2 Apr 2012

What makes a wine "great"? The example of Shafer Hillside Select from Napa

I have also addressed this topic in an article, published today and in French, on another blog that I share with four other wine accolytes called "Les 5 du Vin" . This article is a bit different though, so those who read French and both blogs will be spared much repetition.

The question of what defines a "great" wine will never be fully answered, as all aesthetic judgements are invitably, to a great extent, personal. Then there are the usual semantic issues: what sense do we impart to the word great? We sit in the sun and have a beer after some physical and mental effort and say "this feels great". Obvously this sense is different when we talk about a "great" wine as opposed to a "good" wine. A "great" wine implicitly takes us into another vinous dimension, mixing the sensual with the analytical and involving our memory, all being intimately linked to an intense sense of pleasure or well-being.

maybe these are the places in the brain where we experience great wine?

I tend to think a bit about this question every time I get to taste a wine that strikes me as being exceptionally good. Of course the taste element here is primordial, but is that sufficient? After all, taste is personal, and, like all forms of aesthetic judgement, one's taste can be questioned and even disowned by those who have different tastes. Yet, in the matter of wine, there tend to be currents of consensus which establish reputations for "great" wines. These reputations, propagated by media and word-of-mouth, duly increase demand which goes on to inflate the prices, adding that financial ingredient that serves (for too many people!) as an indicator to "greatness". So, can one retort that all this is bullshit based on someone's personal opinion and then reflected by snobbery backed up by high prices? Not entirely, and for two main reasons.

First of all, earning more money from a product enables the producer to invest larger sums in improving it, or at least in maintaining its initial quality. This is eminently true in the case of wine. Bordeaux's 1855 classification was based on the trading values of each wine, but those values reflected market perception by a number of different professional actors, not just a single person's opinion. And the additional funds that are received by the most expensive wines enable their owners to maintain or increase investments, hire the best people, and generally do everything they can to stay at the top of the reputation hierarchy whilst still earning good money. The notion of consensus of opinion is also an essential element of a wine's reputation, and these opinions necessarly come from a wide spread of experts: ie professionals who have long experience in tasting different wines and who can apply the notions of relativity, prediction and reliablity to the wines thay are tasting.

Prediction and reliability? Yes, because the time factor is essential in the notion of a great wine. Great wines can stand the test of time in a way that other wines cannot manage. They must also be consistent in their quality, as far as possible, and despite the variations in weather conditions. They will differ whilst staying on a comparable quality level. What mother nature cannot provide, man has to compensate, usually by restricting production to allow only the best grapes to be retained to make the "great" wine. 

So we have three essential qualities that have to be united in a "great" wine. Perceptible quality, above that of the majority of its peers, regularity of that quality, and the capacity to age gracefully for as long as possible. I will put aside the price factor which tends to be a corollary of the previous three, unhappily for those of us without considerable means. All these requisites are met by a wine from Napa Valley that I had the good fortune to taste recently through a series of 17 consecutive vintages, running from 1993 to 2007.

The wine in question is the Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon, which is one of the top range of wines from this Napa producer, from their hillside vineyards in the Stag's Leap District. The Cabernet is part of the Hillside Select range, itself one of other sub-ranges in the Shafer portfolio. Shafer is not a huge, but a sizeable producer with an excellent reputation for consistency. The family moved to Napa in 1973 and this wine, I believe, was first produced in 1978. We are on the Silverado trail here, and this naturally brings to mind the amazingly far-sighted words of Robert-Louis Stevenson, back in the early 1880's, in his account of his honeymoon voyage called The Silverado Squatters. One should bear in mind the context of these words, which coincided on the one hand with the end of the gold and silver rushes in California and on the other with the demise of European vineyards caused by the louse called phylloxera: "so, bit by bit, they grope about for their Clos Vougeot and Lafite. Those lodes and pockets of earth, more precious than the precious ores, that yield inimitable fragrance and soft fire.....The smack of Californian earth shall linger on the palate of your grandson." Stevenson did not know at the time that phylloxera in Europe would be circumvented by grafting, but he got the future of Californian vineyards right!

Early plantings at the future Shafer estate in the foothills

Shafer are neighbours of the famous Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, whose 1973 Cask 23 won the famous "Judgement of Paris" event held in Paris in 1976, when, in a blind tasting, French tasters rated it above the best from Bordeaux at that time. This success firmly put Napa on the fine wine world map and encouraged many other entrepreneurs to come and settle there. Now Napa Valley, between the mountain ranges that border it to east and west, is wall-to-wall vineyards.

The home of Shafer and part of their hillside vines running up the sides of Stag's Leap towards Atlas Peak

Looking back down the Stag's Leap sector, from behind the Shafer house and winery

Since the proof of the pudding is in the eating, let's get down to the wines and how they tasted. I started the tasting with the oldest vintage in the series, 1993, since age should comes before youth (in tasting), since the more powerful alcohol and tannic structure of the younger wines would have overpowered the more delicate older vintages. I have picked out my favourite wines from this continuous series of 17 vintages. But they were all very good to excellent. In fact  it was the most consistant long series that I can remember in any vertical tasting, together with Ridge Montebello, from the Santa Cruz region.

Prices for these wines in Europe can very a lot, according to the vintage and the country in which you are buying (as well as the merchant). One can find some of the vintages I tasted in France, for instance, at prices between 150 and 350 euros per bottle. They may well cost less in the UK on account of greater presence of US wines and so more competition. This makes them less expensive at the moment than their equivalents from the Bordeaux left bank (1st and 2nd growths), many of which have been hit by rampant speculation recently. Yet it still puts them out of my own reach, but then we don't all deserve greatness, do we? 

Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon 1993
Seamless, yet still taught, with smells reminiscent of pencil sharpening (lead + cedar shavings) over an undercurrent of fruit. As elegant as it was on the palate, just gliding along, still firm and upright, enrgetic yet restrained, very fine in its texture. Lovely balance and good length. Still quite youthful and surely good for another 20 years if needed.

Profound and heady on the nose, with very fine fruit aromas and just a touch of that pencil lead that is so characteristic of aged cabernet sauvignon. The flavours are more broadly spread that for the 1993, but the texture is just as fine, and perhaps more so. Deliciously elegant finish.

The nose is full and yet quite tender in its fruit. The texture on the palate is a touch closer to velvet than to silk, and the wine has seemingly greater power and body than the previous ones. Very good and perhaps more classically Napa in its style.

Magnificent nose that is both fresh and finely tuned in its fruit and other aromas. The flavours on the palate are just as beautiful. It seems just a touch warmer that some but everything is in good balance. A splendid wine.

Rich, rounded and very intense in its fruit aromas that shos great clarity. Solidly built and very long, its tannins are still quite noticeable but have a lovely velvety texture that shows their integration.

Magnificent nose, both youthful and profound. Complex and elegant. Although still quite taught and firm through its tannins, this is a truly majestic wine that will become even greater with time. Its natural power has beeen perfectly harnessed and this will run for ever.

The nose has the edge if finesse that suits me, alongside its considerable depth of fruit. Extremely velvety in its texture, which will become more refined in time, this has density, great length and charm.

The nose is rather closed, but the substance seems very compact and extremely promising on the palate. This is clearly a stylish wine that does not just rely on its power to impress one. Balance and harmony are there, in the making. Just add some patience!

Father John and son Doug Shafer

None of the other vintages disappointed me in any way, although I did feel that there is a drift towards higher levels of alcohol wih the most recent ones. These are clearly wines for the long haul. I know that more and more people insist on drinking their wines young, when they can resemble the rather nasty-sounding "fruit bomb" descriptive used by some people. This is not the case with this wine, which usually shows admirable restraint. But I do feel that it amply rewards ageing and most of the vintages that I tasted will probably be around for longer than me and be all the better for that!

Yes Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon qualifies in my book as a "great" wine.


  1. Hi David
    you should like this one...: http://youtu.be/wSuH9u0kvhU

  2. Thanks Vincent. Might use this sometime soon. Have always wondered how to open a bottle of wine.