A Perfect Match
The Napa Valley has been cultivating grapes since the 1700s, but Cabernet Sauvignon was not introduced to the area until the late 1800s around the time when industry icon, Charles Krug opened the first commercial winery. A decade or so later, Beringer and Inglenook followed suit.
At the time, America was captivated with Bordeaux wines, and in 1889, Inglenook gained worldwide notoriety with their Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon grown in Rutherford, which won the Gold Medal at the prestigious Paris World Fair. This accolade ultimately drove attention to the Napa Valley and set the stage for the region’s potential to produce premier Bordeaux-style wines.
Celebrating its 120th anniversary in 2020, the Rutherford- based Beaulieu Vineyard has become a benchmark of Napa Valley style: An iconic winery responsible for the success of world-class wines made with Cabernet Sauvignon grapes planted before prohibition and after the modern boom of large- scale plantings, which began when Robert Mondavi opened his winery in Oakville in 1966.
In French, “beau lieu” means “beautiful place.” Before Georges de Latour and his wife Fernande started the classic “BV” brand in 1900, early signs of success were already apparent from wines made with fruit from Cabernet vines planted on the Rutherford Bench, a distinctive vein of alluvial soils wrapped around the small provincial town of Rutherford and the base of the Mayacamas Mountains west of Hwy 29.
After the devastating phylloxera louse swept through the Napa Valley in the 1890s and prohibition limited sales, Latour helped producers by importing disease-resistant rootstock and developed new estate vineyards. On his trip to France in 1938, he hired gifted winemaker André Tchelistcheff, who made the BV wines until he retired in 1973. As a tribute to the proprietor and the unique growing conditions in the Rutherford Bench, Tchelistcheff crafted the Georges de Latour Private Reserve, which became the Napa Valley’s first “cult” Cabernet when it was released in 1940. Tchelistcheff is also known for his famous quote, “It takes Rutherford dust to grow great Cabernet. The slogan “Rutherford dust” is now associated with notes of chocolate, cherry, spice, and earth in the wines from the region.
Joel Aiken, who succeeded Tchelistcheff as head wine- maker at BV from 1985 to 2009, said the positive shift forward in style has helped increase the number of high-quality Cabernets made with premium grapes grown throughout Napa County. “In our case, at BV in the 1990s, we were able to update and develop a wide range of exciting new Cabernet- based wines that were much more modern, focused, and balanced. In the vineyard, we started using new special Cabernet clones and fine-tuned our farming practices,” said Aiken, who currently bottles high-end Cabernet releases for the Scattered Peak label and Aiken Wines. “The same can be said about the use of new yeast strains and artisan French oak barrels in the cellar, which helped take the flavor profiles and texture of Cabernet to an entirely new level.”
As the years have passed, other classic Rutherford Cabernet pro- ducers like Caymus Vineyards, Freemark Abbey, Honig Winery, Sullivan Rutherford Estate, Frogs Leap, Cakebread, Peju Province and Sequoia Grove have been joined by a new breed of exciting brands from the 1990s forward.
An excellent example is Frank Family Vineyards, where General Manager and Winemaker Todd Graff works closely with his vineyard team that cares for each individual block of Cabernet planted on the winery’s estate properties in Rutherford, St. Helena, and around the winery in Calistoga. “Todd is always insistent that the acid levels are harmonious to allow our Cabernet selections to shine when young and develop more character in the cellars,” said proprietor Rich Frank, who established his family’s brand in 1993.
A few miles north in Saint Helena, there are more great Cabernet houses that represent links from the past to the present, including: Charles Krug, founded in 1861; Louis M. Martini, 1933; Newton, 1977; Spottswood in 1982; Crocker Starr in 1997; to name a few.
There are plenty of wineries that produce Old World-style offerings as well. An excellent case in point is the small-batch allotments of fine Cabernet wines from Canard Vineyard in Calistoga. Winemaker Brian Graham said he likes how the purity of fruit flavors and character of the vineyard comes to life in the 500 cases he makes annually at Canard. “Instead of being big, fruit-driven, and powerful, it’s a wine with fresh and lively flavors that explode at the mid-palate and lead to a dry finish that becomes more textured as the wine expands in the glass.”
On the more southern end of the valley, additional contributors to the Cabernet phenomenon include Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars on Silverado Trail near Napa, which produced the legendary 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon that received the top red wine honor at the famed Judgment of Paris showdown in 1976; a unique series of high-end Franco- American projects, like Opus One in Oakville and Dominus in Yountville, which began in the late 1970s; and the noteworthy achievement by Groth Winery in Oakville, which became the first Napa Valley Cabernet producer to receive a 100-point score from wine critic Robert Parker for its 1985 vintage.
PURE MOUNTAIN DELIGHTS
This magical combination of power, elegance, and stylish new Cabernet-based wines can be made at higher-elevation sites as well. In the case of the Mayacamas Mountain Range to the west, one of the first brands to lead this charge is Diamond Creek Vineyards. Newlyweds Al and Adelle “Boots” Brounstein purchased this isolated 70-acre parcel in 1967. After planting separate blocks on the four distinct soil types. When these four distinctive single-vineyard wines—Gravelly Meadows, Volcanic Hill, Red Rock Terrace, and Lake, all from the 1972 vintage—were released, the winery became the first in Napa Valley to charge $100 per bottle. Since then, the terroir-driven character of the Diamond Creek wines became a benchmark for working with high-quality estate fruit, mountain farming, and an inspiration to a multitude of gifted winemakers and premium producers that have gone on to create some of California’s most prized red wines.
From a geographical stand- point, the vineyards are influenced by sunny days, cool nights, and well-drained soils that produce a plethora of elegant, complex and age-worthy wines every year from producers located on the eastern-facing slopes of the Mayacamas Range, such as Mayacamas Vineyards, Spring Mountain Vineyards, Newton Winery, and other high- elevation brands situated in the sub-appellations of Spring Mountain and Mount Veeder.
The same is true on rockier, west-facing slopes on the rugged Vaca Mountains, which includes the sub-appellations of Howell Mountain, Atlas Peak, and Coombsville, portions of which can be seen running along the hillside slopes from St. Helena to the south of Napa. Further east are the Pope Valley and Chiles Valley appellations. The volcanic soils that comprise these mountainous AVA’s are best known for producing superlative Cabernet Sauvignon grapes and some of Napa’s most refined wines known for their classic complexity, intense flavors, and balanced tannins.
Together, all these points are what make the Napa signature experience of Cabernet Sauvignon recognizable on a global scale.
Article By: Chris Sawyer