Spottswoode Cabernet is one of the Napa Valley's benchmark wines. Food & Wine executive wine editor Ray Isle stopped by the property to taste 10 vintages going back to 1985.
Spottswoode Estate Vineyard & Winery
Credit: Courtesy of Spottswoode Estate Vineyard & Winery

Spottswoode, in St. Helena, is one of Napa Valley's most historic and acclaimed wine estates. Established in 1882, it was given its name in 1910 by Mrs. Albert Spotts, but the winery's recent history begins in 1972, when the Novak family, who are the current owners, purchased it.

Though the winery makes an excellent Sauvignon Blanc, its fame rests on its Cabernet Sauvignon. Using grapes from the now organically-farmed estate vineyard, a series of brilliant winemakers—from Tony Soter, who made the first vintage back in 1982, to Aron Weinkauf today—have produced over forty vintages of what is unquestionably one of the Napa Valley's benchmark Cabernets.

Spottswoode's Cabernet has always walked an impeccably balanced line between the richness of fruit and intensity that Napa's climate offers and the elegance and nuanced character that great Cabernet can achieve. Recently I had the opportunity to taste through ten vintages of Spottswoode Cabernet, from 1985 to 2013.

One remarkable aspect of these wines was that even the 1985 vintage, at 31 years of age, was still impressively alive; ruddy in hue and with a pale rim, but full of dried cherry fruit and bright acidity. An old wine, but by no means decrepit. Oddly, it got better with air rather than fading away. The other wine from the 1980s, the 1987, was one of my favorite wines of the tasting—gorgeously aromatic, with tea leaf, cinnamon and anise notes, lots of cherry and currant fruit, and a silky mouthfeel. A great wine.

The 1991 vintage felt a little less alive than the '87, with more dried fruit notes and some torrefacted/coffee character, but it had the same impossible-to-resist texture. The 1995 wasn't quite as compelling for me—it wasn't as expressively aromatic, and the finish was a little jarring—tangy, with tough tannins—but it was still an impressive older wine.

In the next decade, 2001, from a great year for Napa Valley, is still young but is an extraordinary wine. Sweet red cherry flavors, earth and mushroom notes, and a tongue-gripping wall of tannins (but ripe tannins, not harsh ones) suggest it has years ahead of it. 2005, on the other hand, shows some of the effects of the year, which was warm and high-yielding; more black fruit and spice notes, a little less seamless. It was the first vintage I picked up any overt oak character on.

For the current decade we tasted a series of the last four vintages: 2010 through the recently released 2013. From a generally cool vintage marked by a series of intense heat spikes toward the end, the 2010 is a terrific young wine, showing well integrated toasty oak notes; plush, dense tannins; black cherry/boysenberry fruit; and, as someone at the tasting quite accurately said, "a smoky, sultry finish." The next vintage, 2011, is widely considered one of the most difficult in Napa over the past couple of decades: cold, wet and apparently designed by nature to make winemakers tear their hair out. At Spottswoode, the 2011 is leaner than the surrounding years, with more astringent tannins than usual. But it has pretty cherry fruit and a cool-year elegance that promises good aging potential (and also attests to winemaker Aron Weinkauf's skill). With 2012 and 2013, it's tough to make a choice. These are two great years for Napa Valley, and the wines show it; the 2012 is a little more ebullient and giving, the 2013 more powerful and intense, but both are extraordinary Cabernet Sauvignons. If I were an investment banker and not a wine writer, I'd be buying cases of both. As it is, I was quite happy just to taste them.