Any producer in Napa Valley will report that 2011 was a challenging season because of the cool weather, cloud cover and rain, all occurrences that inhibited ripening and delayed harvest until a burst of fine weather in October provided a respite. The five examples of cabernet sauvignon-based wines that I look at today came out fine, thank you very much, and yet despite marked similarities, especially in their acute mineral qualities, they also reveal distinct differences, several lying in the camp of opulence, others adhering to a more spare and elegant mode. These wines — all samples for review — are not cheap; prices range from what seems like a light-hearted $45 a bottle to a blockbuster $250. Go figure, Readers, and weigh the discrepancies of supply and demand, hubris and accountancy. This post is, as the title asserts, the sixth in a series that examines the cabernet sauvignon wines of Napa Valley, a region noted for its production, if not always for the finesse, of that grape. This is also the 10th post to BTYH of 2015.
Cardinale Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Napa Valley. Jess Jackson (1930-2011), founder of Kendall-Jackson Winery, decided in 1983 that the company needed a flagship cabernet sauvignon wine to serve as a Napa Valley icon among the other well-known Napa Valley cabernets. Eventually becoming its own brand with a dedicated facility in the Oakville District, site of the old Robert Pepi winery, Cardinale indeed is a tribute to mountain-grown grapes, of which it is mainly composed, and a model of self-assurance and command. Cardinale 2011 is a blend of 89 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes and 11 percent merlot. The majority of the grapes of which it is composed — 87 percent — derive from vineyards on Mount Veeder and Howell Mountain with a bare two percent from Diamond Mountain. The wine aged 18 months in French oak, 81 percent new barrels. Winemaker is Christopher Carpenter.
Matching its nature as the embodiment of intensity and concentration, the color is opaque ruby with a tinge of magenta; the wine is boldly earthy and spicy, featuring aromas and flavors of ripe black currants, cherries and raspberries permeated by notes of briers and brambles, walnut shell and dried porcini, cloves and lavender and the slightly resinous herbal character of rosemary pared from the stalk. This is a persistent and authoritative cabernet sauvignon, framed by burnished oak and dusty, graphite-inflected tannins, all animated by penetrating acidity; as the moments pass, the fragrance deepens and expands, bringing in hints of dried fruit and flowers, and the black fruit flavors achieve a state of savory generosity, while the structure remains stalwart, tense and resonant. 14.5 percent alcohol. Try from 2016 or ’18 through 2030 to ’35. Excellent. About $250 (a bottle).
Caymus 40th Anniversary Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Napa Valley. The website for Caymus Vineyards lists no technical information about its celebratory cabernet sauvignon for 2012, released in honor of the winery’s founding in 1972, by Charles and Lorna Wagner and their son Chuck, the present owner and winemaker. Caymus grew from modest beginnings into a bulwark of Napa Valley cabernet, with its Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon a perpetual contender for top cabernet of the vintage and a darling of collectors, even as the price climbed. Through its Wagner Family of Wines, Caymus now includes Mer Soleil, Conundrum, Belle Glos and Emmolo.
The Caymus 40th Anniversary Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 offers an inky-purple color and chastening notes of iron and iodine that expand into exotic and spicy and quite ripe scents and flavors of macerated black currants, plums and blueberry tart; hints of cloves, lavender and licorice are swathed in touches of bitter chocolate and intense graphite. The wine is ostentatiously floral, plush with dusty, velvety tannins barely reined in by a tremendous mineral element, with back-notes of vanilla and sandalwood. Despite this panoply of riches, the wine is quite dry and finishes with a line of polished oak and some briery, brushy austerity. 14.6 percent alcohol. Best from 2016 or ’17 through 2022 to ’25; it could stand to calm down a little. Excellent. About $60.
Cornerstone Cellars The Cornerstone 2011, Napa Valley. The Cornerstone is the flagship cabernet of Cornerstone Cellars, produced from the winery’s Oakville Station Vineyard blocks in To-Kalon District. For 2011, the blend is 85 percent cabernet sauvignon, 10 percent merlot and 5 percent cabernet franc; the wine aged 22 months in all new French oak barrels. Winemaker is Jeff Keene. The winery is owned by two doctors in Memphis and a group of investors. General manager is Craig Camp, who has overseen Cornerstone’s expansion in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
The color is dark ruby shading to a lighter mulberry-hued rim; aromas of spiced and macerated black currants, raspberries and plums are permeated by elements of iodine and iron — slightly feral and sanguinary — cedar and tobacco, walnut shell and underbrush, woven with notes of lavender and caramelized fennel, aged fruitcake and loam, all making for a profoundly layered and provocative bouquet. On the palate, this cabernet is dense and chewy, lithe and lithic, deeply rooted in dusty, finely-sifted oak and tannins and propelled by keen acidity; the long, vibrant finish is packed with cloves, blueberries, bitter chocolate and graphite. A cabernet of tremendous confidence and authority. 14.4 percent alcohol. Try from 2016 through 2028 to 2030. Production was 100 cases. Excellent. About $150.
Shah Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Napa Valley. It’s a bold move to charge top-dollar for the initial release of a wine, but Bijal and Sinead Shah, owners of this fledgling winery, were not deterred. Shah and his wife Sinead, a pilot for United Airlines, own The Woodhouse Wine Estates in Washington, where they produce a variety of wines under the Kennedy Shah, Dussek and Darighe labels. This cabernet and its stablemate chardonnay represent the couple’s first venture south. The winemaker is Jean Claude Beck, originally from Alsace. The grapes for this 100 percent cabernet wine were grown in Caldwell’s Block 11, part of a vineyard in Coombsville, a fairly obscure AVA in southeastern Napa Valley that received official recognition in 2011. The wine aged 24 months in 100 percent new French oak barrels.
The color is deep ruby-mulberry, dark but not opaque; vivid notes of mint, eucalyptus and toasty oak, poised against a background of ferrous iodine, are meshed with ripe and very spicy black currant and cherry fruit touched with lavender and bitter chocolate; hints of dried rosemary and cedar lend a piquant earthy/herbal aspect. In the mouth, this cabernet is supple and sleek, almost chiseled in its granitic minerality and quite intense in its drenching, almost sweet black fruit flavors, woven with nuances of cloves and oolong tea. New oak intrudes somewhat on the long, spicy, mineral-flecked finish; I would recommend opening in 2016 or after; for drinking through 2022 to ’25. Production was 168 cases. Very Good+ with Excellent potential. About $150.
Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley. The fact that brothers Charles and Stuart Smith continue to keep prices for their exemplary wines so much lower than the competition is one of those miracles and mysteries that make life interesting, and as far as I’m concerned we should not question this phenomenon. The grapes for their cabernet-based wine – for 2011 a blend of 83 percent cabernet sauvignon, 10 percent cabernet franc and 7 percent merlot — are grown on steep, dry-farmed slopes at an elevation of 1,800 feet on Spring Mountain, west of the city of St. Helena. Made from 39-year-old vines, the wine aged 19 months in French oak barrels.
The color is intense, vibrant dark ruby; it’s a deeply loamy cabernet, saturated with closely focused black currant and cherry scents and flavors but infused with notes of graphite, briers and brambles, lavender and dried porcini, redolent with a sort of dusty rosemary, thyme and cedar aspect that’s slightly resiny; the kind of wine you could spend hours swirling and sniffing, an intellectual as well as a sensual exercise. It’s quite concentrated in the mouth, lithe and sinewy, but not lacking in a generous character; dense, chewy tannins are part velvet, part graphite, made lively by a flare of bright acidity and a faceted granitic quality and given depth by an almost primal, dusty, robust earthiness; you feel the elevation, the scrappiness and spareness of the soil, the mineral underpinnings where the roots dig deep for sustenance. 14.3 percent alcohol. Production was 1,070 cases. Nothing flamboyant or over-ripe here. Try from 2016 or ’17 through 2025 to 2030. Excellent. About $48, a bargain in this company.