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Wine Legend: Screaming Eagle, Cabernet Sauvignon 1997

What makes it a wine legend?

Wine Legend: Screaming Eagle, Cabernet Sauvignon 1997 Napa Valley, California, USA

  • Bottles produced 6,000
  • Composition 100% Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Yield N/A
  • Alcohol 14.5%
  • Release price $125
  • Price today £6,980

A legend because…

In 1986, a successful Napa Valley estate agent, Jean Phillips, acquired a 23ha property on the eastern side of the valley in Oakville. There was a tiny parcel of Cabernet Sauvignon, and André Tchelistcheff was among those who recommended replanting the white-grape vines with Bordeaux varieties.

The first commercial release of the dramatically named wine was 1992, with Heidi Peterson Barrett as the winemaker. Just under 1ha was used for this wine, as Phillips sold off most of the grapes. Robert Parker gave this 1992 wine a perfect score, and the rest is history.

Looking back

Screaming Eagle was the best known of a number of micro-estates that took Napa Valley, and wealthy wine collectors, by storm in the 1990s. Screaming Eagle and its ilk were produced in minute quantities, ensuring scarcity and justifying a very high price, encouraging queues to join the waiting list for new releases. These bottlings had much in common with Bordeaux garagiste releases, with the crucial difference that the Napa terroir was generally far superior to garagiste vineyards. In 2006, Phillips sold the brand to Charles Banks and Stan Kroenke. They replanted the vineyard and hired Michel Rolland as a consultant. In 2009, Kroenke became the sole owner.

The vintage

Despite a cool summer in Napa in 1997, ripening was rapid and the harvest early. Mid-August rains provoked rot in poorly managed vineyards, but not in the best properties such as Screaming Eagle. There was more rain in September, but it did little damage and brought no dilution to Cabernet grapes. It was to prove a controversial vintage, initially claimed as a great Cabernet year in Napa, but 10 years on, tasters found many wines were not holding up, probably because of excessive ripeness and high pH levels.

The terroir

Planted on a west-facing slope, drainage and exposure are excellent, and the soils contain reddish rocks of volcanic origin. Afternoon breezes from the San Pablo Bay moderate the daytime heat and help achieve an ideal balance in the grapes.

The wine

After harvest, the grapes are placed into small open-top vats for fermentation, with extraction achieved by punchdowns rather than pumpovers. The wine is aged for 18-20 months in up to 75% new oak, and bottled without filtration. Selection is severe, and no more than 30% of the wine vinified is bottled as Screaming Eagle.

The reaction

In 2000, Robert Parker reviewed the newly released wine: ‘It doesn’t get any better than [the] 1997… the essence of cassis liqueur with blackberries, minerals, liquorice and toast, this full-bodied, multi-dimensional classic is fabulous, with extraordinary purity, symmetry, and a finish that lasts for nearly a minute. It has the equilibrium to evolve for nearly two decades…’

A year later, James Laube wrote in Wine Spectator: ‘A potent wine of finesse and grace, this weaves together a rich and complex array of cedary currant, toasty oak, hazelnut and black-cherry flavours that finish in a long, intricate aftertaste.’ Stephen Tanzer was less impressed: ‘Leaner than the 1996 at a similar stage… Conveys a strong impression of terroir, but I don’t yet find the texture or depth of the best vintages of Screaming Eagle.’

In 2015, Jeff Leve of The Wine Cellar Insider noted: ‘With an attention-seeking nose of incense, cherry blossoms, liquorice and fresh, black cherry liqueur, you’re already hooked. On the palate, the wine is elegant, refined, lush, supple and polished. There is a freshness to the perfectly ripe fruit and a silky, sweet, cherry finish.’

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