What wine do you covet? What wine are you really willing to pay top dollar for, whether it’s a special-occasion wine to drink now, or a legendary bottling to lay down?
Granted, Pinot Noir is all the rage now. And maybe a friend brought some hefty Brunellos back from his recent trip that have you all worked up about Italian wines. Perhaps you’re still tasting through the Zinfandels you bought on impulse a few years back.
Through thick and thin, though, your one true love is Cabernet Sauvignon.
What other wine displays the consistent depth, variety, ageability, complexity, plushness and power that Cabernet does? Whether it’s an earthy, chocolaty offering from California, a dense and dark affair from Bordeaux, or a plummy, minty bottling from Washington State, Cabernet is literally a force of nature.
The question is, which are the best of the best, worth seeking out—and worth their lofty price tags? Wine Enthusiast‘s editors have the answers. Each contributor tasted as many Cabs from his or her region as possible. For the purpose of this story, they were asked to restrict their recommendations to wines that are at least 75 percent Cabernet and retail at $50 or more. The result of their search is found here as well as in this issue’s Buying Guide—glorious specimens that justify their premium pricing and are must-try bottlings for all Cabernet lovers. Some are classics—absolute benchmarks of the variety—and others are new discoveries. Still others have been quietly and consistently excellent, but are relatively unsung outside of their regions. Now it’s their time to shine.
Profiles/reviews written by Mike Duffy, Paul Gregutt, Steve Heimoff, Monica Larner, Michael Schachner, Daryna Tobey and Roger Voss.
Hailing More Cabs
Selecting the world’s top Cabernets was difficult, and surely you’re asking yourselves how we could have left off some of your favorite wines and producers. Some bottlings were a point or two shy of the scores they needed to achieve this top rung; others were less than 75 percent Cabernet this vintage. Still others—the nerve!—cost less than our $50 minimum price. Here are more Cab-based reds that our editors love.
Argentina Since 1997, Bodega Catena Zapata‘s signature wine has been called Nicolas Catena Zapata, named for the Argentinean winery’s visionary third-generation patriarch. The 2002 vintage (92 points, $95), which carries the familiar Mendoza designation, includes 68 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 32 percent Malbec. Unlike many New World luxury cuvées, NCZ weaves vibrant acidity through layers of blueberry (the Malbec component speaking) and cassis (the Cabernet), resulting in a food-friendly but serious red table wine. — M.S.
Australia Just a point or two—a matter of vintage (or even bottle) variation—kept a slew of Aussie Cabs from the center ring, yet they’re widely known as some of the country’s best. Penfolds 2002 Bin 707 (90 points, $80), Noon 2004 Reserve Cabernet (90 points, $120), Henschke 2002 Cyril Henschke (90 points, $100), Warrabilla 2004 Reserve Cabernet (91 points, $45) and Mitolo 2004 Serpico (90 points, $57) all deserve special notice. Stars from Coonawarra, Cabernet’s natural home in Australia, also shined, including the Parker 2001 Terra Rossa First Growth (91 points, $70), Penley Estate 2002 Reserve (90 points, $65) and Katnook 2000 Odyssey (91 points, $50). Wynns 2003 John Riddoch (90 points) is an ageworthy bargain at just $45. — D.T.
California These are all fantastic wines, but fall short of our "at least 75 percent Cabernet" stipulation: Just 62 percent Cab, the Sloan 2002 Red Wine (100 points, $245) is a beautiful wine. Sloan’s winemaker, Martha McClellan, was assistant winemaker at Harlan Estate from 1995-2001; her husband, Bob Levy, is chief winemaker there. The 2002 Harlan (99 points, $245), too, is a near-perfect wine, but again falls short of the 75 percent Cabernet requirement. Levy co- ferments his grapes, so the precise cépage isn’t known, but it’s probably about 65 percent Cab. Winemaker Mark Aubert’s Colgin 2003 IX Estate (98 points, $175) is a wild, young, ripe wine, but contains only 64 percent
France The percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux wines fluctuates greatly by vintage; the better vintages often have higher percentages of Cabernet than the off years. Some of the better, Cabernet-heavy recent vintages include 1996, 2000, 2004 and 2005.
Bordeaux’s best estates with a high proportion of Cabernet plantings are found in Saint-Julien and Pauillac. In Saint-Julien, the finest wines come from the Léovilles: Las Cases, Barton and Poyferré. Two other estates that are currently shining are Branaire-Ducru and Ducru-Beaucaillou. In Pauillac, look for Pichon-Longueville. — R.V.
Italy It qualifies as Cab, but rarely: The Veneto’s Maculan 2003 Fratta Cabernet Sauvignon scored 94 points, although the Cabernet component is usually not over 75 percent in other
South Africa South Africa, one of the few countries where the dollar is still strong, does not have many Cabernets (or many wines at all, for that matter) over $50. Vergelegen’s 2001 V, which retails for $145 in the U.S., easily makes the cut, in terms of both cost and quality. Long, polished tannins encapsulate a powerful wine that is finely structured, with plenty of flavor. Although greener than many modern Cabs, with bell pepper playing a role, this wine was built to last, with plenty of cassis and tobacco flavors, too. — M.D.
Vilafonté 2002 Series C
Vilafonté is in Paarl, one of South Africa’s warmer grapegrowing regions, thus is ideal for producing premium reds. The vineyard site was chosen by Californians Phil Freese, designer of the first Opus One vineyard, and former Mondavi and Simi winemaker Zelma Long, after various consulting trips to the Cape convinced them of the area’s potential. Add to the mix importer Bartholomew Broadbent and Vilafonté’s general manager, Mike Ratcliffe, who hails from the South African winery Warwick Estate, and you have loads of international talent, experience and regional know-how.
Vilafonté’s Series C is Cabernet-dominant, with 82 percent in its first commercial vintage. Its sister wine, the Series M, focuses more on Merlot and Malbec, although both bottlings utilize multiple Bordeaux varieties. Both, too, have the texture and acidity to age well. "Longevity is the mark of great wine, and it’s what we seek," says winemaker Long. Of the Cabernet in particular, she "expect[s] the Series C to be a wine of longevity." — M.D.
92 Vilafonté 2002 Series C (Paarl); $70. A fairly big (14.5% alcohol), chewy wine, but one that delivers waves of lush fruit. Plum and cassis notes are framed by hints of smoke and cedar; the merest hint of green herbs adds complexity without detracting. Long and supple on the finish. Drink now-2015. (11/15/2005) — W.E.
Baldacci 2003 Brenda’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon
With this wine, Baldacci hits the big time, and so does winemaker Rolando Herrera. He’s come a long way from the Mexican village of El Llano, where he was born. "My father brought us to St. Helena, searching for a better way of life," he says.
Herrera worked at Paul Hobbs, Vine Cliff and other wineries, but really earned his Cabernet stripes at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. When he got the call from the Baldaccis to the be consulting winemaker, "I was so excited to be coming back to the Stags Leap District. This is an appellation I really know."
Brenda’s is a small block in the estate vineyard, located next to the winery in the tenderloin of the AVA, on the Silverado Trail. The wine is a best-of-barrels selection, because, Herrera says, "Every time I blended it, it didn’t make a better Cabernet." Herrera’s own label is Mi Sueño. "My Dream," he explains. "I started as a cellar rat, and today, my dream has come true." 340 cases produced.
95 Baldacci 2003 Brenda’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Stags Leap District); $70. Tasted with Baldacci’s regular Cab, this is a slightly tougher, less immediately opulent wine. The fruit is there, but the tannic structure makes it less accessible. Lush plum and prune flavors coat the palate, dusted with oaky notes of chocolate and smoke. Winemaker Rolando Herrera worked at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars as well as with Paul Hobbs, and he clearly knows his stuff. If you can cellar this 100 percent Cab though 2010, good for you, because it’s just so rewarding now. — S.H.
Château Latour 2003 Pauillac
Ask any enthusiast of fine Bordeaux which wine best exemplifies the very best qualities of Cabernet Sauvignon in the region, and the answer almost inevitably will be Latour. This Pauillac first growth has the highest percentage of Cabernet in its vineyard (77 percent); in 2005, the percentage of Cabernet in the grand vin reached a lofty 87 percent.
But it is not just the Cabernet that makes Latour so special. It is the almost perfect shape of the wine in a great year. It has such refinement, wearing its power and depth of flavor with such elegance, like a great haute couture dress, where you don’t need to admire the cut or the sewing but just the beauty of the overall effect.
Latour’s aging ability is legendary, and not just in great vintages. For example, the 2001 (91 points) is finely balanced with good structure and firm tannins. But the greatest of recent years are the massive 2000 (98 points); the huge, structured, still very young 1996 (96 points); and the hugely rich and concentrated 1989 (98 points). This is Cabernet at its greatest, grown in its true home.
96 Château Latour 2003 Pauillac; $700. This is certainly the most smooth and rich of recent vintages of Latour. But even in the hot conditions of 2003, Latour has managed to retain a sense of balance, even elegance. There are flavors of cassis, with cedar aromas from the wood. To taste, there is acidity giving a counterweight to the huge fruit flavors. This will certainly age, unlike some 2003s. — R.V.
Shafer 2002 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon
The ’99 was perfect, the 2000 less so, and the ’01 roared back. Now comes the very great ’02. "The vintage was a beauty," says Doug Shafer, describing the wine as having "that big, full, rich Napa style." When I wrote the harvest report on 2002, in the autumn of that year, I said of Napa Cabernets that "many will be superb, especially from vineyards that managed the harvest well." And few wineries have such great vineyards, or treat them with more T.L.C., than Shafer, with their perfectly sheltered Stags Leap estate. Decanting will help soften this wine, but it surely will develop well for the next 15 years. 100 percent Cab Sauvignon; 2,400 cases produced.
97 Shafer 2002 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon (Stags Leap District); $190. The impression is of a young, tannicly closed but enormously promising Cabernet. Floods the mouth with dramatic black currant, cherry and chocolate flavors, as well as masses of toasty, caramelized new oak, and a rich, minerally earthiness. For all the power, there’s elegance and refinement. If you must drink it now, decant; the wine gets better overnight. Otherwise, best 2008-2015. Cellar Selection. — S.H.
Tenuta San Guido 2003 Sassicaia
Italy’s most eminent enological legend was born from a once malaria-infested wasteland in a tiny patch of forgotten Tuscany that had gained only marginal notice thanks to the many stones (sassi in Italian) that lay on its surface. But once Sassicaia ("field of stones") met the Cabernet Sauvignon grape variety, that swath of land became among the most precious crus in the world of wine.
Today the hefty burden of the Sassicaia legacy (many consider it Italy’s best wine) is in the hands of the soft-spoken Marchese Nicolò Incisa della Rocchetta and his UC Davis- educated stepson Sebastiano Rosa.
"We have not changed the way we make our wine, but you could say everyone else has changed," says Rosa. The Marchese adds: "It’s a difficult wine that requires patience and that needs to be drunk calmly." The wine is 85 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 15 percent Cabernet Franc, and it is aged 24 months in French oak.
If Sassicaia is Italy’s number one wine, one reason is because it is often the most misunderstood. It has an astonishing aging ability and if it is consumed too young, wine enthusiasts are left in the anguishing position of guessing what it might have become with time. Wine Enthusiast gave the hot 2003 vintage 91 points and we look forward to revisiting it in one decade.
91 Tenuta San Guido 2003 Sassicaia (Bolgheri); $180. It’s almost criminal to taste Sassiciaia before its prime. The 2003 vintage should be ready after 2010. A blend of 85 percent Cab Sauvignon and 15 percent Cab Franc that aged 24 months in barrique. Notes of cassis, exotic spice, menthol and green olive come through despite the hot vintage. It’s powerful in the mouth with crispness and refined tannins. Cellar Selection. — M.L.
Vasse Felix 2003 Heytesbury
Vasse Felix, Margaret River’s first commercial winery, has been making the Heytesbury red (there’s a Chardonnay, too) since 1995, and it’s still going strong. Fruit for this flagship red comes from a 40-year-old vineyard that’s about two miles off the coast of the Indian Ocean; the parcel yields just one or two tons an acre. The combination of free-draining, gravelly loam soils and winter rains mean that the vineyard almost never needs irrigation.
For its past four bottlings, the Heytesbury red has not received less than 91 points on the Wine Enthusiast 100-point scale—and the latest release lives up to its reputation. The 2003, made by Senior Winemaker David Dowden and former winemaker Clive Otto, is terrific. It’s 84 percent Cabernet, with Shiraz and Malbec making up the balance, and spends 18 months in new French oak. The 2003 is both juicy and tight, its black cherry flavors and lively acidity offering a counterpoint to Americans’ prevailing impression of what Australian Cabernet can be.
93 Vasse Felix 2003 Heytesbury (Margaret River); $50. It’s clear from the get-go that this is a wine that would benefit from further bottle aging: Just a little earth and anise come through on the nose. It’s a tightly wound wine all around—a little lean, even—but pleasantly so, its juicy, tangy black cherry flavors and lively acidity dominating at this stage. Supple and layered on the palate and through the finish. Drink 2008-2012. Cellar Selection. — D.T.
Diamond Creek 2002 Red Rock Terrace Cabernet Sauvignon
Still famous after 38 years, Diamond Creek’s Cabernets are also still relevant, continuing to fascinate and, usually, stun. The named sections of the estate vineyard are authentically terroir-driven. Volcanic Hill almost always is the most ageworthy, starting off a bit closed and tight, while Gravelly Meadow and Red Rock Terrace vie for earlier drinkability. For me, though, the star of 2002 is Red Rock Terrace. "In 2002, Red Rock was the most concentrated of the three vineyards, the most mouthfilling," says winemaker Phil Steinschriber, who’s crafted the wines for 15 years. It’s hard to say why the ’02 RRT is so good, but the vineyard faces north, which may have lessened the impact of the vintage’s heat. The volcanic red soil seems to add an even greater iron-y richness to this already rich, young wine. About 80 percent Cabernet, with Merlot, Cab Franc and Petit Verdot comprising the balance; 500 cases produced.
97 Diamond Creek 2002 Red Rock Terrace Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley); $175. The most complete and compelling of Diamond Creek’s ’02s; balanced and distinguished. Cassis, red currants, cedar, tobacco and cigar box aromas lead to massive Cab flavors wrapped in huge, dusty tannins. Will mellow by 2008, and hold through 2015. Cellar Selection. — S.H.
Château Lynch-Bages 2003 Pauillac
Lynch-Bages was "modern Bordeaux" before the term existed. Under the direction of Jean-Michel Cazes, Lynch-Bages has become not only a great wine, but a wine that is familiar to Bordeaux lovers around the world.
This is a wine that exemplifies the power and the range of intense flavors that can come from Cabernet Sauvignon in its Pauillac heartland. With its dark colors, a density that needs to be almost cut with a knife, and its polished surface, it is almost New World in its structure. Yet, its tannins and balance are pure Bordeaux.
This fifth classified growth performs way above its station: If a reclassification was ever made, it would surely become a second growth. Recent vintages confirm this axiom. The 2003 (94 points) is compact, powerful and hugely rich, the 2004 (95 points) is more elegant, but still has great depth of flavor. Even the 2002 (92 points), somewhat austere, has the spice, new wood and velvety texture that mark this fine estate.
94 Château Lynch-Bages 2003 Pauillac; $60. A superlatively ripe, opulent wine, one that could almost have come from Napa. But not quite: The fruit is compact and dense, with layers of acidity that speak more of Bordeaux than California. — R.V.
Clarendon Hills 2004 Sandown Cabernet Sauvignon
Choosing just one top Cabernet from among Clarendon Hills’ three excellent 2004 bottlings—Hickinbotham, Brookman and Sandown—is difficult considering that they all rated at least 91 points this vintage. What these Cabs all have in common is that they’re 100 percent varietal, and each is 100 percent sourced from the vineyard designated on the bottle. More to the point, they are all made by the same uncompromising winemaker/proprietor, Roman Bratasiuk, who insists that all the grapes be handpicked and fermented whole.
Vines in the Sandown Vineyard are about 85 years old, and are planted in ironstone gravel; in 2004, they yielded a wine that Bratasiuk describes as a "big mouthful of fleshy blackberry, cassis and spice." This vintage, he says, "the Cabernets were very slow to ripen, but the long hang time influenced flavor and color development positively." We’ll say!
92 Clarendon Hills 2004 Sandown Cabernet Sauvignon (Clarendon); $65. Aromas are of red eraser, nut and dry earth or sand. On the palate it takes quite a different tack, its juicy black, blue- and raspberry fruit still tautly youthful. Powerful, though still so young; will probably show best in 5-8 years. Cellar Selection. — D.T.
Robert Foley 2003 Claret
This is the only California Cabernet in this feature that’s not from a single vineyard. It’s a blend of grapes from Calistoga, Spring Mountain, Howell Mountain, Mount Veeder and Atlas Peak. "I get real excited about terroirs," Bob Foley says. He makes barrels of each wine separately, ages them for a year, "and then I create a blend as I see fit, to make the most hedonisticially perfect, pleasing wine I can." Sometimes Foley Claret contains Merlot; the ’03 doesn’t. "There are never any formulas!" declares Foley, who is the founding winemaker at Pride Mountain, and consulting winemaker for Hourglass, Switchback Ridge and Engel Family. Despite its multiappellation components, the ’03 Claret seems to showcase Napa Cab in a pure, intense and classic way. 1,000 cases produced.
96 Robert Foley 2003 Claret (Napa Valley); $110. Nearly 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, this firm, young wine showcases Napa Cab at its best. It’s powerful in cassis and mocha flavors, with complex spice notes. The considerable new oak fits in fine given the wine’s size. Extraordinarily smooth and lush, it’s beautiful now, but has the structure to age for a decade. — S.H.
Quilceda Creek 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon
Their license plate reads CLARET, one indication of the commitment to first-growth quality standards practiced by father/son winemaking team Alex and Paul Golitzin. Alex, a nephew of legendary Napa winemaker André Tchelistcheff, began his focused pursuit of Washington Cabernet in 1979.
Time has proven Quilceda Creek’s Cabernet Sauvignons to be the most consistently ageworthy in the state, if not the country. And Golitzin senior has successfully passed the quality torch on to his son. "Paul is the leader here," he says proudly. "Basically this place does what he decides."
"I’m looking for wonderful balance, silky tannin," Paul Golitzin explains, "it’s a textural phenomenon that we want." "Washington State," adds Alex, "is the most spectacular place for Bordeaux varietals in the world. I don’t think there’s any place that can even come close."
97 Quilceda Creek 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon (Washington); $95. Lovely color and aromatics, showing plum, berry, dust, mint and menthol. Spicy and young, this new vintage is surprisingly light on its feet. The fruit has a pleasing elegance; the acids are firm but unobtrusive, and the tannins are ripe, smooth and substantial, giving the wine weight and power. Cellar Selection. — P.G.
Rubicon Estate 2002 Rubicon
I asked Scott McLeod, who’s made wine at Francis Ford Coppola’s Niebaum-Coppola (now Rubicon Estate) since 1991, what he did to improve Rubicon, the estate’s flagship wine, which has been produced since 1979. Early vintages were somewhat coarse, but since the mid-1990s, and certainly with the stellar 1997, Rubicon has been one of California’s star Cabernets. "I learned from the older vintages…that Cabernet should be the dominant variety in the blends," McLeod replied. The magnificent 2002 is 90 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, with small percentages of Merlot, Cab Franc and Petit Verdot. It is also a Rutherford Cabernet, showing more of a cherry-pie character, rather than the blackberries and cassis more typical of Oakville. (And, yes, you’ll find that famous Rutherford dust here, too.) The estate vineyard is based on the original cutting, the coveted Clone 29, that Gustave Niebaum planted in 1882. 5,296 cases produced.
98 Rubicon 2002 Rubicon (Rutherford); $110. Extremely fragrant for such a young wine, showing cascades of violets, caramelized new oak, sweet red cherry pie, cocoa and cassis aromas. In the mouth, it’s long and unctuous, and floods the palate with sweet, savory flavors. There’s a youthful jamminess right now, lots of baby fat, which will melt off and refine as time goes by. Such is the tannic elegance and balance that cellaring will be no problem at all over 20 years. This is the best Rubicon ever. Cellar Selection. — S.H.
Viña Almaviva 2003 Almaviva
Almaviva, the Chilean winery/wine born of a joint venture forged by Baroness Philippine de Rothschild and Concha y Toro chairman Eduardo Guilisasti, pays homage in name to the main character in Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro and in spirit to the merging of Old World and New World wines.
Since its inaugural vintage in 1998, Almaviva has been a blend of classic Bordeaux varieties, in which about 75 percent Cabernet Sauvignon is blended with Carmenère and a few droplets of Cabernet Franc. In every sense, it is a wine of primer órden: Its grapes come from just one vineyard (82 acres in the Puente Alto subsection of the Maipo Valley); it is made in a proprietary winery; it also has its own technical team, headed since 2004 by Tod Mostero, an American who trained in Bordeaux and has made wine at luminary chateaus including Pétrus, Haut-Brion and Opus One. Before Mostero took over, Almaviva was in the hands of the renowned French enologist Patrick León and Chile’s Enrique Tirado.
Along with the 1999 and 2001 vintages, the 2003 Almaviva exemplifies what a true Chilean powerhouse red is all about: immense color and ripeness, opulent berry flavors, and approachability.
94 Viña Almaviva 2003 Almaviva (Puente Alto); $75. Impressive in every way. The color shines an iridescent ruby, while the bouquet is massive, an amalgamation of fresh-cut cedar, pencil lead and lush berry fruit. Ripe as can be and balanced, with plushness and depth you don’t normally find. Finishes round and creamy, with vanilla and liqueur notes. Does not require cellaring but should hold for up to 10 years. — M.S.
Araujo 2002 Eisele Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon
The 38-acre Eisele Vineyard was first planted in the 1880s, but it was made famous by Joseph Phelps’s Cabernet bottlings, which date back to 1975. Eisele has remained one of Napa’s greatest sources of Cabernet since its 1990 purchase by Bart and Daphne Araujo. The compact property, on an alluvial fan ascending a gentle slope of the Vaca Mountains, with low-to-the-ground vines and a gurgling spring that dries up during summer, seems to exist in its own perfect viticultural universe.
The ’02 is, in a word, stunning. It possesses that sleekness of texture that is the hallmark of great Cabernet, or, in this case, great Eisele, while the wonderful vintage yielded naturally ripe fruit and tannins. The wine is delicious from the get-go, and a cellar guarantee. The winemaker, Françoise Peschon, apprenticed at Haut-Brion and later worked at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. The consulting winemaker is Michel Rolland. 96 percent Cabernet Sauvignon; 1,630 cases produced.
96 Araujo 2002 Eisele Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley); $175. Explodes with the most intricately detailed aromas: a perfume of fine smoky oak and ripe black currants. Exudes sheer power, with great weight yet no heaviness. Lush and delicious, but just tannic enough. If you can wait, cellar until 2008, it should hold and improve for many years. Cellar Selection. — S.H.
Leonetti Cellar 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon
Leonetti Cellar was the first Washington winery to attract national acclaim for its Cabernet. Leonetti’s first commercial release —a 1978 Cabernet Sauvignon made from an acre of vines adjacent to the winery—was named the best in the country by an influential wine publication of the day.
Leonetti quickly became the most allocated, most cultish winery in the Northwest. Its Cabernets, Merlots and Reserve wines were immensely popular, ripe and sensual, with rich fruit and artfully layered, buttery oak. As Leonetti nears its 29th vintage, Chris Figgins, the son of founders Nancy and Gary Figgins, is overseeing the winery’s expanding vineyard holdings and rethinking the winemaking.
Leonetti wines are becoming more fruit driven, more classically styled. The oak is more understated, and the wines, still delicious, are more tightly wound, better suited for aging. "We’re going towards being entirely estate grown," Chris Figgins explains, "and that pushes me philosophically towards showing off our vineyards." There was never, he insists, a conscious decision to cut back on oak. "In terms of the winemaking we’re very much a team, with Dad standing back and making sure I don’t screw things up."
94 Leonetti Cellar 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon (Walla Walla); $70. Classic Bourbon barrel/vanilla flavors are set against bright, polished fruit. Layers of berries, currants and blueberries provide a firm foundation. This is a very cleanly made wine, crisp and tight, yet silky and seductive. — P.G.
Steven Kent 2002 Smith Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon
The only non-Napa Cabernet to make this list, and what a joy it is to see great Cabernet again hailing from Livermore Valley. Steven Kent’s last name is Mirassou; his family has been in the wine business since an ancestor brought cuttings over from France, in 1858. When Kent went off on his own, in 1996, he explains, "I wanted to do world-class Cabernet in Livermore." Why did he think he could? "Remember, California’s first international gold medals were for white Bordeaux wines from Livermore, and we figured if you could grow white Bordeaux, it would work well for Cabernet, too." It surely does. The Smith Ranch Vineyard is owned by the Wentes. Of the ’02 bottling, Kent says, "We knew the wine would be good, but we didn’t know how good. Now, we think we do." The wine is different from Napa, softer, a little earthier, but no less compelling. 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon; 100 cases produced.
96 Steven Kent 2002 Smith Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon (Livermore Valley); $65. As beautiful as Steven Kent’s regular and McGrail 2002 Cabernets were, this exceeds them in sheer delight. It is as good as almost any Cabernet in California. Dry, soft, rich, complex and intensely varietal, this tiny production wine is at its best now, with massive cassis and chocolate flavors perfectly offset by rich tannins. Will hold through this decade. Editors’ Choice. — S.H.
Produttori Colterenzio 2001 Lafòa
In the mid-1980s, Luis Raifer set out to prove to the members of the Produttori Colterenzio cooperative he headed that quality Alto Adige grapes could be achieved simply by switching from the traditional pergola (an overhead vine-training system) to the modern cordon method. Because international varieties were in vogue at the time, he planted his experimental Lafòa vineyard to Cabernet Sauvignon.
Little did he know that this simple modification would soon establish Colterenzio’s Lafòa Cabernet Sauvignon as one of Italy’s showcase single-variety and single-vineyard wines. Deeply intense and redolent of forest berry, menthol, mountain herbs and spice, the wine is refined in stainless steel and spends 18 months in oak. "We didn’t set out to make an international wine but ended up with a wine that mirrors its territory," says Luis Raifer’s 33-year-old son, Wolfgang Raifer, who is Colterenzio’s enologist today.
93 Produttori Colterenzio 2001 Lafòa (Alto Adige); $65. There’s a very pretty and refined quality to this 100% Cab that distinguishes it. It has delicate aromas of forest berry, menthol, sweet clove, porcini mushroom and moist tobacco. Complex and persistent in the mouth, this is a showcase wine for northern Italy. 700 cases produced. — M.L.
Colgin 2003 Herb Lamb Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon
I tasted this wine with winemaker Mark Aubert, and when I described this wine as having a garrigues scent, he agreed. The north-facing vineyard, near the base of Howell Mountain, is protected from the afternoon heat, "so you cannot get that superripe, over-the-top" character. Ann Colgin buys the fruit from vineyard owner Herb Lamb; while the vineyard is not technically in the Howell Mountain appellation, it shows typical Howell darkness and intensity. Aubert, who trained at Monticello and Rutherford Hill before working with Helen Turley at Peter Michael, has a European sensitivity that enables him to tame raw, powerful fruit into elegant, balanced wine. 100 percent Cab Sauvignon; 210 cases produced.
95 Colgin 2003 Herb Lamb Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley); $225. Almost black in color. Flavors are of blackberry, cassis, Provençal herbs; the 100% new oak adds rich toast and char notes. Tannins are dense and fluffy. This is classic mountain Cab, beautiful now, fleshy and fat, but with a 20-year lifespan. — S.H.
Torres 2001 Mas La Plana Cabernet Sauvignon
Cabernet Sauvignon will never be looked upon as Spain’s signature grape; that distinction belongs to Tempranillo. But for more than 30 years Torres’s Mas La Plana, a varietal bottling of the purest pedigree, has encouraged wine lovers to at least consider Spain as a source for world-class Cabernet.
Hailing from a 72-acre vineyard in the heart of Penedès, Mas La Plana, also known as Black Label because of its packaging, is the undisputed king of Spanish Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s a single-vineyard wine, one that benefits from low yields, meticulous elaboration, and, since the 1990 vintage, 18 months’ aging in new French oak. Mas La Plana is the only Spanish Cabernet that can hold a candle to the great wines of the Médoc, Napa and other Cab havens. Single handedly, and for three decades and counting, it has been Spain’s benchmark Cabernet.
91 Torres 2001 Mas La Plana Cabernet Sauvignon (Penedès); $50. Has a roasted charcoal and lemon-peel nose, followed by herb, cherry and cassis flavors. It has a silky mouthfeel and tons of structure, with coffee and chocolate finishing notes. Tasted three times since June 2005; the wine is still improving. Best from 2009-2012. — M.S.
Grant Burge 2000 Shadrach Cabernet Sauvignon
A self-described "proud Barossan winemaker" with a "long-running affair with Cabernet Sauvignon," Grant Burge likes his Cabernets both minty and lushly textured, deeply colored yet stylish. And the current vintage of his flagship Shadrach Cabernet achieves just that. But how did the proprietor/winemaker of the eponymous Barossa winery achieve such excellence in Barossa’s challenging 2000 vintage?
Burge sourced 83 percent of the grapes from Coonawarra, whose 2000 vintage was much more successful than Barossa’s. The other 17 percent is Barossa fruit, which lent the wine its color and texture. Burge and Senior Winemaker Craig Stansborough collaborated on the 2000 as well as the excellent 1999 (91 points). Beginning with the 2004 vintage, Shadrach will be 100 percent Barossa fruit, sourced from parcels in Corryton Park. With an elevation of 265 meters and a Region I climatic classification, Corryton Park’s climate is not unlike that of Bordeaux.
93 Grant Burge 2000 Shadrach (South Australia); $50. Tasted alongside other South Australian Cabs, this one is distinguished by its restraint and elegance. The nose has a nice briary quality; the palate has well-integrated tannins, and flavors of red fruit and eucalyptus. Medium in body, and very juicy through the long finish. Delicious now through 2013. — D.T.
Screaming Eagle 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon
This fabulous Cab is flashily ripe, almost decadent, and although case production is quite low (most of the grapes from the 55-acre vineyard are sold off), "putting the blend together is fairly complicated, layering lots, clones and blocks together like a puzzle," says winemaker Heidi Barrett. The official cépage is just an approximation because, Barrett explains, "I do whatever it takes to make the wine say ‘Screaming Eagle.’" And what is that, exactly? "I always know it when I taste it. Purity, balance and elegance." The ’03 is all that, but also possesses focused, exceptional power. 84 percent Cabernet, with Merlot and Cab Franc in supporting roles. 600 cases produced.
96 Screaming Eagle 2003 Red Wine (Oakville): $500. Ripe and flashy, offering tiers of cassis, chocolate and charry new oak flavors, wrapped in sweet, smooth tannins. Has an acidic bite midpalate that balances the lushness, and will add to the wine’s cellar-worthiness. Defines sheer power, but never loses control. Best now and through 2017, at least. Cellar Selection. — S.H.
Château Mouton-Rothschild 2003 Pauillac
Mouton is Pauillac’s flashy first growth. At the chateau, the sense that you’re part of a performance is both immediately attractive and, to the more cynical, in questionable taste. The wine has the same air of glamour; its layers of new wood are very seductive. But beneath it is a wine of great depth and longevity, to which legendary vintages like 1945, 1947 and 1982 can attest. Recent vintages have confirmed Mouton’s position in the top rung of the Bordeaux hierarchy. The 2003 vintage (94 points) is dominated by new wood, but it is still polished and stylish, even in spite of the hot vintage. The 2004 (93 points) is more elegant, with an extraction that a Napa Cab producer would understand. The greatest of recent vintages is 2000 (96 points), with its near-perfect structure and controlled power.
94 Château Mouton-Rothschild 2003 Pauillac; $260. Dominated by new wood, with very ripe cassis flavors underneath, waiting for the wood flavors to subside. Very much in the modern, polished style of Mouton today. — R.V.