Napa Diary Day 4: Restrained Cabernet Sauvignon at Spottswoode

Driving along Madrona Avenue in downtown St. Helena through suburban housing, you wonder where the Spottswoode winery can be, and then suddenly you come out into 35 acres of vineyards stretching from the edge of the town up to the mountains. Jack and Mary Novak purchased the property in 1972, when Jack was a practicing physician. They replanted the property with current varieties, but were refused a permit to make wine because the neighborhood was residential. They later purchased a winery across the road (in 1990) that allowed the wine to be made in the vicinity.

The Spottswoode winery looks like a residence in St. Helena

The style of the Cabernet has a freshness almost reminiscent of Bordeaux. The palate shows a restrained style dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon. Aron describes his style: “I’ve always felt the biggest challenge for us is to tame the heat–St. Helena and Calistoga are the hottest places in Napa. We don’t want to ripen wine on the monolithic side of super-ripe or to go to the monolithic side of under-ripe wine. The idea is to retain a fresh edge in which aromatics are part of the wine and not over-ripe.”

Tasting back through a vertical, the sense of freshness becomes less obvious and the palate moves to a more textured impression, at its smoothest showing a velvety structure. Alcohol is usually at or just under 14%. The high-alcohol vintages of 2016 and (to a lesser extent) 2015 show a chocolaty density. “I think this is the California style,” Aron says. “You would probably see this effect in any 5 year vertical.” The wines are intended to be immediately accessible–” in the American market consumers like everything to be drinkable on release,” Aron says–but age for several years; Aron sees them as really ‘smoothing out’ at 8-10 years.

The white ages 50% in stainless steel, 45% in barriques including 15-20% new oak, and 5% in other containers. It had 1-5% Semillon until 2010, when the source of the Sémillon was lost, but Sémillon has been reintroduced at 3% from 2019. It has a fresh but not overly crisp style, poised between perfume and herbaceousness.

An updated profile will be included in the 2022 edition of the Guide to Napa.

A 5-year vertical tasting of Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon

2018 
Opens with sense of tart asperity and black fruits behind. Fresh impression follows to palate. You might call this old-style in a European context. Tannins only evident by some dryness on finish. Needs time not so much to resolve tannins as to let flavor variety develop. Softens a bit as it opens up in glass. 14.0%    90 Drink 2023-2033

2017 
A little softer and rounder on nose than 2018. Soft and black on palate but characteristic house freshness still shows in almost Bordeaux-like fashion. Acidity moves towards piquancy on finish to contrast with chocolaty texture developing in the glass. 13.7%   90 Drink 2022-2030

2016 
A little deeper on the nose, rounder and blacker than 2017. Softer than 2017 with greater sense of chocolate giving velvety texture. Nice sense of black fruits beginning to emerge, following through to long finish. Perhaps the  higher alcohol contributes to the greater sense of viscosity. 14.4%   92 Drink -2031

2015 
Not quite as superficially soft as 2016, texture not quite so evident, house freshness more evident, but good sense of density underneath. Fruits are a little brambly. 14.4%   91 Drink -2031

2014 
The most reserved of recent vintages with faint nose just beginning to emerge. Light sense of structure, black fruits a bit in the background, just beginning to come out. Developing slowly and showing structure more clearly on finish than other vintages. Uncertain when this will come round. 14.2%   90 Drink -2038

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