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Napa Valley Sauvignons, Red and White
By Ed McCarthy
Feb 1, 2011
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In anticipation of moving my wine cellar soon, I opened up my last bottle of 1985 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve last week.  It was magnificent!  For me, the wine was Napa Valley Cabernet at its best:  Perfectly balanced fruit, tannin, and acidity, rather lean (for a Napa Cab), lively, and delicious.  Although it was at its peak, it showed no signs of decline, and I believe it could have aged for another decade, at least.

That bottle inspired me to write this column.  It reminded me how much I love Napa Cabernets, at least the best examples of them.  Napa Valley is one of the most famous wine regions in the world, and it owes its deserved recognition to its success with Cabernet Sauvignon.  For me, only France’s Bordeaux region has done as well with this variety.

Napa Valley produces other varietal wines, but the only other one that I think can compete with Cabernet Sauvignon for general excellence in Napa Valley is its white cousin, Sauvignon Blanc.  This wasn’t always the case; it has taken most Napa Valley producers several decades to begin making fine Sauvignon Blancs.  Even today, there are far fewer great Napa Sauvignon Blancs than Cabernet Sauvignons, but at least they exist.

Again, I think of how well Bordeaux does with Sauvignon Blanc.  It is no coincidence.  Both Bordeaux and Napa Valley have similar climates during the growing season:  Long, very warm summers, in which both Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc thrive.

It is true, of course, that Carneros, the southern part of Napa (which extends into Sonoma County) is cool enough to produce some fine Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays, Merlots, and Syrahs--thanks to its position next to San Pablo Bay.  Producers such as Saintsbury, Truchard, MacRostie, and Bouchaine come to mind.  But for me, cooler Sonoma, not Napa Valley, is the home of many of the best U.S. Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays, and lately, Syrahs.  Napa Valley does produce the best California Merlot wines, but they’re never on the same high level as its Cabernet Sauvignons.  The other important California variety, Zinfandel, is made in Napa Valley, but again the best examples come from Sonoma--and the Sierra Foothills.

Napa Valley is Sauvignon country, especially Cabernet Sauvignon.  Even though it’s the state’s biggest-selling red wine, and is grown throughout California, I can think of only two Cabernet Sauvignons or Cabernet blends produced outside of Napa Valley that I would put on the same level as the top Napa Cabernets:  Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello (from Santa Cruz Mountains) and Laurel Glen “Estate” (from Sonoma Mountain).

The difficult part of compiling a list of Napa Valley’s best Cabernet Sauvignons and Cabernet blends is two-fold:

1) Have the wines remained consistently good in the last few decades?

2) Does the price of the wine justify my recommending it?

Regarding my first point, I would have to leave out wines such as Beaulieu Vineyards Georges Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon in my group of current top Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons.  Some of the finest Cabs I’ve ever tasted have been BV Private Reserves (1951, 1968, and 1970 stand out).  BV is still making competent wines, but they’re not on their former superb level.

With reference to my second point, the wine’s price, I have decided not to recommend any Napa Cabernets or Cab blends that retail for over $250.  Frankly, the really expensive Cabs are made in small quantities, and even now are mainly only available if you’re on the producer’s mailing list; besides, they are sought after primarily by affluent collectors.  And honestly, many of these wines are so extracted and dense that they are not wines for the dinner table.

A third factor to take into account is my own personal preferences.  I’m not a fan of blockbuster wines (high alcohol; overly extracted; very ripe); I prefer balanced wines that will go well with my dinner.  The Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons and Cabernet blends that I recommend below are a reflection of my palate and my tasting experience with them.

I started this column with Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, and I’m happy to report that under the continued guidance of French-born senior winemaker Genevieve Janssens, this wine remains exceptional, although its alcohol content has increased since the 1980s.  The 2005, 2006, and 2007 Mondavi Cab Reserves are all excellent (all retailing on average $110 to $115).  Another good note: all three of these superb vintages are widely available in the U.S. And by the way, Robert Mondavi’s standard Cabernet Sauvignon, which retails in the $20 to $24 range, is an exceptional value.

I have long been a huge fan of Chateau Montelena “Estate” Cabernet Sauvignon, and I am always seeking out its top older vintages, such as the 1985, 1986, and 1991.  Chateau Montelena Estate continues to be traditionally made; in my view, it is one of the finest Cabernet Sauvignons in the world, especially in good vintages.  The last two vintages, the 2005 and 2006, retailing around $105, are outstanding, but both will need time to develop.

Three more Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons that have been around for about forty years and are still going strong are Heitz Cellars Martha’s Vineyard, Mayacamas Vineyards, and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars “Cask 23.”   Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon comes from a location on the western slopes of Oakville; it is one of the classic Napa Cabs, with its characteristic aroma of eucalyptus.  The 1968 and 1974 Martha’s Vineyard Cabernets are two of the greatest wines ever made in Napa Valley.  I just tasted the 2005 (about $135 retail), which I loved: fruit-forward, yet restrained, and delicious with my dinner.  Heitz has also recently introduced an excellent Sauvignon Blanc.  And I’ve long been a fan of its delightful Grignolino Rosé.

My tasting experience with Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon, made high up in the Mayacamas Mountains, makes me believe that it is one of California’s longest-lived wines.  It really needs at least 15 years to mature.  Owner Bob Travers likes to drink them when they’re 25 years old.  They are very austere and tannic when young--very much unlike other Napa Cabs; closer to Bordeaux in structure.  I still have 1970 and 1974 Mayacamas Cabs that are showing no signs of tiring.  Buy them straight from the winery, as they’re almost impossible to find retail (2005/2006 vintages are about $65, a bargain for this quality) or enjoy them in restaurants.  Mayacamas also makes a smashing Sauvignon Blanc and very good Chardonnay.

Warren Winiarski founded Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in 1970.  Because of the justifiable acclaim his Cabernet Sauvignons received, he single-handedly put Stags Leap District on the map.  Located in a hilly area of southeast Napa Valley, Stags Leap District has become renowned for its subtle, restrained, drinkable Cabernets, that nonetheless have the ability to age.  Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars “Cask 23” (a blend of 100 percent Cabernet grapes Winiarski selected from his best vineyards beginning with the superb 1974 vintage) has become one of Napa Valley’s most renowned wines.  Other great Cask 23 vintages include the 1985 and 2005, the latter still available.  Prices for Cask 23 range from $150 to $180, depending upon the vintage.  Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars makes two single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignons which are almost as good as Cask 23 but considerably less expensive:  Fay Vineyard ($75-$80) and SLV ($95-$100).  Winiarski retired in 2007, selling Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars to a partnership of Chateau Ste. Michelle and Piero Antinori.  It’s comforting to know that the famed winery is in good hands.

In no particular order, I list other Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons and Cabernet blends that I’ve enjoyed in the past and continue to admire, along with the average retail price of their recent vintages.  Note that 2007, 2006, and 2005 have all been excellent vintages in Napa Valley for Cabernet Sauvignons, with the 2008 showing promise as well:

Opus One, Cabernet blend (about $180)
Spottswoode Family Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($130-$140)
Rubicon Estate Cabernet blend ($140-$145)
Dominus Estate Cabernet blend (around $140-$145)
Cain Vineyard, “Cain Five,” Bordeaux blend ($90-$100)
Cakebread Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, “Benchland Select” ($100-$110)
Joseph Phelps “Insignia,” Cabernet blend (about $180)
Far Niente Cabernet Sauvignon ($100-$105)
Nickel & Nickel Sullenger Vineyard ($75), Stelling Vineyard ($125)
Shafer “Hillside Select” Cabernet Sauvignon (2006, $215-$225)
Clos du Val “Stags Leap District” Cabernet Sauvignon ($65)
Trefethen Cabernet Sauvignon ($45); Reserve ($95)
Corison Cabernet Sauvignon ($70); Kronos Vineyard ($90-$98)
Quintessa Estate, Cabernet blend (2005, $110-$130)
Frog’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon ($40-$43);  “Rutherford” ($70)
Grgich Hills Cabernet Sauvignon ($45-$50); 2005/06 “Yountville” ($110)
Anderson’s Conn Valley Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($60)
Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon ($35)
Swanson Vineyards “Alexis” Cabernet Sauvignon ($60-$70)
Ramey Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon ($35-$40)
Truchard Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon ($30)
Forman Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($65-$75)
M by Michael Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon ($190)
Continuum, Cabernet blend (Tim Mondavi) ($140-$145)

Note that several of my favorite Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons retail in the $30 to $50 range--such as Trefethen, Frog’s Leap, Grgich Hills, Mount Veeder, Ramey, and Truchard--excellent  values, considering their quality.

White Sauvignon

Sauvignon Blancs started to become popular in Napa Valley when Robert Mondavi changed the name of his Sauvignon Blanc wine to Fumé Blanc back in the late 1960s.  Many other wineries followed suit, and the wine had a brief flurry of popularity.  But too many producers were making their Sauvignon/Fumé Blancs like Chardonnay back then, with oak aging, etc., and sales declined. 

Robert Mondavi’s Fumé Blanc Reserve, however, whose grapes came from the famed To Kalon Vineyard in the Oakville District, continues  to be a leader, both in quality and in sales.  It’s a bit pricey ($35) for Sauvignon Blanc, but in my view, it’s worth the price.  One small section of To Kalon Vineyard, I Block, was planted with Sauvignon Blanc in 1945, thought to be the oldest Sauvignon Blanc vineyard in the New World.  Robert Mondavi Winery makes about 200 cases of its I Block Fumé Blanc, and sells it only at the winery for $75.  I have tasted this wine a few times; it is intense, concentrated, and minerally, perhaps the finest varietal Sauvignon Blanc that I have ever experienced, and for me, definitely worth $75.

In addition to the Mondavi I Block, the other Sauvignon Blanc that I think is sensational  is the one made by Mayacamas Vineyards.  Mayacamas only makes 600 cases of it, from an old vineyard high up in the Mayacamas Mountains.  The best place to buy it is straight from the winery ($30, 2006/2007); only a few stores carry it.  Mayacamas Sauvignon Blanc is intense, minerally, and crisp, with vivid, assertive aromas and flavors of lime, which I love.  It also ages quite well (10 or more years), very unusual for this variety.  But of course, it’s Mayacamas.  Every wine they make ages well.

Some of my other favorite Napa Valley Sauvignon Blancs include the following:

Frog’s Leap (great buy, $16)
St. Supéry, Dollarhide Ranch ($30-$35)
Voss Vineyards (a value at $16)
Spottswoode Family Estate ($40)
Flora Springs “Soliloquy” ($19-$22)
Selene, Hyde Vineyard, Carneros ($27)
Cakebread Cellars ($28)
Grgich Hills Fumé Blanc ($27-$30)
Rudd Estate ($44)
HeitzCellars ($18-$21)

A strange thing happens when one writes about his favorite wines.  I have an intense desire to taste some of the luscious Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons and Sauvignon Blancs that I’ve mentioned here.  I hope you try some of them.  They’re my favorites.