Thursday, February 28, 2008

Who says Louis M Martini isn't what it used to be?

The Louis M Martini winery was founded in 1933, although its roots go back to 1899. Martini is considered to be one of the patriarchs of California winemaking, and the legacy of Martini has always commanded respect. This winery makes my favorite California Cabernet - very much in the old world claret style, with some influence from their Italian immigrant heritage, but not lacking in Californian richness. The hallmark and legacy of these wines is that although they are very drinkable on release, they have such superb balance that Martini's basic Cabernets from the 1970's still drink well today; I also recently saw reports that their best Pinot Noirs from the 1960's are still in nice shape as well. And yet, for reasons I don't understand, there is a general feeling that Martini's wines are not what they used to be. There is no doubt that when Gallo purchased Martini in 2002 (although the Martini family still runs the winery and makes the wines), the financial investment was much needed, and has helped to restore their image. But even so, they have always had big fans amoung consumers and critics. To paraphrase one professional reviewer, 'Martini's wines always taste more expensive than they are.' And that is one of things I love about them - they offer tremendous class and elegance for the price. Maybe class and elegance are considered outdated by the fruit bomb generation, but it is worth noting that Robert Parker's Wine Advocate is one of the fans.

The first Martini Cabernet I tasted was the 1981 La Loma Vineyard Selection Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, tasted in 2004. At 23 years, it was a classic example of Martini's hallmark grace and balance, and not without the vitallity to age a few more years. Some people have suggested that this wine was made at the very end of Martini's glory days. And yet, when I first tasted their 2001 Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon later in 2004, I daresay I found all of the hallmark grace, balance, and potential longevity still very much alive. Even the 2002 Sonoma Cabernet, which was less succesful in overall quality still had the class of a more expensive wine, and very nearly the same aging potential as the truly excellent 2001.

I happened to have the opportunity to try a glass of the 2004 Napa Valley Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon at a restaurant a few weeks ago, and having tasted that, could not resist trying a bottle of the 2003 Napa Valley Reserve Cabernet the next week. As far as I'm concerned, these two wines should prove once and for all that the Martini legacy is alive and well!

Louis M Martini Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Reserve 2004
Backwards and only suggesting the dark cherry and cassis that will emerge with time, with a touch of slightly savory herbs toward the finish, and an almost leathery earthiness. The herbs even suggest a bit of Italian influence, but still it proudly asserts its Napa provenance. Backwards and very old world in style, but even at this stage showing the promise of tremendous elegance to come. In short. a classic Martini Cabernet. This should age well for 15 more years, and very possibly longer (might be interesting to see what it's like in 20 years), but needs 5 or maybe even 10 years to resolve all its elements - but then it will sing! Excellent (87 - 90), but will be Exceptional (90 - 93) with time.

Louis M Martini Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Reserve 2003
Nice, rich nose of tobacco and cassis. Glides onto the palate with dark, firm raspberry, perhaps with a touch of blackberry, then goes to cassis, then a finish of tobacco with minty and slighty savory herbs and minerals. Deceptively rich but not overstated, with seemless balance, and exceptional elegance. Every sip of this wine is completely satisfying - this is one to savor. Once again a classic, old world Martini Cabernet, perhaps calling to mind a good Graves. Much farther along than the 2004, despite only a one year difference. This is just barely approachable, and would benefit from another 5 years, and will easily last 5 years, perhaps more, after that. Excellent (87 - 90)

Between the two, the 2003 is much more enjoyable now, but the 2004 has much greater potential. I have a mind to get four bottles of the 2004 and open one every five years. Also, snap up any remaining bottles of the 2001 Sonoma Cab if you can! As suggested above Martini wines are very good values - the Sonoma Cab runs about $12, and the Napa Reserve about $20. Their flagship wine is their Monte Rosso Cabernet (they were the first winery to buy land in Monte Rosso), which goes for about $50. Wine Spectator (who had given very poor reviews to some previous Martini wines) gave the 2003 a nice review. They also just released a single lot Napa Cab that goes for $80. Too pricey for me, but Parker liked it quite a bit.

1 comment:

Yaron Zakai said...

Excellent post. It made me want to get a bottle of Louis Martini Cabernet - which is a bit of a challenge, but hopefully will have one in a couple of weeks.