As the harvest of 2010 approached in Napa Valley, speculation arose that the wines it would yield would be throwbacks to an era when the valleys cabernet sauvignons were leaner, sharper and more understated, not the fierce and feverish fruit bombs that had become so common more recently.
Fans of the more stately style were basing their calculations on the weather. The winter that began in 2009 lingered through the spring of 2010. Ordinarily, Napa Valley gets 17 inches of rain between January and June; in 2010, it got 28 inches. Bloom was delayed; shatter set in. The rain let up, but lower-than-typical temperatures continued through summer, aside from a couple of surges in August and September. Then rain returned in October.
While farmers and vintners rued the rot, the drop in production and the slowness with which clusters developed, romantics longing for a brighter, crisper and more readily accessible style of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon were figuring that the cooler season would result in wines with more refreshing acidity and less intimidating alcohol. Grapes, in short, wouldnt be as ripe and as high in sugar as they had been in a string of hot growing years leading up to 2010.
Those thoughts were in mind as I took my place in July for A Day in the Dust, a tasting of 2010 cabernet sauvignons from the Rutherford district of Napa Valley. The Rutherford Dust Society, a group of growers and vintners, convenes this session each year to give wine writers a look at the areas latest round of releases.
The tasting involved 18 cabernet sauvignons, arranged in two blind flights of nine each. As I made my way through the wines I couldnt detect any significant difference in their overall makeup compared with my impressions when I last went through this exercise two years earlier.
This time around the wines as a group may have been marginally lighter and fresher, but in savoriness, suppleness and structure, they faithfully represented the standards for which the appellation is celebrated. Thats to say they were cabernets with a seductive fruitiness that ranged from blackberries to cherries, builds that were solid without being impregnable, fine and fleeting tannins and wispy notes of baking spices. Their acidity was no more refreshingly tangy than usual. Im a sap for cabernets that exude traces of eucalyptus and mint, and some captured those expressions, just as some had with the vintage of 2008.
On paper, we subsequently learned, cool and wet 2010 did little to tamp the level of alcohol, which averaged 14.8 percent for 13 wines accompanied with detailed documentation. One had 16 percent alcohol, two others exceeded 15 percent. Anyone hoping to find cabernets with alcohol more representative of the good ol days, which is to say around 13 percent to 14 percent, went home disappointed.
The higher alcohol content may have something to do with the fashionable practice of letting grapes hang on the vine longer than was the custom a decade or more ago. Growers and vintners expect the additional hang time to result in more deeply colored and more dramatically expressive wines.
Several modern farming techniques also have been adopted by growers to coax grapes to generate sugars more efficiently and generously, including new rootstocks, new strains of grape varieties, denser planting of vineyards, new trellising systems and carefully monitored irrigation methods.
With one exception, none of the wines tasted offensively hot or out of balance to me, though none of the higher-octane examples made my short list of favorites, either.
Im still wondering why the unusually restrained weather didnt produce unusually reserved wines. The answer may have been in the hand-sorting that some wineries used as grapes arrived on the crush pad. This is a labor-intensive process that assures that only the most pristine and presumably ripest fruit ends up being fermented.
But lets get back to the 2010 cabernet sauvignons of Rutherford. Be forewarned that these are wines whose price generally dictates that they be for a special occasion; the 18 ranged from $45 to $250, with the average being $107. Here are my six favorite wines from the tasting, three from the first flight, three from the second, arranged alphabetically:
Flora Springs Winery & Vineyards 2010 Rutherford Hillside Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (14.5 percent alcohol, 425 cases, $150): This vintage is earthy, herbal and vivacious, its suggestion of fruit running more to olive than cherry. It seized my interest with its layering and its long, caressing finish.
Frank Family Vineyards 2010 Rutherford Winston Hill Red Wine (14.5 percent alcohol, 1,200 cases, $150): For whatever reason, the Frank family doesnt call this cabernet sauvignon, though the blend consists of 83 percent of the varietal. In the lineup, it stood out for its verve and its balanced muscularity. While substantial, with a firm superstructure, it nevertheless was readily approachable, its sunny juiciness more than offsetting its tannins.
Freemark Abbey Winery 2010 Napa Valley Sycamore Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (14.5 percent alcohol, 1,500 cases, $120): One of the more traditional interpretations of the day, its color deep, its flavors ripe and distinctly cherry, its texture pushing the envelope of grittiness, and its oak generous without being overwhelming. In contrast to others, however, its aroma had a surprisingly floral attribute.
Martin Estate 2010 Collectors Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (14.5 percent alcohol, 350 cases, $135): This was classic Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon, its aroma and flavor exceptionally expressive, its finish just as exceptionally long. I liked the lift of the wines fruit, but was really taken with its thread of herbalness.
Pina Napa Valley 2010 Firehouse Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (14.9 percent alcohol, 460 cases, $85): A handsome and balanced take on the popular style of cabernet sauvignon, meaning consumers will love it immediately for the sweetness of its berry fruit, its lush juiciness and its spunk, which kept it sizzling on the palate.
Provenance Vineyards 2010 Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon (14.5 percent alcohol, cases not available, $45): In purely dollar terms, the best buy of the day. Like the Pina, the wine is unusually spirited, with a liveliness that persists from first sip through snappy finish. Leaner in build than many of the others, it nonetheless struck a pleasing balance between fruit and herbs in flavor.
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunnes selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions and visits to wine regions. Read his blog at www.ayearinwine.com and reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.