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Napa Valley’s Golden Age
Napa Valley’s Golden Age
A String of Epic Vintages
As a source of wines of the highest quality, you can do no wrong looking to Napa Valley. Beginning in 2012, Napa has enjoyed five consecutive vintages of such high quality that I am proclaiming it a “Golden Age”.
2012 was an ideal growing season: tranquil, effortless. At the time, winemakers were calling it “perfect”, “textbook”, and “classic”. A huge crop produced juicy, flamboyant wines with beguiling aromatics and poise. I love the 2012’s.
2013 was for many wineries the earliest crop ever harvested – an epic vintage that grew deep, inky, thrilling wines. Robert Parker called it “the greatest vintage I have ever tasted for Bordeaux varieties in Northern California”.
2014 will always be remembered as the “earthquake vintage”. A drought year that was hailed by growers eventually produced an abundant crop of exceptional quality. A magnitude 6 earthquake on August 24th had a strange effect: It released groundwater that caused dry rivers to run again, and nourished vineyards that had been in drought conditions for years. Robert Parker comments that the 2014’s enjoy the same ageability as the 2013s. James Suckling has called it a “New Era of Classicism.”
Although it is too early to comment on 2015 reds that have yet to be released, the growing season was one of low yields and high quality. The 2016s, while currently still in barrel, is another near-perfect growing year, and the young wines look extremely promising.
Below is a selection of Napa Valley wines from 2012, 2013, and 2014. What catches your eye? If you have a cellar, now is the time to build those vertical collections!
Many Napa Valley Sauvignon Blancs have gone the style of New Zealand – no oak and 100% varietal. I like Duckhorn’s classic “white Bordeaux”-inspired offering that uses a significant amount of Semillon and barrel-ageing. This style of Sauvignon Blanc is more layered, rich, age-worthy and creamy than the “stainless steel” style. For me, it bridges a stylistic gap between Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.
“Duckhorn Vineyards continues to impress despite their long and stellar track record. Perhaps best known for their powerful, yet elegant, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, they also make noteworthy Chardonnay and, judging from this example, Sauvignon Blanc. They also know what they can – and cannot – do in Napa. So when they branched out into Pinot Noir, they headed north to Anderson Valley and later Russian River Valley with their Goldeneye and Migration labels, respectively. That strategy makes me believe that they wouldn’t make Sauvignon Blanc in Napa if they didn’t think they could succeed with it. And they did. More similar to luxurious white Bordeaux than a Sancerre, this Sauvignon Blanc marries a creamy texture with just the right amount of zing. It brings a new level of sophistication to Sauvignon Blanc with its layers of flavours and precise and lasting finish.”
93 points, Michael Apstein, winereviewonline.com, Aug 2016
“You know you’re doing something right when, after 45 years of Chardonnay winemaking, they name a California Chardonnay style after your winery, the “Montelena style. In short, it means a non-malolactic, minimally naked Chardonnay. This estate has long made one of the best examples of a quiet, restrained Chardonnay that ages for 20 or more years.” Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, Oct 2014
“The just-bottled 2013 Chardonnay is vibrant and fresh, with a little more cut than is typically the case, the result of a year in which acidities are higher. Lemon peel, white flowers and crushed rocks are wonderfully expressive in this finely-sculpted Chardonnay from Montelena. There is plenty to look forward to here.”
As the most northeastern vineyard in the Carneros region, Truchard is situated on the foothills of what becomes the Mayacama mountain range and Mount Veeder. This location results in added warmth and well-drained alluvial soils.
This wine is a combination of fruit from seven Pinot Noir clones, including Martini, Dijon, Swan and Pommard. The vines are in their prime, 20-40 years old. The wine came to life in open-top fermentors and was punched down three times daily to extract colour and flavour, a gentler technique than “pumping over”. It was then aged for 10 months in 100% French oak barrels, 35% of which were new.
“Ripe in dense black cherry, this wine has a pleasant juiciness that keeps it balanced in the glass. A firmness of acidity supports the well-integrated tannins and lithe fruit, while the finish brings a swirl of cinnamon-cola and vanilla.”
The Truchard family made their name in Napa as farmers, not necessarily as a winery. Wineries from all over the valley such as Duckhorn, Nickel & Nickel, Carter, Conn Creek and David Bruce have all bottled Truchard Vineyard designates. Knowing how good their fruit was, in 1989 the Truchards began to produce their own wines.
“From a knoll in Carneros, often thought of as chilly for Cabernet, this wine exhibits cooler aspects of the variety, from pencil lead and cedar to dried herb. It is complemented by fruitier characteristics of cassis and plum, finishing in dusty, structured tannins. Cellar through 2017-2020.”
90+ points and “Cellar Selection”, Wine Enthusiast, Nov 2015
“Though firm and concentrated, this offers a measure of elegance and finesse. At points creamy in flavour and texture, this offers flavours of ripe plum, wild berry, cherry and cedary oak. Ends clean and easy. Drink now through 2028. 3,500 cases made.”
John Buehler’s entire career has been based on one thing – making wines that are far less expensive than his competition while never compromising on quality. This Cab is 100% Estate fruit, grown above Conn Valley near the base of Howell Mountain.
The aromas hint at black fruit: ripe black cherries and black plums. Enticing barrel qualities of cola and spice complement the fruit aromas. On the palate, the wine shows layers of deeply extracted flavours that only mature hillside vineyards can render. The “Estate” Cabernet is the most age-worthy wine that Buehler produces and may be enjoyed anytime over the next 15 years.
“Dark-fleshed fruit, mocha, chocolate and sweet spices give the 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon Estate much of its succulent personality. Silky tannins and an overall impression of creaminess give the wine much of its considerable near and medium-term appeal. I would prefer to drink this pliant, supple Cabernet over the next handful of years.”
The 2013 Ehlers Estate Cabernet is farmed entirely at the tiny, historic estate in northern St. Helena. This loamy benchland vineyard was first planted in 1886, and today it is Certified Organic.
The 2013 blend is 83% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Merlot and 8% Cabernet Franc. The Cabernet brings the tannin and power, the Merlot contributes mid-palate roundness and the Cabernet Franc brings the aromatics.
They use only French oak barriques. Half of these are first-fill, the balance older seasoned barrels. This contributes a lovely caramel-bakery element to the huge blackberry and black raspberry flavours. There are base notes of dark chocolate and warm garden. It has solid structure and acidity, and unfolds slowly in a decanter, which bodes well for its ageing curve. Drink or hold for up to 15 years.
Ehlers Estate has a devout following, snatching up their small production very quickly each year. Because of this you’ll rarely see third party press for Ehlers Estate until the wines have already sold out. This is a great small producer, and an epic vintage.
Chateau Montelena’s Cabernet vineyards are located north of the chateau in Calistoga. Here, there are predominantly two distinct soils: alluvial and volcanic. Alluvial soils support a well-drained, fairly nutrient-rich vineyard, while volcanic soils, high in minerals yet poor in nutrients, grow Cabernet with a distinctly mint or eucalyptus-like personality. Calistoga reds are well known for these flavours, indeed it is what makes these wines so appealing: ripe, powerful wines with a fresh chlorophylic spiciness to them.
“Montelena’s 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon Estate is shaping up to be a jewel of a wine. Rich, ample and generous, but very much within the Montelena style, the 2012 captures the essence of the year in its pure resonance and silkiness. Dark red stone fruits, plums, menthol and tobacco with brambly undertones emerge over time, but the flavours are quite primary and undeveloped, all of which bode extremely well for the future. I expected the 2012 will offer a long and broad drinking window of pure pleasure. 2017 – 2042.”
Speaking of great Calistoga vineyards, Three Palms is one of Napa’s most famous. The 83-acre vineyard is located on the northeast side of the Napa Valley in an alluvial fan created by the outwash of Selby Creek where it spills out of Dutch Henry Canyon. The site is covered with volcanic stones washed down over the centuries from the canyon. The soil (what there is of it) is rocky and well-drained, causing the vines to send their roots far, wide and deep to find nutrients and water.
After 33 years of purchasing fruit, in 2011, Duckhorn Vineyards acquired exclusive rights for all of the grapes at this legendary site from brothers John and Sloan Upton. In 2014, they took over responsibility for farming the property.
“Dark and brooding in the glass, it offers a stunning bouquet of black currant, chocolate, and new leather. The palate is ultra-rich and fleshy, offering intense layers of black cherry, cassis, spice box, and a classy frame of complexity and texture that impresses from the start. This is densely packed and will age gracefully for at least a decade.”
97 points, “Classic”, CaliforniaWineAdvisors.com
“The last of the five 2012 Cabernets in Duckhorn’s current release lineup turns out to be the best, and yes, I spit and clear during tastings, so no need to fear a false positive. Artfully blended, it shows blackberry, cassis, pie spice, bay leaf and struck rock on the nose, leading you to a mouth filling palate that showcases berry and dark chocolate over stony mineral and fennel in addition to the nose elements, delivered in a silk textured, lingering impression style. Wonderful wine. Contains 10% Merlot, 3% Cabernet Franc, 2% Petit Verdot and 1% Malbec.”
97 points, Rich Cook, WineReviewOnline.com, Aug 2016
In only 10 vintages, O’Shaughnessy Estate has quickly established itself as one of Howell Mountain’s top wineries. As expected from Howell Mountain Cab in an incredible vintage, the 2013 is dark purple and opaque. In the aromas, you’ll pick up raspberries, blackberry liquor and cherry pie. On the palate, expressive fruit concentration with sweet caramelized oak notes evolve into a finish of dairy-sweet vanilla. This is a very rich, dense wine, with supple velvet-textured tannins.
“Deep, inky and powerful, the 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain is a classic wine endowed with tons of regional character and personality to burn. The inclusion of all seven Bordeaux varieties in the blend adds layers of nuance and complexity. Hints of game, smoke, licorice and dark spices add nuance to a somber, brooding Cabernet Sauvignon that is going to need at least a few years to fully open up.”
95+ points, Antonio Galloni vinous.com, Oct 2015
“The 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain is O’Shaughnessy’s largest cuvée of wine, nearly 3,300 cases from her vineyard, with a final blend that is somewhat unusual – 76% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Malbec, 5% Merlot, 4% Petit Verdot, 3% Cabernet Franc, 3% Carménère, and a rather obscure one, 3% St. Macaire. Dense purple in colour, with notes of mulberry, blackberry, graphite and spring flowers, the wine has great fruit, a dense, full-bodied mouthfeel, and wonderfully sweet, well-integrated tannin. The acidity is sound, the purity impressive, and the wine long and reassuring. Drink it over the next 20+ years.”
95 points, Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, Dec 2015
It can’t be denied: This is a huge wine. Masses of blackberry and black plum flavours mingle with cedar, red and black licorice, graphite and pepper in a rich, almost syrupy, viscous, really long and velvety experience. Decant for 2-4 hours, or cellar for 4-5 years and drink for 20.
“A powerful youngster, teaming with rich, layered dark berry, licorice, black walnut, savoury herb and cedary oak flavours. Sails along on the finish, courted by chewy, extracted tannins that add to the traction and definition. Drink now through 2032. 3,800 cases made.”
94 points, Wine Spectator, Nov 2016
“The 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, barrel aged three full years before being bottled. He makes just under 4,000 cases of this exceptional Cabernet Sauvignon, which has an opaque purple colour and a dense, powerful mouthfeel, with notes of toast, blackberry and blackcurrant, some cedar wood, licorice and smoky barbecue notes. It is deep, full-bodied, multi-layered and should drink well for another 20+ years.”
93 points, Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, Dec 2016
“The exuberance and drama in the stunning nose of the dense plum-coloured 2012 Dominus offers up notes of Asian spice, ripe black currants, kirsch, tobacco leaf and Christmas fruitcake. It is full-bodied and opulent, with no hard edges, a seamless integration of acidity, wood and tannin and a density and richness that are built to go on for 25-30 years.”
98+ points, Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, Oct 2015
“An exciting Dominus, with clarity of fruit and soil on the nose and palate. Lots of blackcurrant, blackberry, violet and stone. Full body with big, soft tannins and chocolate, hazelnut and dark fruit character. Try in 2020.”
98 points, JamesSuckling.com, April 2015
“The 2012 Dominus is a real head-turner. Flashy, voluptuous and intense, but with tons of underlying concentration, the 2012 is simply magnificent. A towering, vertical Cabernet Sauvignon, the 2012 Dominus is one of the most concentrated wines of the vintage, yet it also maintains considerable freshness, the signature of a late-ripening vintage with no heat spikes. Sweet red cherry, raspberry and floral notes add lift on the perfumed, expressive finish. The blend is 93% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Petit Verdot and 2% Cabernet Franc.”