Togni ’99 (Tanbark) Cab Sauv

Napa Mtns. Class taste. Restrained, green thread, good length. Could be Graves. Wine for dinner; not combat.

Not all Napa Cabs are alcoholic heavyweights plodding around the ring anticipating a one-punch knockout. Here’s one with a pedigree for elegance, and the structure to make that point repeatedly.

1999 Philip Togni (Tanbark Hill) Cabernet Sauvignon from 2,000 feet high on Spring Mountain, west of St. Helena in the Napa Valley AVA. Tasted as part of the Fundamentals of Taste and Smell class in Palo Alto. Wine cost is around $100 in a retail store. The wine was compared side-by-side with a 1995 Ch. Lagrange, 5th growth St. Julien, in order to discuss the effects of bottle age on CA Cab vs. classified reds from the Medoc.
     The Togni (Tanbark) is an estate wine made from younger vines. Philip Togni received his formal wine education at a French university under the tutelage of iconic wine professor Emile Peynaud. Togni was then assistant winemaker at the Margaux 2nd growth Ch. Lascombes for several years. He bought his 25-acre hillside Napa property in 1981, and replanted on phylloxera-resistant rootstock in the mid 1990’s. He only makes about 2,000 cases per year, selling most of it direct to a mailing list. His daughter Lisa will be taking over winery operations before too long. Recently a distinguished Belgian wine panel rated Togni’s 1990 Cabernet ahead of the marvelous 1990 vintage of 1st growth Chateaux Latour, Mouton, Haut-Brion, and Margaux. No small honor, and a matter of immense pride for a man with Togni’s background.
     The comparison of these two wines in class was not as instructive as I might have hoped. Partly because the Ch. Lagrange was dried out and fibrous. It had some bouquet development, but little life. Think pressed flowers. Moreover, the Togni was almost Graves-like in its rapier structure and green olive undertones. I happened to like the Togni a great deal, but it would have been easier for me to use it as the illustration of Bordeaux characteristics, at least when contrasted to some CA fruit grenade. Spring Mountain confers higher pH than one might expect for a given level of acid. So no one would call the Togni hard nor sour. Rather it was the haricot vert flavor element which made it distinct. The hillside growing environment and the young vine-age on the Togni are probably the best lessons to be garnered from this tasting. For those of us who like a little herbaceousness (read pyrazines) in our Cabernet, this may be a teachable moment. Togni is on the west side of the valley. Their vines may well be in shade by late afternoon in September. They certainly will be getting a cool breeze above the inversion layer as the valley below cooks. Togni doesn’t try for ultra-high Brix levels. As a result he makes wines that keep inviting you back for another glass.

     Butterflied leg of lamb. That was straight-forward enough. The secret though, is the side dish. I’m suggesting petite peas with toasted almonds and lemon-avocado oil. Use frozen peas. There isn’t a “fresh” pea in the country you can buy that’s been off the vine less than 36 hours (unless you’ve grown it yourself). Frozen peas are put into a state of arrested degradation within an hour or two of picking. That is a great outcome for vegetables, and it is way superior to the degradation experienced by a “fresh” pea on that long, bumpy road from farm to store display. Use sliced almonds. Brown them in a skillet with two pats of butter and some salt. Watch carefully; you want medium-high heat, but they can burn in an instant. Do them a little ahead of time and set them aside. Steam the peas, stir in the almonds, and drizzle on a homeopathic dose of the intensely scented lemon-avocado oil. Feign modesty when your guests rave about the way this wine goes with the side dish. As a famous football coach once instructed his players concerning their behavior in the end zone after scoring a touchdown, “Try to act like you’ve been there before.”

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