There are wines that can resonate with us imbibers. Perhaps it’s an elegant pinot, or maybe a cool chardonnay. But no wine is as widely discussed, scrutinized and celebrated – not to mention collected and cellar worthy – as cabernet sauvignon.
The durability, familiarity and marketability of the cabernet sauvignon name poses an irresistible lure to wine merchants and consumers looking for a reliable return on their investment, making it the undisputed king of wines.
French by heritage, few would argue that the finest examples of cabernet sauvignon wine are found in Bordeaux and California, a standpoint supported by the 1976 Judgment of Paris. The two worldly regions have differing views of how cabernet sauvignon should be expressed, however. It is the backbone to most left bank Bordeaux offerings – which can contain up to four additional varietals – with the desired result being a complex wine in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Producers in California, meanwhile, allow the grape to stand more on its own as a single varietal wine (generally with just a splash of some added varietals to add a bit of lift to the flavour profile). What the consumer gets from this new world expression is a wine that is rounder and bolder with a firm grip on the palate that exhibits a more concentrated and richly ripened flavour profile. These are attributes that have become accustomed to describing cabernet from California, and this would be why California cabernet is so revered.
California is very fortunate to have a variety of outstanding sub regions suitable for producing excellent cabernet wines. There are currently 139 American Viticultural areas (or AVAs). These are geographical grape-growing areas that have officially been given appellation status by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. AVAs show off the diversity and quality of the entire state of California’s wine region. The distinct “persona” that differentiates one AVA from another is mainly categorized by climate, geology and elevation. No surprise, Napa Valley is the original California AVA, designated in 1981.
Accounting for just 4 percent of California’s total wine production, Napa Valley is 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.
Within the Napa Valley AVA exists 16 nested sub-AVAs, each with its own strengths and specific characteristics. At the heart of Napa lies Rutherford, designated in 1993 and famous for its gravelly, sandy and loamy soils, but also for what has been referred to as ‘Rutherford dust’ – a term coined by the great André Tchelistcheff who started in the wine industry as a Beaulieu Vineyard enologist and later became a mentor to some of the Valley’s most celebrated winemakers. The term has become synonymous with the region, and the region has become synonymous with great cabernet.
Very few sub-AVA names, however, have become familiar to the wine drinking public at large, the best known arguably being the Stags Leap District. Famous for its quality cabernet sauvignon (80 percent of the region is planted to this grape), this was the first appellation to be designated an AVA based on the unique terroir characteristics of its soil, which include loam and clay sediments from the Napa River and volcanic soil deposits left over from erosion of the Vaca Mountains. The area’s list of producers is among the most impressive in all of Napa Valley – or anywhere in the world, for that matter. (Just look up the Judgement of Paris and you’ll see why.)
The small district of Oakville – an area that covers a mere two-mile-wide swath of Napa – is perhaps where one will find the greatest concentration of Napa Valley’s preeminent producers of cabernet sauvignon. The AVA’s excellent and world-class wines can in part be attributed to the unique quality of its soils and enviable climate, but the story doesn’t end there. Oakville is distinguished by more than its terroir. Here you will find family-owned vineyards (ie: Robert Mondavi Family, Schrader Cellars) tended by meticulous growers, visionary wine marketers and some of the world’s foremost winemakers, all working together to craft unique, spectacular wines.
If Napa is the king of cab, then Sonoma surely is its queen. Producers of regional cabernet sauvignon grown within Sonoma County’s 18 sub AVAs have long been recognized for making high-quality wines that aren’t priced as high as some of Napa’s top producers. And who can complain about that?
Twenty percent of Sonoma’s wine production is cabernet sauvignon, with 12,000 acres planted. Formidable producers such as Rodney Strong and Beringer Vineyards are making beautiful expressions of cabernet from well-established sub AVA locales like the Alexander Valley and Knights Valley.
California’s Central Coast is home to one of the state’s oldest wine regions, namely Paso Robles – a place where winemaking tradition stretches back to the 1790s. When touring Paso Robles wine country, you may cross boundaries of appellations that did not exist until very recently. First designated in 1983, the Paso Robles AVA had just one appellation until 2014 when the federal government designated a whopping 11 more. This flood of appellations was a long time coming, but by and large, local winemakers are thrilled to see the region finally getting its due.
Dozens of additional world-class AVAs for producing the cabernet grape exist throughout California, proving that this is a place where cabernet sauvignon has become ubiquitous. Prices can often meet and even exceed the first growths of Bordeaux, and despite a raft of quality cabernets emerging from new world regions such as Maipo in Chile and Coonawarra in Australia, quite assuredly, no other place has been able to usurp California’s crown as the kingdom of this varietal.
We state our case with these fine – and affordable – examples of California cabernet sauvignon listed below:
Beaulieu Vineyard 2014 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
For more than 100 years, Beaulieu Vineyard has been setting the standard for rich, classic Napa Valley wines that honour the expression of its remarkable terroir. This Rutherford cab is a tremendous representation of its AVA terroir exhibiting intense saturation of colour, aromas and flavours. Rich dark fruit, black currant and cassis notes, alongside oak barrel nuances immediately tempt the senses. The palate’s dark fruit notes are supported by hints of dark chocolate, mocha and coffee. The structured “Rutherford dust” tannins are fine grained and very focused, showcasing the signature fine cocoa powder texture and expansive mouthfeel. Incredible depth and balance here. ($79.95)
Stags’ Leap Wine Cellars 2016 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
Established in 1893, Stags’ Leap Winery is one of the oldest wine estates within the acclaimed Stags Leap District, producing wines expressive of its unique terroir. This cabernet is plush and inviting, with an enticing array of brambly blackberry fruit along with raspberry sorbet notes alongside nuances of lifted violet, sweet cinnamon, clove and cedar. On the palate there’s plum and blackberry, but there are also savoury elements showcasing light herbal notes and earth, giving this cab a classic depth and elegance. Seamlessly integrated oak and refined tannins provide a smooth mouthfeel and add layers of complexity, all wrapping up with a lengthy textured finish. ($59.95)
Robert Mondavi 2016 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
For decades, the Mondavi name has been synonymous with Napa Valley and fine wine. Fruit for this particular cabernet was sourced from two of the valley’s most renowned sub-appellations: Oakville – where the winery is based out of – and Stags Leap District. The varying meso-climates and soils of these vineyard sites help to elicit a wonderfully concentrated, expressive, and classic Napa Valley cab and are combined with fruit from a number of the area’s finest vineyards for the perfect expression of the region. The wine is mouth filling, intensely flavoured and deeply complex. The interplay between blackberry fruit, clove spice and firm tannin structure make this an excellent choice to pair with rare steak or prime rib. It will also cellar for years to come should you decide to keep a bottle for later. A bargain priced wine considering this is one of California’s stalwart brand names. ($44.95)
Double Diamond 2017 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
From the creators of Schrader Cellars, the Double Diamond brand was established in 2000 as part of Fred Schrader’s quest to make the best cabernet sauvignon that Napa Valley can offer. Over the course of a 19-year collaboration with Schrader, winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown has led Schrader Cellars to an unprecedented record of twenty-seven 100-point scores from some of the world’s most respected critics. Those wines are practically unattainable. But the Double Diamond wines are more widely accessible and very reasonably priced considering the pedigree. This 2017 vintage is not yet available in Ontario, but is scheduled for a March 21 release. Double Diamond is sourced exclusively from a complement of prime vineyard estates in Napa Valley’s world-renowned Oakville AVA, including the famed To Kalon Vineyard – a site that’s highly regarded as the pinnacle for cabernet, not just in Napa, but the entire world. Full bodied, lively and savoury, with beautiful acidity serving as its backbone, this is a bold wine that presents a luscious fruit character and fine-grained tannins. Should play out even better with some added time in bottle. ($119.95)
Double Diamond 2018 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
It’s not often that one gets to compare back-to-back vintages of an ultra-premium wine side-by-side from such an esteemed producer. I was fortunate to be able to do this twice with the wines for this feature (refer to Austin Hope ’17 and ’18). Like its previous vintage, this cab uses about 85 percent of To Kalon Vineyard fruit and about 50 percent new French oak. The 2018 spent two months longer in barrel though and is 100 percent cabernet sauvignon (the ’17 had splashes of cabernet franc and petit verdot). 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)
Beringer Vineyards 2017 Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
The Knights Valley designation was first used on a Beringer label in 1974 and Beringer was instrumental in garnering official recognition for the area in 1983 as a premier wine growing region in the form of its own AVA designation. Soft and silky tannins and a plush, full mouthfeel set this wine up for immediate enjoyment, although it’s built to age and develop further complexity. Aromas of dried herbs, cedar, clove and lavender join flavours of dark red fruit led by figs, black cherry, currants, raspberry and evident oak spice. Additional notes of black olive, wild sage and mocha chocolate round out the tasting experience. Balanced acidity helps lead to a lingering, memorable finish. ($44.95)
Rodney Strong 2016 Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon
From three exceptional vineyards (including one specifically from within the Alexander Valley) planted in the well-drained alluvial, volcanic and uplifted shale/sandstone soils that make Sonoma County an ideal place for this noble grape. This is a richly structured cab with dark cherry, cassis, plum and spice notes. The palate has lingering spicy oak flavours with a plush finish. The 2016 vintage was an excellent one for California wines – especially the heartier, Bordeaux-type varietals. Definitely stock up on this particular vintage. It’s the type of wine that doesn’t break the bank and will please any wine-drinking crowd. An excellent companion to most barbecue fair. ($27.95)
Austin Hope 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon
Wine Enthusiast proclaimed this the 10th best wine of 2019 – a monumental achievement for Paso Robles and for Austin Hope. Dark ruby in colour, this wine expresses aromas of freshly picked blueberries, ripe black cherries, subtle notes of milk chocolate and dried spices. The mouthfeel is luscious and supple with tannins that are powerful yet modern in style. Layered flavours of juicy blackberry and red fruit engage the palate, with nuances of black pepper, clove and vanilla bean rounding out the long smooth finish. It’s full-bodied, round and rich. A chewy, hearty wine that’s expertly polished. Will age for decades, but one need not wait that long. ($69.95)
Austin Hope 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon
“Some vintages just start showing better early,” said a very happy Austin Hope when I spoke with him back in May on the subject of comparing this 2018 cabernet vs. the much acclaimed 2017. “We didn’t age ’18 as long as we did ’17 in barrel.” In fact, the difference was two full months and perhaps that has something to do with this wine seeming a bit more focused and precise. It’s incredible, actually, that this wine could be even better than the 2017. There’s layers upon layers of flavour and structure here. Rich and ripe cherry, smoke, dark chocolate, peppercorn spice. There’s even hints of smoked meat and bacon fat – usually something you tend to find in a well-made syrah. Tannins are noticeable, but are smoothened, as if by a rolling pin. It doesn’t have that over-extracted flavour feeling, despite using a lot of new and once used French oak. This is next level cabernet and although it will cellar beautifully, this is wonderful to experience right now. Should be double the price, but I’m not complaining. ($69.95)
Treana 2017 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 inspired the Hope family to move to Paso Robles nearly four decades ago. It’s also the inspiration for their Treana label, created in 1996. 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 beautiful 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 mouth feel that finishes with balanced acidity and moderate, velvety tannins. Quality wine from a quality label. ($39.95)