Winter means something different in Napa Valley. The surrounding hills of the Vaca and Mayacamas mountain ranges dress in their finest green foliage in contrast to the brown uniform of summer and fall.
The snow, if it does come, gives a brief showing by capping the hill tops. Often the sun will shine, but foggy and wet weather are to be expected. The vines, dormant and restful, let mustard flowers get all of the attention.
It is time to enjoy a different side of Napa Valley.
Except for the vineyard crews busy pruning, attention this time of year is directed away from the vine and to the warming pleasures of drinking Napa Valley’s red wines. The Napa Valley Destination Council calls this time of year “cabernet season” — the period from late fall through March, when local restaurants create hearty foods and people eat and entertain indoors — perfect opportunities to really savor Napa Valley’s famous cabernet sauvignon wines.
It is a quieter Napa Valley, a time when visitors can revel in what locals enjoy best this time of year: open seats at popular restaurants, less traffic and time to consider rejuvenating spa treatments or local cultural events. The electric and intense harvest season, followed by the holiday rush, are now a distant memory.
The St. Helena Star and Napa Valley Vintners tasting panel set out this month to taste cabernet sauvignon wines under $90 from the 2006 and 2007 vintages. With cabernet season officially here, we look to the panel for what’s new and hot with cabernet sauvignon wines.
Each panelist blind-tasted three flights of six different wines and recorded his or her favorite in each flight. The room was divided so that two different groups each tasted 18 wines, making it a total of 36 wines examined during the tasting.
The top six wines of the tasting were the Girard Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 Diamond Mountain ($75), with sweet red berry and oak spices; the Sterling Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 Napa Valley ($50), a juicy wine with red berry, anise, orange zest and spice; the Oakville Ranch Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 Oakville ($60), which showed dense dark berries and spice; Ballentine Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 Napa Valley ($42), a wine with dark berries, vanilla and caramel; the Rocca Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 Yountville ($75), showing red fruits, citrus and herbs with lots of oak spicing; and the J. Davies Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 Diamond Mountain District ($75), which has rich red berries, orange zest and herb with a nice, long finish.
These top six cabernet sauvignons were then compared in a taste-off to find the group’s ultimate expression of cabernet sauvignon wine. That wine is the Oakville Ranch Vineyards 2007 cab from Oakville.
A discussion followed the tasting. With two vintages being tasted, the panel couldn’t help but compare. The blinded flights were set up so that all wines in a particular flight were from one vintage.
Oak influence was discussed with varying opinions. Eric Carpenter from St. Helena Wine Merchants thought the wood stood out, especially in the 2007 vintage. Chris Phelps, winemaker at Swanson Vineyards, noted that the 2006 wines were youthful, and yes, some were over-oaked, but he found more balance than expected. Rudy Zuidema, winemaker for Sea Fog/The Grade wines, described the 2007 vintage as flashy and not as graceful as the 2006, also noting that the 2006 vintage had good balance.
In general, opinions seemed to collect around the general fact that the 2006 was a vintage of great balance and complexity, whereas the 2007 created bigger, love-’em-right-away wines that were incredible to drink but might not age as long as the 2006 wines.
Regardless of the vintage, however, these cabernet sauvignon wines were rich and warm, and perfect for cabernet season.
If you have visitors coming to town, many Napa Valley hotels and inns offer special rates this time of year. The website for the Napa Valley Destination Council, legendarynapavalley.com, provides a list of these specials, as well as contact information for any activity you can think of — from wine tastings to spa treatments to museum visits.
(Catherine Seda is the St. Helena Star’s tasting panel writer and works for Balzac Communications and Marketing in Napa. She holds a diploma in wine and spirits from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust, and enjoys all things wine. Contact her at email@example.com. Only wines from Napa Valley Vintner member wineries are accepted and tasted. Not all wines submitted are chosen to be tasted, as often there are more wines submitted than tasted. The wines are chosen at random. Many wineries offer local residents discounts on their wines through the Napa Neighbor program; visit napavintners.com/programs and click on “Napa Neighbor Discounts” to learn more.)