Insignia Vertical Tasting 1974-2004

WA Frost, St. Paul
Tasted Saturday, October 13, 2007 by Siggy with 863 views

Introduction

Joseph Phelps Insignia was the first red wine that I began regularly buying when I started collecting 12 years ago. Over the years, as the vintages began to pile up in my cellar, the idea of a large-scale vertical tasting became more and more intriguing. Thanks to George Kautzman and Chris Larson, the idea finally became a reality last Saturday. Our Minneapolis tasting group, along with George who flew in from San Francisco for the weekend, opened 30 vintages of Insignia over a spectacular dinner at W.A. Frost in St. Paul. Except for the elusive 1978, we tasted every vintage ever produced, from the inaugural 1974 through the just-released 2004. It was a joyous and educational experience, much in the spirit of our group’s Harlan Estate vertical tasting last year.

George, Chris, and I gathered in my cellar around 2:30 and began decanting. George is a longtime collector of California wine, and he purchased many of the older bottles (including the 1974, 1975, 1976, and 1977) on release. The fill levels were amazingly high, in most cases less than an inch of ullage. Chris had sourced many of the 80s vintages at auction, and I contributed the wines from 1993 onward, all purchased on release. We sipped on a tasty 2004 Louis Carillon Puligny Perrières while working. All of the wines were double decanted, and we were careful not to let the older vintages see too much air. At the restaurant, most of the wines were poured straight from the bottles; the 2001 through 2004 were re-decanted. Over an amazing six-hour dinner, we tasted through the portfilio in flights of three and four. We had 10 pours to go around for 13 tasters, so there was ample juice in each glass for swirling, sniffing, tasting, and re-visiting. Needless to say, we didn’t even come close to finishing all the wine. Only two bottles were corked.

I was shocked at how youthful and delicious the older wines were. They were dark to the rim, majestically robust and full of fruit, yet with wonderfully developed, nuanced secondary flavors – no doubt a testament to their perfect provenance and George’s decades of loving care. As my tasting notes indicate, these older wines were the stars of the show. The 1974 was spellbinding and my WOTN, and the 1977 and 1975 were captivating as well. Starting with the 1991, everything began to show very young, tannic, primal, even raw. Insignia is remarkably consistent from vintage to vintage (one of its strengths), but there was a uniformity to the younger wines – concentrated black fruit, oak, tannin – that frankly made it hard to distinguish one glass from the next. I have had many of these wines in other settings and have found them more approachable and individualistic, though, so this may well have been palate fatigue. Perhaps Insignia really needs 15-20 years before unfolding, and these younger wines just weren't ready? Quite possibly. Did Phelps begin amping up its style in the mid nineties, picking riper fruit and favoring a more extracted, higher alcohol style? Somehow I doubt this is the explanation. The post-1991 wines were still very enjoyable, and it will be fascinating to re-taste them as they continue to mature. If they ultimately approach the heights of the Insignias from the late 70s, we are all in for a treat 10 to 20 years from now.

Flight 1 - Old Soldiers Still Fighting: 1979, 1980, 1981 (3 Notes)

We expected this flight to include some tired "soldiers," just barely still holding on, and were pleasantly surprised to discover that not only were they still drinkable, they were very youthful and vibrant.
Paired with smoked venison spring roll, lingonberry chutney, horseradish creme fraiche.

  • 1979 Joseph Phelps Insignia 93 Points

    USA, California, Napa Valley

    Intense nose of licorice and dark fruit. Dark cherry, leather, and smoke on the palate. Briary, intense, and very youthful. Co-WOTF for me.

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  • 1980 Joseph Phelps Insignia 93 Points

    USA, California, Napa Valley

    Great nose. A little lighter in color than the 1979. Lighter body, but intense, riper red fruit than the others in this flight. Plump, and almost pruny. Intense; still youthful. Co-WOTF for me.

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  • 1981 Joseph Phelps Insignia 89 Points

    USA, California, Napa Valley

    Great nose of earth/leather and rose petal. Carries through on the palate. Well-structured but the fruit is a little more faded here. The finish is a touch drying.

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Flight 2 - Parker Imperfect?: 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990 (4 Notes)

This was an interesting flight that showcased lower-scoring, less hyped Insignias. I really loved the 1987.
Paired with seared ahi tuna, coconut peach risotto, anise broth, chili thread garnish.

  • 1987 Joseph Phelps Insignia 94 Points

    USA, California, Napa Valley

    Dark, youthful color. Intense nose of smoky black fruit and black cherries. Medium-bodied, earthy, and minerally. Complex and multi-dimensional. The finish is a little less intense than the nose and initial palate, but an excellent wine nonetheless. WOTF for me.

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  • 1988 Joseph Phelps Insignia 88 Points

    USA, California, Napa Valley

    Deep and brooding. Nose of smoky black fruit. The palate thinned out a bit. A straightforward, down-the-middle Insignia.

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  • 1989 Joseph Phelps Insignia 88 Points

    USA, California, Napa Valley

    Dark cinnamon fruit. A hint of VA and barnyard; the VA got more pronounced with air. Perfume and lavender. A touch thin and acidic on the finish. Another straightforward, somewhat simple, down-the-middle wine.

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  • 1990 Joseph Phelps Insignia Flawed

    USA, California, Napa Valley

    VA on the nose. Mildly corked.

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Flight 3 - The Reagan Era: 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985 (4 Notes)

A very consistent flight from the early 80s. The 1984 was a real treat.
Paired with seared diver sea scallop, celeriac-pear puree, truffle scented baby bok choy and shiitake mushroom ragout, yellow bell pepper coulis.

Flight 4 - The Redwood Legends: 1974, 1975, 1976, 1977 (4 Notes)

This was by far the best flight of the evening. The 1974 was hauntingly good, the 1977 and 1975 not far behind. Interestingly, for these four years, Insignia was aged in redwood casks.
Paired with poached Wild Acres duck breast, potato crisp, "bacon and eggs" emulsion, frisee, maple glazed baby carrots.

  • 1974 Joseph Phelps Insignia 98 Points

    USA, California, Napa Valley

    Incredibly rich, multi-layered nose of caramel, meat, blood, and Graves-like scorched earth. On the palate, concentrated liquor of red fruit, earth, and mint. Amazingly youthful. Complex and thrilling. WOTF and WOTN for me.

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  • 1975 Joseph Phelps Insignia 95 Points

    USA, California, Napa Valley

    Slightly funky/cheesy nose that integrated and grew more interesting with air. The palate is fantastic, showing complex, gorgeously ripe red fruit and earth. Fine-grained, ripe tannins. Fantastic.

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  • 1976 Joseph Phelps Insignia Flawed

    USA, California, Napa Valley

    Showed some coffee and dark fruit, but woody and muted. Corked.

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  • 1977 Joseph Phelps Insignia 96 Points

    USA, California, Napa Valley

    Chocolate/coffee, dark fruit, tobacco, and iron/mineral. Intense concentrated cherries. Delicious, ripe, and complex. Opulent. Wonderful balance. A dead ringer for a 1990 Bordeaux, maybe Montrose? Awesome stuff.

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Flight 5 - Napa "Elegance"?: 1986, 1991, 1998, 2000 (4 Notes)

This flight was supposed to showcase lighter-bodied, more "elegant" vintages, to give our palates a break. The wines turned out to be just as big and intense as those from the other flights.
Paired with miso crusted venison tenderloin, fall vegetable pave, roasted broccoli with pearl onions, spicy beet jus.

Flight 6 - The Prodigies: 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995 (4 Notes)

Four great vintages from the early- to mid-90s. I wrote down some scores, but given how young all of these were showing and how palate fatigued we were by this point, I'm not including them here.
Paired with pork four ways: Fischer Farms braised pork belly, chorizo and onion polenta, swiss chard and bacon ragout, whole grain mustard pork jus.

Flight 7 - The Best Since 1974?: 1996, 1997, 1999, 2001 (4 Notes)

We wanted to include the 1997 and 2001 in the same flight. They are great, but too young. My instincts are that the 1974 is better. Again, I'm not including any scores here.
Paired with braised cafe sirloin, potato puree with garlic and chive, lemon scented spinach, Guinness cream sauce, lemon gremolata

Flight 8 - Young Guns: 2002, 2003, 2004 (3 Notes)

These were all just too thick, sweet, and raw for any kind of critical evaluation. The 2002 looks to be awesome though.
Paired with artisan cheeses: Colo Rougue, Carlton Cream, Roaring 40's Blue, seasonal accompaniments

Closing

My heartfelt thanks to George Kautzman for sharing so many of his cellar treasures with our group. Thanks as well to Chris Larson for pulling together so many of the older vintages and coordinating everything with the restaurant.

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