The 2004 vintage produced a crop of solid, dense, ripe Cabernets with plenty of power, richness, and longevity. It was an early harvest that was compact and proceeded at a rapid pace, with most growers finished by the end of September.
The season got off to a fast start, with bloom almost a month earlier than the recent average. It stayed early right through veraison, and as harvest approached and sugars raced, there was concern whether there would be enough hang-time for physiological ripeness to develop before the acids fell. The heat moderated just enough for growers to hang on while flavors developed and the resulting wines have depth, power, and richness. Hillside and mountain fruit fared very well.
Overall an excellent vintage that yielded superb, full-bodied, ripe, and powerful wines that are built to last.
Three week heat spell
Heat spikes continue
At one point in his life, John Shafer worked in the publishing industry. Now he is responsible for a slew of eye-popping scores from Robert Parker, and the making of one of Napa Valley's greatest Cabernets. Shafer made the big switch from words to wine in 1972, purchasing a 210-acre estate in Stags Leap. The property was a fixer-upper, so to speak; John and his son Doug, who is now head winemaker, had their work cut out for them. After years spent replanting the vineyard and terracing the steep hillside, retribution came as their debut vintage won first place in the San Francisco Vintners Club Cabernet taste-off. These days, Shafer's Cabernet is frying slightly bigger fish. A decade after the first vintage won in San Francisco, another Cabernet won an international blind-tasting competition in Germany, where it stacked up better than Château Margaux, Château Latour and Château Palmer. The flagship Hillside Select bottling, which comes entirely from the Hillside Estate Vineyard, is a flamboyantly ripe and full-flavored example of the Napa Valley expression of the varietal. Other notable bottlings include a lush, round Merlot, with more personality and soil character than most examples of this variety, and a serious Chardonnay from Carneros.
Medium to full-bodied wines with flavors of black cherry, plum, and tobacco
Roasts, hamburgers, other grilled meats
Merlot enjoyed a surge in popularity in the 1990s as consumers suddenly discovered that they could enjoy aromas and flavors similar to those of Cabernet in a fleshier, softer wine with smoother tannins. A wave of Merlot plantings followed, frequently in soils and microclimates completely inappropriate for this variety, and the market was soon flooded with dilute bottles from young vines and high crop levels, and weedy, herbaceous examples from underripe fruit. Many of these undernourished wines were overoaked in attempts to mask their deficiencies. Over the same period, a number of Cabernet producers began picking riper fruit and doing a better job managing their tannings during the making and aging of their wines. The result was an upswing of powerful, satisfying Cabernets that were far less austere in their youth -- and a sharp decline in interest in Merlot.
Still, California's best Merlots, some of which predated the vogue for this variety in the 1990s, continue to be some of the finest examples of this variety outside Bordeaux -- in the same quality league with wines from Washington State and Italy's Tuscan coast region. Expect to find broad, supple wines with medium to full body, typically with aromas and flavors of black cherry, plum, dark berries, dark chocolate, tobacco, and earth, and suave, fine-grained tannins. Merlot also rules in Pomerol, and nowhere in the world does this variety make more complete wines than on the flat, clay-rich plateau that lies at the heart of this appellation.