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How Two Distinct Styles of Cabernet Are Duking It Out for Napa’s Love

Napa's no longer just about big, bold reds. Look to the mountains for leaner, elegant wines, too.

Napa Valley wine Bob McClenahan

Critics of wine critics love to rant on about how the most influential point-givers (read: Robert Parker Jr.) have pushed winemaking worldwide toward their personal taste, flattening distinctive regional differences and creating a generic international wine style. More specifically, they’re referring to a preference for gobs of rich fruit flavors in reds, leading vintners to let the grapes hang on the vine late into harvest until sugar levels spike, resulting in generic rich, ripe, red wine (so the critics say). The loudest objections of all are reserved for Napa Valley’s Cabernet Sauvignons.

No matter where your taste falls on the spectrum of hedonistically ripe reds on the one end, or elegantly lean ones on the other, it’s true that Napa Cabernets have set the bar on, shall we say, generous versions of the Bordeaux varieties, wines whose lush fruit does not play hard to get. How so many winemakers seem to manage that while still achieving reasonable balance, freshness, elegance, and ageability in their wines is fodder for another story—a controversial tale of tools and manipulations.

Or, it’s a story about Napa’s mountain wines. In the sub-AVAs flanking the valley above 1,400 feet, comprising the peaks in the Vaca Range on the east and in the Mayacamas to the west, soils, high-altitude temperatures, and strong UV rays seem to encourage varying degrees of structural grip (critical to longevity) and natural concentration of fruit flavors. Look for compelling power and balance at once from the maverick makers on the six mountains (clockwise from the southeast): Atlas Peak, Pritchard Hill, Howell Mountain, Diamond Mountain District, Spring Mountain District, and Mount Veeder. (If you thought there were only five mountain AVAs in Napa, you’re right, of course. Pritchard Hill isn’t one, but such a prestigious address—Chappellet, Continuum, Colgin, Ovid—can’t be skipped in this story.)

There’s also a marked diversion of winemaking styles on these slopes. A recent tasting of a pair of top bottles from each region (part of the California Dreamin’ tour for 50 Masters of Wine from around the world) made it abundantly clear that winemakers in Napa Valley are not uniformly succumbing to perceived critics’ taste. They are following their own styles, making complicated decisions about when to pick for ripeness and how much new oak their fruit can (or should) bear. Some do veer toward leaner, Old World character; others juggle the New World’s generous ripeness shrewdly. Here’s the lineup—in broad strokes, with the leaner, older-school bottle first in each case. But this isn’t a simple old-school, new-school split: There’s a bottle for everyone here.

Atlas Peak

Scribe 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon ($74). Earthy layers of crushed rock, wild herbs, and underbrush, along with brisk and bright acidity, lean distinctly old school.

Au Sommet 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon ($250). Rich blackberry fruit, lush tannins, and lots of nicely integrated oak mark this beauty from famed winemaker Heidi Barrett.

 

Pritchard Hill

Pulido-Walker 2013 Melanson Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($225). Dark, spicy, briary blackberry fruit is layered with tangy cassis, licorice, beautiful aromatics, and grippy tannins in this Cab from well-known winemakers Andy Erickson and Thomas Rivers Brown.

Ovid Estate 2009 Red Blend ($680). Complex aromas of black fruit, pepper, and minerality give way to a rich palate of mixed-berry fruit and supple tannins.

 

Howell Mountain

Angwin Estate Vineyards 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon ($170). A wine with Old World structure—bold tannins—and Bordeaux-leaning minerality. Fresh herb notes are layered with cedar, tobacco, and savory spices.

Dana 2014 Hershey Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($475). The sun shows through in this concentrated stunner, with ripe black raspberry, plum, dark chocolate, exotic spices, and an elegant version of mountain tannins.

 

Diamond Mountain District

Dyer Vineyard 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon ($89). Soaring floral and spice aromatics come from the Cabernet Franc included here, while dark cherry and cassis flavors are delivered with flint and savory herbs against a backdrop of unique energy in texture and structure.

Lokoya 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon ($375). Here’s a balance of modern luxuriousness and mountain grip. Dark cherry and mocha are wound together with beautiful floral aromas and spice.

 

Spring Mountain District

Philip Togni Vineyard 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon ($135). A Bordeaux soul lurks in this aromatic wine with subtle fruit and grippy tannins. A beautiful floral character opens, with mint and other fresh herbs, followed by dark, concentrated fruit.

Vineyard 7 & 8 2014 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($185). Oak spice comes through with lush blackberry fruit in this stylish, modern, upmarket Cab. Floral aromatics wrap around vivid red and black fruit, giving the wine great appeal.

 

Mt. Veeder

Mayacamas 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon ($125). Stony underpinnings, firm tannins, and an intriguing herbal edge bring Old World character—and longevity—to this one. With only neutral oak treatment, the lively red fruit and bright acidity are pure but rambunctious. Give this one a few years.

Edge Hill Abel 1833 Cabernet Sauvignon from Rudd ($250). Rudd’s Abel 1833 manages to be modern and old school at once, with generous fruit backed by some rugged tannins. Fresh mint, cedar, and oak spice are complexly layered with beautiful black and blue fruit.

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