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California Cabernet Sauvignons
By Ed McCarthy
Nov 11, 2008
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Although I happen to drink more European wines than domestic wines -- probably because I was born and brought up on the East Coast and my first exposure to fine wines was with Bordeaux and Burgundy -- I'm also an avid fan of some California Cabernet Sauvignons.  However, my ideal for really fine California Cabs is based on the great ones I drank 30+ years ago.

During the 1970s, something very interesting started to happen in California.  In retrospect, we can now refer to it as the birth of fine wines in the U.S., especially for red wines.  I can remember so clearly the taste of those truly great California  wines that I discovered then -- all of them Cabernet Sauvignons -- and now all regarded as legendary wines: Joe Heitz' Martha's Vineyard 1968, 1969, and 1974; Beaulieu Vineyard's Georges de Latour Private Reserve 1968, 1970, and 1974; Robert Mondavi's 1968, 1969, and 1974 (even Mondavi's 1972, a poor vintage, was excellent); Louis Martini's 1968; Ridge's Monte Bello 1970, 1971, and 1974; and Mayacamas Vineyards' 1970 and 1974. 

I happen to have a few bottles of Ridge and Mayacamas from the 1970s left in my cellar, and they're still drinking beautifully.  Yes, good California Cabs do age well!  Chateau Montelena and Stag's Leap Wine Cellars are two more good examples of fine Cabs that have stood the test of time.  Even many less-than-legendary California Cabs from the 1970s gave me so much pleasure then; I'm specifically thinking of Sebastiani and Freemark Abbey.

Over the years, many changes have taken place in California Cabernet Sauvignons, and not all of them for the better.  Of course, many improvements have occurred because of advances in knowledge and technology.  But many of today's Cabernets are too jammy, extracted, and high in alcohol for my palate (and this applies not only to the Cabernets from California, by the way, but Cabernets from all over the world).  Lest you dismiss me for just another old-timer living in the past, I do believe that fine California Cabs are still being  made today in a more restrained style, and  you can find them especially in the current  2005 vintage.  The 2005 vintage was, happily, a generally cool growing season that has yielded well-structured wines with ample natural acidity -- a very necessary component for me in red wines, and often missing from California reds in warmer vintages.

California rests its reputation for being one of the world's great wine regions on its Cabernet Sauvignons and Cabernet blends.  Although Cabernet Sauvignon is a generally reliable grape variety that grows well in many wine regions throughout the world, it is a late-ripening grape; it requires a long growing season and a rather warm, dry climate.  California's Napa Valley has proven to be perfectly suitable for this variety, and, to a lesser extent, so have parts of Sonoma and the Santa Cruz Mountains -- about an hour south of San Francisco.

California's Cabernets are generally deep in color, medium-bodied to full-bodied, with firm tannins, lean structure (the best examples), and an aroma/flavor profile that includes black currant, mint, tobacco, and cedar.  If the grapes grow in climates that are too cool, aromas and flavors can be vegetal, such as green bell peppers.  On the other hand, grapes from very warm climates -- more common in California's regions -- can develop baked fruit, rather than fresh fruit, flavors.  Very warm climate and long 'hang time' for the grapes on the vine -- an obsession with some California winemakers nowadays in their quest to obtain 'fully ripened' grapes -- can also produce wines which are high in alcohol; it seems that almost all California Cabs these days are over 14° alcohol.

Most California Cabernet Sauvignons are blended with a small amount of Merlot and/or Cabernet Franc, and sometimes Petit Verdot.  Some Cabernet producers also make what's called a 'proprietary blend,' choosing to use a separate name rather than the grape variety.  Renowned examples of such wines would be Francis Coppola's Rubicon, Opus One, Dominus  Estate, Dalla Valle's Maya, Pahlmeyer, Harlan Estate, and Quintessa.  With the exception of Maya, which is often primarily Cabernet Franc, almost all of these proprietary wines are based mainly on Cabernet Sauvignon.  But by not naming their wines 'Cabernet Sauvignon,' winemakers are free to change the blend if they wish, using less than the required 75 percent  Cabernet Sauvignon (necessary for labeling as such) if they desire.  All of these proprietary wines are very good and very pricey, especially Harlan Estate, which can retail for up to $1,000 in some vintages.

But my purpose here is not to recommend the well-known, pricey California cabs and Cab blends.  In doing research for my upcoming book, California Wine For Dummies (co-authored with Mary Ewing-Mulligan MW), which is due to be published in April 2009, I came across a number of reasonably-priced Cabs that I enjoyed very much, which are not 'over the top' in jamminess, alcohol, tannin, and so forth.  Some of the wines were old friends which I re-discovered; others were new to me or have just recently been released.

I place my recommended California Cabs and Cab blends in three broad price categories below, $20 to $50; $50 to $100; and over $100; with one recommendation under $20.  This is a highly personal list of my particular favorites, based on my tastes and palate.  I'm sure that I will be leaving out some fine wines, but at least I'll be pointing out some really good Cabs to you that either you might not know about or have forgotten about.  The wines are listed alphabetically, according to the name of the producer, within each price category.  After each wine, I list the wine region in which the grapes grow.  If the wine is new, I mention this fact.  And remember, look for these wines especially in the 2005 vintage:

Under $20
• Joseph Carr Cellars (Napa Valley)

$20 to $50 California Cabernet Sauvignons and Blends
•  Anderson's Conn Valley, 'Prologue'  (Napa Valley)
• Chappellet, 'Signature' (Napa Valley)
• Clos du Bois, 'Marlstone' (Alexander Valley)
• Clos du Val (Napa Valley)
• Dyer Vineyard, 'Estate' (Diamond Mountain, Napa Valley)
• Frog's Leap, 'Napa Valley'; and 'Rutherford' (Napa Valley)
• Hess Collection, 'Estate' (Mount Veeder, Napa Valley)
• Jordan Vineyard  (Alexander Valley, Sonoma)
• Laurel Glen, 'Counterpoint'  (Sonoma Mountain)
• Mount Veeder Winery  (Mount Veeder, Napa Valley)
• Paul Dolan Vineyards (Mendocino County)
• Ramey Wine Cellars (Napa Valley)
• Renaissance Vineyard (North Yuba, Sierra Foothills)
• Ridge Vineyards, Santa Cruz Mountains (Santa Cruz Mountains)
• Smith-Madrone (Spring Mountain, Napa Valley)
• Swanson Vineyards, 'Alexis' (Oakville, Napa Valley)
• Tom Eddy 'Elodian' (Napa Valley)
• Trefethen Vineyards (Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley)
• Truchard Vineyards (Carneros, Napa Valley)
• Turnbull Cellars (Oakville, Napa Valley)

$50 to $100 California Cabernet Sauvignons and Blends
• Anderson's Conn Valley, 'Estate Reserve' (Napa Valley)
• Beaulieu Vineyard, 'Georges de Latour '(Napa Valley)
• Cakebread Cellars (Napa Valley)
• Chateau Montelena (Napa Valley)
• Clark-Claudon Vineyards (Napa Valley)
• Clos du Val, 'Stag's Leap' (Napa Valley)
• Corison Winery (Napa Valley)
• Flora Springs, 'Trilogy' (Napa Valley)
• Forman Vineyard (Napa Valley)
• Freemark Abbey, Bosche; and Sycamore Vineyard (Napa Valley)
• Grgich Hills (Napa Valley)
• Heitz, Bella Oaks; and Trailside Vineyard (Napa Valley)
• Laurel Glen, 'Estate' (Napa Valley)
• Mayacamas Vineyards (Mt. Veeder, Napa Valley)
• Nickel & Nickel (Napa Valley)
• A. Rafanelli (Dry Creek Valley)
• Ramey Wine Cellars, Larkmead Vineyard (Napa Valley)
• Sebastiani Vineyards, 'Cherryblock' (Sonoma Valley)
• Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, S.L.V.; and Fay Vineyard (Stags Leap)
• Tom Eddy (Napa Valley)

Over $100 California Cabernet Sauvignons and Blends
• Cain Cellars, 'Cain Five' (Napa Valley)
• Chateau Montelena, 'Estate' (Napa Valley)
• Continuum (Oakville, Napa Valley) (Tim Mondavi's new wine, $150)
• Far Niente, 'Oakville' (Napa Valley)
• Heitz, Martha's Vineyard (Napa Valley) $150
• M by Michael Mondavi (Napa Valley) (new wine, $200)
• Nickel & Nickel, Martin Stelling Vineyard (Oakville, Napa Valley)
• Opus One (Napa Valley) $190
• Ramey Wine Cellars, Pedregal Vineyard (Oakville, Napa Valley) $150
• Ridge Vineyards, Monte Bello (Santa Cruz Mountains) $145
• Rubicon Estate (Napa Valley) 
• Rudd Estate, 'Oakville Estate' (Oakville, Napa Valley)
• Spottswoode Estate (Napa Valley)
• Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, 'Cask 23'  (Napa Valley) $180