Cabernet sauvignon


Let’s get right to it. You should buy the Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Sonoma County, by the case for drinking over the martini cabnext three or four years, in the Summer with grilled steak, pork chops and barbecue, in Winter with braised short ribs, hearty pasta dishes, burgers and pizzas. Or anytime, all year-round. Made primarily from cabernet sauvignon grapes, with dollops of merlot and petite sirah, the wine derives from vineyards in Dry Creek Valley and Alexander Valley. It aged an unspecified amount of time in French and American oak barrels, a deviation from the philosophy of founder Louis M. Martini, who eschewed the use of any kind of oak in favor of 1,500-gallon redwood vats, employed by his son and grandson until 1989. Anyway, the color is opaque ruby-purple with a magenta rim; this is really classic Sonoma County cabernet that displays riveting aromas of ripe black currants and cherries with notes of cloves and graphite, cedar and rosemary and touches of smoke and sage. Dense and supple, this exuberant wine is supported by dusty, graphite-laden tannins and bright acidity, filling the mouth with lively black and blue fruit flavors leading to a mineral-packed finish that opens to nuances of lead pencil, black olive and bay leaf. Alcohol content is an eminently sensible 13.8 percent. Drink now through 2018 or ’19. Excellent. About $20, representing Great Value.

A sample for review. The winery has been owned by E.&J. Gallo since 2002.

clayhouse cab
My Weekend Wine Notes post on Saturday featured red wines suitable for drinking with simple hearty fare like pizza, burgers, spaghetti and meatballs and such priced from $10 to $17. Let’s move up the scale one dollar and talk about the Clayhouse Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Paso Robles, derived 100 percent from the estate’s certified-sustainable Red Cedar Vineyard. The color is deep ruby-purple with an opaque motor-oil like center and a magenta rim. Seductive aromas of licorice and lavender, spiced and macerated black currants, blueberries and plums are infused with notes of pungent graphite, fruit cake, boysenberry and bitter chocolate. Dense and chewy on the palate, yet sleek and chiseled, this cabernet sauvignon — a blend of 87 percent cabernet, 11 percent petit verdot, 2 percent malbec — aged 10 months in French and American oak barrels, a process that lent spice to the flavors and suppleness to the texture. It’s a dry, lively wine, sporting dusty and fairly austere tannins to balance the succulence of its ripe, cedary black and blue fruit flavors. Just writing this paragraph makes me long for a medium-rare ribeye steak, hot and crusty from the cast-iron skillet. 13.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2018 or ’19. Very Good+. About $18.

A sample for review.

The Trione family, third generation grape-growers in Sonoma County, launched their eponymous winery in 2005. The family cultivates vines in the Russian River Valley, Alexander Valley and Sonoma Coast appellations, producing a broad range of fairly individually Trione-2011-Red-Wine-Henrys-Blendstyled wines. Winemaker is Scot Covington. Today’s Wine of the Day is the Trione Geyserville Ranch Henry’s Blend 2011, Alexander Valley. This is not an inexpensive wine, and it pushes above the limit I try to set for the Wine of the Day — not that this series is a vehicle for cheapness — but I wanted to feature something from a small family-owned and -operated estate. Henry’s Blend 2011 is a combination of 35 percent cabernet sauvignon, 34 percent merlot, 13 percent each petit verdot and cabernet franc and five percent malbec, touching what we think of as the five classic Bordeaux red grape varieties, though in truth malbec plays little role in Bordeaux nowadays, its plantings having declined radically since the 1950s. The wine aged 18 months in small French oak barrels, 40 percent new. The color is an entrancing deep ruby-purple with a vivid violet-hued rim; vivid also are the scents of iodine, cedar and graphite, cloves and black pepper, all permeated by notes of quite ripe, spicy and fleshy black currants, raspberries and blueberries. This is a dry, dark and rooty wine, with layers of loam and granitic minerality, dusty and velvety tannins and the suggestion of oaken suavity and suppleness seamlessly animated by bright acidity; fruit is not forgotten, though, all those previous elements serving to bolster vital and tasty currant and plum flavors infused with lavender, licorice and bitter chocolate. Quite a performance. 13.9 percent alcohol. Drink through 2019 to 2022 with hearty, meaty fare. Production was 1,730 six-pack cases. Excellent. About $54.

A sample for review.

If someone were making a list of the 100 best winemakers in the world — no, I’m not going to attempt that feat, thank you very much cherubino— I hope that the name Larry Cherubino would be on the roster. Working in the Margaret River appellation of the Western Australia region, this “little cherub” produces impeccably well-made and balanced wines no matter the grape or style or vintage, consistently bringing out the character of the vine, the vineyard and the vintage year after year. Though he owns a range of labels that offer wines at various prices, today I’ll look at three cabernet sauvignon wines under his Cherubino label, which he reserves for the highest expression and prices of his endeavors. You’ll notice that this winemaker does not shy away from a cabernet character that most winemakers in California seem to abhor, and that’s the hint of black olive, bell pepper and cedar that seems inherent in the grape. Such elements lend the wines lovely and authentic complexity and detail. While drinkable now, especially with roasted or grilled red meat, these Cherubino wines can age for up to 10 years from the present. For collectors of the world’s great cabernet wines, these are well-worth searching for.

Samples for review.
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The Cherubino Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Margaret River, offers an intense dark ruby color and penetrating aromas of black olive and bell pepper, spiced and macerated and then slightly roasted and caramelized black currants and raspberries; a few minutes in the glass bring in notes of graphite, a glint of celery seed, tinges of sandalwood, sage and lavender. There’s real depth and dimension in this dusty, lithic, rigorous red wine whose dense and squinchy tannins and bright acidity command attention and demand two or three years in the cellar. A gradual unfolding reveals a core of ripe black fruit flavors wrapped around lavender, bitter chocolate and granitic minerality. 13.5 percent alcohol. Try 2016 or ’17 through 2022 to ’25. Excellent. About $54.
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The Cherubino Wilyabrup Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Margaret River, displays a vibrant dark ruby hue and then opens out with all the generosity that dusty graphite, roasted fennel, black licorice and intense and concentrated black fruit scents and flavors can deliver. This is the exotic outlier of this trio, sporting hints of stewed fruit, burning leaves, sassafras, sandalwood and cloves; the texture is sleek, supple and lithe, making for a muscular yet elegant black panther of a cabernet; there’s plenty of structure, especially from mid-palate back through the graphite-packed finish, but the wine is beautifully balanced and integrated even while it smolders in the glass like an ember. 13.8 percent alcohol. Now through 2020 to ’24. Excellent. About $54.
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Looking at the longest potential time in the cellar, the Cherubino Cowarawup Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Margaret River, blooms with an intense dark ruby-purple color and blossoms into black olive and bell pepper, cedar and rosemary, ripe and spicy black currants and cherries, with hints of dusty graphite, Nekko wafer and violets. This rich, ripe, warm and spicy panoply of sensual delights doesn’t preclude a cabernet of growing rigor and austerity, at least on the finish; yes, the texture is dense and velvety, the flavors sweetly ripe and luscious, but the acid and mineral qualities burgeon relentlessly, providing animation and vibrancy as well as bastions of structural character. 13.8 percent alcohol. Try from 2016 or ’17 through 2024 to ’26. Excellent. About $54.
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We had been drinking lots of white wines and rose wines, and finally LL said, “I need something red!” So with medium-rare cheeseburgers from Belmont Cafe — cheddar for LL, Swiss for me — I opened the Stonestreet Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Alexander Valley, and found a cabernet made exactly the way that I want a cabernet to be made. Stonestreet was launched when Jess Jackson, founder and owner of Kendall-Jackson, acquired the Zellerbach winery and vineyards in Chalk Hill in 1989. This became the prestige label for K-J and was a part of what was called the Artisan and Estates division of Jackson’s growing empire. Between May 1996 and May 1999, for my newspaper column, I reviewed the Stonestreet Chardonnay 1994 and ’95, the Pinot Noir 1994, the Pinnacle Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 1995, the Merlot 1994, ’95 and ’96, the Cabernet Sauvignon 1995 and ’96, the flagship Legacy 1994, the Sauvignon Blanc 1997 and, oddly, a Gewurztraminer 1997. Many changes have come upon Stonestreet since that period. The winery and estate now occupy 5,100 acres in Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley, ranging from 400 to 2,400 feet up the western flank of the Mayacamas Range. Nine hundred acres are planted in grapes divided into 235 individual vineyard blocks. Winemaker is Lisa Valtenbergs; vineyard manager is Gabriel Valencia. The focus is on chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon.

The Stonestreet Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 is 100 percent varietal; it aged 16 months in French oak, 38 percent new barrels. The color is dark ruby-purple shading to a magenta-violet rim. The immediate impression is of tremendous vitality and vigor, as aromas of cedar and thyme, graphite and lavender, hints of black olive, green peppercorns and bell pepper seethe in the glass, opening to notes of ripe but spare black currants, cherries and blueberries; there are undertones of black tea, iodine, tapenade and flint. I love how on the palate this cabernet reveals stones and bones through its potent and seductive ferrous and sanguinary nature, its wash of roots and branches and underbrush, its granitic aplomb. Give this wine 30 or 40 minutes and it calls up an extraordinary core of violets, black licorice, pomegranate, potpourri and sandalwood, all anchored in sleek, lithe dusty tannins and bright propulsive acidity. Those tannins, and the wine’s granite-backed mineral character, dominate the finish, which grows a bit austere but never astringent or undernourished. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2020 to ’22 with such suitable fare as grilled steaks, pork chops, barbecue ribs — or hamburgers. Excellent. About $45.

A sample for review.

Fire up the grill! Here is a cabernet-based wine perfectly tuned to the broad strokes and the nuances induced by the kiss of flames upon beef, lamb, veal and pork. The Grgich Hills Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley, is the product of one of those vintages that winemakers refer to with sighs of relief and giddy smiles. It’s a blend of 85 percent cabernet sauvignon, 8 percent merlot and 3.5 percent each petit verdot and cabernet franc that never sees a smidgeon of artificial herbicides, pesticides or fertilizers and is fermented with indigenous yeasts. The wine spent 21 months in French oak, 60 percent new barrels. The color is deep ruby from opaque center almost to the rim, where it shades delicately into a violet-magenta hue; to touches of cedar and rosemary, cloves and allspice, ripe and spicy black currants, cherries and plums, the wine adds grace-notes of black olive and bell pepper, creating a beautifully complicated bouquet that picks up on the slightly resiny woodiness of rosemary and the exotic slightly astringent woodiness of allspice; a few minutes in the glass bring in notes of lavender and licorice and a teasing wisp of roasted fennel. On the palate, this cabernet delivers weight and substance without being ponderous or overstated; while sustained by large dimensions of graphite and granitic minerality and deep but soft and finely sifted tannins, it embodies the vivid acidity to keep it engaging and animated and the gorgeous black fruit flavors — now feeling spiced and macerated — to make it eminently attractive. Still, this is a wine that focuses a good deal of attention on structure, and the finish, from mid-palate back, shifts toward a bastion of austerity and aloofness. 14.7 percent alcohol. Try tonight with something grilled or from 2017 or ’18 through 2025 to ’28. Excellent. About $65.

A sample for review.

The Dorgogne region is one of the oldest inhabited areas of France, as testified by numerous caves filled with wall paintings and etchings that date back 30,000 and 40,000 years. It’s also one of the country’s wildest and most beautiful areas, marked by rugged and towering cliffs, many topped by ancient castles; deep river valleys; rolling hills and forests; and a network of villages and towns that retain much of their medieval appearance. Recently, we spent a week in France’s Dordogne region, with LL’s son and his children, Julien, 14, and Lucia, 10, eating local food — dominated by foie gras, magret and confit of duck — and drinking local wines. We rented a centuries-old stone cottage outside the village of Beynac et Cazenac — pop. 560 — an almost mythically quaint hamlet perched right on a bank of the Dordogne River and winding up the cliff dominated by an immense castle, Chateau de Beynac, seen in this image from sourcedordogne.free.fr.

Our locale was at the southeastern corner of the Dordogne department, not wine-country itself but not too far from the appellations of Bergerac, Côtes de Bergerac, Montravel and Pécharmant, all cultivating the Bordeaux grape varieties and producing country cousin versions of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot for red, sauvignon blanc and semillon for white. About a two-hour drive to the east in the Lot department is Cahors, a traditional region for hearty wines made from the malbec grape, known as cot in that area. Though I had been offered visits to chateaus and wineries by some of my contacts in importing and marketing in the US, my determination was that this sojourn would be strictly vacation and that any wine we drank would come either from grocery stores, open-air markets or restaurant wine lists.

Our first dinner, at a hotel restaurant in Beynac, was mediocre, but we enjoyed the wines. These were a 2011 rouge, in a 500-milliliter bottle, and a 2013 blanc, in a 375 ml bottle, from Chateau Court-Les-Mûts, Côtes de Bergerac. The rouge offered a bright, seductive floral and spicy bouquet but was fairly rude and rustic on the palate; the more palatable blanc was fresh, young and zesty, with yellow fruit and dried herbs. Each cost 14 euros, about $15.66 at today’s rate. Far more successful, in both food and wine, was our dinner the following night, a Sunday, at La Petite Tonnelle, just a few yards up the street from the restaurant of the previous night. Built right into the cliff that dominates this strategic site overlooking the Dordogne river, the restaurant was pleasing in every aspect. Our waiter, a young woman, was friendly and accommodating; the restaurant served the silkiest foie gras, smoked magret and confit of duck I have ever tasted; and the wine list emphasized regional products highlighting sustainable, organic and biodynamic methods. With the hearty fare, we drank a bottle of the Chateau Masburel 2010, Montravel, a predominantly merlot wine with dollops of cabernet sauvignon. The restaurant owner came over and nodded his approval, telling us that it was a powerful wine. Powerful indeed and robust, but sleek too, packed with dusty tannins, graphite-tinged minerality, black fruit flavors and vibrant acidity. It cost 42 euros, about $46 at today’s rate.

Both in cafes and at our rented house, we consumed a great deal of rosé wine, not just because we love rosé but because the weather was unseasonably hot, with temperatures going to 100 and higher every afternoon. Rosés in the Dordogne are made from cabernet sauvignon, merlot and malbec and typically are more robust than their cousins in Provence. For example, in Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil, generally just called Tayac, home to the National Museum of Prehistory and the center of a cluster of caves with prehistoric art, we ate lunch at Cafe de Mairie and downed a 500 cl bottle of the delightful Clos des Verdots 2014, Bergerac Rosé, at 14 euros. Other rosés we tried during our sojourn included La Fleur de Mondesir 2014, Domaine de Mayat 2014 and Domaine de Montlong 2013, all Bergerac, and the simple but tasty Mayaret 2014, Vin du Pays Perigord. Tayac is absolutely worth a visit. We were too late to get admittance to the cave called Font de Gaume, which features wall paintings, so we drove to the cave of Les Combarelles, a few minutes away, and saw the exquisite series of rock engravings executed 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. The town itself, with many of its houses and buildings carved directly into the cliffs, is a UNESCO Heritage Site.

Other red wines we tried, back at the house with various dinners, included Chateau des Hautes Fargues 2010 and Domaine La Closerie 2011, both from Pécharmant, and, from Bergerac, the excellent Domaine Maye de Bouye 2010, and the best red wine of our time in the Dordogne, Clos de Gamot 2008, a superb, deeply characterful Cahors that cost all of 12.5 euros, about $13.70. Clos de Gamot is owned by the Jouffreau family and has been in operation since 1610. The grapes derive from two vineyards, one over 120 years old and the other with vines 40 to 70 years old. The wines age 18 months to two years in large old oak casts.

The way to explore this ancient region is to drive to as many of the towns and villages as possible, preferably one each day, park the car (hopefully in the shade) and then wander through the plazas and narrow streets, stopping to walk through churches, alleys and courtyards. If there’s a chance, for a few euros, to tour a castle or old mansion, do that; the rewards in history, esthetics and emotional satisfaction are immense. We particularly enjoyed Sarlot, Domme and the medieval section of Soulliac, and we visited two castles that were traditional enemies during the Hundred Years’ War, Chateau Beynac, “our” castle, and just up-river, Castelnaud-la-Chapelle.


The Achaval Ferrer estate in the Mendoza region produces a handful of Argentina’s finest red wines, especially focused on malbec, the single-vineyard versions of which retail at $120 to $140. Today, however, we look at the more accessible and far less expensive Achaval Ferrer Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, a 100 percent varietal wine made from vineyards at 2,297 and 3,608 feet above sea-level. Notice that no new oak is involved; the grapes fermented in cement tanks and the wine aged nine months in two-year-old French oak barrels. Though an “entry-level” wine for this producer, it reveals its pedigree and character in its intensity and concentration, its unassailable tone and presence. The color is dark ruby-magenta; the bouquet seethes with notes of red and black cherries and plums permeated by mineral dust, lavender and bitter chocolate, with undertones of allspice (with the attendant woodsy austerity) and graphite. As often occurs with high-altitude red wines, tannins feel slightly chiseled, and the profound acidity runs deep and faceted. Yes, you could say that the emphasis is on the wine’s structure, but it’s also quite approachable for its dark spicy and alluring black fruit flavors; the dynamic finish is packed with graphite, potpourri and some rooty smoky black tea. 14 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2020 or ’23. The question as to whether this wine would serve as superb accompaniment to a medium rare ribeye steak, hot and crusty from the grill, need not be broached. Excellent. About $25.

Imported by Stoli Wine Group, New York. A sample for review.

While other wineries attempt to be all things to all consumers — “Maybe we better make a moscato, they’re hot now!” — Jordan Vineyard and Winery goes right on doing what it has always done since starting in 1976, producing chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon wines from its estate vineyards, Alexander Valley for cabernet, Russian River Valley for chardonnay. These are not opulent, flamboyant, super-ripe or over-oaked wines. Alcohol levels are kept low — see the wines reviewed below — and new oak is employed thoughtfully. Jordan’s wines drink exceptionally well with food, and while in some quarters such an assertion is greeted with disdain, that factor seems to me to be the highest purpose and achievement of wine. Jordan also fields a website almost unparalleled in California for its usefulness, range and flow of information and accessibility. Pay heed, all you wineries that cannot manage to get your latest releases on your websites.

These wines were samples for review.
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Two-thirds of the Jordan Chardonnay 2013, Russian River Valley, was barrel-fermented, one-third fermented in stainless steel. The wine aged six months in French oak, 40 percent new barrels; only 18 percent of the wine went through “malo” — the so-called malolactic fermentation that transforms sharp malic (“apple-like”) acid to creamier lactic (“milk-like”) acid — thus retaining most of the wine’s crisp, vibrant character. The color is bright but pale gold; classic aromas of pineapple and grapefruit are highlighted by notes of cloves, quince and ginger, with tinges of mango and jasmine lingering in the background. This is quite fresh, lively and appealing, poised among spicy citrus and slightly roasted stone-fruit flavors, a scintillating limestone element and a texture just lush enough to add some sensuality to its spare elegance. 13.7 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2019 or 2020 with seared salmon or swordfish, trout with brown butter and capers, seafood risottos. Excellent. About $30.
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The Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Alexander Valley, is a blend of 79 percent cabernet sauvignon, 17 percent merlot, 3 percent petit verdot and 1 percent malbec. Interesting that 85 percent of the grapes derived from Alexander Valley; 14 percent came from Mendocino County and a scant 1 percent from Dry Creek Valley; this is called choosing your sources carefully. The wine aged 12 months in 73 percent French oak barrels and 27 percent American oak, a total of 37 percent being new barrels; it spent 22 months resting in bottle before being released. The color is a transparent medium ruby with a slightly lighter rim; the wine is unusually intense and concentrated on structure, with aromas of briers and brambles and loam permeating notes of black currants, cherries and plums, accented by hints of cloves and allspice, with the latter’s element of exotic woodsy astringency. On the palate you taste the spicy black fruit flavors wrapped around a firm core of iodine and iron etched with lavender and violets and a touch of bitter chocolate; the texture is lithe and supple, while the whole package, animated by bright acidity, is dense and chewy with dusty, graphite-tinged tannins. While this cabernet may display a tad less elegance than Jordan cabernets typically do, it feels imbued with more dignity and character; consider it a triumph from a difficult year. 13.8 percent alcohol. Try with steak or grilled veal or pork chops from 2016 through 2022 to ’25. Excellent. About $53.
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By “all over the map,” I don’t mean that every sub-AVA of the Napa Valley is represented in this post, seventh in a series. True, Mount Veeder is here and Howell Mountain and Rutherford, but what I actually refer to is the technical and stylistic map upon which these examples of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon play their part. Seven of these wines are from 2012, one each from 2011 and 2010. The alcohol levels range from a mild 14.2 percent to a soaring and unmanageable 15.7. The use of oak barrels for aging varies enormously. The intention of the wines feels vastly different, with some wineries going whole-hog for the opulent and super-ripe, others tracking more toward the structured and elegant. In this panoply of approaches, do we discern a Napa Valley style? It’s difficult to say. To my mind — and my palate — the Sequoia Grove, Robert Mondavi and S.R. Tonella 2012s and the Napa Vintage 2011 adhere to a kind of general Napa-ness in their balance of fruit, tannin, acidity and mineral qualities and their pleasing herbal qualities, texture and depth. The other five feel more anomalous, marred by high alcohol or strenuous deployment of oak barrels. Of course no one would want Napa Valley to be homogenous nor its many wineries to operate on identical practices. We celebrate the place and the individuality together. These wines were samples for review.

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Sequoia Grove Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley. There really are towering sequoias — I guess that’s redundant — at Sequoia Grove Winery; one feels rather dwarfish in their company. The winery, founded in 1979, occupies salubrious geography in the Rutherford appellation, in the heart of Napa Valley. President and director of winemaking Mike Trujillo has been at Sequoia Grove since the early 1980s, was appointed assistant winemaker in 1998 and in 2001 took the position he has now. Winemaker is Molly Hill. The winery is owned by its national distributor, Kobrand Corp. Sequoia Grove, while making a variety of wines, focuses on chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, and it’s to the latter that we turn today.

The blend for the Sequoia Grove Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 is 77 percent cabernet sauvignon, 11 percent cabernet franc, 10 percent merlot and 1 percent each petit verdot and malbec, meaning that it employs, even if only in dollops, all five of the classic Bordeaux grape varieties. The wine aged 20 months in barrels, 60 percent French oak, 40 percent American oak. The color is opaque ruby with a tinge of magenta at the rim; the aroma profile begins with dusty leather and graphite and unfolds notes of ripe black currants and plums with a hint of blueberry, all permeated by cloves and allspice and a background of walnut shell and wheatmeal; top-notes are wild and slightly exotic. This is a dense, chewy and dry cabernet that coats the palate with dusty, velvety tannins; it’s loamy and rooty, a bit granitic, and yet bright acidity keeps it lively and boldly ripe and slightly fleshy and roasted black and blue fruit flavors make it delicious. Still, it could use a year or two to meld. 14.2 percent alcohol. Drink from 2016 or ’17 through 2022 to ’24. Beautifully crafted and balanced. Excellent. About $38.
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Flora Springs Winery and Vineyard Trilogy 2012, Napa Valley. Trilogy is the flagship wine for Flora Springs. The winery was founded in 1978 on the site of an abandoned 19th Century “ghost winery” by Jerry and Flora Komes, though the real work of establishing the facility and vineyards went to their children John Komes and his wife Carrie and Julie Garvey and her husband Pat Garvey; now the third generation is poised to take command. Winemaker is Paul Steinauer. I generally enjoy the wine of Flora Springs and last year made the Chardonnay 2012 and the Soliloquy Sauvignon Blanc 2013 Wines of the Week. I have a quibble, however, with the Trilogy 2012.

The blend is 82 percent cabernet sauvignon, 6 percent each merlot, malbec and petite verdot. The wine aged 22 months in French oak barrels, 60 percent new, 40 percent one-year-old. The color is dark but vivid ruby-magenta with an opaque center. The bouquet — indeed the entire package — is centered to an obtrusive degree on the graphite, smoke and charcoal-tinged character of oak. You know how I feel about these matters; if a wine smells like oak and tastes like oak, there’s too much oak! Bright glimmers of ripe and spicy black currants, cherries and raspberries emerge, with notes of lavender and licorice and undertones of loam and aged fruitcake, and the wine certainly offers an almost rapturously supple and lithe texture, verging on plush but balanced by clean acidity, dusty tannins and a slightly chiseled granitic structure, but the oak kills it for me. 14.2 percent alcohol. Perhaps a few years in bottle will tame it; try from 2016 or ’17 through 2022 to ’24. Very Good+. About $75.
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Napa Vintage Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley. Sean Piper grew up in Napa Valley, and after a career in the Coast Guard, he returned to, first, start Wine Consumer Magazine and, now, establish his own wine label, Napa Vintage. The initial outing is sourced from Howell Mountain and is an example of a successful cabernet sauvignon produced in a chilly rainy year. The wine is 100 percent cabernet sauvignon, aged 20 months in all new French oak barrels. The color is inky ruby-purple, and the whole package reflects the intensity and concentration available from mountain-grown fruit, with its attendant notes of walnut shell and dried porcini, classic touches of cedar and rosemary (with the herb’s hint of resiny earthiness) and burgeoning elements of black currants and plums highlighted by a hint of pomegranate; a few minutes in the glass bring in notes of cloves and allspice, with the latter’s touch of exotic astringency. This is, no surprise, quite dry, replete with densely buttressed tannins, and thoroughly oaked, yet well-balanced and integrated. All these elements are wrapped around a fervent core of lavender, licorice and bitter chocolate. 14.3 percent alcohol. Production was 414 cases. The Napa Vintage Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 seems to me to be a model of an upper-altitude Napa cabernet, displaying its rooted firmness and supple flexibility in fine style. Drink now with a medium rare rib-eye steak, hot and crusty from the grill, through 2020 or ’21. Excellent. About $42.
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S.R. Tonella Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Rutherford, Napa Valley. There’s little doubt that Napa Valley’s Rutherford Bench is one of the most advantageous pieces of earth on which to grow cabernet sauvignon grapes. Lying at the heart of the Napa Valley, west of Highway 29 and bordered (approximately) on the north by Zinfandel Lane, just above the town of Rutherford, and on the south by Oakville Grade, just below the town of Oakville, this area backs up to the foothills of the Mayacamas range in the west. The soil on this alluvial fan is well-drained gravelly loam. André Tchelistcheff, famed winemaker for Beaulieu Vineyards and guiding spirit of its George de Latour Private Reserve, called wines from the bench “dusty,” a term now accepted, perhaps too easily, as “Rutherford dust.” The cabernet wines that originate from the area undeniably often display a dry, dusty granitic aspect but not so uniformly as to make that characteristic applicable in every instance.

Steve Tonella’s heritage goes back a century in Rutherford. His great-uncle, Joseph Ponti, came from Italy to San Francisco after the earthquake in 1906, traveled up to Napa Valley, and became superintendent and winemaker at Beaulieu Vineyards, founded in 1900. Ponti’s nephew, Louis Tonella, joined Ponti at BV when he was 17. From his uncle, Louis Tonella inherited vineyards in the Rutherford area to which his son, Raymond Tonella, added purchased acreage. The Neibaum-Tonella Vineyard in Rutherford is the winery’s estate vineyard; Morisoli-Borges, owned by Mike Morisoli, a fourth-generation grower, lies at the heart of the Rutherford Bench. From these sources, Steve Tonella makes his cabernet-based wine.

There’s five percent merlot in the S.R. Tonella Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 2012; the wine aged 28 months in French oak, 75 percent new barrels. The color is opaque ruby-magenta; the wine is deep in its dimensions, intense and concentrated, full-bodied and flush with dense, dusty, lithic tannins. Aromas of walnut-shell, dried porcini, loam and graphite yield little space to hints of ripe black currants and black cherries that carry classic notes of cedar, tobacco and mocha. It’s a cool yet savory and spicy cabernet wrapped around a tight core of bitter chocolate and lavender buoyed by vibrant acidity; the finish, not surprisingly, is focused, dynamic and granitic. 14.4 percent alcohol. Despite it’s size and substance, the S.R. Tonella Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 feels well-balanced, filled with energy and personality. Fewer than 500 cases were made. Try from 2017 or ’18 through 2028 to ’30. Excellent potential. About $74.
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Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley. Robert Mondavi wasn’t the first person to think that the Napa Valley was capable of producing world-class cabernet sauvignon wines, but after he founded his winery in 1966, he brought the full force of his conviction, enthusiasm and larger-than-life personality to the task. Barrels of ink and puncheons of pixels have been spilled in outlining and commenting on the history of Robert Mondavi — the man, the family and the winery — so I will forgo that endeavor for this post. The winery continues to turn out excellent products under the ownership of Constellation (since late in 2004) and the tutelage of winemaker Genevieve Janssens, though I’ll say that this admittedly well-made cabernet felt almost too typical of its place and intention; it could have used a bit more individuality. On the other hand, it’s not a single vineyard or sub-appellation cabernet, so perhaps we should all just enjoy it.

The wine employs all five of the “classic” Bordeaux red wine varieties: 88 percent cabernet sauvignon, 6 percent cabernet franc, 4 percent merlot and 1 percent each petit verdot and malbec. Thirty percent of the grapes came from the famous To Kalon vineyard in the Oakville AVA, with 14 percent derived from Mondavi’s Wappo Hill vineyard in the Stags Leap District, with the rest, I assume, grown in other estate or nearby vineyards; the intention obviously was to create a “Napa Valley” style cabernet sauvignon without reference to a particular sub-AVA. The wine aged a very sensible 16 months in French oak, only 15 percent new barrels. The color is a rich dark ruby with a magenta tinge; aromas of cassis and black cherry are permeated by notes of cedar, tobacco and dried thyme, with deeper hints of lead pencil, briers and brambles and loamy graphite. Tannins are dry, a bit earthy and leathery, firm yet unobtrusive; fleet acidity keeps the wine energetic and thirst-quenching; a subtle oak influence shows up in the wine’s supple, lithe texture and in a wafting of exotic spice.The sense of balance and integration is well-nigh perfect. Alcohol content is the now New World average of 14.5 percent. What’s not to like? Drink now through 2020 or ’22. Excellent. About $29.
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Petar Kirilov made 50 cases of his Kukeri Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley, aging it 36 months — yes, My Readers, three years — in French oak. Come now, sir, this is not Brunello di Montalcino, but Kirilov believes in oak, so oak it is, and the inky dark wine wears its oak on its sleeve. Aromas of cedar, tobacco and dried rosemary are drenched with notes of walnut shell, dried porcini, leather and loam, with all the attendant resinous, foresty, underbrushy elements we would expect. Fruit? Yes, there are glimmers. Acidity? Oh, sleek and dynamic. I still wouldn’t touch this wine, though, for five more years. The 2011 is the current release, made in 79 cases. 14.5 percent alcohol. Rating? Anybody’s guess, but time will be the ultimate judge, as it is in all matters concerning these sublunary precincts. About $79.
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Jamieson Ranch Double Lariat Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley. Jamieson Ranch Vineyards is the southernmost winery in the Napa Valley. Formerly known as Kirkland Ranch Winery and Reata Vineyard, the company changed its name to Jamieson Ranch in 2013. The history of the property is tangled, involving dubious business decisions going back to the late 1990s and bankruptcy filings, but it is owned now by Madison Vineyard Holdings of Greenwood Village, Colorado, a company involved in myriad enterprises including high-end art storage in New York. Jamieson Ranch produces about 35,000 cases annually under its eponymous label, retaining the Reata name for some pinot noirs and chardonnays, and uses the Light Horse brand for inexpensive products. Winemaker is the Chilean Juan Jose Verdina.

About 2/3s of the grapes for this wine went through “flash détente,” a process much used in Europe, South America and Australia but fairly new to California. Before fermentation, grapes are heated to about 180 degrees and then sent to a vacuum chamber where they are cooled and the grape skins burst from the inside. The result — don’t ask me how — is better extraction of skin tannins and anthocyanins, the phenolic compounds responsible for the color of red grapes. That’s the simplified version, believe me, and doesn’t begin to approach the complications inherent in the process or the opportunities for manipulation they present.

The blend for the Jamieson Ranch Double Lariat Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 is 86.5 percent cabernet sauvignon, 9 percent merlot, 4.5 percent — surprise! — petite sirah. The wine aged 18 months in French oak barrels, amount of new oak not specified. A dark ruby-purple color is fresh and vibrant; aromas of ripe and spicy black currants, raspberries and plums are wreathed with notes of leather and lavender and a touch of graphite. Slightly dusty and granite-tinged tannins are well-integrated in a lithe texture that’s animated by bright acidity, while black fruit flavors are deep and rich; the finish brings in the oak influence. 14.8 percent alcohol. A well-made and enjoyable but not compelling cabernet sauvignon. Drink now through 2019 to ’22. Very Good+. About $40.
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Priest Ranch Somerston Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley.

Perhaps it’s the 14.9 percent alcohol, but I found this cabernet to be inchoate and unbalanced. It’s 100 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes, aged 22 months in French oak, 35 percent new, 65 percent neutral, a regimen with which I fully agree. It displays a dark ruby-mulberry hue and all the austere elements of wheatmeal, walnut shell and dried porcini mushrooms over loam, dusty tannins and a startlingly high yet hollowed-out level of acidity. On the other hand, the black and blue fruit flavors are not only very ripe but sweet and jammy, making, altogether, for a package that does not cohere. Perhaps a few years in bottle will calm the wine down, but I’m not hopeful. Not recommended. About $48.
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Signorello Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley. The story begins in 1977, with Ray Signorello’s purchase of 100 acres on the Silverado Trail in eastern Napa Valley. Originally intending to grow grapes to sell to other wineries, the emphasis shifted to making wine in 1985. Ray Senior died in 1998, and Ray Signorello Jr. operates the estate now. He is listed as proprietor/winemaker and Pierre Bierbent as winemaker/vineyard manager. This is a luxury wine estate, with packaging and prices to match its aspirations.

A touch of cabernet franc — 6.5 percent — completes what is otherwise all cabernet sauvignon in this large-framed and fairly lumbering wine. Fermented with native yeast, yes, that’s nice; aged 21 months in French oak. all new barrels, okey-dokey, but 15.7 percent alcohol? Please! The color is motor-oil-opaque with a purple-violet rim; it’s a vivaciously ripe wine, with sweet scents and succulent notes of cassis, black raspberry jam, brandied cherries, fruitcake and a hint of zinfandel-like blueberry tart. By contrast, potent tannins and truckloads of dusty graphite define a structure that becomes formidably dry and austere, leading to a feeling that the wine is at war with itself; imbalance and lack of integration personified. Give it a few years if you so desire, but don’t invite me when you eventually open a bottle. Not recommended. About $90.

What’s disheartening about this wine is that I rated the Signorello Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 (the last I tasted) as Excellent and named it as one of my “50 Great Wines of 2012.” It came in at 14.7 percent alcohol. The cabernet under review today feels as if it had been given different marching orders.
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