a vertical tasting of robert karl clarets

Monday, June 04, 2012

Recently, a reader of this blog wrote to inquire whether I would make reviews of older wines a regular feature. I have occasionally done an entry on a particularly interesting older bottle, but hesitated to do more because the odds of such wines being widely available are nil.

The reader’s question got me thinking that maybe I should in fact do better coverage of older bottles. Now that my own wine collection is safely organized under one roof for the first time in seven years, I have literally touched every bottle (about 1500 total) that I own, and have at least for the moment an excellent grasp of my cellar’s contents.

Not too surprisingly, I am particularly strong in back vintages of Washington and Oregon wines, which I have reviewed for Wine Enthusiast since 1999. From time to time I will pull out verticals of particular cuvées, which I did just yesterday with five vintages of Robert Karl’s Claret.

Few wineries make a Claret these days, though many make a Bordeaux blend, which is what the term, though unregulated, is supposed to mean. Robert Karl Cellars, founded in 1999 by physician Joseph Gunselman and his wife Rebecca, has gone from strength to strength with never a stumble. Vintage after vintage has been beautifully crafted, as Dr. Gunselman has proven himself to be a meticulous winemaker with a talent for blending that is particularly evident in his Clarets.

Robert Karl Clarets have been made in every vintage since 2001, and rummaging through my cellar, I found I had five of them. I opened them all with a group of visitors staying at one of our Waitsburg Cottages.

All bottles were in fine condition, and reading the back labels provided enough data to fuel an excellent conversation as we tasted. We drank them in chronological order, beginning with the oldest, from 2002.

I looked up my review of the first Claret, a 2001, which was a blend of grapes from Ciel du Cheval, DuBrul, Pepper Bridge and several other sites. Sadly, I did not have a bottle of that wine in the cellar, but the following year, 2002, though the vineyards were changed, had aged beautifully.

In 2002 the blend was 77% Cabernet, 12% Merlot and 11% Cab Franc, sourced from Alder Ridge, McKinley Springs, DuBrul, Phinny Hill, Sundance and Tapteil vineyards. Wow what a great lineup! This was, by general acclaim, the best of the flight. Well-developed, still quite vital, round and complex, it drank like a dream. The alcohol, listed at 15.1% was not in any way intrusive.

Next we drank the 2003. This was sourced entirely from the three Horse Heaven Hill vineyards, and added Petit Verdot and Malbec to the blend. It was much more youthful, packed with spicy fruit, but for most tasters seemed less interesting, more one-dimensional than the glorious 2002. It listed the alcohol at 14.8%.

The 2006 was the next bottle (I don’t know if Claret was made in ’04 and I didn’t have the ‘05). Also a five-grape blend, it included grapes from the newly-purchased Gunselman Bench, along with Andrews, McKinley Springs and Phinny Hill. Like many of the wines from this vintage, it was muscular, still a bit tight and compact, with many years of life seemingly ahead. The alcohol was listed at 14.2%, and the back label, as with previous vintages, predicted a life of 5 – 10 years.

The 2007, by general acclamation everyone’s second favorite, was stylistically much in keeping with the 2002, though the blend (all five grapes) and vineyard sources (all Horse Heaven Hills) were by now solidly locked into a consistent framework. To the surprise of all, the alcohol levels as listed continued to fall, here down to 13.5%. Perhaps in recognition of the elegance and longevity of these lovely Clarets, the Gunselmans had changed the back label to advise that the wine “would retain its youthful character for 7 – 10 years.”

The 2008 Claret I had reviewed a year ago, noting that it was “a delicious rendition of the annual Claret blend (I have yet to taste the 2009). As I wrote about the 2008, “it displays a generous burst of berries and cherries, followed with a swish of chocolate. The wine delivers the goods, mixing in darker fruits, coffee and licorice streaks, winding into a lightly herbal, tannic finish.” Same blend and sources, and alcohol back at 13.5%.

Looking back through my reviews, I found that all had scored between 88 and 91 points upon release, and sold for under $20. Given the modest pricing (remarkably, still holding at $20) and limited aging aspirations, the vertical tasting was revelatory.

Detailed notes on all these wines can be found here on the winery website.


Chris Wallace said...

Thanks Paul, great article, and I really appreciate being able to read about older wines and how they have aged. Great to see a quality producer holding the line on prices, too!

Neil and Sue Shay said...

I had my first bottle of Robert Karl Claret at Bardenay in Coeur D'Alene ID a couple of years ago. I loved it and have recommended it many times since then.

Sean Gilbert said...

I happened to find a bottle of their 2004 Claret in my cellar a couple months ago and thought that is was excellent. It was holding its fruit nicely, but my favorite part was the velvety texture and long finish. It did not seem over the hill and if anything could have gone a few years longer.

Man About Wine said...

Hi Paul. A bit off topic but that happens when a url link ends nowhere. There is a headline in todays Winebus.com news feed, saying Wash: liq. priv. has another negative consequence, a limiting of choices. To whomever and any & all, the problem of limited choice is not caused by private retail. It is caused by the robbery practiced by the state of Wash. in fees and taxes. Why should liq. cost 25% more in Wash. than in Calif??? It ain't the new retailer grubbin for dough, it is the gummint fees and legalized robbery. You could build a bunch of Alaska pipelines I bet with the tax take on wine & spirits in Wash. As I said, off topic, but I can't find the right article and I did find the right guy, Paul G. Go get em.

PaulG said...

MAW - wish you'd posted this on today's blog where it would be more visible. But yes, I saw the same article and I agree - it's bullsh-t. I may tackle it next week, or I may ignore it. There is a lot of stupidity and ignorance out there and I can't comment on all of it.

Rebecca Gunselman said...

Hi Paul, Sorry about the belated response!
We love hearing how our wines are aging! 2002 was certainly a full throttle year, hedonistically ripe with full varietal flavor. Through the years we have made an effort to control alcohol in our wines. Obviously, weather plays a roll and vine maturity allows more predictability. Additionally, we strive to balance sugar and ripeness with yield and harvest timing. We are fortunate to work with two excellent growers -Dick Beightol on Phinny Hill and Rob Andrews on McKinley Springs & Andrews Horse Heaven Ranch.
Yes Paul, it is time to taste the 2009 claret!

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