Napa Diary Day 1: Cabernet Purity at Corison

“Diurnal variation is the magic of Napa, that’s why it’s such a special place,” says Cathy Corison as we start tasting in the Kronos vineyard behind the winery. It was just beginning to warm up at mid-morning, with temperatures having dropped into the fifties overnight and being forecast to reach the nineties in the afternoon. A massive hand-carved travertine table has just been installed at the entrance to the vineyard, and we sat there looking over the fifty-year old vines towards the Mayacamas Mountains.

My first visit for July in Napa, I was catching up on the evolution at Corison. Starting with a wine appreciation course in college (when she thought she was going to become a marine biologist), which was based on French wine, Cathy’s reference point has been European. She’s known for making wines that favor elegance over power with moderate alcohol.

The tasting table at the entrance to Kronos has a view over to the Mayacamas Mountains

“I pick weeks before most,” she says. ” I care what the sugar level is. If we get too ripe, we lose the red and blue part of the spectrum, we are left only with black. I believe table wine should be 12.5% and if I could get ripeness at that level I would.” Alcohol levels are in the low 13%s in cool vintages, up to 14% in warmer vintages. Kronos, where the vines are oldest, usually is a bit lower than the other cuvées.

The other cuvées of Cabernet Sauvignon are the Napa Valley (a blend from three vineyards) and Sunbasket, a single vineyard from which Cathy had been making wine for 20 years when she was able to buy it in 2015. Its first vintage as a single vineyard designate was 2014. “When I bought Sunbasket, I hadn’t blended the 2014, so I made a single-vineyard designate, I had decided I would not make a single-vineyard designate wine unless I owned the vineyard.”

All the wines are 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. “I am a Cabernet chauvinist, at least on the bench here. I believe Cabernet Sauvignon can do everything other varieties can do here.” New oak is similar at around 50% for all three cuvées. “I couldn’t make the wine in this style without oak, but I don’t want you to be able to taste it.”

The vines at Kronos are among the oldest Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley. The story behind the vineyard is that Cathy was determined to find gravelly terroir for her Cabernet Sauvignon, and this turned up in the form of a neglected vineyard. It was thought that it would have to be replanted because the rootstock was AxR1, which was succumbing to phylloxera, but 6 of the 8 acres turned out to be clone 2 Cabernet Sauvignon on St. George rootstock. “The combination gives scraggly cluster of tiny berries and doesn’t bear very well, only about 1.25 tons/acre.” These are now wonderfully venerable vines. A 2 ha plot in front of the winery was in fact on AxR1 and now been replanted on St. George. (Cathy hasn’t decided yet which cuvée these grapes will go into.) The Kronos vineyard is infected with leaf roll virus–it turns an attractive red in the Fall–which is anathema to viticultural experts, but Cathy says this slows development, as well as reducing yields, and contributes to the concentration and lowers sugar levels at harvest.

Tasting the range from 2018 (Napa Valley has been released, Sunbasket and Kronos are bottled but not released yet), leaves a strong impression that the focus is on elegance and purity of fruits. The Napa Valley has the most direct fruits, conveying a great sense of purity, with silky tannins in the background. Sunbasket adds a more direct sense of tannic texture to the palate. (There is also a Cabernet Franc from a few rows at Sunbasket, which shows a more reserved style than the Cabernet Sauvignon). The tannins in Kronos are so velvety that it actually seems more approachable at this point than Sunbasket, but the greater sense of density deepens the palate and promises the greatest longevity. The star of the show here is the purity of Cabernet Sauvignon.

For my reality check, to see how the wine pairs with food as opposed to a tasting, I had a Kronos 2004 with dinner. It still felt like a baby, age showing in even greater finesse on the palate, with the silkiness of the tannins contributing to an enhanced sense of the purity of Cabernet fruits, giving a translucent impression to the palate.

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

Tasting Notes for Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 at Corison

Napa Valley
Nose offers a delicious faintly piquant impression, relatively aromatic, then ripeness is nicely offset by freshness on the palate. Tannins are already quite silky. The aromatics carry through to the palate, which offers subtle hints of the oak aging. This really could be enjoyed almost immediately, but should become increasingly elegant over the next few years. 91 Drink 2022-2030

Sunbasket 2018 
Nose shows a touch more asperity than the Napa, not as soft or intense as Kronos. The sleek silky house style comes through, tannins are a touch more obvious on the finish, so this needs a little more time than the Napa bottling. It will probably continue to show a slightly more robust style as it develops.   92 Drink 2024-2035

Kronos Vineyard
The most intense of the range but relatively approachable because tannins are so velvety. The elegant house style with that sense of delineation to the fruits comes through the intensity. Very faint sense of piquancy in background keeps the palate criso. Youthful structure shows directly only a faint dryness onb the finish.    94 Drink 2024-2044

Kronos 2004

Still quite dark, maroon with some purple hues. Black fruit aromatics show hints of blackcurrants. Showcases absolute purity of Cabernet on palate, with pronounced cassis. Intense aromatics on opening integrate as the wine opens in the glass.Age shows in the extra smoothness on the palate, with very fine silky tannins, and no rasp to the finish; there’s no tertiary development yet. The palate flattens as it opens, bringing a feel of more European restraint. 13.8%   94 Drink -2035

Elegance and European Restraint in Napa Valley

The stereotype of Napa Valley Cabernet, as for New World wine in general, is for up-front, forward, bright fruits, intense and flavorful on nose and palate. “This what the fruits give us,” producers will say. Exacerbated by the trend over recent years to picking later, there can be a tendency to powerful extraction rather than elegance or subtlety. This may be a fair criticism of extremes, both at lower price levels where an emphasis on direct fruits substitutes for anything more complex, and for some top wines where ripeness has turned to over ripeness. But on my recent visit to Napa I was struck by the number of wines that displayed true Cabernet typicity, and by the fact that some cult wines, at least, are far removed from the caricature of bigger is better. In these tastings, a decade seemed to be about the appropriate age for starting the wine, a far cry from the popular impression that the wines should be drunk young and don’t age.

Two of the most interesting representations of Cabernet in a more restrained style came from Corison and Spottswoode, both long known for their elegance of approach. It would be fair to describe Cathy Corison’s style as aiming for precision in the fruits. She is well known for picking early in the context of Napa, aiming for ripeness without high alcohol. The wines are pure Cabernet Sauvignon.  “At least on the Rutherford bench, I believe that Cabernet can do anything the blending varieties can do, better, nine years out of ten. Rutherford gives you the entire range of fruit flavors that Cabernet can give all in one glass,” she says.  After some years in the wilderness, when there was a general move towards greater ripeness, she thinks the pendulum is swinging back.

My general impression of a vertical tasting of recent vintages was that the wines somewhat resembled what would happen in Bordeaux if they made monovarietal Cabernet. The wines showcase precise black fruits, outlined in cooler vintages by a tight acidity supported by fine grained tannins, not exactly austere but certainly restrained, giving way in warmer vintages to a softer palate with more velvety textured tannins. The 2001 was just coming up to its peak. The Kronos bottling, which comes from the vineyard immediately around the winery, is fuller and plusher with an extra density of fruit concentration that reflects the old vines.

Spottswoode is an old line winery – wine was being made here in the nineteenth century – which for the past three decades has also been known for its restrained style, although in the past decade, perhaps in response to market pressure, there has been a move to greater ripeness. Current winemaker Aron Weinkauf says that, “We are still fairly early pickers but that’s partly because we are one of the warmer sites, but in more recent years we haven’t shied away from going after ripeness.” Most of the Cabernet is their own selection, essentially a heritage clone that has adapted to the site. They tried some clone 337 but pulled most of it out because it was too strongly flavored with cassis. The wines have changed from pure Cabernet Sauvignon to a blend. Rosemary Cakebread, winemaker from 1997-2005, who still consults, explained, “When I came to Spottswoode, it was virtually all Cabernet Sauvignon. To allow ourselves some blending opportunities each vintage, it was really an advantage to have some other varieties, so when we had the opportunity we planted some Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot to give ourselves some flexibility.” Now there is 1 acre of Petit Verdot and  3 acres of Cabernet Franc, in addition to 31 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon. There’s no Merlot. The style is restrained, and the wines definitely need to age: the 1992 was at perfection.

I found another outlier for style at Viader, where the Proprietary Red is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, generally around 60:40, but varying with the vintage. “The limiting factor in the blend is the aging potential of Cabernet Franc- we have typical mountain tannins, very intense and dominant – so we use all the Cabernet Franc that is successful, and then add Cabernet Sauvignon (but there is always a majority of Cabernet Sauvignon, up to 75%)”, says Delia Viader. She explained her stylistic objectives. “I always had a very clear stylistic aim, I wanted to make a wine more in the St Emilion style, but elegant. I don’t go after fruit, fruit, fruit, fruit, I want elegance. Like St  Emilion because it’s not in your face, there are not the dominant Médoc tannins. It’s the quality of tannins that are the big criterion.” The wine needs at least seven years aging, she says. Coming from Howell Mountain, but outside of the AVA, the wine has typical mountain austerity, with the aromatics of Cabernet Franc often quite dominant even though it’s the lesser component. The 2002 seemed at its peak when I visited.

I liked the restraint of these wines, and I wouldn’t drink any of them under a decade. Ranging from pure Cabernet Sauvignon, to a Bordeaux blend, to a blend of Cabernets, they were an impressive demonstration of Napa’s potential for something well beyond the stereotype.

Tastings at Corison

Kronos 2006

More evident aromatics on the nose than on the Corison Cabernet with an immediate impression of black plums and blackcurrants. The palate follows right on, with more forward, plush fruits, showing the intensity of the old vines, and velvety tannins with a furry texture on the finish. 92 Drink-2024.

Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, 2006

Fruits on the nose initially appear a little spicy and then develop some notes of coffee in the glass. Nicely rounded black fruits show on the palate, with a kick of ripe plums and blackcurrants on the finish. That touch of spice comes out again on the palate with a soft velvety texture. The small crop of this year gives the wine an impression of concentration, softer and more overtly fruity than the preceding vintage, and perhaps less typical of the usual Corison style. Tight and closed only a few months ago, this wine has suddenly begun to open out. 91 Drink-2021.

Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, 2005

More black fruits than red on the nose. Nicely textured density with a soft impression on the finish, and an elegant impression overall. The mix of red and black fruits tending to cherries on the palate gives a fresh impression. There’s a slight retronasal nuttiness. Sandwiched between two softer vintages (2004 and 2006) this year gives a very fine-grained impression from what was a relatively large crop. 89 Drink-2021.

Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, 2004

Restrained nose is developing some suggestions of coffee. Reflecting the warmer vintage, the wine is softer than usual, with more broadly diffuse black fruits, and a soft, gravelly texture to the finish. 89 Drink-2020.

Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, 2003

There’s a fairly spicy red and black fruit nose. Fruits are quite restrained on the palate at the moment and seem to be developing very slowly; perhaps the wine is passing through a dumb phase, with a certain lack of presence on the mid palate. 88 Drink-2019.

Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, 2002

Restrained nose has some suggestions of spices and pepper, with black fruits turning more red in the glass. Good acidity lends precision to the fruits, but with less presence on the mid palate than was evident in the 2001. This mid bodied wine is developing slowly. 90 Drink-2021.

Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, 2001

A touch of red fruits on the nose has some suggestions of underlying austerity with a hint of acidity. On the palate the fruits make an elegant impression, showing as precise black cherries, plums, and blackcurrants, with an elegant acidity. This shows the most precision of fruits of the vertical (from 2001 to 2006), with a soft, gravelly texture just beginning to develop underneath. 90 Drink-2022.

Tastings at Spottswoode

Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, 2008

Restrained nose suggestive of black fruits with herbal overtones. Smooth elegant fruits of blackcurrants and blackberries show in a light style on the palate. not a blockbuster. Slowly a faint impression of chocolate, vanillin, and coconut develops on the finish. Rather taut, with fine grained tannins, this really needs another couple of years to open out. 89 Drink 2013-2023.

Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, 2001

Spicy black fruit nose shows a touch of cinnamon and a suggestion of smoky minerality. Elegant black fruits are precisely delineated on the palate in a restrained style. Fruits have lost their primary fat but not yet developed savory notes. The wine still seems quite youthful, perhaps at the end of its adolescence, just about to develop. 90 Drink-2023.

Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, 1998

Strongly developed barnyard nose is quite pungent. The palate shows more subtle balance than is suggested by the nose, although savory notes of sous bois are clearly dominant. Fruits still are quite concentrated, although some bitterness is creeping on to the finish. Then the barnyard blows off somewhat to reveal some tobacco notes. Delicious, but will be too developed for some palates. 87 Drink-2014.

Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, 1992

Mature nose is intriguingly balanced between perfume and sous bois, giving an impression of delicacy, with a developing touch of minerality and smoke. The balance on the palate makes it hard to decide whether savory or fruit is the driving force. The light elegance of the palate perhaps doesn’t quite deliver the full complexity promised by the nose, but right at this moment it’s caught at that delicious turning point. This may be the  most subtle wine Spottswoode made in the past two decades, but drink soon before the fruits begin to decline. 92 Drink-2015.

Tastings at Viader

Napa, 2008 (69% Cabernet Sauvignon,  31% Cabernet Franc)

The aromatics and perfume of Cabernet Franc seem to dominate the nose, with tobacco giving way to more austere aromas. The elegant palate shows tight, precise fruits, with a chocolate coating on the finish. Once again Cabernet Franc seems more in evidence than Sauvignon. Overall impression is quite perfumed and elegant. 91 Drink-2022.

Napa, 2002, 14% (51% Cabernet Sauvignon, 49% Cabernet Franc)

Development on the nose shows as savory, barnyard notes, which change to nuts and cereal in the glass. The palate is more herbal than savory, with a touch of spice to the red fruits. Tannins have resolved, there is a nice balance, and the wine is at its peak. 89 Drink-2016.

Napa, 2001

Characteristic Napa fruit comes right up in the glass, showing as aromatic, piquant, black plums on the nose. Very fine and tight on the palate, with a refined quality brought by the Cabernet Franc. The overall balance of the palate is taut rather than fleshy,. The nose promises a finely delineated elegance, which the palate delivers, although it is a touch linear, making somewhat of a contrast with the aromatics of the nose. The fine granular texture is very Cabernet Franc-ish; in fact, the overall impression is as much Cabernet Franc as Sauvignon.  89 Drink-2019