HIGH-END CALIFORNIA CABERNETS
Our tasting panel puts more than 170 high-flying 1997 California Cabernets to the test, and finds that the wines live up to their advance billings.
Our tasting panel examines the 1997 crop of California Cabernets and finds a choir full of excellent wines in the over-$30 category.
In an era when low yields are regularly billed as a prerequisite to producing top wines, California's biggest vintage ever has produced scores of superb Cabernets.
"It was one of those even, good-weather vintages, the kind we haven't had lately," laughs Lyndsey Harrison, owner/winemaker of Harrison Winery and Vineyards, recalling 1997. "We got great quality and great quantity, which you hardly ever see." Nancy Andrus of Pine Ridge Winery calls it "an absolutely fabulous vintage."
Iron Horse winemaker and partner Forrest Tancer agrees. "It was the earliest bud break in the last 20 years. We got good fruit set and ended up with a good crop of very good quality. It was really a seamless vine-to-wine experience." All of these producers crafted wines we rated 94 points or higher.
Of course, these blissful recollections and wonderful successes don't mean that all parts of California made great Cabernet. Our recent tastings of 171 California Cabernet Sauvignons and blends retailing for $30 or more show that there is a reason for Napa's preeminence. Of the 85 wines in the tasting we rated 91 or higher, 70 (just over 80 percent) were from Napa and its subappellations.
"I don't understand why other places aren't having the same sort of success with Cab," says Dirk Hampson, director of winemaking for Far Niente and Nickel & Nickel, which placed a bevy of wines in the 90-plus point range. "Certainly you can find similar climates and similar soils in other parts of California, but Napa has a special sort of synergy between soil, temperature and the attention Cabernet has received."
Andrus attributes much of the valley's success to its proximity to San Pablo Bay. "In Stag's Leap, we almost always have cool morning fogs, which don't really burn off until 11 a.m. or so; our Howell Mountain vineyard at 2,000 feet is above the fog, but gets cool afternoon breezes."
Although the temperature swings are similar, the wines from these two Napa subappellations are quite different. Pine Ridge's Howell Mountain wine is undeniably bigger than the Stag's Leap offering, with a tough, ruggedly tannic structure in contrast to the firm yet silky, nearly voluptuous tannins found in the Stag's Leap bottling, yet, says Andrus, "the difference is not in the winemaking."
At the risk of overgeneralizing, this distinction holds true elsewhere in Napa. Wines made from above-the-fog fruit tend to be bigger-boned and usually a little tougher in their youth in contrast to the velvety wines coming from lower elevations. This is more of a stylistic consideration than one of quality; we found top-rated wines from vineyards on Spring Mountain, Howell Mountain and Mount Veeder, as well as from Rutherford and Oakville midvalley. The very best wines, regardless of origin, achieve a certain structural balance.
In some cases, the balance comes in part from blending mountain fruit with valley fruit, a perfect example being the 95-point 1997 Cardinale. Winemaker Charles Thomas crafts "the core of the wine" from vineyards on Mount Veeder and Howell Mountain, then blends in wines from Alexander Valley for "floral aromatics" and from Oakville and Rutherford, which contribute a "silky texture" and "a mineral-dust, almost floral, character," respectively.
By contrast, Joseph Phelps's equally impressive 1997 Insignia is a blend primarily from two lower-lying vineyards—Las Rocas in the Stag's Leap District and Manley Lane in Rutherford. Winemaker Craig Williams credits the wine's quality this vintage in part to the exceptional length of the ripening season. "We were running two to three weeks ahead until we hit a cool fog pattern in August that slowed things down and gave us a really long hang time." Williams considers '97 to be the best vintage of a decade blessed by good vintages; on top of that, it was the largest release of Insignia ever, at 20,000 cases.
"We want to compete with the first growths of Bordeaux," says Tom Shelton, president of Phelps. With this release, the Phelps team feels it has accomplished that. But Williams takes it a step further: "I think in some ways we've established a separate and unique quality benchmark."
With that ringing in our ears, we turn our attention to Sonoma. Often cast unfairly as Napa's little sibling, in the case of Cabernet the allusion is apt. Although many Sonoma wines fared well, particularly those from Alexander Valley, the fact remains that large areas of Sonoma are too cool for Cabernet.
John Staten of Field Stone Winery, whose Staten Family Reserve Cabernet received a rating of 93 points from the panel, attributes the success of Alexander Valley Cabs to two factors: "I think in our case it's primarily the soils. We're on shallow clay-pan soils, very different from Napa. Also we get a southwesterly breeze almost every afternoon that keeps [nighttime] temperatures cooler. If Calistoga is at 57Â°F, we might be at 50Â°."
"I think it's important to be away from the Russian River, on the benches and hillsides," adds Tancer. "Close to the river you don't get the same breeze blowing in from Sebastopol." Tancer and Staten agree that the combination of soil and climate give Alexander Valley Cabs some unique attributes.
"The tannins are different," says Tancer. "They're what I call fruit tannins. They're softer, more fruit-driven wines." Adds Staten, "They have 'bright' fruit. Red and Bing cherries; stone fruits. They lack the dark, leathery or herbal character you sometimes find elsewhere."
To help accentuate that fruit, Tancer has adapted a technique he first used to make Pinot Noir, utilizing a cold pre-fermentation soak. In another trick borrowed from Pinot production, he is stirring the lees in the barrel to build richness and depth on the midpalate. "I started doing this with Pinots; now I'm using it on all our reds," says Tancer.
The strong showing of Alexander Valley wines notwithstanding, other parts of Sonoma can make Cabs with just as much appeal and distinctiveness. Michael Martini's family has been farming their Monte Rosso vineyard for decades, where despite the Sonoma Valley AVA, the vineyard is decidedly not a low-lying area. The elevation, which ranges from 800 to 1,200 feet above sea level, and southern exposure mean cooling breezes that make their way up from San Pablo Bay prevent the daytime temperatures from getting too high, resulting in grapes with sometimes piercing acid levels.
In a warm, ripe vintage like 1997, the acids in Martini's flagship Cabernet, which scored 93 points, have been moderated somewhat, resulting in a wine that's more expressive of its potential at an earlier age. Along with the microclimate, the red, decomposed volcanic soils, remnants of a lava flow off Napa's Mount Veeder, give a unique flavor to the Cabernets here, which Martini refers to as "a real pepper tone, somewhere between green bell pepper and black pepper, sometimes even jalapeño."
|Napa Valley was the source of our top-rated 1997 Cabernets and blends.|
Vintners in other parts of California make Cabernet; they just didn't fare quite as well in our tastings. Still, there were a couple of standouts from the Santa Cruz Mountains, one of California's coolest growing regions. Dexter Ahlgren, of the eponymously named winery, recalls the vintage as "fantastic," but attributes much of his success to the source of his fruit: Bates Ranch.
"The vineyard is just about 30 years old, and I've been working with that fruit since 1976. It's a gentle south-facing slope with really unique soils," says Ahlgren. It's certainly a great site for Cabernet Sauvignon; past vintages from several producers have been excellent, and another Bates Ranch Cabernet, from Thunder Mountain, also scored well. "The wines are really fruity, but long-lived," says Ahlgren.
Further south, Monterey is growing by leaps and bounds as a source of Chardonnay and, gradually, Pinot Noir. But Cabernet? That reaction is exactly what Lockwood winemaker Steve Pessagno has set out to change. Lockwood's Cabernet grows in the southern portion of Monterey, in a region known for its huge daily temperature swings.
"We can get 60-degree differences in a single day," says Pessagno. "We don't have the herbal [flavor] problems because of the hot days and better canopy management." One thing he has done in the vineyards is carefully control vine vigor. "For our VSR program, we do minimal irrigation prior to veraison, which helps keep berry size down, giving us more concentrated flavors."
Winemakers in Santa Barbara face some of the same challenges: Santa Barbara is known for its reds from Pinot Noir and Syrah; conventional wisdom is that it's too cool to grow Cabernet Sauvignon. But a few brave producers are bucking the trend. BlackJack Ranch's 1997 Harmonie Bordeaux-style blend will be a revelation to tasters who immediately discount Santa Barbara Cabernets.
"It was a picture-perfect vintage," recalls winemaker Roger Wisted. "We're usually about ten degrees cooler than the North Coast regions, but we do some things in the vineyard to compensate—leaf pulling, crop thinning." The Cabernet yields for Harmonie were a relatively generous 2.75 tons per acre in 1997; conversely, crops in '98 and '99 were substantially lower, as Wisted had to drop even more fruit to encourage full ripening.
All over California in 1997, it is a recurring theme. Because of the warm sunny weather, winemakers allowed the vines to carry more fruit than in cooler vintages like '98 and '99. As a result, quantities for many wines are up in 1997. In most markets, greater supply would mean falling prices, but not in California. It's a reflection of good economic times and the quality of the wines.
"California winemakers are making Cabernets that are every bit as good as the Bordelais, and should be paid accordingly," asserts an unapologetic Harrison. "Where that's going, I don't know; it's the economy, I guess." Lockwood's Pessagno says consumers should be selective. "Some really are that good," he says, referring to wines that sell for $75 to $100 or more per bottle. "Others are just capitalizing on the wave."
Andrus agrees that the economy seems to be the big thing driving prices these days. "We kept our prices in check for a long time and now with this economy we're being paid back for it." Shelton sees "tremendous demand. Scarcity and shortage are playing a role."
"Sure, there's a bit of keeping up with the Joneses," says Hampson, not referring to the high-flying Jones Family 1997 Napa Valley Cabernet (95 points). "If you don't maintain your standing, you're left behind. Still, as long as we deliver on the promise of a special-occasion wine, I think our prices are reasonable."
Hampson is right. At an average price of more than $50 per bottle, these are not "daily drinkers" for most of us; rather, they are bottles that will be consumed at restaurants or on special occasions, or cellared by collectors until they reach their full potential.
Are the wines worth it? Only you can decide if a particular wine is worth your hard-earned cash, and how much of it. We found top-rated wines from $30 up to $130, and lots of them, so consumers have plenty of great choices from the 1997 vintage. Use our reviews to guide you to the wines that have the best chance of meeting your expectations.
MAKING GREAT CABERNET
There's no set recipe for making great Cabernet, says Bartholomew Park's Antoine Favero: "You have to listen to the fermentation." He uses cultured yeasts and puts the wines into oak for only about a year. "We're trying to accentuate the differences between the single vineyards that we bottle," says Favero.
TOP 1997 CABERNET SAUVIGNONS & BLENDS
96 Lewis 1997 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley) $60
91 Robert Craig 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon (Mount Veeder) $44
HOW WE DO THE TASTING
Several times a year, the Wine Enthusiast tasting panel conducts large-scale tastings that focus on a single type of wine or wine region, often from a particular vintage or covering a specific price range. For this tasting, producers of ultrapremium California Cabernet Sauvignons and blends were invited to submit samples of their wines that retail for $30 or more and that would be released before the end of 2000.