Right around the time my friends and I were sobering up from our 16-year verticle tasting of wines from Cathy Corison’s Kronos Vineyard, Dave McIntyre of The Washington Post, wrote in his weekly column, he, too, had recently tasted through 16 vintages of a particular wine. He said the wines in the tasting were “postcards from time,” and as one of his fellow diners told him: “I enjoy each wine less this way, but I learn more.”
Those are easy assertions to agree with and capitalizing on the learning and the understanding of time, is exactly why a year after my tasting group wrangled 21 vintages of Corison Napa Valley Cabernet, we challenged ourselves to do it again, this time focusing on the Cabernet Sauvignon she made from her Kronos vineyard. (Ok, we may have did it for some bragging rights, too!)
The Kronos Cabernet comes from 45-year-old vines that are grown on Cathy’s St. Helena property. She and her husband farm the land, and since 1996 they have produced the single vineyard bottling of Corison Kronos Cabernet. The wines are more powerful than the Napa Valley Cabernet she blends from other nearby by vineyards. But true to her style, Kronos maintains her delicate signature style of winemaking, keeping the wines elegant and at a low alcohol level (about 13%). If you visit the winery for a tour and library tasting (which I strongly recommend), you’ll exit the back barn-like doors and step immediately into the Kronos vineyard, located on the Napa Valley floor, stretching about 8 acres back to the Mayacamas Mountains. Unlike many of Napa’s vines, this vineyard survived the 1990s phylloxera epidemic because the vines are on St. George rootstock, which is resistant to the tiny bugs. (For more on the vineyard, take a look at this profile Kelli White wrote in 2011.)
We modeled this year’s tasting after last year’s. There were a handful of flights with all 16 vintages of the Kronos Vineyard from 1996 to 2012. Each wine was poured blind, but each flight was loosely in chronological order from oldest to youngest. A few ringers were included in the mix including two pours from the same vintage – one from the top half and other from the bottom half of a magnum, and a few of the Napa Valley Cabernets were compared against the Kronos. We had two separate bottles of 2004, so those were poured in separate glasses, as well, making for an interesting lesson in bottle variation.
Just like last year, there were no clear favorites, but together, the 16 vintages told a bigger story – a consistent beauty was strung from bottle to bottle. It’s impossible to escape the violets, dust and undertones of herbal mints that at times mixed with some chocolate (Junior Mints, anyone?).
I hit palate fatigue before the final flight. Despite my best efforts to spit and snack on the cheeses and charcuterie we prepared, by the last flight, there was nothing but the violets, dust and herbal mints coating my throat (which is certainly not a bad thing!). But there was something magical going on in the early parts of the aughts. We were told that Cathy’s favorite Kronos vintage was 2001, but 2002 and 2003 were slightly lifted from the pack for me. Whether that’s because those bottles had the right amount of age on it for my personal liking, or it was something within the vintages themselves, it’s hard to say.
It’s worth noting, however, that thanks to a very cool and rainy year – and what Cathy has called a challenging year in the vineyard – the 2011 bottle was the very definition of letting a wine speak for its vintage. It tasted significantly older – maybe by a decade – than its actual year. A bit darker and more savory than the others, but still elegant and restrained. Emanating from some of the darker more savory notes were dusty violets, which reminded one of my friends of Choward’s Violet Mints.
Having the opportunity to taste through almost all of the Corison wines – both the Napa Valley and Kronos bottles – is truly an honor. While it’s obvious that aging these wines only brings out more complexity, more structure and more textured flavors, the trouble will always be not popping the cork too early, as they are certainly just as enjoyable now as they will be in years to come.