The magic of California in general, and Napa in particular, it seems, is its tremendous range of terroirs and the increasing number of producers who are working so hard to express their little patch of the planet through the wine in the bottles they produce.

Brian Freedman
October 22, 2018

The reds of Napa Valley have seen a series of stylistic changes in the past four decades that will defy anyone's longheld stereotypes about California red wine. "In the 1970s, most [Napa Valley] vineyards were planted" in such a way that, though there was a lack of uniformity, resulted in wines that "showed a lot of character, complexity, elegance, freshness, and lots of varietal character," Remi Cohen, COO of Cliff Lede Wines, tells Food & Wine. These days, however, Cohen says there is more diversity, leading to bottlings "that range from less extracted, elegant, brighter wines with redder fruit profiles and some herbal character, to more extracted, powerful wines with riper, darker fruit flavors."

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This is true all over California, home to countless grape varieties and styles. From the stellar single-vineyard Pinot Noirs that Jamie Kutch is crafting; to unexpected small-production gems like the pet’nat, Aglianico, and others from The End of Nowhere in Amador County; to the new Bonterra Organic Vineyards 2017 Young Red, a chillable, gulpable, low-alcohol charmer that is California’s answer to Beaujolais Nouveau in the best sense, the enological diversity in this state is stunning.

But it’s the pricier Cabernet Sauvignons and Cabernet-based blends from Napa Valley that historically got the lion’s share of critical and collectors’ attention. Which is what makes it so instructive to look at what’s happening with those wines these days, especially at the higher end of the price and prestige spectrum.

"The most talked about Napa Valley Cabernets resemble [the] description" of the wines being homogenously big, extracted, and fruit-driven, "yet they are only the tip of the iceberg. There is a fabulous spectrum of Cabernet styles as long as one is experimental and adventuresome in choosing from the myriad of wineries in the Napa Valley," says Peter Mondavi, Co-Proprietor of Charles Krug.

These days, the most talked-about wines tend to be the ones that express the unique terroirs in which they grew. “I believe that, over time, more people will move in this direction, making wines with greater balance and purity, as it is wines such as this that speak to their terroir,” says Beth Novak Milliken, President and CEO of Spottswoode Estate Vineyard and Winery.

The magic of California in general, and Napa in particular, it seems, is its tremendous range of terroirs and the increasing number of producers who are working so hard to express their little patch of the planet through the wine in the bottles they produce. Here are 10 varietally labeled Cabernet Sauvignons from Napa Valley, listed alphabetically, that are doing it particularly well, and in a broad range of styles.

Cardinale Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 Napa Valley

Deep and meaty on the nose, with beef carpaccio, bakers chocolate, porcini, espresso, and hoisin sauce leading to flavors of cherry, blackberry, Chinese five-spice powder, and violets. Great now, and will continue to evolve for another three decades.

Chappelet Pritchard Hill Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 Napa Valley

Aromas of freshly laid tar mingle with wild mushrooms, fresh spearmint, and currants, turning to a palate of sweet cherry, scorched earth, and cinnamon stick, all vibrating with gorgeously calibrated acidity. I love the jasmine and rooibos notes on the finish.

Charles Krug Vintage Selection Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 Napa Valley

Though I’m also a fan of the newer vintages from this legendary Napa producer, I wanted to highlight the age-worthiness of the region’s top Cabs here. This past spring, I attended a library tasting at Charles Krug going back to 1964, and was bowled over by how well the wines had evolved over the decades. This 2003 was particularly fascinating, savory with licorice and peppercorns, yet generous with chocolate-covered orange peel and concentrated, rich cherry notes. In other words, recognizably Napa Cab, but with far more age than most people ever afford the wines. This bottle is proof that they really should.

Cliff Lede Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 Stag Leap District

Lifted with eucalyptus and spearmint on the nose, yet also anchored by an almost chalky note of bakers chocolate, amped up with kirsch and cassis. On the palate, this is exotic and sappy, with sandalwood, licorice, black cherry and plum, and an unexpected hit of jasmine on the long finish.

Component Wine Company Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 Napa Valley

From rising star Michael Hill Kennedy, former sommelier and now founder of Component Wine Co., this 100% Cabernet Sauvignon is deeply mineral on the nose, with hints of licorice and plum, turning to a palate structured for aging but delicious right now as well, with black currant, cherry, sandalwood, and violets.

Joseph Phelps Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 Napa Valley

Plush notes of blackberry coulis and black cherry pastry creme are framed by cedar, tobacco, eucalyptus, and something almost meaty. This is understated yet delicious: Drink now or hold—it’s a win either way.

Mi Sueño Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 Napa Valley

Chocolate-y and generous aromas of sachertorte, kirsch, and cafe mocha that precede lots of sweet fruit—figs, plum sauce—as well as sweet vanilla spice alongside coffee beans and blackberry coulis. Perfect with braised short ribs.

Robert Mondavi Winery Reserve To Kalon Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 Oakville

Mint and eucalyptus join rich aromas of currant and cedar, and even though this is a wine that will evolve for decades—I could easily buy a case and serve it when my daughters graduate high school…and it would still only be partway through its evolution—its impeccably balanced flavors of licorice, cassis, blueberry, chocolate ganache, and star anise are stunning already.

Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 St. Helena

Balanced and regal, with blue fruit and blackberry, sweet spice, excellent acidity, and a lingering finish that boasts both flowers and haunting mineral notes. Elegant, concentrated, and unforgettable.

Taylor Family Vineyards “Cumulus” Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 Napa Valley

Notes of kirsch- and creme de cassis-filled dark chocolate, cafe mocha, and mineral with a hint of forest floor: Absolutely riveting aromatics here. This is still quite young, with cherry and red plum joined by lots of mineral and balsamic notes. Give it time to mature and the rewards will be significant.

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