Few wineries have played as large a role in shaping California’s reputation within the world of fine wine as Chateau Montelena. Founded in 1882, Montelena transferred ownership several times before a group of lawyers, headed by Jim Barrett, decided to purchase the estate in 1968. With a strong belief in the potential of Napa Valley wines, Barrett set about transforming the property, replanting the Estate’s old vines with lower yield Cabernet Sauvignon that would produce the high caliber, concentrated wine he envisioned. While waiting for these vines to mature, Montelena began producing Chardonnay in 1972 (from purchased grapes) in an effort to draw attention to the Estate’s revitalization.
It was the 1973 vintage of this Chardonnay — only the second vintage produced — that went on to win first place among French and Californian wines in the famous 1976 Judgment of Paris. Although Montelena’s triumph over four white Burgundies was controversial, this victory nevertheless catapulted California onto the fine wine scene, and eventually even encouraged some collaboration between French and American winemakers.
Two years after the Paris Tasting, Montelena produced its first Estate Cabernet. The Cab quickly surpassed the Chardonnay as the favorite among drinkers, who have lauded the wine’s remarkable concentration and reflection of terroir. Head winemaker Bo Barrett (Jim’s son) and his team pride themselves on carefully harvesting each block of Cabernet separately in order to create ideal blends each year. The Estate Cabernet often features signature notes of blackberries, chocolate and cedar, and is repeatedly cited as one of California’s best-aging wines.
Given its history, aging ability and exceptional quality, Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet is perfect for both wine novices and connoisseurs. For a bottle you can share with friends now, I recommend the 1991, 1995, or 1997. But if you are looking for a California cab worth cellaring a few years, try the 2003 and 2008 vintages.