When people hear “Napa Valley,” the first association that usually comes to mind is “wine.” When they are pressed to name a particular kind of wine, cabernet sauvignon is more often than not the varietal they mention.
What many people may not know is that there is a range of cabernet sauvignons grown and produced throughout the Napa Valley. And it is the appellation — the legally defined and protected geographical location used to identify where the grapes for a wine are grown — that plays a large part in the quality of the wine in the bottle.
This past month, the St. Helena Star and Napa Valley Vintners tasting panel tasted through the 2008 and 2009 vintages of hillside cabernet sauvignons. These 18 wines were all made from appellations with elevations ranging from 400 to 2,600 feet above the valley floor. Generally speaking, hillside cabernets have higher tannins, more pronounced herbal notes and a more intense mouth feel than wines coming from the valley floor.
The tasting was held at the Culinary Institute of America’s Rudd Center and the group of 27 panelists tasted through three flights of six wines from Atlas Peak, Diamond Mountain, Mayacamas, Mount Veeder, Howell Mountain and Spring Mountain.
Once the group completed the blind tasting, panelists had a chance to discuss their overall impressions of the wines. Did they notice anything different between the 2008 and 2009 vintages?
Doug Fletcher with Chimney Rock Winery summed up his initial impressions by saying, “I didn’t notice a big difference between the ’08 and ’09 when it came to quality, though the 2009 wines seemed a bit sweeter.”
Christie Dufault, sommelier and CIA instructor, said she was “delighted” with the 2009 wines.
“I think they showed very well,” she said. “Yes, they are heavy-hitting wines, but many surprised me with their restrained power. I found them to have a lot of minerality and tannin, without being too aggressive. To me, that’s the hallmark of a hillside cabernet.”
Jac Cole, winemaker at Spring Mountain Winery, agreed with Dufault’s assessment and thought the 2009 wines were “rich, chewy, beautiful lush wines.” He added, “We won’t have any trouble selling these wines.”
One term that came up time and again during the discussion was “tannin management.” Many panelists enthusiastically agreed that all of the hillside wines they tasted had good tannin management.
“I didn’t find any one wine that was overly tannic,” said Tom Simoneau, host of a wine show on KSRO radio in Sonoma County. “These are wines you can enjoy now.”
While many of the wines in all three flights were well received, the following were judged the best in their flights:
Within the 2008 vintage wines, the Hess Collection Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon, at $48, beat out wines in its flight priced nearly twice as high. A blend of cabernet sauvignon, malbec, merlot and petit verdot, this wine offered a rich mouth feel, which led to a full mid-palate and long, soft finish. The dark fruit and hint of chocolate provided a very pleasing finish.
The 2009 cabernet sauvignons were divided into two different flights. The Howell Mountain Cornerstone Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon ($80) and Mount Veeder V. Sattui Cabernet Sauvignon ($49) respectively tied for first place in their flights. For more than two decades, Cornerstone Cellars has been obsessed with making world-class cabernet sauvignons, and this Howell Mountain cabernet is no exception. Dark fruit notes laced with cinnamon, forest floor and sweet cocoa made this wine a clear winner.
The V. Sattui cabernet showed expressive, mountain-bred fruit flavors of crushed berry, cassis and plum that were punctuated by bright herbal notes and cedar, making it another favorite of the group.
Heading the list for the third flight of wines was the Hunnicutt Cabernet Sauvignon from Spring Mountain ($85). The wine is well balanced, yet flavorful with Bing cherry and blueberry pie.
With each wine in the portfolio, the family–owned and operated winery aims to produce excellent wines that are not intimidating. Having received the top marks within this flight of wine, it appears the Hunnicutt Cabernet Sauvignon has accomplished the family mission.
(Tiffany van Gorder is general manager of Napa’s Balzac Communications; contact her at tvan firstname.lastname@example.org. 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” to learn more.)