Big Cabs for the Holidays

As of writing this story, we have already seen at least one day “when the weather outside is frightful.” In December, we spend time in front of the fireplace; the carnivores among us include more beef in our cuisine; and holiday get-togethers and gift-giving spur us on to spend more money on wine. The one wine that fills the holiday needs, cuisine and weather better than any other is Napa Valley Cabernet.

Napa is king of Cabernet Sauvignon. Yes, Sonoma has some lovely Cabernets, and Paso Robles is displaying its improving quality with each new vintage. But Napa is so identified with this varietal that when we discuss vintages for the Valley, we are talking predominately about Cabernet Sauvignon. This is a golden time to buy Napa Cabernets because of the four vintages currently available. Of course, New Mexico provides its own unique retail situation but before we look at what is available here, let’s first summarize the qualities of the vintages from 2010 to 2014 that makes this such an amazing time for Napa Cabs.

Every compendium of California wine will tell you that vintages matter as much in Napa as they do in Bordeaux. 2010 and 2011 were both cool vintages, in fact cooler than any of the vintages since, producing wines leaner than 2012, ’13 or ’14. A typical good vintage has a unique combination of dense but elegant black currant fruit with classic structural core, longevity and freshness. The cool temperatures for the 2010 vintages seemed to work more in that vintage’s favor, since the longer, cooler growing season often made wines with great finesse, and the harvest was not marked by rain. Also, 2010 Cabernets are drinking well now because the extra years of bottle age benefit any Napa Cabernet.

In 2011, however, we saw rain falling at harvest, and the vintage is politely described as “variable.” Cabernet Sauvignon is a late-ripening grape, and rain at harvest will challenge the grower and winemaker in deciding when to pick (although some winemakers were able to avoid picking while it rained). The newcomer to wine might describe the wine as drier, noticing the higher acidity, lower fruit component and lighter body. Occasionally, a 2011 wine will be excellent, even outstanding, especially for drinkers who prefer that style.

For the next three vintages, however, the weather changed considerably: 2012, 2013 and 2014 are described as drought vintages and are almost universally acclaimed. These wines are warm and “showy,” displaying greater extract: deep, bright color, full-on nose, higher alcohol levels. For some reviewers, the standout vintage of the group is probably 2013, but all three will have wines worth buying.

The second consideration for Napa Valley Cabernets is provenance—where, specifically, are the grapes grown in the valley? There are 16 sub-appellations (or American Viticultural Areas, as they are legally called) in Napa, each one with its own special soil and weather patterns. Orientation to the sun, proximity to San Pablo Bay and its fog, wind and precipitation all play their part. Carneros Cabernets are rare because it is so cool. Calistoga, at the opposite, northern end of the valley is the warmest region, since it is farthest from the Bay and consequently has more powerful wines. A somewhat general distinction can also be made between mountain and valley fruit. For example, Rutherford, Oakville and St. Helena have a softer more “inviting” style than the AVA’s of Spring Mountain, Mt. Veeder and Diamond Mountain District. Taking into consideration all these factors and what is available in New Mexico, here is a list of some exceptional choices. Retail prices may vary.

$20-$30

Ca’ Momi Cabernet Sauvignon Napa 2013—approachable without sacrificing Napa character

$30-$40

Billhook Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2012—more reticent, but lovely structure

$40-$60

Keenan Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon Napa 2011—a standout exception to the vintage 

Frog’s Leap Rutherford 2013—brand new release; delicious typical Rutherford Cabernet, but more subtle, almost Bordeaux-like

Pine Ridge Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2013—even more successful than their delicious, complex 2012

$60-$100

Terlato Wines Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2010—aging beautifully with classic “Rutherford Dust” character

Clos du Val Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2010—Bordeaux-like style with the “iron fist in velvet glove” typical of Stags Leap District

Dyer Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2012—a nose of cedar and bright-red fruits with complex subtlety; a perfect example of the appellation

$100-$180 Retail

Odette Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Estate 2012—very limited, amazing Stags Leap District character

Dominus Estate 2011—the owner of the estate is from Bordeaux and has experience with rainy vintages. Described by Wine and Spirits Magazine as “proof that a challenge met can create something sublime.”

Diamond Creek Diamond Mountain District Gravelly Meadow Cabernet Sauvignon 2010— this wine is still young but meticulous care in the vineyards has produced an elegant Napa mountain-vineyard wine

Finally, we must remind ourselves that Cabernet ages well. The wines lose their expansive fruit but become softer, and gain “vinosity” and aroma. Vinosity is often described as all the flavors fine red wine gains that are not related to fruit—the flavors of tea, tobacco, cedar and earth. Delayed gratification is beautifully rewarded with expensive Cabernets, as I was reminded while drinking a 2001 Dunn Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon with friends last week. One can find older examples, on a limited basis, of single-vineyard wines from Heitz Cellar in the New Mexico market, and your favorite retailer probably has some other gems tucked away—or at least has access to some. But more importantly, any of the wines listed above in the $40-plus range easily have a five-year—sometimes as much as a ten-year,—life span. As they age, the wines grow in complexity and depth and can amaze you with their developed character. Buy a bottle or two as a gift to put away for yourself. Just store your purchased wines in the dark, at a constant cool temperature—55 degrees is ideal—and your investment will be repaid handsomely.

Story by Philip de Give


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