On a recent visit to London celebrating the upcoming release of the 2015 Cardinale; Barbera Banke and Julia Jackson from Jackson Family Wines wanted to prove that their flagship Napa Valley wine - Cardinale deserves to sit alongside other more established iconic fine wines at a similar price point. It’s no mean feat going up against such historic estates as Mouton Rothschild and Vega Sicilia as well as fronting up to the modern day radicals at Sine Qua Non.
What was most interesting was perhaps what the wines had in common, rather than what made them different. Fine wine is all about harmony and texture. Finding detail, concentration and complexity on the palate, whilst at the same time not having one aspect stand out too much against another. The key is keeping all that concentration and complexity well contained in a harmonious whole. It has to fully reveal itself on the palate but in a controlled way; if it were an “explosion in the mouth” it would be one in slow motion. This was the case for all of these wines. The tannins and texture were all very, very fine yet concentrated, the oak ageing further integrating into the dense, harmonious whole.
What made the wines different then were nuances in structure, fruit purity and alcohol. Cardinale is not a representation of a single vineyard but a symphony of different expressions blended together by the talented Chris Carpenter. It is a wine dominated by mountain fruit hailing from some of the top vineyard sites in the Napa Valley. From Howell Mountain and Mount Veeder, to Diamond Mountain and Spring Mountain; each of the vineyards offers a different layer and flavour profile to this extraordinary wine.
Winemaker Chris Carpenter compares it to a symphony of parts, in contrast to the single site expressions found in his Lakoya range. Each of the sites has distinct structural elements and very specific flavour profiles which one can pick up on in the final assemblage, yet Chris is keen to make sure they are complimentary, rather than overtly contrasting. On tasting the 2015 and the 2008, it is very clear that Cardinale is both brilliantly detailed yet incredibly harmonious.
Julia made a point of outlining the distinct flavour profiles of each of the vineyards and what they bring to the final blend. Mount Veeder brings power, oomph and distinct blue fruit character. Grown at a high altitude, it also brings great freshness to the blend and represents the backbone of the wine. The fruit from Howell Mountain hails from the Keyes vineyard (one of the oldest vineyards in Napa) and brings a dark fruit flavour and a textural richness to the wine. Diamond Mountain produces more high-toned red fruit characters and a powdered cocoa flavour. The high elevation brings freshness. Spring Mountain is again on the high-toned red fruit spectrum, but with more herbal and floral aromas. So how well do they come together?
The combination is really quite extraordinary, the wine is brilliantly layered and builds beautifully on the palate – plenty of blue fruit aromas, spice and additional smokiness coming from the oak. The aromas are actually quite restrained and not at all jammy or overripe, despite the hot vintage. The contrast of power, concentration and backbone whilst remaining utterly silky and elegant gives the wine a special profundity. The fruit flavours have great purity and a nice roundness, making it both easy drinking yet very serious. The tannins are fine-tuned and the 14.5% abv is incredibly integrated - you simply don’t notice it.
Chateau Mouton Rothschild 2008
The most distinct feature of the Mouton is that it remains marked by a heavy toast of oak on the nose and is already showing quite developed tertiary aromas of grilled meats. The texture on the palate is wonderfully elegant, so detailed, layered and very integrated. There is a lovely purity to the fruit and what is most noticeable in comparison with the other wines in the tasting is the 1% less alcohol on the palate – making the wine more weightless than its counterparts.
Vega Sicilia Unico 2008
The most reserved on the nose – needing some proper coaxing of the glass to express its personality. In contrast to the Mouton’s 13.5% abv, the alcohol at 14.5% abv is more present, adding real weight and heat to the palate. This is a very powerful, dense energised wine yet, like its counterparts, brilliantly controlled. The wine has darker fruit flavours, earthy, savoury and full of spice. The dense concentration of tannins is more granular than any of the other wines, yet still very elegant. There is a great contrast here of finesse, rusticity and power.
If the Unico is more about authentic rawness, then in contrast, the Cardinale is more about technical brilliance and fruit purity. Whilst the palate (similar to the 2015) is restrained on the nose there is brilliant clarity of fruit with great concentration, delineation and purity on the palate. The wine is rich and ripe with some power and some heat. Similar to the 2015, the wine has a great layering that builds beautifully on the palate.
Sine Qua Non B20 2008
Looking at the abv of 15.4%, I approached this wine with trepidation but was blown away by its hedonistic brilliance. Whilst the alcohol brought weight, power and energy, it didn’t feel any higher and was even less pronounced than the Unico. The most aromatically appealing of the four wines, with a complex nose of redcurrant/raspberry confit, savoury cured meats and fresh earth – terroir-driven aromas. This wine really is a controlled explosion in the mouth yet totally elegant, multi-layered and sublimely silky on the palate.
After tasting through, it was clear that Cardinale comfortably sat alongside these powerhouse icons and it was a brilliant opportunity to see both the differences and similarities of fine wines with ten years of age. Perhaps contrary to common preconceptions – the two US wines tasted fresher and less developed than the Mouton. The Unico was the most undeveloped and I would expect it to take years before it fully revealed itself. In contrast, you feel both the Cardinale and the Sine Qua Non would drink well early in their lifetime, very nicely now in their mid-term and will last for the long term too. All the wines had personality and a touch of brilliance, it really was a rare opportunity to compare.