Dissecting Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
Napa's signature grape beautifully reflects the variety of its many subappellations.
Napa Vallery terroir can be boiled down into a few easy points. It’s hotter in the north and east, cooler in the south and west. The temperature drops as elevation increases. The mountains have thinner, poorer soils than the benches and flatlands.
So, there you go. Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon in three easy lessons. But, of course, it’s not that simple.
Enter the winemaker.
If Mother Nature was the only voice, figuring out Napa Cab would be a cinch.
But, as winemaker Nick Goldschmidt, who crafts his own Napa Cabernet from Oakville fruit, says, “Generically, all the Cabernet winemaking techniques have become closer between wineries—long skin contacts, picking at 26 brix [or higher], lots of new oak.”
This template tends to mitigate the impact of climate and soil, resulting in wines that seem alike.
In geek-speak, this “international style” can make it difficult even for experts to tell the difference between, say, a Cabernet from Oakville and one from Rutherford.
The simple fact that an appellation, or American Viticultural Area (AVA), exists doesn’t necessarily mean much. Federal guidelines are loose. Anyone with enough time and money can ram an AVA through (except when neighbors feud over names or boundaries, which can cause delays).
It’s tempting to think that an AVA imparts some profound uniqueness to its wines. But AVAs often are rooted in political and cultural concerns as much as terroir-related ones. This foils attempts to deconstruct Napa Valley’s 16 subappellations in absolute terms.
Still, a case can be made for Napa’s AVAs having general characteristics that hold true year after year. The four wineries profiled on page 45 produce Cabernet Sauvignons that consistently fit the classic understanding of their appellations.
While the template isn’t always a perfect fit, it assures that you’ll be on solid ground talking Napa terroir at your next tasting.
Napa Valley runs southeast to northwest for approximately 30 miles. It spreads up to five miles wide, narrowing to a mere mile at Calistoga, where it’s pinched off by Mount St. Helena.
Those mountains define its borders: the Mayacamas, whose peaks are sufficiently high enough to see snow in winter, on the west, and the Vaca on the east. Both are the result of tectonic uplifting and volcanic activity.
The valley floor
The soils of the valley floor are largely alluvial deposits—weathered mountain dirt washed down in rainstorms and landslides to the flats.
Through the center of it all runs the Napa River, which occasionally floods in winter, accounting for the silts found in adjoining vineyards.
Because of the high clay content, some land along the Napa River is unsuitable for Cab, although Sauvignon Blanc manages just fine.
And not all of Napa’s AVAs are suitable for Cabernet Sauvignon. Carneros, for instance, is too chilly. Its proximity to San Pablo Bay makes it more amenable to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Kitty-corner to Carneros is the Coombsville AVA, whose inland location provides enough heat to ripen Cabernet. A burgeoning number of wineries and vineyards call it home. Still, the appellation is so new (established in December 2011) that its wines’ defining characters remain undefined for now.
East of Coombsville, the same could be said for the little-known Wild Horse Valley AVA.
Northwest of Coombsville begins the floor of the Napa Valley proper, starting with the sprawling Oak Knoll District. Here, the temperature starts to warm without being too hot. The Cabernets are generally more acidic and tannic—more Bordeaux-like, if you will—than those grown upvalley.
Trefethen’s Reserve bottling can be tremendous and cellar-worthy. Similar successes at Blackbird and Tudal suggest that the region has been unfairly overshadowed by the more famous AVAs to its north.
Just a few minutes’ drive northwest is Yountville, where the bay’s cooling influence gasps its last breath. Perhaps the finest expressions of Yountville Cabernet have come from Dominus, on the Yountville “bench,” and Kapcsandy’s State Lane Vineyard, located between Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail.
Adjoining Yountville to the east is one of the valley’s most renowned AVAs, Stags Leap District. It’s warm, receiving afternoon heat—especially in the little pocket canyons sheltered by the Vacas, but it also benefits from the nightly marine influence.
The quintessential Stags Leap Cabernet is Shafer’s Hillside Select, whose amphitheater-like setting results in a bold, intensely flavored wine.
Back on Highway 29 heading north is the famed Oakville AVA. This is the heart and soul of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, where the coolness of the south meets upvalley warmth in perfect equilibrium.
Within Oakville, the east-west gradient means wines nearer the Silverado Trail receive hotter afternoon sun than those in the shadow of the Mayacamas. The former tend to be riper and higher in alcohol, but still show Oakville’s signature tannins.
Superlative Oakville Cabs include those from Harlan Estate, Screaming Eagle, Dalla Valle and the two To Kalon vineyards, Beckstoffer and Robert Mondavi.
Understanding how Rutherford differs from Oakville is one of the abiding joys of Napa Valley Cabernet. The conventional wisdom is that Rutherford’s extra heat makes the wines slightly earthier in style, which may be what André Tchelistcheff meant when he called them “dusty.”
Rutherford Cabs often display a sour red-cherry note, in contrast to Oakville’s black currants. Among the most consistent performers are Inglenook’s Rubicon, Quintessa and Kathryn Hall’s Sacrashe Vineyard.
St. Helena is warmer than areas to its south. Declared an AVA in 1995, it contains many wineries and vineyards, perhaps explaining why it’s hard to pin down its particular style of Cabernet.
Spottswoode and Flora Springs’ Rennie Reserve define the spectrum. The former is lush and decadent, the latter tannic and ageworthy. Anything from the Beckstoffer Dr. Crane Vineyard is worthy of note.
Still further north, Calistoga didn’t become an AVA until 2010, the victim of internecine politics. Because of the tightening of the hills, influences from the Russian River Valley through wind gaps in the Mayacamas and the adjoining Jericho Canyon, the appellation is a complicated one.
It’s difficult to discern a consistent Calistoga character, but Cabernets from Venge’s Bone Ash Vineyard, Turnbull’s Amoenus and Summers have impressed.
The western mountains
The Mayacamas boasts three AVAs. What they have in common is elevation. Temperatures become cooler the higher you go (it can be 10˚F warmer on the valley floor on a summer day), and runoff produces water- and nutrient-poor soils, despite significant winter rains.
The resulting wines are more tannic, but often are more concentrated and ageworthy.
Its proximity to San Pablo Bay makes Mount Veeder the coolest of the western mountain appellations. The AVA extends to 1,820 feet above sea level, while the western boundary is the Napa-Sonoma border.
Mount Veeder Cabernets have a purity that’s equal parts concentration and balance. Many off-mountain wineries bottle Mount Veeder Cabernets. Perhaps the patriarch of local brands is Hess, with Yates Family coming on strong.
After an appellation-free gap west of Rutherford comes the Spring Mountain District. Directly west of St. Helena, it rises to 2,600 feet in elevation and is considered a cool-weather climate, although “cool” is relative. The soils and orientations are all jumbled up, the result of repeated tectonic activity.
Two vineyards that exemplify the mountain are Vineyard 7 & 8’s Vineyard 7 and the Wurtele Vineyard, from which Terra Valentine makes a small-production Cabernet of great intensity and ageability.
Adjoining Spring Mountain to the north is the Diamond Mountain District. Although it’s warmer than its mountain sisters to the south, nighttime temperatures fall off considerably.
For many years, its Cabernets were among the hardest and most tannic of all, the result, perhaps, of steep slopes or the day-night temperature swings. But with modern methods of tannin management, vintners now produce wines of greater suppleness.
Von Strasser and Diamond Creek set the pace, producing monumental wines of precision and longevity.
The eastern mountains
Howell Mountain is the elder (1984) of the Vaca’s two mountain AVAs. It’s hotter and more arid than anything in the Mayacamas, as rainfall falls off rapidly from west to east.
The Cabernets are tannic and intensely concentrated. They possess superb structure, almost guaranteeing ageability. Among the premier wineries are La Jota, Sbragia’s Rancho del Oso and Arkenstone.
Heading southeast several miles (over the AVA-less Pritchard Hill region) lies Atlas Peak, generally considered a cool area due to its proximity to San Pablo Bay. But at its northern limit, toward Rutherford, it grows warmer. The well-known Stagecoach Vineyard straddles the AVA.
Many wineries purchase fruit off the mountain, but few Cabernet houses are actually based there. Perhaps the prime example of Atlas Peak Cabernet has been Heidi Barrett’s Au Sommet: rich, ripe and decadent.
Napa Valley’s final AVA is east of the Vacas, which makes you wonder why it’s considered part of the valley. The Chiles Valley District (established 1999) is well inland and therefore warm, but relatively high elevations temper the daytime heat. Its Cabernets thus far? Rustic.
Four Producers To Watch
Stags Leap District/Shafer Vineyards
Shafer’s vineyard is on the hilly, east side of the Silverado Trail, good terroir for Cabernet. What makes Hillside Select special is the steep slope where the grapes grow which focuses the flavors. The amphitheater-like setting traps daytime heat, producing a hothouse effect, while the red volcanic soils of the southern Vacas seem to give the Cabernets tang. Hillside Select always is showy and rich, yet balanced enough to age.
Diamond Mountain/Diamond Creek
The late Al Brounstein began his estate vineyard in 1968. The winery continues to be operated by his wife, Boots. At only 600 feet above sea level, within the Calistoga city limits, it isn’t especially high. Rather than create a single vineyard, Brounstein identified four parcels based on different microenvironments. The wines bear these block designations. They show distinctions, based on exposure and soils, yet all share the AVA’s common characteristics of intense tannins, focused fruit and minerality.
When Christian Moueix decided to locate his Dominus estate in Yountville, skeptics warned him that Yountville was too cold and foggy. Moueix went ahead anyway, arguing it would take him 20 years to figure out the dry-farmed vineyard. Initially, the wine could be lean, hard and, sometimes, green. Subsequent changes in varietal composition—Merlot was removed—and canopy management, not to mention increased vine age, have resulted in great improvement. Alcohol levels run around 14.1% by volume, modest by Napa standards. Tannins can be brusque. But a good Dominus from a fine vintage will easily develop for 10, 15 or 20 years.
Oakville/Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard
Grape grower Andrew Beckstoffer sells fruit from his portion of the famed vineyard to the likes of Paul Hobbs, Knights Bridge, B Cellars and Janzen. The vineyard sits on the so-called “Oakville Bench,” where the wall of the Mayacamas ends, beginning its gentle slope down to the deeper, more fertile flatlands east of Highway 29 that line the Napa River. To Kalon Cabernets all share common characteristics of intense ripeness, being jammy and chocolaty in youth, yet with impossibly pure tannins. Alcohols can be high. The wines possess what much of the world seeks in an Oakvillle Cabernet: hedonistic luxury.
Wines of the Subappelations
96 Diamond Creek 2009 Volcanic Hill Cabernet Sauvignon (Diamond Mountain). This shows the Diamond Creek signature of dryness, mountain tannins and voluptuously ripe, concentrated fruit. It’s dense in blackberry jam and cassis flavors, with firm minerality and a lush toast note from the oak. Near perfection in all of its parts, it possesses those hard-to-define qualities of balance and elegance. Wonderful as it is now, the tannins suggest aging it for many years. Cellar Selection.
abv: 14.1% Price: $175
95 B Cellars 2009 Beckstoffer Dr. Crane Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (St. Helena). Enormously rich and deep, with a fabulous compaction of black currant, crème de cassis, dark chocolate, baking spice and cedar flavors, and an interesting grilled meatiness, like the charred fat on a great steak. Lots of new oak, but perfectly integrated. The smoky, toasty barrel sweetness is the perfect layering on the fruit’s power. Drink this 100% Cab now and over the next 12–15 years. This Dr. Crane vineyard has really rocked in recent vintages. Cellar Selection.
abv: 15.1% Price: $145
95 La Jota Vineyard 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon (Howell Mountain). The tannins are so fierce on this baby Cabernet that they effectively lock it down and make it tough to drink now. Yet there’s a fabulous core of blackberries that are rich, ripe and intense. Everything about it suggests ageability. Give it at least eight years in a proper cellar, and it could age even longer. Cellar Selection.
abv: 14.8% Price: $65
95 Venge 2010 Bone Ash Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Calistoga). Cabernet Sauvignon doesn’t get much more rich or ripe than this bottling. Made from grapes grown in Calistoga, this 100% varietal wine offers blackberry jam and crème de cassis flavors. Lots of new French oak influence adds sweet toast and caramel notes. Dramatically complex and powerful, this tannic selection will benefit from being cellared for a minimum of eight years, and it should continue to develop well beyond that time frame. Cellar Selection.
abv: 14.9% Price: $85
95 Yates Family Vineyard 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon (Mount Veeder). This is an absolutely beautiful wine from a winery that’s
quietly been doing a great job with their Cabs. Made from grapes grown high up on Mount Veeder, which insiders know as one of Napa’s premier mountain appellations, it’s rich and softly refined in blackberry, blueberry, currant and chocolate flavors, with lovely minerality. It will age for a while, but there’s no reason not to drink it now. Editors’ Choice.
abv: 14.5% Price: $55
94 Au Sommet 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon (Atlas Peak). Very rich and opulent, in the Heidi Barrett style, this Cabernet is sweetly jammy but somewhat direct in blackberries, cherries and raspberries. The finish is extraordinarily long and spicy, an indication that it’s a wine for the cellar. Firm tannins and fine acidity confirm its ageability. Hold this flashy, decadent wine until 2016 and then try it again. Cellar Selection.
abv: 14.3% Price: $250
94 PerryMoore 2008 Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Oakville). This is a wine of power and heft, a classic example of its vineyard and of modern Cabernet technique. It’s almost a food group in itself, offering tiers of black currants, dark chocolate, roasted meat, violets, minerals, cedar and spices. The tannins are profound, but so are the youthful tannins, giving the wine a hard jacket of astringency. Anticipated maturity is around 2018. Cellar Selection.
abv: 15% Price: $150
94 Shafer 2008 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon (Stags Leap District). Another great Hillside Select from selected blocks in Shafer’s vineyard. It’s a perfect illustration of the “iron fist in a velvet glove” description of Stags Leap Cabernet, with perhaps more emphasis this year on the velvet than the iron. With smooth tannins and luxurious, oak-influenced blackberry and black cherry jam flavors, it’s delicious now and will provide plenty of pleasure over the next 8–10 years.
abv: 15.5% Price: $230
93 Trefethen 2009 Estate Grown Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Oak Knoll). The structure of this Cabernet Sauvignon (which includes small amounts of other Bordeaux grapes) shows lots of elegance, with refined tannins and acidity, plus a tasteful application of oak. Bone dry, it bears classic blackberry and black currant flavors. It will develop over the next six years, but is drinkable now.
abv: 14.1% Price: $100
92 Hall 2008 Exzellenz Sacrashe Vineyard Red Wine (Rutherford). Made from 100% Cabernet, this shows the tremendous richness and concentration of previous vintages of this wine, which was aged in 90% new French oak. Huge and flashy in cherry, blackberry and raspberry fruit, gorgeous, sumptuous, fat, although purists will insist it’s too much of a good thing. Hard to predict its longterm future, but the next six years are assured.
abv: 15% Price: $165
91 Vineyard 7&8 2009 7 Cabernet Sauvignon (Spring Mountain). It’s soft and gentle in texture, yet richly tannic, with complex blackberry, black currant, herb and cedar flavors. It shows the classic elegance that’s characteristic of this mountain vineyard site. Drink over the next 3–4 years.
abv: 14.8% Price: $75
90 Dominus 2009 Estate Bottled Red Wine (Napa Valley). While this is not the best Dominus vintage, it does show elegantly smooth tannins, dryness and earthiness that accompanies the blackberry and cassis fruit. It’s curiously soft, which might limit its ageability. Shows an uncanny similarity to the 2000.
abv: 14.5% Price: $179
Does It Have to Be Steak?
To call Cabernet Sauvignon the ultimate beef wine is to state the obvious, but if you don’t believe us, take it from these superstar sommeliers.
“The perfect pairing for Cabernet is steak, maybe a rib-eye or New York strip steak,” says Chris Hall, part-owner of Long Meadow Ranch Winery and wine director of Farmstead restaurant in St. Helena.
Steak and Cab are good partners, he says, “because both are big. If you don’t have the same extreme in the wine and food, one gets overpowered by the other.”
Farmstead’s menu leans toward wood-fired cooking. Hall finds the smokiness of the meat echoes the char in the Cabernet.
Josiah Baldivino, head sommelier at Michael Mina San Francisco, agrees that Cab and steak go together, “like milk and cookies. The fattiness of the steak holds up to the tannin structure of the wine.”
At the same time, he points out that age is important.
“Young Cabs are tricky,” he says. “You need meat, whether hamburger or steak.”
A Cabernet with some bottle age is more versatile.
“With an older one, like a 1999 Mayacamas, you can get away with something other than beef, like duck, squab or lamb,” says Baldivino.
Still, he doesn’t get too dogmatic. “At the end of the day, my approach to wine and food pairing is, I just want people to be happy.”