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The holidays are upon us and for many people, it can be a very stressful time of year. Preparing the house for guests, selecting the perfect menu and purchasing just the right gifts for family and friends can be an overwhelming experience. And when it comes to picking out a special bottle of wine as a gift for the wine enthusiast in your life, many people become even more anxious because they know it’s an important decision that they want to get right.

A cabernet sauvignon is often a go-to wine for gift-giving around the holidays because many perceive the varietal as being extra-special. It’s one of the more complex and layered wines in the marketplace, and if you are one to read back label copy on a wine, you quite often will see descriptors such as elegant, smooth, velvety and rich — all of which make the wine sound romantic and desirable. Often coined the “king of red wine varieties,” a quality cabernet sauvignon spends more time aging to develop its intense fruit and character. In fact, the depth of fruit and character found in cabernet sauvignons grown in Napa Valley are extraordinary.

The climate is a primary factor that makes the Napa Valley the perfect place to produce cabernet sauvignon. Defined by mountain ranges and influenced by its proximity to the Pacific Ocean, the Napa Valley enjoys a dry Mediterranean climate perfectly suited to the growing of fine wine grapes. In addition, the consistent weather conditions year after year help make cabernet sauvignon a standout varietal.

Many winemakers will also agree that other contributing factors that make Napa unique are the terroir and soil types. In fact, the connection between terroir and vine truly sets Napa Valley apart from other grape-growing regions. According to the Napa Valley Vintners, vineyard farmers have identified more than 30 soil types in Napa Valley, from well-drained gravelly loams to moisture-retaining silty clays. This array of soil types have helped winemakers produce elegant cabernet sauvignons and established Napa Valley as a premier grape-growing destination.

The St. Helena Star and Napa Valley Vintners Tasting Panel recently conducted a tasting of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignons priced more than $50. Twenty-eight wines were tasted and they ranged from four different vintages (2009-2012). The first flight of wines included wines from 2009 and 2010. The second and third flights featured wines from 2011 while the fourth flight included wines from 2012.

Generally speaking, the panel found this to be an interesting tasting. The consensus for the 2011 vintage was that it was a bit overly manipulated with oak. The group thought the 2012 vintage offered bigger fruit and aromatics than other vintages. And most everyone agreed that the 2009 and 2010 vintages were holding up very well for their age.

“I thought each vintage did a good job in capturing the essence of what we saw in the vineyards,” said Alison Crary of Diageo Estates. “The 2012 vintage wines are youthful and possess good quality fruit. I found the 2011 vintage wines to be very graceful and great for gifting this holiday season.”

Robert Hunt with Conn Valley preferred the 2010 vintage. “I preferred these wines among the different flights as they have a good balance of fruit and spice.”

Both Kyrsta Scully of Indian Springs and Tom Simoneau of Vintage Wine Estates liked all four vintages. “These wines were a great cross-section of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon,” said Scully.

“It’s great that we can enjoy these different vintages from the Napa Valley and be able to cellar some fantastic wines from ’09, ’10 and ’11,” Simoneau said.

Among the wines tasted, the panelists found the following wines to be the standouts from each flight:

Flight One

2010 Alpha Omega Cabernet Sauvignon ($210) – The 2010 cabernet sauvignon is a beautiful wine. Deep and rich in color, the palate offers layers of persistent, dark fruit. There is a brooding inner intensity that is highly appealing. Hints of mocha and espresso add complexity on the racy, expansive finish.

Flight Two

2011 Ideology Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon ($125) – Hand-selected from only the best of the best barrels, the 2011 Reserve cabernet sauvignon truly embodies the uniqueness of the Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley. It offers inviting aromas of black currant, black cherries, savory spices and a hint of tobacco. On the palate, dark berries and crème de cassis continue through to the long, satisfying finish. The firm, polished tannins promise even greater complexity with age.

Flight Three

2011 Monticello Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon ($85) – This cabernet sauvignon from Monticello Vineyards offers aromas of ripe red and black cherries, vanilla and undertones of toasted oak. On the palate the wine is rich, with a full body and a rich texture. The flavors are of dark ripe fruits, suggesting black cherries and hints of blackberries. Winemaker Chris Corley finds appealing undercurrents of grilled red pepper and smoky tones on the long finish.

Flight Four

2012 Rombauer Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon ($70) – This wine displays a bright crimson hue and enticing aromas of black currant, blueberry and cedar spice. The palate is rich and textured with flavors of sweet cassis, blackberry and black cherry carried by supple tannins through the long finish. Enjoy now through 2018.

(Tiffany Van Gorder joins Catherine Bugue as the Star’s tasting panel columnists. Both love writing about — and drinking — wine. Only wines from Napa Valley Vintner member wineries are accepted and tasted. 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.)

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