This posting reconstructs a presentation of Octagon 2004, 2005, and 2006 at our Spring Barrel Tasting weekend, April 2009. It is equally adaptable to a sequential tasting of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon as prelude to a tasting of Octagon in any vintage, yet it can readily be followed at home with a single bottle of Octagon, by itself. The interplay of question and answer with our guests has been incorporated in the comments which follow.
The first thing to be said about the blended wine we call, Octagon, is that it does not represent an effort to correct for defects in a varietal, because our Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon have won and continue to win, the highest critical praise and competitive honors wherever they go. Nor is it an attempt to rescue a deficient vintage, because in such a vintage we would never create an Octagon. We do not, then, speak of distinctions in quality between one Octagon and another. We speak, instead, of distinctions in their character, which varies very positively from vintage to vintage, and with evolution in bottle.
Why would we select from our finest barrels of our most painstakingly cultivated varietals in a superior vintage, to create this wine? Among other reasons, it is to lend scale to our appreciation of each of these constituent wines; to articulate, delineate, and illuminate aspects of these varietals even better through their relationship to each other, and to project the ultimate viticultural expression of our estate. The barrels on display in our Octagon aging room are, themselves, only candidates for inclusion in the next Octagon, while the ultimate blend remains locked in the secrets of their own development and in the winemaker’s art.
We have a philosophy which guides us in presenting all our wines, but especially Octagon, which translates into not putting words on a guest’s palate. There isn’t a tasting note that has ever been written, which is not a superfluous compilation of linguistic analogies in the end, when the substance, itself, is about to enter the mouth. But apart from sometimes sounding impertinent in the presentation of wines, we understand that the regime of language is limited in conveying the character of palate experience through reference to flavors alone. We do not deny that “taste” is pertinent to the pleasure of wine, we only know that it cannot explain the wine, much less the wine’s suitability for dining. A bad Merlot can post the same flavor notes as a good Merlot, and yet fail the palate by virtue of imbalances in its structure.
We like to focus on a wine’s structure, to open up analogy where it can play a constructive descriptive role. We can say, “silky” in response to Merlot, or we can show silky, by graphing its tannins’ polymerization over time, as was recently done for us by a scholar in the School of Architecture of the University of California at Berkeley. (The thumbnail, mounted above, can be opened to illustrate these comments). We also undeniably can hear, “silky,” in such a way as to show the limits of the word, alone, and to portray “silk’s” unconditional relevance to our palate experience. But always we remember, we are discussing the reality of the experience of the wine, as it is likely to be assimilated by the broadest range of perceptions, and that the wine’s evolution in bottle is critical to its emerging character throughout its life.
So let us taste Octagon, with eyes and ears open to the meaning of our terms.
In the blending of Octagon, we begin with Merlot. A properly cultivated Merlot possesses the supplest palate and the silkiest tannins among all the leading red varietals of the world. But what meaning has this, for blending? It means that the character of this supple body is an open weave, of tactile obviousness to the palate, based on a generous natural reservoir of fruit extract, pleasing acid balance, and plentiful but mildly assertive tannins. This vinous character is superlatively amenable to variation in handling, and resiliently permeable to blending with the salient signatures of other varietals of Bordeaux origin, in particular. If it were a musical instrument, we would say Merlot has the broadest octave range in all Bordeaux viticulture. Our first task in blending Merlot, then, is simply to listen to what it is.
This simple piano sarabande in G major from 1741 is one of the most familiar and fecund expressions in the history of music. The possibilities it connotes for variation, if not infinite, are abundant enough for Bach to have varied it more than 30 times in The Goldberg Variations. But here is the acoustic character of Merlot, a surpassingly gracious, deceptively simple theme, but possessing a bass line open to the most inspired improvisation. This brief musical statement has repeatedly been subjected to architectural analogy, without complaint. Now we introduce it to viticultural contemplation, and hear the forwardness, the suppleness, the resiliency of Merlot without being told.
Do we say, then, that something is missing in this music, which it is the job of some other instrument to supply? Or, rather, do we say, we can reveal that music’s potential as well as its inherent effect, to a much greater relief in blending.
Do we note the ravishing liveliness at mid-palate in our tasting of Cabernet Franc? Do we detect that persistence at the sides of our tongue, of mouth-watering vividness, even brightness of fruit? Isn’t this, the sound of that palate experience? Here, just as we assembled 4 distinct clones of Cabernet Franc of Bordeaux origin, all cultivated here to highlight their particular strengths, Antonio Vivaldi scored this Allegro movement for 4 violins in his L’Estro Armonico (1712). Now, this viticultural instrument introduces the most exuberant, ebullient energy, audibly threading the voluptuous open weave of Merlot with illuminations of spirited vitality, owing to its delineating acidity and bright flavors. And you can see it before your eyes, as the Cabernet Franc leaps from its starting blocks in bottle in this graph, not merely to complement every other ‘voice’ in the bottle and on your palate, but to furnish the activist link to what their destiny will be in this concert called Octagon.
The long cello line of Cabernet Sauvignon is probably nowhere else more vindicated than in its endowment of depth and longevity to any compatible wine in judicious blending. Show us a winemaker who resists the contribution of superlative Cabernet Sauvignon in a blending of Bordeaux red varietals, and we will show you an estate where it isn’t grown. We are, frankly, known for producing the most authoritative expression in Cabernet Sauvignon in a growing region seldom considered to be ideal for it, but time and again we have shown this suspicion to be false. When a vintage is excellent enough to produce an Octagon, we have the Cabernet Sauvignon to compose this wine.
Suave? Farseeing? Sublimely elegant in the hands of the skilled craftsman? Even when comparatively concentrated and closed in youth, as the graph portrays, the great, virile arc of this wine’s structure is unmistakable and wholly its own, “doubled” as it may be, by deepening contributions from Petit Verdot. Now, the palate senses the tannic tenacity of this wine as the resin of the bowed strings of the Bach cello suite from 1720, in the same bold key of D as the Cabernet Franc in Vivaldi’s violins, resonates through the polished, capacious frame, the flavor compounds yielding only to protracted, grateful contemplation. Who could not be grateful for this wine, its length of finish so expansive that the memory is reluctant to let go.
We say, an Octagon “comes together,” or knits together in time. But rather than speaking of peaks or pinnacles, in a wine of such extravagant latent complexity, we speak of periods or epochs in its bottle life, with food pairings changing as the wine evolves always toward greater complexity and eloquence of palate experience. The wine is not two-dimensional, as even this expressive architectural model is. As these arcs rotate in 3 dimensions, the 4th dimension - time - renews their character with each passing year. Yet, in its early years of utterly alluring drinkability, it is still not too soon to enjoy it as the achieved and exciting concert that it is.
And here they are, together - we know them. Merlot, the welcoming, embracing context and theme-giver to the phenomenally structuring Cabernet Sauvignon, laying the ground for the radiating Cabernet Franc. But what has happened, with this blending? The home key of Merlot, G major, has been modulated, transposed to the brighter key of F, by the infusions of the Cabernet voices in D major. The Cabernet Franc, as Michael Broadbent wrote of our third Octagon, "shines through" not only in substance but in energy, shifting the tempo from sarabande to adagio. A whole, new thing, unquestionably effusive, audibly promising, is here. The arc is still long, but it is discernibly unfolding to show us something more. This was the discovery of Haydn, in his first piano trio (1767), that these 3 voices have an astoundingly reconciling rapport with each other - what we call, “a gorgeous relationship.” Such is what these wines do, together, that they do not do alone. Happily, we don't need to be told; we taste this. This is Octagon. And this is why we make it.
We believe our guests deserve our best. And here it is. What it will become, you can taste, hear, see, feel, trust.
Thank you for tasting with us.