Ter­roir to the Fore

A tril­ogy of su­perb vin­tages is emerg­ing that could re­de­fine Napa Val­ley reds, writes James Suck­ling

Hong Kong Tatler - - Life -

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.

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