, and a couple are actually improved.

In the case of the 1991 Cabernets, almost all the wines were better after being open a day on the counter.

This isn't proof, but a strong indication that the wines are built to age. This has occurred, I think, because in most regions, the grapes in 1991 were harvested more than a month later than usual, meaning they had marvelous vine-ripened flavors and could be bottled without any of the manipulations that winemakers occasionally use to extract flavor from less-mature fruit.

The following wines, which are listed in no particular order, are all exceptional.

1989 CABERNETS

Shafer Vineyards "Hillside Select" ($35)--Rich, dark fruit, concentrated blackberry/cassis and mint aromas and a dense, tart finish. Anyone who thinks 1989 produced wimpy wines should try this one. Seen discounted as low as $23.99.

Iron Horse Vineyards and Winery ($14)--Marvelously aromatic wine with hints of tarragon and cherry mixed with a black-cherry note. The winery recently reduced the price of this wine because of negative comments by some people about the 1989 vintage.

Robert Pepi Winery "Vine Hill" ($18)--Herbal, green pepper hints add complexity to a black-cherry and anise aroma. Though the flavor lacked a bit of fruit, the next day the wine showed well.

1990 CABERNETS

Spottswoode Winery ($36)--Deep black-cherry fruit with nuances of cedar and a great, powerful finish that is so tasty you'll want to drink it now. An excellent wine that's nearly sold out. Even better is the amazingly complex and complete 1991 version, which will be released about Sept. 1. Place your orders.

Liparita Winery ($28)--Deep fruit and dense, chewy flavors, fairly tannic, but with the stuffing to age well.

Joseph Phelps Vineyards "Backus" ($30)--Very concentrated black cherry and mint, dense color and almost overwhelming extract, yet with enough grace that it's nice to drink now. Another powerful Backus Cabernet.

Beringer Vineyards "Private Reserve" ($35)--Another powerhouse wine from Ed Sbragia. Deep, dense cassis aromas, spiced-mint and chocolate tastes. A massive wine with a long track record of aging.

Domaine Michel ($12)--Herbal-cherry notes, plenty of oak, lots of fruit, but a little one-dimensional. Needs two more years to smooth out, but a good value.

Mount Veeder Winery ($16)--Herbal notes dominate the initial aroma, but there's good fruit and structure here. It tasted best the next day.

Husch Winery "North Field Select" ($18)--Minty/cherry aroma and a deep fruit taste. A wine for the short term, but with great flavors.

1991 CABERNETS

Staglin Family Vineyard ($26)--Slightly more herbal than the marvelously currant-like 1990 Staglin, this wine offers more complex flavors and more depth. Stunning wine for the next century.

Frog's Leap Vineyards ($17)--Intense dark fruit aromas and flavors, nuances of herbs, and a luscious, very complex finish. As great a wine as Frog's Leap's amazing 1987, and a bargain. (Approximately 7,000 cases were produced and it was just released.)

Silverado Vineyards ($17)--Racy cherry and herb elements are closed in when the cork is first pulled, but a bit of air opens the wine to reveal wonderful depth and a graceful texture. Nearly sold out.

Clos du Bois ($12.75)--Fairly smoky/oaky aroma still offers a load of fine fruit and ample depth for a wine so reasonably priced. Probably not very long-lived, but marvelous flavors.

Lockwood Winery, Monterey ($14)--Earthy, faintly green-leafy aroma with good cherry-like fruit and enough richness to drink now; excellent aging potential.

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