So, here we are, in the 11th segment of “Whither Napa Valley Cabernet,” a series devoted to exploring the many aspects of the cabernet sauvignon wines created in the various regions of the Napa Valley. It’s a question worth asking, since, as readers will see in today’s selection of 12 examples, the cabernet wines from this legendary area and its sub-AVAs, can vary from an austere Old School character to the new style of very ripe — or over-ripe — fruit and plush textures. Most of the models in today’s post hew to the old-fashioned style of emphasis on structure, but a couple of them are over-the-top for my palate. These are mostly from 2012, with a couple of ’13s and one from 2011. Except for one wine encountered at a wholesale trade tasting, these wines were samples for review.
I tasted the Beaulieu Vineyards Georges De Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley, last November at a wholesale distributor’s trade event. This great and historic label had a difficult period in the first decade of the 21st Century, but made a real effort under the direction of world-famous (and extremely busy) consultant Michel Rolland. If the 2012 is a pertinent example, the winery (owned by Diageo) is hitting on all cylinders again. The color is an obsidian-like, brooding dark ruby-purple; it’s a cool, chiseled, graphite and granite-based amalgam of power and elegance energized by swingeing acidity — call it the Lafite-Rothschild of Napa Valley — and as taut and tense a cabernet as I have encountered. Tannic? Oh, yes, but tannins that seem as generous and supple as they are sinewy and chewy. The blend is 93 percent cabernet sauvignon, 4 percent petit verdot and 3 percent malbec. Oak regimen was 22 months, 90 percent new French barrels. The alcohol is a soaring 15.5 percent, by far the highest in this roster of a dozen cabernets. Try from 2018 or ’20 through 2030 to ’36. Excellent. About $135.
The Cornerstone Cellars Michael’s Cuvée Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley, is named for Michael Dragutsky, a doctor in Memphis who is one of the winery’s founders. It’s a blend of 91 percent cabernet grapes and nine percent merlot; I have no information about the oak regimen. The color is ruby that is dark unto opacity; a broad pungency of intense black currants and plums infused with tapenade, fig paste and roasted fennel, graphite and lavender, iodine and iron characterizes the complex and beautifully integrated bouquet. Likewise, the wine is broad and deep and dense on the palate, though it flows like a lithe and supple source of power and elegance; fathomless, dusty, cushiony tannins support concentrated black fruit flavors poised over tremendous reserves of forest and loam. 14.9 percent alcohol. Production was under 250 cases. Drink from 2017 or ’18 through 2028 to ’32. Exceptional. About $75.
The grapes for the Far Niente Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Oakville District, derive primarily from the Martin Skelling Vineyard, planted in 1978 and located just behind the winery in Oakville. The wine is a blend of 97 percent cabernet sauvignon and 3 percent petit verdot; it aged 17 months in French oak, 77 percent new barrels. Winemaker was Nicole Marchesi. The color is very dark ruby-purple with a magenta cast; this feels like classic Oakville, with its bastions of iodine and iron, graphite, cedar and lead pencil and notes of plums, black cherries and currants touched with dried thyme and rosemary — with the latter’s hint of branchy astringency — and roasted fennel. The structure is like taut muslin, fresh and snappy, full of energy. On the other hand, the wine delivers a chiseled, hard-edged character in its dusty chewy tannins that take on a velvety quality. A few minutes in the glass bring in touches of ancho chili and bitter chocolate, and the finish grows increasingly austere. 14.5 percent alcohol. Try from 2018 or ’20 through 2030 to ’32. Excellent. About $155.
The Flora Springs Trilogy 2013, Napa Valley, is a blend of 87 percent cabernet grapes, seven percent petit verdot and 6 percent malbec; it aged 22 months in French oak, 60 percent new barrels, 40 percent one-year-old. Winemaker was Paul Steinauer. The color is an opaque ruby-purple, black at the center; aromas of pure and intense cassis, blackberry and raspberry are permeated by notes of cloves and sandalwood, lavender and licorice, mint and eucalyptus, with iodine and loam in the background, all contributing to a pleasing balance of the exotic and the earthy. It’s a dry, large-framed cabernet whose dusty velvety tannins fuse with an indisputable oak foundation driven by vibrant acidity, all of these elements keenly balanced but needing some time to unfurl to higher usefulness. 14.2 percent alcohol. Try from 2018 or ’19 through 2028 to ’32. Excellent. About $80.
Winemaker Laura Diaz Muñoz aged the Galerie “pleinair” Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley, 18 months in 58 percent new French oak barrels. The unforgettable color is deep ruby-purple with a thermonuclear violet-magenta rim; it’s a large-framed, dense, chewy and minerally cabernet but neither ponderous nor obvious, carrying its elements of graphite, iodine and iron, spiced and macerated black currants, raspberries and plums with pinpoint focus and fervent poise. This cabernet is mouth-filling without being plush or ostentatious, made vivid with bright acidity and a chiming tannic-mineral structure. A few minutes in the glass bring up hints of lavender and licorice driving into a long deep finish that’s dry and furnished with granitic minerality, making for an effect that’s chaste, spare and strangely elegant. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink from 2018 or ’20 through 2028 to ’30. Excellent. About $50.
The Grgich Hills Estate Yountville Selection Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Napa Valley, derives from vines planted in 1959. The wine is a blend of 82 percent cabernet grapes, 14 percent petit verdot and 4 percent merlot; it aged 23 months in French oak, 80 percent new barrels. The color is an intense and warm dark ruby hue with a tinge of magenta at the rim; it’s all about structure now, filled with wheatmeal and walnut shell elements, loamy and briery, and it opens cautiously, a heavy old volume whose pages turn very slowly or, from another aspect, a block of oak buffed and burnished by sandalwood sandpaper. Velvety tannins are pumped up with notes of graphite and granite dust, while a few minutes in the glass bring in hints of plum pudding and fruitcake, lavender and bitter chocolate. 14.1 percent alcohol. Production was 772 cases. Try from 2018 or ’20 through 2030 to ’32. Excellent. About $185.00, yes, per bottle.
The “Allomi” tier is the entry-level cabernet sauvignon for The Hess Collection; a less expensive example falls under the cheaper “Hess Select” rubric. So, the Hess Collection Allomi Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Napa Valley, displays a dark ruby hue, shading to a tinge of mulberry; it offers rich black currant-cherry-raspberry scents and flavors permeated by graphite, iodine and iron, lavender and black licorice. Plush, dusty tannins have roots in underbrush and foresty elements, while ripe and spicy black fruit flavors are spicy and savory. 14.4 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2019 or ’20. Very Good+. About $30.
On the “shop” page of the winery’s website, The Hess Collection Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Mount Veeder, is described thus: “Nothing is quite so luscious as blueberries framed by hints of vanilla, cassis, creamy milk chocolate caramel and oak spice.” Gack, thank god, that’s not the character that emerged from my tasting; had that been the case, I would have given this one a definite thumb’s-down. Granted, this wine — 80 percent cabernet sauvignon, 20 percent malbec and aged 20 months in 80 percent new French oak barrels — feels ripe and rich, but the ripeness and richness of black and red currants and raspberries are balanced by tannic elements of mineral dust, graham and wheatmeal and a touch of walnut shell, and the wine is far more intense and concentrated than the unhelpful notation quoted above implies. It’s quite dry, substantial, dense and inky, with graphite minerality and dark, oaken polish. The wine finishes with a high note of wild cherry. 14.6 percent alcohol. Drink through 2022 to ’26. Director of winemaking for Hess Collection is Dave Guffy. Excellent. About $60.
Lüscher-Ballard Wine is a project of Christina Lüscher-Ballard and Carroll Ballard, married former filmmakers who own a tiny property, 2,200 feet high on Spring Mountain. John Kongsgaard makes the wine. The Lüscher-Ballard Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Spring Mountain District, fermented with native yeast and aged 22 months in French oak barrels. The color is dark ruby with a black center and a faint mulberry rim; it’s a majestic wine, freighted with massive elements of iron and iodine, graphite, cedar and tobacco, with hints of old leather, dried rosemary and ancho chili, and high-notes of lavender and bitter chocolate. On the palate the wine combines density and weight with airiness and elegance, though tannins need a few years to recede from a feral state. Fruit? Of course, in the range of spiced and macerated black currants and plums with a cast of red fruit overall. Altogether, lovely balance and integration of every element. 14.1 percent alcohol. Production was about 200 cases. Try from 2018 or ’19 through 2030 to ’32. Excellent. About $80.
Brothers Charles and Stuart Smith deserve a Nobel Prize for consistency and integrity. Making their Smith-Madrone wines using the same methods every year and allowing the vintage to speak through the grapes, they produce chardonnay, riesling and cabernet sauvignon wines on Spring Mountain that embody ideals of realism, individuality and location. Produced from 40-year-old, dry-farmed vines and aged 18 months in French oak barrels, the Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Spring Mountain District, is a blend of 82 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes, 10 percent merlot and eight percent cabernet franc. The color is dark ruby from stem to stern; notes of dried sage and rosemary, briers and brambles, cedar and tobacco leaf are etched on intense elements of ripe and dried black currants, raspberries and blueberries, all balanced on a well-oiled vehicle of graphite and granitic minerality. On the palate, the wine is — no surprise — lithe and sinewy, bolstered by dusty, slightly velvety tannins and vibrant acidity. The finish is long and lean and laden with chiseled flint-like minerality. 14.2 percent alcohol. Production was 1,815 cases. Drink through 2028 to ’32. Excellent. About $48, the bargain of this group.
Established in 1943 and producing its first vintage in 1952, Stony Hill Vineyard, on Spring Mountain, is still operated by the McCrea family. It says something about loyalty and tradition that Mike Chelini has been making the wines since 1972. A specialist in non-malolactic, all-neutral-oak, long-aging chardonnay, the winery — probably the least known of Napa Valley’s Old School producers — only began making cabernet sauvignon wines in 2009, and it’s not surprising that the Stony Hill Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley, mirrors the philosophy that governs its chardonnays; this is not a cabernet for consumers looking for the glamorous or the gorgeous. The wine aged 18 months in oak barrels and 18 months in bottle before release. The color is dark ruby shading to medium ruby at the rim; aromas of black currants, raspberries and blueberries are intense and concentrated, permeated by notes of lead pencil, rosemary and cedar, briers, brambles and loam. Tannins feel deep, rooty and dusty, and an aura of wood-smoke pervades the whole vibrant, resonant, chiseled package. An eminently sensible 13.5% alcohol. Production was 430 cases. Try from 2017 or ’18 through 2028 to ’32. Excellent. About $60.
Young Inglewood winery touts this initial release as an “instant crowd pleaser,” but the Venn Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Napa Valley, did not please me all that much; everything about it, except for the moderate alcohol level, blares “contemporary Napa Valley” in the glass. The color is very dark ruby-purple shading to a glowing magenta rim; the nose draw up scents of ripe cassis, vanilla, cloves, blueberry jam, lavender, graphite and mocha, while on the palate the wine is rich and succulent, ferrous and sanguinary and framed by heaps of charcoal and graphite.
14.3 percent alcohol. Production was 209 cases. If this is a crowd-pleaser, I’ll drink alone, thank you. Very Good. About $50.