Terroir to the Fore
A trilogy of superb vintages is emerging that could redefine Napa Valley reds, writes James Suckling
spent a week in California’s Napa Valley in February, tasting new cabernet sauvignons from some of the top cult wineries, such as Screaming Eagle and Bond. They were fabulous, particularly the 2012 vintages and the few barrel samples I tried from 2013 and 2014. These wines evoke the glory days of the Napa Valley, including the great vintages of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. They show finesse and balance with fruit intensity and ripe tannins. There’s no hint of overripe or jammy character.
I remember growing up with great wines from such names as Inglenook, Beaulieu Vineyard and Heitz Wine Cellars. My father was a collector of these wines in my youth in Los Angeles and I drank them regularly in my early years as an editor at Wine Spectator.
I have been lucky enough to drink a number of these old Napa Valley cabernets over the past few months with some friends. The wines were from the 1960s and ’70s, including such cabernets as 1974 Sterling and 1968 Souverain. They were still beautiful to drink—even of stunningly great quality. And now I get the same sensation of grandeur and beauty when tasting the top Napa Valley cabernet sauvignons from recent vintages. That’s special.
Everywhere I visited with my wife, Marie, in February, the winemakers were enthusiastic about this great modern trilogy of Napa Valley—2012, 2013 and 2014. They agreed these three vintages could redefine the style and quality of the region’s wines. The vintages represent a switch from a highoctane, market-driven style to a more terroirfocused and balanced character, at least for the top names. Of course, the wines still have lots of pure fruit intensity, as Napa Valley reds should, but they show a freshness and firmness, even an austerity, that moves away from high-alcohol, jammy reds of the past, particularly those of the early 2000s.
“You have to go back at least to the 1990s to find outstanding wines like these,” said Bob Levy, the head winemaker of Harlan Estate and Bond Estates, after a tasting in February of 2012s from both. “There’s no sense of overripeness. If you get it in balance young, it’s going to be balanced always. The growing season for 2012 was a cooler year and you will see the difference.”
Nick Gislason, the winemaker of Screaming Eagle, agreed: “We had gorgeous summers that weren’t too hot. They were consistently warm with very few heat spikes, and it kept the freshness in everything.”
Indeed, with such balance and freshness in these great reds, drinkability is becoming the key word for many top Napa Valley winemakers. Perhaps they understand that, globally, consumers who are buying and drinking expensive wines, particularly young ones, want drinkability? Or perhaps they are simply making wines that they like to drink themselves? Either way, there’s a lot to like in 2012, ’13 and ’14.
I prefer the 2012, but I haven’t tasted enough of the 2013 or ’14. The purity and harmony is indeed exceptional, and I think that anyone who thought the best of Napa Valley cabernets were overdone should seriously consider trying these.