It generally makes sense during a themed tasting to start with the youngest, freshest wines and work back to the oldest and most sophisticated ones. So when the first guests (already energized by a number of white wine aperitifs) came back to the kitchen from the wine room enthusing about the MILLBROOK 2000 NEW YORK STATE, our youngest American wine on offer, I figured we'd be in for a good evening. When they really enthused about the Millbrook, I suggested it was time to try the other Cab Francs on offer. When they did so and said they still preferred the Millbrook, I got stuck in myself. Did we have a knock-out in round one?
Maybe so. A brooding red color in the glass emitted a strong blackberry/bluebbery/ peppery/plummy/tobaccoey/earthy/woody nose that revealed far more complexity that one would imagine from such an innocuously branded wine. On the palate, it offered refreshing acidity, juicy plummy fruits and soft tannins, with some puckering spice at the back end. A check of the web site reveals that this wine has 19% Merlot and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon in the mix, which possibly explains its depth of flavors; it also saw 12 months in oak, which would explain some of the woody notes. But none of that really explains the wine's overall balance nor the fact that, come the end of the night, this was our only empty bottle. Do people always prefer the first wine they taste on a theme night? I don't think so. I think the Millbrook priced at around $16 is a surprise star.
Our East Coast expert pointed out that 2000 was a poor vintage here and wondered where the grapes hailed from given that the wine is labeled simply New York State. (The 1999 Proprieter's Reserve Cab Franc proclaims itself exclusively from Millbrook's Hudson Valley locale.) I exchanged e-mails with the winery's General Manager Gary Goddard, who stated that "The 2000 vintage was fruit harvested solely from our vineyard (in the Hudson Valley). Early on we decided the weather was not going to give us what we were hoping for... so we dropped nearly 40% of our crop to insure proper ripening. We kept a keen eye on the fruit and made the decision not to produce a reserve version of the wine in 2000. We could have used a Hudson River Region appellation but decided not to do so." This is all credit to Millbrook's general philosophy and the talents of long-term wine maker John Graziano. But before getting carried away, it's worth noting that Millbrook is owned by entrepreneurs John and Kathe Dyson, whose other estates include Villa Pillo in Tuscany and what's widely considered California's premier producer of Pinot Noir, Williams and Selyem. Proof, perhaps, that a well-financed business with a flexible approach to difficult vintages will always deliver the best possible quality
Such was the reaction to the Millbrook that I bought another bottle and took it out to Thanksgiving Dinner with the In-Laws a crowd that likes its red wines but doesn't profess to study them. There it met with a similarly exuberant response even being compared to top-tier ice-cream for its silky disposition! To my own palate, I observed second time around that it was less distinctive of the Cabernet Franc grape and more like an easy going Zinfandel in that it was warm, spicy, peppery and fruity - albeit with far less fiery alcohol than Zin, as would befit the East Coast's cooler growing climate. Any which way, it's a desperately good wine.
Back to the Fletcher-hosted tasting. We switched between countries as we worked our way back in vintage but I noticed such a distinct difference in the flavors that I prefered observing each nation on its own. Sadly, a TOMASELLO 1999 ATLANTIC COUNTY from New Jersey was corked and undrinkable. (Two other East Coast wineries that I generally have time for, Chaddsford in Pennsylvania and Barboursville in Virginia, also produce Cabernet Franc, but I hadn't seen them in the months prior to planning this tasting. Another time, maybe.) A HAHN ESTATES 1999 from the SANTA LUCIA HIGHLANDS of MONTEREY COUNTY in California which was total crap. I'd picked it up that morning for $9 on the off chance that we'd get a good Californian red for $9. I should have known better; it was ridiculed for being somehow both over- and under-ripe in the same breath.
Schneider's Cabernet Franc, a Long Island wine considered the flagship bottling for New York State, was impressive, but was bested in our tasting by Standing Stone from the Finger Lakes and Millbrook from Hudson Valley
Also disappointing was the MACARI 1997 NORTH FORK LONG ISLAND. There was nothing inherently wrong with the wine it had a simple blueberry-blackberry nose and uncomplicated gulpable juice. But it was remarkably simple especially given its $18 price tag, the supposedly good quality of the vintage, and the relatively new winery's otherwise excellent reputation. (I visited Macari this time last year and came away extremely impressed with their approach.) What to blame? Young vines? Learning curve? I have a bottle of the '98 stashed away which has 25% Cabernet Sauvignon blended in there though given that that addition was by accident, let's blame the learning curve.
On then to the SCHNEIDER NORTH FORK 1998, which I've already raved about on this web site, and which I'd held onto one bottle of for a couple of years to see how it would age. Very nicely, it would seem after this tasting: it was still inky and moderately tannic, offered an attractive vanilla/spice combo, a tobacco-like nature, and aromatic blue-black fruits. While initially straight-forward, it had an admirable complexity, and a slightly sweet oaky delivery. (It sees 16 months in small barrels, and includes 15% Merlot.) I found it to be extremely well balanced, if less overtly fruity than the Millbrook. A number of us rated this wine highly, though one person later wrote, not unfairly, that it was something of "a show pony of a wine
groomed to garner points". We could see why it's hailed as New York's premier Cabernet Franc, we just weren't convinced that it was.
Moving further north, then, a STANDING STONE 1998 FINGER LAKES was particularly pleasing. I've read so much about Long Island having the ideal growing conditions for Cab Franc that I'd paid little attention to the suitability of the upstate region, where most of the State's wine hails from (including some excellent white wines, and a number of barely drinkable hybrids). The colder climate was apparent to me in a more vegetal nose the famed green-ness that turns some people off this grape but everything else had come together in barrel and bottle to deliver a well-balanced, fruit-driven wine with a soft, spicy, tobacco-tinged finish that had several people licking their lips in pleasure. (The 18 months of oak ageing was particularly well-integrated.) Less 'showy' than some of its surrounding competition, yet more 'honest' to its varietal roots, the Standing Stone was named the best New York wine of the night by those who made notes - and at least one of our Loire fanatics named it his favorite Cabernet Franc of the whole evening.
Also from the Finger Lakes, The 1999 HOSMER CAYUGA LAKE (pictured on the previous page with the Standing Stone) was noticeably bigger than our other East Coast reds, still very acidic and boldly though medicinally - fruity, with a chewy texture that made it stand out from the competition. I noted that it seemed more 'modern' somehow but I think that was just due to its hefty structure. Or it could have been a matter of vintage: it was, after all, our only 1999. One person called it 'ripe' and 'slick'; another 'hollow' and 'under-ripe.' Proof that different wines will inevitably taste different to different people. And something of an uneven manner in which to end our mostly impressive bag of New York offerings.
Part 3: The Loire Wines
Part 4: Conclusions
Part 1: The Basics and The Regions