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WINESPEAK: Cardinale — A Dozen Years of Symphonic Magic

One of the big draws of the dynamic industry of wine is the opportunity to attend a 12-year vertical tasting of a wine like Cardinale, a gorgeous Oakville, Napa property owned by Jackson Family Wines. This year represents the winery’s 35th anniversary. Suffice it to say that the wines showed spectacularly, from the 1995 vintage through to the current 2014. But what was most impressive is the staying power of some of the two plus decades old wines — all still amazingly vibrant.

Cardinale was conceived in 1982, just as Jess Jackson was starting his business with the idea of creating a world class wine from the highest quality vineyards throughout the North Coast of California. Today, the wine is a limited-production, Cabernet-based blend of mountain-grown grapes from Mount Veeder, Howell Mountain, Spring Mountain and Diamond Mountain. 1995, the first wine of the vertical we tasted, represents the first year that the fruit for Cardinale was crafted — predominantly — from mountain vineyards. The depth of bright, perfumed fruit was not lacking, and as a wine at 23 years of age, its enduring intensity and structure is surely a testament to both exemplary winemaking and stellar vineyard sourcing. In fact, the evolution of most of the older vintages we tasted belied their true ages. The prior year, 1994, Charles Thomas, formerly of Opus One and Robert Mondavi, was named winemaker, and that same year, Cardinale finds a permanent home at the former Robert Pepi winery in Oakville.

1996 represents a historic year in the purchase of W.S. Keyes vineyard on Howell Mountain which is a primary vineyard source to this day. Also, it was the first vintage produced using fruit from the highly acclaimed To Kalon vineyard in Oakville. Christopher Carpenter, winemaker since 2001, has done a tremendous job in consistently producing a blend that not only stands the test of time but with each passing year, the wines continue to evolve with silky layers upon layers of complexity. As a former University of Illinois football defensive lineman, music lover, food lover, soccer dad, and holder of master’s degrees in horticulture and business, Christopher is a man of many gifts and accomplishments. In addition to Cardinale, he crafts wines for several other of Jackson Family’s properties: Lokoya, La Jota, Mt. Brave in Napa as well as Hickinbotham, a winery in McLaren Vale, South Australia.

In speaking about the genesis of the winery, Christopher spoke about how Cardinale went against the grain at the time because single-appellated wines were in vogue. Since Cardinale was a blend of appellations, the focus became about the vintage. He spoke in length about how managing the famous muscular tannins of mountain fruit is one of the biggest challenges he faces. With Cardinale, vs. Lokoya, the bolder of the two, his goal is to produce a more elegant wine representing the best of several mountain and benchland vineyards in one harmonious, age-worthy blend. In the lineup, the 2005 vintage, to my taste, stood out as showing particularly beautifully. With around 11 years of bottle age, it was impressive with its generosity of velvety dark fruit, soft, ripe tannins and minerality.

As music is his passion next to winemaking, Christopher likens his job to a conductor of an orchestra where individual instruments, i.e., the various vineyards and grapes, play very specific roles, and when the notes all come together for the final performance, magic happens. Judging by the “sounds” of the 12-year vertical, can we just say “encore”? cardinale.com

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