Louis M. Martini Lot 1 Cabernet Sauvignon 2003
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Louis M. Martini Lot 1 Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 Tasting Notes

The Louis M. Martini Lot 1 Cabernet Sauvignon is the kind of big wine that seems to demand an elegant one line review: “Ripe cassis, toasted walnut, chocolate, mocha, and sweet oak presented with elegance, ripe tannins and a lasting luxurious finish” ought to do it. But this $95 wine demands some decent verbiage to properly bring across the character of the wine. After all, there are people behind this beverage.

Back in the 1950s, Louis P. Martini, father of present winemaker Michael Martini, began to identify certain ideal vineyard blocks, both among the family's own parcels and among those of their neighbors and winemaking allies in the Napa Valley. The present wine was sourced from many of these choice locations. Michael Martini made the wine in his relatively new “micro-winery,” a pet project designed to create small lots (in this instance 1330 cases) of craft Cabernet. The 2003 vintage saw low yields and ideal harvesting conditions. The wine was fermented in small open-top vats to allow maximum extraction, then given 28 days on its skins, without fining.

The 2003 vintage served as an important transition point for the Martini family. In 2002 the Martinis sold the winery to the Gallo family, with whom they had been closely associated for many years. Michael Martini is still making the wine of course, given that Gallo wanted to be sure it got more than a bunch of grapes (albeit great grapes) in the transaction (the Martinis have been in the wine business a full century). The year 2003 was the first vintage under the new arrangement. Gallo's support has allowed the winery to concentrate on Cabernet and to move their wines into expanded distribution channels.

The Louis M. Martini Lot 1 commits to a clear stylistic direction. It could have been produced, with the same grapes, in an entirely different way. The 100% Cabernet Sauvignon is aged in new French oak for 15 months. It shows. The wine has plenty of fruit when you get around to looking for it—cassis and blackberry as can be expected in a Napa Cabernet—but its most noticeable palate notes are mocha, coffee, toasted walnut, cocoa and bittersweet chocolate. The effect of woody tannins—more a feel than a flavor—makes itself known on a parallel plane. These tannins are well knit and ripe. Full-bodied in every sense of the term, the wine is 14.8% alcohol; this is not high given the style of the wine and is properly integrated.

Tasting the wine is a complex experience, since it has so many parts, but eventually the wine itself takes charge and presents itself as a unified whole. It is superbly balanced, long, substantial and dense, with ripe fruit, bright acidity and a sensual finish. The remains of the chocolate and mocha appear on the finish but ultimately it is the story of fruit. You get the distinct sense of enjoying the Cabernet Sauvignon grape; it seems second nature but that unique quality of Cabernet-ness is often so elusive in this world.

The wine is developed enough and is smooth enough to drink now, though it could certainly benefit from three to five years further bottle aging. I aerated the wine for three hours before tasting and felt I hit the mark.

Verdict: Downright heroic
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Even uttering the term “Napa Cab” may well have a powerful effect on the mood.

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award
James Beard Award Nominee Elliot Essman

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award


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