Mayacamas – Old Skool Californian

Yesterday I was lucky enough to be invited to a vertical tasting of Mayacamas.

I jumped on the invitation: ‘Old Skool’ styled Californian wines are of considerable interest to me.  For example I am a huge fan of the likes of Calera and Diamond Creek – whose classically styled wines command a fraction of the prices for which the newer generation of ‘cult classics’ (?) are traded.  A tasting of wines from a name to conjure with in the history of Californian winemaking – not least in the context of “the Judgement of Paris” tasting – therefore struck me as an event I must attend.

Mayacamas, I learned, was bought from the long standing owner, Bob Travers, in 2013 by Charlie Banks a former/reformed venture capitalist, who also owns Screaming Eagle – ironically perhaps the ‘most cult’ of the ‘cult’ Californian ‘cult classics’.   However Banks and his team – as I discovered at the tasting – are not setting out to make (cult ?) “Screaming Mayacamas” – indeed the winemaking looks set to remain comparatively ‘old fashioned’….

The tasting featured Chardonnays from the 00s and 10s, and Cabernets from the 80s, 90s and 00s.  Many thanks to my gracious hosts for the invitation and to Jimmy Hayes, the Estate Director for sharing his expertise on these wines.

2008    Chardonnay, Mount Veeder, Mayacamas

Bottle one was a touch oxidised (Premox due to closure ?) – the second, which is considerably paler in colour (lemon/gold) shows savoury earthy notes, together with waxy, floral elements.  On the palate it is muscular, briskly acidic, and concentrated.  Judgement reserved – I didn’t have a big enough sample of the better bottle to get a proper feel for this wine.

2012     Chardonnay, Mount Veeder, Mayacamas

Paler lemon gold.  Ok – so the earthy, floral aspect of what I did taste of the 08 appears to be characteristic – this also shows slightly mentholated notes along with the wax.  Full bodied, chunky, firmly acidic, structured and (very) concentracted.  One wouldn’t pick this as Californian Chardonnay. But the finish note is quite hard and peppery / bitter, perhaps reflective of the wine only having seen 20% malolactic fermentation.

2013     Chardonnay, Mount Veeder, Mayacamas

Pale colour.  The most overt scent of the three Chardonnays, this has a touch of buttered popcorn – over the top of what I started to associate as being key notes from these Chardonnays: menthol, mint, violet, nut, apricot, wax, wet wool.   My mind now takes me to some Cote de Nuits Blancs I’ve had.   Once again, thick textured, concentrated, dense, firmly acidic.  Like a (hypothetical) Cote de Nuits Blanc – made by Raveneau (?).

1986     Cabernet Sauvignon, Mount Veeder, Mayacamas

Bright garnet-mahogany hue; quite pale at the rim.  In 1986 this apparently had the addition of some Rutherford fruit.  Interesting scent – tarry, plummy and herbal with singed leaf notes steadily becoming more charred and smokey.  Really good flavours and vibrancy on the attack; then very tannic and austere on the finish.  This was widely liked around the room, other tasters enjoying the firm structure and significant acidity more than I did.  Interestingly Jimmy likened the structure of Mayacamas to that of a Nebbiolo or Sangiovese which on tasting this wine I understood immediately.  If only we’d had a steak to go with it.

1993    Cabernet Sauvignon, Mount Veeder, Mayacamas           

Also contained some Rutherford fruit.  Apparently from a considerably less successful vintage than 1986: 1993 was wet, apparently.  However I preferred the 1993 precisely because of the relative absence of acid and tannin that others enjoyed in the 1986.  Softer, liquoricey, savoury.  Also has the singed leaf aspect, but has less austerity on the finish.  More Cabernet Sauvignon ~ and less Barolo-like for me.

2003    Cabernet Sauvignon, Mount Veeder, Maycamas

Definitely has familial likeness to the 1986 and 1993 but this retains plusher mid-palate fruit.  A happier point in it’s evolution than the older wines (from my perspective).  Dark fruit, floral notes, some fennel and a hint of Coonawarra-esque mint / eucalyptus.   Firm and masculine – but with a bit more richness to balance the structure.

2009    Cabernet Sauvignon, Mount Veeder, Maycamas

Very different at this stage, to the point that I don’t see the family resemblance, although Jimmy assures me that this will develop along the lines of the older wines.  Has rather lovely chalky, clean, almost mineral cherry and wine gum fruit. {Pommegrante and red Cherry according to Jimmy}. The most attractive nose, and palate (for me) – the primary fruit is appealing and undeniably pure.  A medium weight, crisp wine, but a concentrated one.  Has élan.  Just a touch austere ?

An extremely interesting tasting.   I couldn’t help feeling that actually (despite apparent furore and angst that Mayacamas would be transformed beyond recognition by the ‘new guard’) – that perhaps the wines could do with just a bit more generosity and sweetness from better selected fruit; that vinification techniques might benefit from being a little cleaner (dare I say it, modern ?) and that just a smidgeon less tannin might make for a rather better glass of Vino – without sacrificing the character of Mount Veeder fruit ?  Personally, I actively look forward to tasting Mayacamas made by the new generation.

Ian Elton-Wall