California cabernet sauvignon has a passionate following among collectors and wine drinkers, thanks to the wine’s aging potential, complexity, and rich dark fruit notes. No wonder it’s the region’s most widely planted red wine grape today.
There are several main AVAs (American viticultural areas) that are best suited for producing world-class cabernet wines, but perhaps none are more famous than Napa Valley. Small in size yet big in stature, Napa’s generous climate provides vintage-to-vintage consistency and exceptional quality that few other winegrowing regions can boast. Because of its unique geologic history, Napa Valley has a remarkable diversity of microclimates, weather and geography, as well as some of the most diverse soils found on earth.
Perhaps a much less obvious area for producing captivating cabernets is Paso Robles, located within California’s ever-emerging Central Coast region. As one of the state’s oldest wine regions, Paso is a place where winemaking tradition stretches back to the 1790s and is worth taking a closer look at if you’re not familiar (case in point: the 2018 Austin Hope Cabernet Sauvignon, from Paso Robles, was ranked as our top red wine of 2020).
Providing bold, concentrated, complex and flavourful wines, Napa Valley and Paso Robles cabernets might be polar opposites when it comes to price and prestige, but undoubtedly, these are two of California’s premier regions for producing some of the world’s finest tasting cabernet in a variety of price points. Representing both of these distinguished AVAs, and ranging in price from consumer friendly to collector-worthy, browse this roundup of top picks enjoyed over the past year:
Freemark Abbey 2016 ‘Napa Valley’ Cabernet Sauvignon
A cabernet dominant wine that’s very much made in the classic California style – with 16 percent merlot and splashes of malbec, petit verdot and cabernet franc added to provide more backbone. It’s soft, lush and chewy, with flavours of drying plum, black currant, ripe cherry and earth. There’s a touch of sweetness on the mid-palate that further reveals vanilla and sweet tobacco on the finish. It’s a polished wine that will drink well throughout this decade but seems to be made more for the immediate enjoyment. ($79.95)
Treana 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon
The interplay of sun, soil, and sea is what makes the microclimates of California’s Central Coast so unique, and it’s these trinity of elements that has inspired this Treana label, created in 1996 by the Hope family. These are wines that capture the unique essence of California’s Central Coast – representing world-class wine made in a world-class wine region. At first glance, this dark crimson wine sets the stage for inviting aromas of warm chocolate, roasted coffee and toasty cedar. On the palate, intense dark fruit and sweet vanilla combine with smoky oak to give a long rich mouthfeel that finishes with balanced acidity and moderate, velvety tannins. Quality wine from a quality label. ($39.95)
The Prisoner Wine Company 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon
When The Prisoner’s first wine was released two decades ago as a complex blend of some of California’s best and most unusual grape varieties, it swiftly and permanently changed the perception of what a red blend wine could be. Since then, the winery has grown to include a range of rule-bending blends with provocative label designs, being recognized by fans and wine critics alike as one of the most bold and innovative wine brands in the market, leading the resurgence of California luxury wines and earning “cult” wine status. Now this new wine puts cabernet sauvignon firmly to the forefront. Aromas of black cherry and ripe plum are layered with vanilla and baking spice. Concentrated dark fruit flavours culminate in a lush, full mouthfeel and a lengthy finish. It’s a California cabernet lover’s dream wine, to be completely honest. ($79.95)
Paso Creek 2020 Cabernet Sauvignon
A cab made for the mainstream consumer sounds like it could be a bit of a bad thing, but this comes off more likeable than passable. Hailing from Paso Robles, this wine checks off those boxes that most fans of California cab want: full body, juicy, ripened jammy fruit, and sweet vanilla. It’s soft and comforting. Bottom line here is that it’s highly quaffable, and best enjoyed after a 30 minute decant. It’s not in the same ballpark as a high-end Mondavi, but for the price, this one definitely plays ball. ($18.95)
Liberty School 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon
A wine produced in Paso Robles by the Hope family, the Liberty School brand is synonymous with consistency, year after year. Their cab is always varietally on target and usually over-delivers on its value as a wine of very good quality. Aromas of warm vanilla, fresh red fruit and hints of baking spices evolve into flavours of savoury herbs, black pepper, dark cherry and sweet oak. The tannins are approachable and silky smooth with a touch of bright acidity that balances this wine, making it extremely food friendly. Consumer appealing and definitely tastes like a wine that should cost more. ($23.95)
The Prisoner Wine Company 2018 ‘Unshackled’ Cabernet Sauvignon
A blend of 80 percent cabernet sauvignon, plus petite sirah, syrah, and merlot added for balance, the 2018 Unshackled Cabernet Sauvignon was formed from eight of California’s leading appellations, including Paso Robles, Dry Creek Valley and Lake County. The combination of unique vineyards, climates and terroirs adds its own unique dimension and lends to the flavour profile that you’ll find in this intriguing cabernet. Aromas of dark berries, plum, sweet spices, and a hint of olive lead to a ripe palate of spicy dark fruits, smoothened tannins and a freshness that continues through the finish. This is bound to be a popular buy among consumers. ($29.95)
Robert Mondavi 2017 ‘To Kalon Vineyard’ Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
For the winemaking team at Robert Mondavi Winery, 2017 will be remembered as the year of the fires that devasted so much of California’s wine country – the most destructive on record. Almost inconceivably, 1,381,405 acres burned by way of 9,133 total fires. Yet, somehow miraculously, and despite being a “fire vintage”, vines at ‘To Kalon’ were not affected by smoke taint, as all grapes were harvested before the fires had a chance to spread. This wine has a garrigue flavour profile to it, with distinct herbaceous notes along with pepper and some smoke. It’s juicy and chewy, dense and full of concentration. It’s a certainty that this will be a wine that will age two decades and beyond. A real Napa Valley icon. ($250)
Double Diamond 2018 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
From esteemed proprietor Fred Schrader and winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown, fruit for this 100 percent quintessential Napa Valley cabernet wine is sourced exclusively from a complement of prime vineyard estates in Napa Valley’s world-renowned Oakville AVA, including the famed ‘To Kalon Vineyard’ (85%) – a site that’s highly regarded as the pinnacle for cabernet, not just in Napa, but the entire world. Aged in 50 percent new French oak, it spent 16 months in barrel. As winemaker Thomas Brown indicated during a virtual tasting: “We let the vineyard dictate the style.” Extremely aromatic, this wine is a shapeshifter, with varying aromas of chocolate, nutmeg and black fruits. Wait and you’ll further discover notes of menthol and violets. The palate is duly rich and complex, boasting an exuberance of dark fruit and inviting flavours of spice and leather. There’s a stony mineral presence on the mid-palate that coaxes a refreshing and slightly minty finish. Supple, abundant and luscious in its youth, this is a stunning wine that commands your attention. And as great as this is now, it is highly ageable, sure to reward those who are patient enough to wait a few more years for it to reach peak performance. ($119.95)