Thomas Cottrell is Bellevue Club’s contributing wine columnist and the owner of La Cantina Wine Merchants.
California Cabernet Sauvignon: It’s a category of wines I haven’t often written about, at least not lately. It’s a bit of a shame, because they can be so very delicious, if increasingly expensive. It just seems that Northwest wines, new grape varieties and other regions around the world have preoccupied me lately. No more! After enjoying a dozen high-end examples of truly delicious Cabs the other night, it’s time to bring these wines to the fore once again. And, because these are rather rare, difficult-to-find and not-inexpensive wines, the holiday season is a great time
to showcase them. Think of them as gifts for your wine friends or for yourself—anyone who tastes these wines will be properly impressed. Every one of these beauties was exceedingly dark and concentrated, two words that show up again and again in my notes. They also tended to be very full-bodied and noticeably oaky. All these are the hallmarks of the current style of California Cabernet Sauvignon. They are not wines for the faint of heart.
Having given you fair warning, I offer, in no particular order, the wines: 2003 Miner “Oracle” (Napa Valley, $70)—not strictly a Cab at all, but a Bordeaux-style blend, this tasty wine showed ripe, sweet fruit in abundance with just a touch of tobacco and dried herbs. It kept improving over time, and showed good length too. 2002 Clark-Claudon Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley, $86)—again, very sweet and ripe with a classic Cab character laced with spice notes and a touch of cassis. It’s full in the mouth, with a fine length—impressive. 2001 Palmaz-Gaston Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley, $110)—the
consulting winemaker here is the famous Randy Dunn, but I like this wine better than the Dunn Vineyards bottlings. It’s as complex and focused as those wines, but with softer tannins and fine length—a classic. 2003 Behrens-Hitchcock “Beckstoffer-To Kalon” Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley, $115)—a showy wine, aromatic and exotic with a deep cassislike character that entices to the very last sip. It comes from one of Napa’s most famous vineyards, the To Kalon, first planted in 1868. How’s that for old vines! 2004 St. Clement “Oroppas” (Napa Valley, $53)—also from older vines (it’s the old Spring Mountain estate), this was a sexy favorite of the group, and it turned out to be the least-expensive wine we tasted. Another Bordeaux blend, its hints of bacon fat and minerals, sweet berries and smoke make a very exciting package. Read Oroppas backward to discover the owner between 1987 and 1999; today the owner is Beringer, and they’re clearly doing a fine job.
2004 David Arthur Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley, $105)—
I liked this wine in spite of myself (and in spite of the price tag). It’s really more like Port than Cabernet, showing its higher alcohol in the nose and in the finish. But what a showboat of a wine—incredibly dark and sweet, a kind of essence of blackberries with toasty oak added. I normally don’t like wines like this, but I’ll make an exception here! 2003 “Rubicon” (Napa Valley, $122)—this one was a bit of a ringer in the tasting, all the other wines being relatively obscure. But the Niebaum-Coppola Estate “Rubicon” has long been known as one of California’s best Bordeaux-style blends. It certainly showed very well in this blind tasting, with a sweet note of ripe fruit and oak on the palate and a fine, long finish. It’s clearly a wine for aging, but is very approachable right now, once the reluctant nose opens up (10-15 minutes in the glass). I’ll comment on one more wine, reluctantly, because it’s not available here—you’ll have to go to Napa or get on the Internet to find it, but it might be worth the search. The winemaker is the famous Heidi Barrett (think Screaming Eagle) and her bold touch is obvious in the 2003 Jones Family Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley, $130). An exotic nose leads to sweet fruit on the palate, laced with a touch of herbs and leaf, finishing in a smooth, soft finish. Very impressive stuff.
Eight wines, each of them a star, each of them among California’s very best—our group of tasters loved them all. You won’t find them easily, but they’re worth searching out for that special occasion!