Other than the obvious, what’s the difference between a California cabernet sauvignon that costs $30 and a California cabernet sauvignon that costs $60, or more?
Almost without exception, the pricier cabernet will be from Napa Valley. Several reasons account for that, from the price of grapes – $5,474 per ton this past harvest, compared with the California average of $1,340 per ton – to marketing acumen. Napa Valley vintners have done a splendid job promoting their traditions, mystique and glamour, and a lot of people don’t mind paying a premium to get a little closer to that story.
The quality of Napa Valley’s cabernet sauvignons, of course, can’t be dismissed. More than any other wine, it’s the varietal upon which the valley has built its enviable reputation. Whether that esteem justifies the dear prices that the valley’s cabernets so often command is a matter that can be debated endlessly and fruitlessly, given that the price/quality ratio is so personal.
Nevertheless, precious cabernets from Napa Valley spoke rather pointedly of their authority at last fall’s Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo International Wine Competition. The five-person panel on which I sat was assigned the class of cabernet sauvignons priced $60 to $150. We’d no idea where they were from. Only afterward did we learn they all were made in the United States, mostly California.
We evaluated 34 of them. We gave 18 gold or double-gold medals, an astonishingly high percentage. Sixteen of the gold-medal wines were from Napa Valley, we learned later.
Stylistically, just one characteristic uniformly distinguished the wines. Invariably, they were densely colored, that being the nature of cabernet sauvignon. And they varied sharply in weight, profile and finish.
No wines were more impressive than two from Rocca Family Vineyards of Napa, both of which won gold medals – the 2009 Tesorina Estate Barrel Select Cabernet Sauvignon ($150), which combines ruthlessness with grace, and the 2009 Collinetta Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($85), classically fruit-driven and fresh, as well as balletic in its play of power and finesse, which could explain how it ended up best of class.
Other husky gold-medal winners included the fleshy, sweetly fruity and remarkably long Ehlers Estate 2010 St. Helena “1886” ($110), and the Trinchero Napa Valley 2010 Mt. Veeder Cloud’s Nest Vineyard ($70), which pops with the fragrance and flavor of Bing cherries.
A few were throwbacks to the sorts of cabernet sauvignon responsible for drawing attention to Napa Valley in the 1970s. They also combined authority with politeness, but with an added thread of herbalness that is showing signs of a comeback in the valley – the gripping and frisky Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 2010 SLV ($125) and the more opulent and chewy Kelly Fleming Wines 2010 Napa Valley ($110).
The wines could be engaging even when they were lean and tight. None was more wiry yet precise in this respect than the Cliff Lede Vineyards 2010 Stag’s Leap District ($70), an interpretation whose finely tuned complexity and sharp acidity makes it particularly fitting for the table, even with dishes lighter than T-bone and rib-eye.
Most of the judges at Houston each year are Texans, and do they love cabernet sauvignon. No doubt their fondness for the wine has something to do with their passion for beef.
“We eat a lot of steak here, and a slab and a cab is a way of life,” says panel chairman Guy Stout, a master sommelier who also grows wine grapes on his Texas spread. “We like California cabernets because they are big, juicy and rich. Most are very well oaked, and the ripe black-fruit qualities just make it better.”
Over the past decade a cabernet-based wine has been elected grand champion or reserve grand champion more often than any other style. (In accord with livestock-show tradition, wine judges in Houston elect a backup reserve champion as well as champion, presumably in case all the championship wine is consumed before all the beef is eaten.)
Oddly, however, a Napa Valley wine only rarely wins one of the two most coveted awards. This past fall, the cabernet-based wine to win grand champion was from Italy – the Marchese Antinori 2009 DOC Superiore Bolgheri Guado al Tasso, made of 60 percent cabernet sauvignon, 25 percent merlot, 12 percent cabernet franc and 3 percent petit verdot ($80/$90).
The house of Antinori did well in Houston. A Napa Valley cabernet in the Antinori portfolio won a double-gold medal, the gloriously vibrant and delightfully lithe Antica 2010 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($55), so composed, focused and persistent that the panel thought it must have come from Bordeaux.
Early this year, I again judged cabernet sauvignon at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition in Cloverdale. Our panel there was assigned the class of cabernets priced $30 to $34.99. Of the 67 we tasted, 22 got gold or double-gold medals.
What was the big difference between the Houston cabs and the Cloverdale cabs? The abundance of oak in the Houston entries, primarily. The Houston wines also were heavier and more concentrated, but not by much. If gold-medal wines from both competitions were gathered into one tasting I suspect that judges would have difficulty pinning down the appellations.
The Cloverdale cabs could have come from anywhere in the United States, with about a fifth from Napa Valley. My favorites, however, tended to come from elsewhere, as it turned out when identities of the wines were revealed.
That would include our best-of-class cabernet, from a district where the variety generally doesn’t show particularly well. Nevertheless, the Wise Villa Winery 2011 Sierra Foothills Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($33, though now listed on the winery website at $39) won us over for the freshness of its berry fruit, its grace and its laid-back charm.
My other favorites from Cloverdale were the unusually aromatic and refreshing Magnavino Cellars 2010 Lodi Cabernet Sauvignon ($32); the sleek, polished and herbal-accented Moniker Wine Estates 2011 Mendocino County Cabernet Sauvignon ($30); the quietly complicated Hoot Owl Creek Vineyard 2011 Alexander Valley Owl’s Wing Cabernet Sauvignon ($32); the spunky Arbios 2009 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($33), so spicy it seemed to have some syrah or zinfandel blended in, though it’s 100 percent cabernet; and the lean and fresh Eberle Winery 2010 Paso Robles Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($34), the latest version of a style that while tight and firm right now will evolve into a stately take on the varietal in a few years.
The take-away lesson: Yes, you can get a muscular and intense cabernet sauvignon from Napa Valley for the big bucks, but if you want to pay a lot less you can get an interpretation virtually as impressive by shopping around.
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at email@example.com.