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Tasting Notes: Opus One, etc.

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Calling this entry "Opus One, etc." doesn't really do the other wines I tried at this pre-holiday tasting much justice, I suppose. It's akin to calling a Beatles concert "Hey Jude, etc." But I digress.

I thought I’d keep my first blog entry fairly simple, and post some tasting notes from one very special tasting. A friend of mine sent me an email declaring he had some older vintages of Opus One he’d like to taste with some folks who might appreciate them, as he feared they might be getting a little long in the tooth. I was only too happy to oblige.

Opus One is a joint venture originally conceived by Robert Mondavi and Baron Phillipe de Rothschild in the early 1970s. Opus One was one of the first California ultra-premium bottlings; the debut vintage to hit the shelves was the 1979.

Trying different vintages of the same wine (called a vertical tasting) is a lot of fun, and can be a great learning experience. You really get to pick up on how the vintage's climate impacts on a wine. I don't get to do it very often, and this was the first time I've been able to try it with wines of this caliber. Most wines I drink are under $20, and are meant to be drunk within the first two to three years.

Some context: the current vintage retails in Manitoba for somewhere in the neighbourhood of $300, if you can find it. So of course big thanks to Dr. Ron (the host) and the rest of the group for inviting me to a once-in-a-lifetime chance to taste some old California wine…

Tasting Notes

  • I ranked the four Opus One bottles in terms of preference.
  • The order in which they appear coincides with the order in which they were tasted based on the overall quality of the vintage, and some educated guessing as to how to proceed from lightest to heaviest.
  • All Opus One wines are from the Napa Valley in California.

1. Opus One 1990

The cork looked a little rough on this one – there was some initial muttering around the table about possible leakage, which can lead to a corked bottle. Our fears were without merit.Nose: Meaty and blueberry notes, with cinnamon, soft vanilla, some mud and onionPalate: Very soft and velvety, with some nice tannins still hanging on. Soft, ripe blueberry flavours that deliver slightly less than the nose might imply. The fruit finishes short – the tannins, a little longer.Rank: 3

2. Opus One 1993

Nose: Some stinky earth and barnyard aromas, with dark coffee, mushroom, black pepper and a hint of fruit.Palate: Very full-bodied and tannic as heck, with cool mint and cherry cola flavours. The finish is still fairly hot (you know - that warm-in-the-chest feeling on the way down), and the tannins are still in full effect. This wine could go for another 3-5 years.Rank: 2

1992 Opus One

3. Opus One 1992

Nose: Leather, sweet stewed cherries, with a nice undercurrent of cassis and green pepper.Palate: Softer than the 1993, there’s some up-front cherry backed by a mix of mint and stewed dark fruit.Rank: 4

4. Opus One 1991

Nose: Lots of leather – like a big, cracked leather couch from that same year – with some beautiful smoky and flinty aromas, green pepper, mint and blueberry.Palate: Still very full-bodied and tightly-wound, with big blueberry coming across on the palate, trailed by green pepper and some mint. The best of the bunch - it almost seemed like we did it an injustice opening it now.Rank: 1

Then some bonus wines came out - by this time the talk was fairly animated. Yes, we were in full "wine geek" mode.

Robert Mondavi 1990 Napa Valley Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon

This wine is a blend of 82 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon, 13 per cent Cabernet Franc, and 5 per cent Merlot.

Nose: Smells like a California Cabernet fifteen years its junior: bright mint/mocha, green pepper, ripe tomato, and a hint of beefiness. Palate: Still quite tight, with soft licorice, cherry candy, and black berries on the tannic, full-bodied palate. By no means over the hill. Excellent – better than any the Opus One from the same vintage.

Penfolds 1994 Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon (South Australia)Penfolds 1994 Bin 707

This is Grange’s slightly smaller cousin, although absolutely no slouch. Pitch black in colour.

Nose: Intense plum and black licorice are way out in front of everything else: cassis, herbs, and bell pepper. Palate: Very full-bodied and way more bite to it than any of the Opus. Spicy, minty, juicy and chewy – lots of big cherry and eucalyptus flavours, and extremely dry, with big dusty tannins. Again, I think this wine may still be too young. Wow.

Osoyoos Larose 2003 (Okanagan Valley, BC)

This wine is a blend of 75 per cent Merlot, 11 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon, 6 per cent Malbec, 5 per cent Petit Verdot, and 3 per cent Cabernet Franc. With Merlot as the main grape, it was bound to be quite different than the previous five. Oh, and the fact that it's nine years younger than the rest of the pack is a huge factor too.

Nose: Plum, cinnamon, red licorice, caramel, and some big oak/cedar characteristics Palate: Very tannic, backed by juicy black plum and cherry licorice flavours, with a nice finish. It’s slightly softer but much younger than the previous wines, it seems very different. Merits a re-taste… any excuse I can think of.

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About Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson

When he wasn't bashing on a drum kit in local punk rock bands, Ben spent the mid '90s hucking cases of wine around to pay for two English degrees. Now he's the Winnipeg Free Press wine columnist and blogger.

The extent of Ben's wine experience in the mid-90s was memories of accidentally leaving a bottle of White Zinfandel in the freezer overnight, and the ensuing mess he was left with. Between 1996 and 2005 Ben absorbed all he could about wine while working at wine shops to pay for school. Meanwhile, he was churning out papers for his BA and MA in English (from the Universities of Winnipeg and Manitoba, respectively).

Ben became the Winnipeg Free Press' weekly wine columnist in 2005, and two years later joined Wine Access magazine as a contributor, a member of their national tasting panel and a judge at the Canadian Wine Awards and International Value Wine Awards until the magazine closed up shop in 2013.

In 2013 Ben joined the Winnipeg Free Press as a copy/web editor.

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