The Reality of Appellations in Napa

In Napa for the Barrel Auction this weekend, I spent Friday afternoon at a series of tasting events organized by the producers of several AVAs. My objective was to determine whether I could see any specificity to Cabernet Sauvignon produced in the  top three appellations of the valley floor: Rutherford, Oakville, and Stags Leap.

The Rutherford Dust group of producers takes its name from the supposed quality of Rutherford: a dusty note in the wines. Whether this is real or is a marketing ploy has been long debated. “The tannins of wines from Rutherford give the sensation you get by running your hand backwards along velvet,” was a description by one producer. Things started out well at the Rutherford Dust group tasting. The first three wines, Alpha Omega 2009, Faust 2009, and Grgich 2008 all showed a similar quality to their tannins. I would not describe it as dusty, more as a sort of slightly sharp tang to the tannins on the finish, but it was a distinctive tannic grip. Then inevitably came some wines to spoil the pattern, Hall Excellenz 2005 (massive tannins), Flora Springs Trilogy (tight and elegant), and then Rubicon Estate 2008 (firm and furry). But with the exception of Peju 2008 and 2001, whose wines were distinctly more aromatic than the others, there was a commonality, with firm tannins giving the wines a classic impression across several vintages.

Things also started well in Oakville, where the first few wines all seems to fit a pattern where taut black fruits were supported by fine grained tannins that reinforced the impression of elegance. Nickel and Nickel’s Branding Iron and Sullenger Vineyard 2008s, Ghost Block Estate 2009, Kelleher 2007, Far Niente 2009 all supported a view that Oakville plays St. Julien to Rutherford’s version of Pauillac. Bond St. Eden 2006 was much more reserved, but generally conformed to the elegant style.But then Harbison 2009, Plumpjack Estate 2009, and Paradigm 2008 all displayed a much softer style, with more overt, opulent black fruit aromatics extending from blackcurrants to cassis.

In Stags Leap District I got much less impression of consistency. Several wines were very soft, forward, and approachable, with soft black fruits on the palate, supported by nuts and vanillin on the finish, with tannins noticeable only as a soft, furry presence in the background. Clif Lede Poetry 2009 and 2004, Stags Leap SLV 2008 and 1997, Pine Ridge 2008 were nice enough wines if you would like something to drink in the immediate term, but I was left wondering how it represents Cabernet typicity as opposed to Merlot or Syrah to make wines that are so fruit-forward and lacking in tannic structure. Shafer One Point Five 2009 showed Shafer’s usual ripe, aromatic style, while Clos du Val 2007 and 1997 showed a more traditional approach, with good acidity supporting firm fruits and the tannins showing a structure halfway between the Rutherford grip and Oakville precision.

Where am I left? There may be a typicity that distinguishes the tannins of Rutherford and Oakville if you let it express itself; I reserve judgment about Stags Leap. In any of these appellations, however, you can make soft, forward, fruity, wines with lots of nutty vanillin to bump up the appeal, using appropriate winemaking techniques. Caveat terroir.

A Reality Check on Napa Cabernet Sauvignon

It’s become a truism that more powerful, fruit-forward wines in the “international” style may show well at tastings, and in fact make it difficult to appreciate wines in more subtle, restrained styles. No matter how experienced a taster you are, there is always the possibility that the sheer deliciousness of a wine taken in isolation will give a misleading impression of how it will taste with food. So I like to perform a reality check: after seeing how a wine performs at a tasting, to have a bottle for dinner and see how much my impression changes. I should declare my perspective, which is that I’m with Emile Peynaud, who once famously said, “If I want to drink fruit juice, I’ll drink orange juice.” For me, wine should have at least savory intimations; it should not be an alcoholic version of grape juice.

In connection with my book on Cabernet Sauvignon, I have been investigating all styles of the variety, and during a visit to Napa last month tasted a range from the more restrained to the most opulent. In the course of the last week, I repeated this exercise on a more restricted basis with wines at dinner. The dinner wines were all from the 2005 vintage, which was relatively lush, so perhaps it should not be a surprise that all the wines seemed more fruit-driven and more overtly aromatic, than the impression that had been gained of each house during vertical tastings in Napa.

My first impression was that none of these wines is ready to drink with dinner. None of them would seem unready at a tasting in the sense that the fruits come through clearly, and are not obscured by the weight of tannins; indeed, I think these wines all come into the category of seeming delicious at a tasting. The big question is what will happen with time? All have a strong sense of a powerful underlying structure, but this is hidden by the intensity of the fruit concentration. That of course is what makes them approachable now. As the fruits (and tannins) lighten, I expect they will come into a balance that is more suitable to accompany food; the aromatics will become less intense, and the fruits will begin to turn towards savory rather than jammy. That will take at least another five years.

All the wines have high alcohol (over 14%), but this was not the main determinant of their suitability to accompany food. The wine with the highest alcohol (14.8%) was Araujo’s Eisele Vineyard, which seemed the best accompaniment to food. The wine with the lowest alcohol (14%), Shafer’s Hillside Select, seemed the least suitable. The main criterion for me was either the intense aromatics or the very high level of extraction. In the case of the Spottswoode, the aromatics seemed too intense against food, and the Shafer Hillside Select was simply so powerful that I tired of it before we could finish the bottle. I’m sure that in every case the high alcohol was a factor, in that it enhanced the sense of aromatics or extraction, but it was not the sole determining factor.

Of course it’s unfair to put these wines down because they are not ready to drink now. You would not necessarily expect Bordeaux to be ready to drink after six years; indeed, I have not started to drink any Bordeaux of the 2005 vintage. I would normally expect to start on the vintage after about a decade. It’s curious that the point at which the wines become ready to drink (as opposed to tasting) may be similar for both Bordeaux and Napa, but for very different reasons. Typically the tannins need to resolve to allow the fruits to show in Bordeaux, while it seems to me that the fruits need to lighten (especially to become less aromatic) in Napa. It’s premature to make a judgment now: just as you would no more have criticized a great Bordeaux vintage in the past for having too much tannin to drink when young, so it may be unfair to put down a great Napa vintage because it has too much fruit when young. (Some people feel that wines with too much extract and fruit will never age gracefully, but I am prepared to reserve judgment for the moment.) So for my money, a fair test to compare Bordeaux and Napa of the 2005 vintage would be to wait another five years or so.

Tasting Notes in order of suitability to accompany a meal

Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Eisele, Araujo Vineyard, 2005 (14.8%)

The nose gives a suggestion of balanced restraint, with a mix of red and black fruits and a touch of coconut and vanillin showing, turning to coffee in the glass. The palate shows the coconut and vanillin more distinctly than the nose, with the overt black fruits cut by a faintly austere herbal note of anise. This gives a fine-grained textured impression to the palate, with coconut and vanillin overtones coming back on the finish. This is still too young, but the herbal touch that takes the edge off the exuberance of the fruits promises that this will become a finely balanced wine in a more savory spectrum over the next decade. 91 Drink-2021.

Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, Spottswoode, 2005 (14.1%)

The initial impression is that this has a European nose but an American palate. There’s a hint of development in a faint touch of barnyard on the nose as it opens, than later this clears to show aromatic black fruits, before returning again. The palate is distinctly Napa, with bursting fruits overlaid by notes of vanillin and coconut. Some intense blackcurrant aromatics stop just short of cassis and make a forceful impression on the palate and finish. This vintage seems less restrained than others from Spottswoode. The underlying tannins take a while to show directly, but finally appear in the form of some bitterness on the finish. It’s not so much the power as the force of the aromatics that make the wine too forceful to accompany food; perhaps another couple of years will make a difference. 89 Drink 2013-2019.

Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon, Hillside Select, Shafer, 2005 (14.0%)

The first impression is very Californian, in the form of strong notes of coconut and vanillin on the nose, turning to coffee and chocolate, but then accompanying savory notes, with a faint tinge of barnyard, suggest there may be some development. The palate, however, reflects more the initial impression than the follow up, with a rather aromatic impression of black fruits, blackcurrants with overtones of cassis, and then those notes of coconut and vanillin coming back on the finish. It’s intense and chewy on the finish, colored by those strong aromatics. No one could quarrel with the quality and intensity, but sometimes I think this style is more food in itself than wine to accompany food. The label claims that the Hillside Select is typical of the Stags Leap District, but I think it is more typical of itself. The big question in my mind is how long it will take for those aromatics to come into a calmer balance, and whether that will be paralleled by an extension of those faint suggestions of development to the palate. My guess is at least a decade before the wine will cease to be so assertive that it overpowers any accompaniment. 90 Drink-2021.