Not long before the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers collided in the NFC championship game, five wine writers sat down to taste blind 12 cabernet sauvignons from three wine regions – one of them in Washington state, two in California.
California won, this time, especially cabernet sauvignons from Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley.
Andy Perdue, wine columnist for the Seattle Times and co-owner of the website Great Northwest Wine, conceived of the tasting, held in the Geyserville restaurant Diavola Pizzeria just before the start of the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition in January. He chose the four from Washington.
“Washington is still an outlier in the wine world, so I wanted to get an idea of where our wines stand,” Perdue says. Cabernet sauvignon was chosen for its rising esteem in Washington state.
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Newsletter publisher Dan Berger chose four to represent Sonoma County, three of which were made solely or mostly with grapes grown in Alexander Valley. I picked four from Napa Valley, most from the 2010 vintage.
All four Washington wines were from Horse Heaven Hills, which right away got the gold medal for best-named appellation. Dry, warm and windy, Horse Heaven Hills is planted to about 12,000 acres of wine grapes (4,000 to cabernet sauvignon) in the southern Columbia Valley.
Grapes have been cultivated in the appellation only since 1972, but they’ve become celebrated for yielding cabernet sauvignons of plush fruit and silken finishes. “The cabernets tend to have underlying power,” Perdue says. “I see underlying minerality and black-fruit character. I would tend to describe their tannins as more suave than muscular.”
In the end, two of the Horse Heaven Hills cabernets got gold medals, the sweetly fruity Alder Ridge 2011 Horse Heaven Hills Cabernet Sauvignon ($30) and the juicy and elegant Double Canyon 2010 Horse Heaven Hills Cabernet Sauvignon ($40). The other two got bronze medals – the simple, sweet and short Den Hoed 2009 Horse Heaven Hills Wallula Vineyard Andreas ($80) and the Januik 2010 Horse Heaven Hills Champoux Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($55), which while invitingly aromatic didn’t follow through on the palate with especially intriguing fruit.
Based on the reputation of my four Napa Valley winery choices, I expected my entries to blow away the rest of the field. It didn’t happen. Granted, two got gold medals, the big but approachable Antica 2010 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($55), which had just the sort of eucalyptus overtones and satiny tannins I find irresistible, and the bright and long Corison 2010 Napa Valley Kronos Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($135, to be released Tuesday), firmer than the Antica but with more tangy red-fruit flavors suggestive of cranberries and cherries.
The two other Napa candidates each got silver medals, the tightly wound and subtly complex Chateau Montelena 2010 Napa Valley Calistoga Cabernet Sauvignon ($150) and the austere yet sunny Smith-Madrone 2010 Napa Valley Spring Mountain District Cook’s Flat Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($200). (I voted for gold for its striking cherry fruit and thread of minerality, but others complained of a note of something artificial in its composition.)
The biggest surprise of the night was the expressiveness, individuality and consistency of the Sonoma County entries, three of which got gold medals, all from Alexander Valley – the densely colored and smooth if understated Stonestreet 2010 Alexander Valley Monument Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon ($45), the traditionally direct and gracious Kendall-Jackson 2010 Sonoma County Grand Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($28), and the upbeat, balanced and enduring Jordan 2010 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($53, to be released Tuesday). The fourth Sonoma entry, the intense and firm Sbragia 2010 Dry Creek Valley Andolsen Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($40), got a silver medal.
The collective scores showed Alexander Valley as the clear winner; the Kendall-Jackson and the Jordan were tied for first.
Entries from Washington state and Napa Valley, however, weren’t far behind, with the Alder Ridge and the Antica tied for third. Note that the Antica, while the highest-ranked candidate from Napa Valley, also was the appellation’s least-expensive representative.
Why didn’t the 2010 Chateau Montelena, Smith-Madrone and Corison cabernet sauvignons show better? Part of it could be that the vintage was characterized by an unusually wet spring and atypically cool summer, but that was true for Sonoma County, as well.
More to the point, the cabernets of Napa Valley just may not have been as ready to open as the cabernets of the other areas. Several times during the tasting participants remarked on how this or that wine, which invariably turned out to be from Napa Valley, was too tight, too rigid and too tannic; that the wines had potential to evolve into something more gregarious and accessible was clear, they just needed more time in the cellar, tasters seemed to concur.
My take-away lesson: While all three regions produce proud and pricey takes on cabernet, value wines of charm and distinction also can be found in each.
When it comes to similarities and differences, I hesitate to draw broad conclusions based on this small sampling and on the varied stylistic interpretations even among winemakers within a single appellation. That said, cabernets from Horse Heaven Hills stood out for their dark color, upfront aromatics and cherry-accented fruitiness; Napa Valley cabernets held in common bright fruit, firm tannins, exceptional complexity and vitalizing acidity; the cabernets of Alexander Valley reaffirmed the region’s reputation for freshness, accessibility, balance and subtle complexity.
Each writer is interpreting the tasting: Perdue in his Grapevine column in the Seattle Times, Sommelier Ellen Landis of Half Moon Bay on her blog Ellen on Wine, blogger Ron Washam of Healdsburg on his blog HoseMaster of Wine, and Dan Berger in his newsletter Vintage Experiences.