Vintage 2005 was a splendid year for cabernet sauviignon in California, a year perhaps to rival 2001. Much depends upon the winemaker, of course; many a ton of terrific grapes has been ruined by over-oaking in the winery, while in lesser years thoughtful and careful winemakers can turn out great wine; this is a principle that prevails in all the world’s winemaking regions.

These 12 examples of cabernet sauvignon or cabernet-based wines were tasted within the last six months; I’ve been saving them for a moment when they could logically work together in one post. They are not all excellent wines, but neither are any of them marred by the contemporary bedevilments of too much oak, too much alcohol and too much ripeness. My favorites here — and they will be readily apparent — display the best balance between elegance and power, between fruit and structure. They don’t give too much away too quickly; they prize gravitas and detachment and austerity. Well, o.k, a couple are pretty shamelessly appealing, but then they roll out their serious natures.
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It’s a bold move to name your cabernet blend Maximus and then give it the nickname “Feasting Wine;” shades of banquets and revelry! The Bennett Lane Maximus “Red Feasting Wine” 2005, Napa Valley, however, is densely structured enough that I would hesitate to open a bottle for tonight’s banquet; feasting in 2010 through 2015 or ’16 would be more like it. The blend is 64 percent cabernet sauvignon and 25 percent merlot, and you would be forgiven for thinking that we’re on our way to something modeled on St. Estephe or St. Julien, except that the other 11 percent is syrah, a grape that the Bordelaise don’t even dream about. Maximus ’05 opens with distinct aromas of cedar, tobacco and walnut shell that unfold around elements of intense and concentrated black currant, black cherry and plum. The flavors are similar, but deep, rich and spicy, quite earthy and minerally. The texture is dense and chewy with slightly gritty tannins that help make this a solid and substantial wine rather than a supple or vibrant one. Very Good+ with a nod toward Excellent potential in three or four years. About $35.
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For 2005, winemaker Marco DiGuillio took the Black Coyote Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, which is 100 percent cabernet, from the Stags Leap District to Atlas Peak. The immediate impression is of roots and branches, briers and brambles and cedar; then come black currants, plum pudding, saddle leather and licorice. Aged 22 months in French oak, 85 percent new barrels, this is a wine that almost vocalizes its marriage to the subtleties and blandishments of wood, while stewing in a welter of immense polished, grainy tannins. The wine is very smoky, very minerally and increasingly austere, yet its core feels not ponderous but resonant and lively. Production was 800 cases. Try from 2010 or ’11 through 2015 to ’18. Excellent. About $65.
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If you are like me — and you may be in ways that I cannot begin to fathom (or want to know about) — then you think that the Blackstone label represents the cheap seats of restaurant wine lists and grocery store shelves, especially that ubiquitous merlot, so serviceable, so innocuous. So who can blame the producer for wanting to move up the scale? I tasted the Blackstone Rubric Sonoma Reserve 2005 blind and was knocked out by the quality, especially when I learned the price. The salmagundi of a blend blackstone.jpg is 65 percent cabernet sauvignon, 14 percent syrah, 9 percent cabernet franc, 8 percent petite sirah, 2 percent merlot and — ready for this? — 2 percent teroldego. No one would blame you, mon lecteur, for never having heard of this grape — nor had I — but a few minutes with my research staff, Miss Google, provided its provenance; it’s a rare red grape found in Italy’s northeast region of Trentino-Alto Adige, especially in the zone called Campo Rotaliano, where its wines are highly valued.

So, Blackstone’s Rubric 2005 radiates purity and intensity of black fruit scents and flavors; it’s dark, high-toned and vibrant, and it offers lovely balance and integration, though it could use a slightly lighter hand with the easy fix of spicy oak. The wine is both tightly wound and generous, in the way that wines can be when a resolute structure supports lavish notes of lavender and licorice twined with minerals and walnut shell. Not a great wine, but I’ll happily rate it Very Good+ — it could use some fine-tuning — and recommend consumption through 2012 or ’13 with hearty red meat dishes. About $19.
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The grapes for the Chateau St. Jean Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Sonoma County — 88 percent cabernet sauvignon, 10 percent cabernet franc, 2 percent petit verdot — derive from vineyards in Knights Valley, Alexander Valley and Sonoma Valley. This is a “vinted” wine according to the label. Nothing wrong with purchasing grapes to make your wine; many a venerable house in Burgundy was built on the same principle. This all-too-typical example however, while competently-made, feels as if it were fashioned by a committee. Yes, it’s pungent and savory with ripe, dusty, minerally black currants, black cherries and plums; yes, the tannin and oak are sleek and polished; yes, it gathers notes of leather and minerals and charcoal, briers and brambles, cedar and tobacco; yes, it’s dense and chewy. So do and so are a hundred other cabernets from Napa and Sonoma. From Chateau St. Jean, we need more personality, if actual character is not too much to hope for. Very good+. About $27.
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I have probably said this a thousand times, but once more won’t hurt. Because they are elegant rather than monumental, because they are poised instead of exuberant, wines from Clos du Val tend to be undervalued if not downright ignored. 05_nv_cab_label.jpg Whenever possible in a restaurant, if I’m dining on beef especially, I order a bottle of Clos du Val Cabernet Sauvignon, because I know that it will have both the character and the sensuous appeal to match the dish and satisfy my palate. “Oh,” you’re saying archly, “a restaurant wine,” as if that’s a term of condemnation, as if wine’s primary purpose were not to, you know, be drunk with food.

The Clos du Val Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Napa Valley, delivers exquisite balance and equilibrium along with purposeful intensity and concentration; it is, in other words, a perfect example of the permeation of power and elegance. The blend is a Pauillac-like 85 percent cabernet sauvignon with 10 percent cabernet franc, 3 percent merlot and 2 percent petit verdot; the winery’s co-founder Bernard Portet was born in Bordeaux, and his father was, for many years, technical director at Chateau Lafite-Rothschild. The wine is drenched in ripe cassis and black cherry etched with nuances of cedar, walnut shell, dried flowers and dried spice; these aspects rest on formidable, completely present but never overdone elements of polished oak and well-oiled tannins that layer suppleness over a foresty character — briers and brambles, moss and dried mushrooms — that increases in austerity through the long finish. Paramount about this wine is its quality of vitality and resonance. There has been comment, if not complaint, from critics that Clos du Val has within the last decade forsaken its righteously tannic and austere fashion for a more stylish, approachable wine. If that has happened, I see the benefit in a cabernet that might be drinkable now — Clos du Val cabernets are wonderful with medium rare steak — but that will age gracefully for 10 or 12 years, properly stored. Excellent. About $32.
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You could swim in it. That’s my first impression of the Fritz Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Dry Creek Valley, it’s that seductive and sumptuous. Billowing dried spice, ballooning cassis and black cherry, unfurling lavender and licorice; and then, inky minerals that form the wine’s bed-rock, bold tannins and polished oak that sculpt a firm, supple Brancusian structure and bring in the burgeoning austerity on the finish. Perhaps it’s the 10 percent malbec that lends the wine an intriguing, slightly tart note, a hint of cranberry and blueberry and exotic spice. Lest you worry that this sensual carnival of a wine is too heady to bear, consider that the alcohol level is a sensible 13.8 percent. The ultimate impression is of muscular elegance. Try from 2009 through 2012 or ’15. Excellent. About $30.

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The Girard Winery Artistry 2005, Napa Valley, opens with a huge hit of toasty oak, walnut shell, wheatmeal and minerals with a charcoal edge; yes, serious business is afoot. The wine is a Bordeaux-style blend — 54 percent cabernet sauvignon, 22 percent cabernet franc, 14 percent petit verdot, 9 percent malbec and 2 percent merlot — except for the presence of malbec, which has almost disappeared from Bordeaux, and the diminished role of merlot; the grapes were drawn from Oakville, Yountville and St. Helena districts of the Napa Valley. This is an intensely deep and concentrated wine; nothing plush or blowsy or over-ripe compromises its dignified austerity for the sake of an easy rapprochement. Yet the saving graces of crushed violets and lavender, of spiced and macerated black currants and black cherries, of a hint of plum pudding mitigate the wine’s hauteur and presage great things for the future, say 2010 through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. About $40.
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Let’s not evade the primary point: the Lancaster Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Alexander Valley, is a massive wine. If the deep purple-black color could be massive, it would be, but after all, even the darkest color is only light-waves. Every other aspect of the wine, however, is massive in the sense that you feel as if there have to be two bottles-worth of wine squeezed inside one bottle; that’s how intense and concentrated, how multi-dimensional it is. The blend is 90 percent cabernet sauvignon, 5 percent malbec, 2 percent each merlot and cabernet franc and 1 percent petit verdot. The wine’s foundation is a huge foresty-minerally presence upon which every other element balances with poise and determination. When you get to the long, dry, austere finish, a tempting strain of licorice, lavender and bitter chocolate weaves through the darkness. A tremendous wine best tried from 2011 or ’12 through 2018 or ’20. Excellent. About $70.
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Made from 100 percent cabernet grapes, the Oakville Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Napa Valley, draws you in with scents of spiced and macerated black currants and black cherries infused with lavender, smoke and minerals. Aged 18 months in French oak, 50 percent new, this wine practically smolders in the glass with cedar, lead pencil and toasted Asian spices. That oak, however, while not over-played, is as firm as a rock, while grainy, almost gritty tannins lay down beds of bark, brambles and underbrush. I wouldn’t touch this until 2010 or ’11, after which it should drink beautifully, perhaps even profoundly, until 2016 or ’18. Production was 840 cases. Excellent. About $60.
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Piña Cellars is operated by brothers Davie, John, Larry and Ranndy Piña, sons of John Piña Jr., who ran a well-known vineyard management company in the Napa Valley. Winermaker Anna Monticelli fashions 100 percent cabernet sauvignon wines from five designated vineyards.

The Piña Cellars Buckeye Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Howell Mountain, opens with a fleshy, meaty black fruit bouquet that quickly is subsumed by smoke and minerals. It’s a gorgeous wine, warm, spicy and macerated, with a touch of fruit cake pnv_logo.jpg and plum pudding, but it’s also solid and firm, expanding in size and dimension as the moments pass; the tannins become an expression of muscular power and strength, while oak permeates every fiber. This is a frankly serious wine intended for laying down, I would say until 2012 or ’13 for drinking through 2017 to ’20. Production was 762 cases. Very Good+ pointing to Excellent potential for those with patience. About $72.

The Piña Cellars D’Adamo Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Napa Valley, comes from a vineyard that lies between Atlas Peak and the Silverado Trail on the east side of the valley. As with its Howell Mountain cousin, this cabernet is rich and warm, fleshy and meaty, but it takes on elements of the exotic, with its hyper-spicy, macerated and roasted character and its component of smoldering potpourri. This delves deeply into minerality and earthiness; there’s a sense of excavation as one sips, ponders and swallows, while dense, grainy tannins stand like buttresses against a dark edifice. Another cabernet for the long term, say 2011 or ’13 through 2016 to ’20. Production was 1,147 cases. Excellent. About $72.
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So, if you to say to me, “Well, fine F.K., but what should I drink with dinner tonight?” I would say, “X Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Napa Valley.” This is inky-purple, intense and concentrated, layered with granite and shale, walnut shell and dried porcini but also lavished with warm and ripe black currant and black cherry flavors imbued with smoke and sandalwood, lavender and licorice and a hint of bitter chocolate. Oak and tannin are stalwart, dusty, slightly charcoally but carefully managed not to overwhelm, especially if you’re drinking this with brisket or a rib-eye steak, hot and crusty from the grill. The essence is inner vibrancy and suppleness. Drink now through 2012 or ’13. Excellent. About $25.
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