Here’s another entry in this ongoing series about cabernet sauvignon wines from Napa Valley. Few would deny that this area in California, the Valley itself in general and its sub-appellations, produces some of the finest cabernet-based wines in the world. Few also would deny that sometimes — even frequently — the wines are too alcoholic, too ripe and over-oaked. This roster of nine examples 2013 and 2014 seems to avoid the excesses and exaggerations to which Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon can be subject, treading the lines among structure, fruit, acidity, tannin and mineral character with deftness and dimension. It’s true that most of these wines are large in size and intent and will require two or three years in the cellar (or closet or in the box under your bed) before they become drinkable, but of course that situation depends on what your notion of drinkable is; most of these would be fine tonight with a steak. While revealing differences in detail because of vintage variations, microclimate, vineyard and winery techniques, these nine wines also feel pretty classic in the Napa Valley manner of ripe black fruit scents and flavors; lithe, dusty tannins; and pronounced graphite minerality, all bound by a scintillating chiseled structure. These are expensive wines, intended to age up to 20 years or more and so not the sort of product one buys on a whim. Still, such wines serve as a benchmark for a grape and a region. These wines were samples for review.
Winemaker Jennifer Williams slips 3 percent petit verdot and 1.5 percent merlot into the Arrow & Branch Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Napa Valley, which aged 20 months in French oak, 80 percent new barrels. The color is opaque ruby-magenta, epitomizing the concept of dense radiance; you smell the cassis and cedar from a foot away from the glass, to which the wine adds notes of plums and raspberries, briers, brambles and moss, lavender and licorice, iodine and iron, and an incisive strain of graphite; a few minutes in the glass bring in hints of ancho chili and espresso. Dusty, granitic tannins coat the palate, and, friends, that’s about all there is to this wine and its manifestation of a huge structure, an intense texture riven by bold acidity, and a big, bold finish, 14.8 percent alcohol. Production was 245 cases. Built for the cellar; try from 2018 or ’19 through 2030 or ’33. Excellent potential. About $100.
The Arrow & Branch Dr. Crane Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Napa Valley, ups the ante a bit in terms of the oak regimen, this resting also 20 months but in 85 percent new barrels. This is 100 percent cabernet sauvignon that offers a dense ruby hue shading to a transparent rim; aromas of allspice and sandalwood, roasted fennel and graphite open to notes of black currant and raspberry, blueberry and pomegranate, against a background of smoke and wood-ash. The balance here is between spicy, juicy black fruit flavors and big, dusty, granitic tannins, and as the minutes pass, the wines becomes more austere, yet also imbued with a strain of blueberry tart and bitter chocolate. 14.8 percent alcohol. Production was 288 cases. Try from 2018 or ’20 through 2030 to ’32. Excellent. About $175 (a bottle).
The color of the Cliff Lede Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Stags Leap District, is a riveting opaque ruby with a bright magenta rim. The wine is a blend of 80 percent cabernet sauvignon, 10 percent petit verdot, 6 percent malbec and 2 percent each cabernet franc and merlot, utilizing what used to be called the “five classic red grapes of Bordeaux,” though malbec is as rare now in Bordeaux as sauvignon blanc in Burgundy. This is all ripe, spicy plums and cherries coated with iodine and iron and loads of cedar, tobacco and graphite; a few minutes in the glass bring in notes of roasted fennel and lavender, roots and branches. It’s a very dry wine but pretty darned plush on the palate, though the opulent texture is balanced by stirring acidity and tannins that grow more rigorous as the wine airs; the finish adds more foresty elements of underbrush and heather, with leather and loam. 14.9 percent alcohol. Now through 2024 to ’28. Excellent. About $78.
The Flora Springs Trilogy Red Wine 2013, Napa Valley, is a deep, dark brooding Titan of a wine, a blend of 87 percent cabernet sauvignon, 7 percent petit verdot and 6 percent malbec that aged 22 months in French oak, 60 percent new barrels. The color is inky-ebony with a rim that allows a peek at ruby-garnet; dusty, granitic tannins coat the palate with a profound mineral character, yet for all its size, I believe that this wine — chiseled, etched and honed — portends sleek elegance in its future. 14.2 percent alcohol. Try from 2019 or ’20 through 2030 to ’33. Excellent. About $80.
The Freemark Abbey Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Rutherford, Napa Valley, is 100 percent varietal and aged 28 months in French oak, 67 percent new barrels. The dense black-purple hue and the intensity, the concentration of black fruit scents and flavors, and the sweeping dimension of graphite-ribbed dusty tannins mark this as a wine that needs years to develop company manners and an indoor voice. Still, it offers interesting notes of cedar and rosemary, tobacco and cigarette paper, loam and pencil shavings, all structural elements to be sure, but encouraging. 14.5 percent alcohol. Try from 2019 or ’21 through 2030 to ’35. Excellent potential. About $70.
The Mount Veeder Winery Reserve 2013, Mt. Veeder, Napa Valley, is a blend of 85 percent cabernet sauvignon, nine percent merlot, four cabernet franc and 2 malbec, aged 20 months in 100 percent new French oak barrels. The wine is a stalwart expression of size and dimension in a red wine, featuring an opaque black-purple hue and intense aromas of cedar, tobacco and roasted coffee beans, heather and wild mountain herbs and swaths and swales of dusty graphite-infused minerality. It fills the mouth with a tide of deep, grainy, velvety tannins, and frankly, I wouldn’t touch this until 2019 or ’20; it should build an aging curve through 2030 to ’35. Alcohol content is 14.5 percent. Excellent potential. About $100.
Here’s a cabernet-based wine that doesn’t try to ingratiate itself, either in its formidable structural elements or even in its potential pleasures. The Joseph Phelps Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, Napa Valley, is a blend of 84 percent cabernet sauvignon, 8 percent merlot, 4 petit verdot and 2 each malbec and cabernet franc; it aged 18 months in 45 percent new French and American oak barrels and 55 percent two-year-old French and American oak. From its opaque ruby-purple hue to its intense and concentrated scents and flavors of spicy, macerated black currants, cherries and plums to its profoundly tannic-graphite character, this is one for the cellar, at least for a couple of years. Nuance develops with time in the glass, bringing up notes of lavender and mocha, potpourri, cedar and dried rosemary (with that herb’s innate touch of resinous austerity), as well as intriguing hints of wild berries and fruit cake. Mainly, though, this wine is all about the architecture of possibility; try from 2019 or ’20 through 2029 to ’32. Alcohol content is 14.5 percent. Excellent. About $75.
Brothers Stuart and Charles Smith don’t fool around. Their Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Spring Mountain District, made from 41-year-old dry-farmed vines 1,800 to 2,000 feet atop Spring Mountain, is built to last. The wine is a blend of 82 percent cabernet sauvignon, 12 percent cabernet franc and 6 percent merlot that aged 18 months in French oak, 75 percent new barrels. The color is dark ruby shading to a magenta rim; you feel the steep mountain pedigree in the wine’s elements of graphite, iodine and iron, walnut shell and dry, austere herbs and heather; black cherries and currants are plumped with cloves, black pepper and mint, while the wine layers briery, underbrush and slightly raspy, leafy notes through the dry, granitic finish. 14.2 percent alcohol. Try from 2018 or ’20 through 2030 to ’35. Excellent. About $50, a bargain considering the present roster.
Grapes for the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars “Artemis” Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, Napa Valley, derive partly from the winery’s estate vineyards and partly from other vineyards in the valley. The wine is 98 percent cabernet sauvignon, with a scant 1 percent each merlot and malbec; aging was 19 months, 33 percent new French oak, 10 percent new American. It’s a dense, vibrant and resonant cabernet that needs a few years to allow its more approachable personality to emerge. For now, the color is opaque ruby with a glowing purple rim; its character centers around elements of briers and brambles, cedar and tobacco, leather and loam, that gradually allow hints of ripe but intense and concentrated black currants and cherries to appear, along with notes of iodine, iron and mint. Dusty, slightly gritty tannins are prelude to a sleek, lithe finish that feels chiseled from quartz and granite. 14.5 percent alcohol. I predict a great future for this wine, say from 2019 or ’20 through 2030 to ’34. Excellent. About $60.