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Make No Mistake: Don't Dismiss Napa Cabs from 2011
By Linda Murphy
Nov 4, 2014
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The Nov.  15, 2014, issue of Wine Spectator magazine includes a story on 2011 California Cabernet Sauvignon.  The online teaser (one must be a Wine Spectator online subscriber to access the story) reads:

Trying Times for Napa Cabernet:  Cool, Damp 2011 Vintage Yields Few Gems, with Hillside Sites Performing Best

“Napa Valley Cabernet skirted disaster in 2011.  Cool, unruly weather clouded the growing season from start to finish, reminiscent for some of a wet year in Bordeaux.  The season was punctuated by big storms at harvest and botrytis in many vineyards.”

This is largely true, except for the “yields few gems” part.  James Laube, who wrote the Spectator story, has a different palate than I do, and I’ve tasted dozens of Napa Cabs from 2011 that I’ve found to be first-rate.  They’re different than the wines made from warm vintages, but different in a good way.  In a Bordeaux way.

Not every year in California will be warm, dry and deliver ripe, rich and potent Cabs.  Colder vintages are not only similar to cool Bordeaux years, they tend to produce wines with classic Cabernet Sauvignon characteristics that often are lost in warm vintages:  Cedar, forest floor, tobacco leaf and savory herbs to name a few.  Pleasant earthiness and graphite-like minerality are bonuses.

These qualities are embraced by true Cabernet Sauvignon fans, who appreciate the intrigue of vintage variance and the prospect that wines that are less obvious upon release can blossom in the cellar.  How boring it would be if every Napa Valley Cabernet vintage produced plush, powerfully fruity wines with little distinction among them (over-ripeness can obliterate varietal and terroir character) -- and if every year produced lower-volume, more restrained wines.

So I’m disappointed when cool, damp vintages like 2011 are written off as sub-par when they are merely different, and when time in bottle can prove naysayers wrong.  I think the 2011 Napa Cabs will be viewed in grander light in a few years, when their firm tannins and higher acidities have had time to meld with the fruit and oak.  And many are delicious now.

Take, for example, Spottswoode’s 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon St. Helena Napa Valley ($150), made by Aron Weinkauf from grapes organically grown on its St. Helena estate (valley floor, not hillside).  It has a deep, complex nose and palate, with luscious blackcurrant and black cherry fruit wrapped in bracing acidity and with sturdy tannins.  It has brilliant freshness now, yet begs for five or more years of cellaring -- if one can wait that long.

Spottswoode’s little-sister Cab, Lyndenhurst 2011 Napa Valley ($70), made from younger estate vines and supplemented with Oakville-grown grapes, is a drink-now beauty, yet also has the chops for cellaring.  Dark cherry, subtle oak spice and refreshing acidity make this affordable by Napa Valley price standards.

Another example of a classy, non-hillside 2011 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is the Corison Napa Valley ($80), owner Cathy Corison’s 25th vintage.  Despite the challenging conditions of 2011, she replicated her signature style of Cab, with black cherry and plum fruit enhanced by notes of forest floor, cedar, sage and coffee.  Corison’s Cabs have never crossed the over-ripeness line, so her 2011 is in keeping with her stylistic choice of lower alcohol.  Fans of her wines will not be disappointed with the 2011 Cab.

When it comes to buying 2011 Napa Cabs, trust the producer.  The best make outstanding wines in the most difficult conditions, including 2011.  They aren’t afraid to let vintage character show in their wines, and for them to be crisp and focused, in cool growing seasons, and put the speed governor on ripeness and alcohol in hot years.  The quality-conscious accepted tiny yields in 2011, dropping clusters to eliminate botrytis and allow for flavor development in the remaining grapes.  Lower yields, lowered profits, better wines under trying circumstances.

True, not every Napa winery produced stellar Cabernet Sauvignons in 2011.  But enough did to call the vintage a success -- as long as wine drinkers accept and embrace wines that are elegant, refined and understated -- perfect for service with food, rather than overtly fruity and opulent.

Among the other Napa Cabernet Sauvignon successes from 2011:

Cardinale Winery Napa Valley:  Polished and sophisticated, with layers of well-ripened black cherry and blackcurrant, mocha and spice.  Finishes with palate-cleansing acidity; seamless tannins are sturdy enough for cellaring.

Chateau Montelena Napa Valley:  The 13.4 percent alcohol is not a misprint for this old-school Cab with crunchy red fruit, cedar and forest floor, medium weight and brisk acidity.  Without an ounce of fat, it’s designed for dinner, not cocktail hour -- and the cellar.

Cliff Lede Vineyards Stags Leap District:  Opens opulently rich in cherry liqueur and crushed blackberry character, then finds a balance succulent acidity, polished tannins and hints of barrel spice, chocolate and coffee bean.

Duckhorn Vineyards Napa Valley:  Generously fruited in cassis, blackberry and dark plum; smooth and supple, with shadings of cedar, tobacco leaf, baking spice and dark chocolate.  Not a long ager but still delicious for a decade.

La Jota Vineyard Co. Howell Mountain Napa Valley:  Mint, dark berry, briar and anise aromas lead to a tightly wound palate of similar character.  Vanilla, red raspberry, chocolate, excellent acidity.

Far Niente Oakville Napa Valley:  Lovely floral notes plus cassis, cedar, cigar box.  Suave and silky, with juicy red fruit and fine-grained tannins.

Frog’s Leap Napa Valley:  Unafraid to show an herbal edge along with a medium-bodied black cherry and plum fruit palate and hints of green tea and spice.  Restrained and balanced. 

Honig Napa Valley:  Wins points for refreshing acidity that keeps the ripe red cherry, plum and blackcurrant fruit buoyant and bouncy.  Hints hint of chocolate and espresso add interest.

Lokoya Mount Veeder Napa Valley:  Dense mountain minerality, tar and briary black fruit on a full-bodied frame.  Great vibrancy and brisk acidity, suggesting a long life.  

Shafer Vineyards One Point Five Stags Leap District:  Full-bodied and fleshy, with pure cassis and blackberry aromas and flavors.  On the lush, riper side, it closes with remarkable freshness for its size.

St. Supery Vineyards & Winery Napa Valley:  Elegant and supple, with vibrant blackberry, blueberry and cassis, grilled herbs, spice box and modest tannins.