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.

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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

When Should You Send Wine Back at a Restaurant?

I hate sending wine back at a restaurant. Of course I will do this when a bottle is flawed, but there’s always the potential for some disagreement or unpleasantness. My working rule is that this is appropriate only when the wine is clearly flawed, not merely because I don’t like it. Usually this is because the bottle is corked, and in the vast majority of cases the sommelier accepts immediately that the bottle is defective, but occasionally there is a sommelier who doesn’t recognize the taint and is awkward about it. But I was brought to a new question this week by a wine that was so poor – although technically it was not flawed by being corked or oxidized or having any other single identifiable defect – that I wondered whether being completely atypical should count as a reason for rejection.

Increasing problems with premature oxidation of white Burgundy have made this, my staple when I want a white wine in a restaurant, more of a risky venture when the wine is more than a year or so old. Once again, most sommeliers will recognize madeirization as a flaw, but from time to time I’ve had difficulties with this, especially in France. “These are the typical aromas of the vintage,” a sommelier explained patronizingly to me at a grand restaurant in Provence when a white Burgundy was madeirized. As politely as I could, I said that I had a cellar full of that vintage and none had this problem. With very bad grace, he agreed to take the bottle back, but warned me to order a different vintage, because all his wines of that vintage had the same problem. The storage conditions must have been terrible. These days I have taken whenever ordering a white Burgundy to asking at the outset whether it has any problem with oxidation. Often enough a sommelier will say there have been problems, and advises me to choose something else. But having asked the question, at least I then feel free to send the bottle back if there is any taint by oxidation.

Given the erratic nature of cork taint, there would not be much point in asking whether a wine is likely to be corked, but even with this most easily recognizable flaw, there can be doubt. When a bottle is well and truly tainted, it’s a fairly easy decision to reject, but this can be more difficult when there’s a subthreshhold level of taint, enough to suppress the fruits but not enough to show any clear evidence of TCA on the nose. Actually, I think this is a killer for the producer: if you don’t know this particular producer, you can easily conclude that he’s no good rather than that the wine is flawed. In such cases I have usually felt obliged to stay with the bottle. When you have a clear expectation for the wine, you may be able to say fairly that it is flawed. But given people’s widely varying sensitivities to cork taint, there can be problems in marginal cases. My most amusing incident was at the restaurant Les Bacchanales in Vence, where a bottle of a recent vintage white Burgundy was suspiciously lacking in fruits. When I expressed concern, the waiter took it over to the diner at the next table, who was a local dignitary on the wine and food scene. We could hear him saying, “no, I do not see any problem here,” which the waiter duly came back to report. As the taint was slowly becoming more evident, I stood my ground, and indeed a substitute bottle was vastly better, A few minutes later the chef came out. “I do apologize,” he said, that bottle is terribly tainted. “I would not even cook with it.” So here we had a living demonstration of variation in sensitivity, increasing from the food writer to the chef, where I was uncomfortably the piggy in the middle. That’s why it can be so difficult.

This week I am visiting producers of Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley as part of the research for my next book, Claret & Cabs. My usual habit is to try to perform a reality check at dinner by having a wine that we have tasted at a producer, to see whether experiencing a whole bottle with food gives me the same impression as a tasting. However, having dinner at the Auberge du Soleil, I was so offended by the markups on the Napa Cabernets that I decided to try something else. My usual experience in wine regions is that restaurants showcase the local producers, and while it would be naive to expect to find bargains on the wine list, often there is some wine, perhaps an older vintage that hasn’t been terribly marked up, that offers an interesting experience without completely breaking the bank. Slowly I have become adjusted to markups moving from two fold to more than three fold, but at over four times retail prices, I draw the line. One example makes the point. The Spottswoode Napa Cabernet 2000 is $360 on the list at Auberge – but the restaurant at Domaine Chandon has it at $160. Now I’m prepared to believe that expenses are higher at Auberge, but not that they justify a price of more than double compared to another good local restaurant. The wine averages around $80 at retail, so the markup at Auberge is well over my line.

So I did something I have not done before and ordered a wine from another region altogether, in fact from Burgundy, as  I thought a lighter style anyway would fit better with our particular meal. This was the Nuits St. Georges 2005 from Confuron-Cotetidot. I think it’s a reasonable expectation that in 2005 any decent producer should have been able to make an acceptable wine at communal level. But this was a throwback to the old days of Nuits St. Georges, and I do not mean that as a compliment. It had no nose at all and no fruit could be detected on the palate. If this had been a Bourgogne AOC, I would have shrugged and said that I expected a better result in this vintage. But this tasted (if the word taste can be used at all in conjunction with this wine) as though it had been overcropped to hell. I hesitated, but decided that as it had no detectable flaw, it would be unfair to send it back. However, when the wine deteriorated in the glass to the point that all you could taste was a medicinal acidity, I called over the sommelier and asked her to taste it. “Ah it has racy acidity, a bit surprising for 2005,” she said. I explained that my problem was more with the lack of fruit, and she wondered whether decanting would help. I did not feel that decanting could bring out nonexistent fruit, however. She offered to bring another wine, but I did not feel like starting another bottle at this point (and I had somewhat lost confidence in the selection of Burgundy), but we ended up with a couple of glasses of the Beaux Frères Willamette Pinot Noir from 2008 (surprisingly taut for this producer and vintage), but definitely wine as opposed to the previous mix of acid and water.

I still hold to the position that you can’t send a wine back just because you don’t quite like it, and  I cringe at the thought of imagining flaws because a wine fails to come up to expectation. But in retrospect, I think perhaps I should have rejected this wine at the outset, without crossing the line, on the grounds that it was so far from the typicity of Nuits St. Georges that it was unreasonable for it to be presented on the wine list. Here is the tasting note

J.Confuron-Cotetidot, Nuits St. Georges, 2005

No nose at all. Rather characterless and lacking fruit on the palate, seems dilute and overcropped. No obvious flaws, but only a thin somewhat medicinal, slightly acid, quality to the palate. Only fruit character is an amorphous somewhat flat medicinal note. Would not be a credit to the Bourgogne AOC. 75 points.