wine in the spotlight: abeja 2007 reserve cabernet sauvignon

Monday, September 20, 2010

Abeja is one of just 20 wineries that received a five star rating in the just-released second edition of “Washington Wines and Wineries: the Essential Guide” (UC Press). No other section of the book caused me to do as much soul-searching as these 20 selections, but Abeja’s place there was never in doubt.

Founding partner and winemaker John Abbott brought an impeccable track record with him when he left Canoe Ridge for Abeja. He’d done especially well with Chardonnay and Merlot, reaching all the way back to his early years at Pine Ridge and Acacia. But his goal at Abeja, he explained from the start, was to produce estate-grown Cabernet Sauvignon, made to the highest standard.

In an interview a few years ago he elaborated on that idea, noting that “I think of myself as a 2nd or 3rd growth Bordeaux winemaker; not the first growth. My benchmark is to deliver a lot of quality for the price. I was very fortunate to be the one to put a stamp on the style of wine at Canoe Ridge. Here my philosophy hasn’t changed; it is to be true to the varietal. I don’t worry about a wine tasting like Washington; it will taste like where it’s grown, which is Washington. I knew that wouldn’t necessarily bring me massive scores; these are wines for food, not meals in a glass. I want to make wines that I personally feel comfortable drinking.”

Abeja was not included in the recent Washington round-up published by the Wine Advocate. The wines are highly allocated and the mailing list is closed; one of a handful of such wineries that are among the very best in the country, not just Washington. But that should not exclude it from publicity and review, and I have been fortunate to taste just about every wine Abbott has made since the first vintage of Cabernet in 2001.

There have been just two reserve Cabs produced – in 2002 and 2005. The 2002 reserve was composed of fruit from Sagemoor and 7 Hills. When I asked Abbott how it came to be, he explained that a reserve is “the best expression of the variety in that vintage; not necessarily a particular lot; it’s the barrels that have had the chance to age longer and give you a different expression; a different quality than the regular. Before we rack I taste every barrel and we do a plus/minus system; the plusses move one way, the minuses another. It’s my way of doing baby steps. I like to blend early; as soon as we see things that have continuity they go into those blends; but once it’s added you can’t take it back out. When we’re racking it’s an ongoing process; you can’t really sit down at one time and take a graduated cylinder and say ‘that’s it’ tomorrow we’re doing it. It’s easier to get your base; and trim everything else out the way you want it. Winemaking is like flying a plane; you know where you’re taking off, where you’ll land. The goal is to land. Sometimes our plane’s not big enough; sometimes you run out of fuel.”

The next reserve was made in 2005, mostly old vine (1972) Bacchus and (1985) Weinbau. Abbott, who is not given to hyperbole, remarked that “We will only make them [reserves] when it’s the classic essence of Washington state Cab. This is by far the best wine I’ve ever been able to work on.” Now that is quite a statement! I tasted the 2005 shortly after it was released and rated it 96 points, writing “dark, juicy, dense, smoky, layered and tight. Pepper, bacon, coffee grounds, graphite, and black cherry roll through the palate, buttressed with lots of firm, smooth, polished and delicious tannins. A truly glorious bottle."

Which brings us to reserve number three. Again sourced principally from the same old vine Bacchus and Weinbau blocks, this also includes a significant portion of grapes (20%) from the estate’s Heather Hill vineyard. The aromas are dense and penetrating, with a powerful mix of black fruits, ripe berries, smoke, earth, olive and coffee. The blend is masterful, from the first sniff to the last swallow, the flavors are beautifully integrated and the effect symphonic. Though not tasted side-by-side with the 2005, I believe it to be every bit as good, and perhaps a shade more elegant, more prime-time if you will. Due for release in November, it’s a wine that belongs at the top of the Washington Cabernet Sauvignon pantheon. I urge you to find a friend on the Abeja mailing list, and badger them into sharing a bottle with you.

NOTE: Another of my top 20 wineries is Barnard-Griffin, and I am pleased to say I will be signing books and playing some tunes there this coming Wednesday, September 22nd, from 5pm until 8pm. For full details, please visit their website.

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