a robert karl retrospective

Friday, October 11, 2013

From time to time, I take a deep dive into my wine cellar and pull together a vertical tasting from a single winery. It’s one of the best reasons to have a wine cellar, and my decades-long focus on Northwest wines means that I have a lot to choose from.

Apart from the sheer fun of it, there is educational value, in seeing how certain vintages are developing. And much like a garden that needs regular tending, a wine cellar can become overgrown and dysfunctional if it is neglected, or allowed to spread uncontrollably.

A small group of friends, whose arrival at our Three Maples cottage yesterday co-incided with my decision to pull together a vertical tasting, were invited to join in. I chose a group of 10 wines from Robert Karl, a winery I’ve long admired. Notable for their focus on a small portfolio of red wines, sourced (since 2003) entirely from vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA, Robert Karl produces the sort of tightly-wound, reductive wines that are difficult to evaluate upon release. I always thought that they’d age well. This was the chance to find out if I was right.

The vintages ranged from 2002 to 2008. We tasted in three flights – a pair of Merlots, five Cabs, and three Bordeaux blend reserves. One wine was ever-so-slightly corked, and two showed definite signs of brett. But overall, they were in excellent condition, surprisingly youthful, and still stubbornly closed. A 2007 Robert Karl Gunselman Bench Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon seemed almost dumb, even after a couple of hours of breathing time. “Oaky, spicy, astringent and shuttered” I wrote. Looking back on my original tasting note, I found I’d written “Thick tannins wrap around dense, dark fruits. Muscular and textural, this is a wine that seemingly could age for decades. Cellar Selection.”

It was the oldest wines that showed where the rest were probably headed. A 2002 Reserve Cabernet offered plush mixed fruit flavors of loganberry, boysenberry and cassis, some underlying minerality, and just a faint hint of the barnyard. It was drinking beautifully, moving into mid-term maturity, but certainly poised for many more years of life.

A 2003 Inspiration Reserve was bursting with spicy oak, youthful, briary fruits, and early hints of secondary, maturing flavors. It was a group favorite.

My own two favorite wines were both from the 2006 vintage. Not anywhere near maturity, they displayed exceptional concentration, dark, muscular fruits, and a dense web of detailed fruits, herbs and earth tones. Looking back on my original notes, I was pleased to see that I had scored them exactly the same. Beginner’s luck? Nah. Just fine winemaking.

Here are the original reviews:

92 Robert Karl 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon
Horse Heaven Hills; $30
Pure varietal, this captures the house style perfectly, with a ripe blend of brambly berries set against crisp natural acids. Almond candy and chocolate graham cracker flavors appear, reflecting 28 months in 75% new oak barrels. The transition to the silky finish brings a refreshing minerality. Cellar Candidate.

93 Robert Karl 2006 Inspiration Reserve Red Wine
Horse Heaven Hills; $45
A five-grape Bordeaux blend, this is the darkest and most dense of all the current Robert Karl reds. Raspberries, Bing cherries and cassis gather into a slightly liquorous core, with nuanced notes of black olive and wood smoke. The tannins are refined and ripe, but the sweet and pretty fruit holds center stage.

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