An excellent vintage with deep, concentrated, well-structured wines, especially in Napa Valley. A dry winter and a warm, dry spring got things off to a quick start, but in April a bad frost (the worst in 30 years) hit Northern California hard. Fruit set was damaged and yields were clipped from the get-go.
The dry winter conditions that continued into March and April, combined with a significant heat spike in March, got the vines moving early. But the risk of frost damage hovered, and indeed a cold spell lasting up to 10 days resulted in the worst frost in 20 years, with temperatures regularly lower than 30°F in early April. In the Central Valley, a few overnight temperatures went into the mid 20°s. The result was crop size reduced by 20% in some varieties.
The cold snap was followed by the hottest May on record, and it continued with what proved to be the third hottest June on record. This kept the harvest looking like it would be on the early side, and the vines were about two to three weeks ahead of schedule.
But the frost took its toll, and even with significant new planting coming online the harvest would still end up short. Yet the silver lining was that the small crop would reach superb levels of concentration and the wines would show in their depth, richness, and structure. After such a crazy start, growers were relieved when July, August, and September turned out to be pretty uneventful, and conditions remained favorable through the end of harvest. Growers had the luxury of waiting to pick at optimum ripeness, and the result was a solid but small crop of superb wines.
Late bud break, 10 days earlier than normal
The worst frost in 30 years
Set heat records
Cool and foggy weather
Warm and dry
One of the star estates of the Napa Valley, Araujo owes much of its success to the Eisele Vineyard, located just outside Calistoga. This spot first came to prominence in the 1970s and '80s as the source of the blockbuster Cabernet Sauvignon made by Joseph Phelps Vineyards. Before Phelps, however, Milton and Barbara Eisele cultivated the 38-acre parcel, discovering its potential and leaving their name as a legacy. Since 1990, Bart and Daphne Araujo have carried on the tradition of making monster Cabernets, adding Syrah into the mix as well. Their flagship bottling is dense, powerful and rich, typically with soil-inflected notes of plum, mocha, tobacco and smoke, and very suave tannins. Three-quarters of the Eisele vineyard are planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, to accommodate grape needs, while the remainder is divided between Bordeaux varietals, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot, and of course, Syrah.
Cabernet Sauvignon Facts
Full, tannic wines with notes of blackcurrant and cassis
Grilled red meats, stews, hard or rich cheeses
Cabernet Sauvignon has been the flagship red grape of the California wine industry for decades, and its popularity shows no sign of abating. Napa Valley is the heart of Cabernet Sauvignon production and is clearly an ideal region for creating world-class wines. If any Cabernet-based wine is capable of giving Bordeaux a run for its money, it's Napa Valley's examples. However, due to the extremely high cost of purchasing and developing vineyards in California, and the cachet of Napa Valley on the label, this has largely become a category for the well-heeled wine lover.
At their best, Napa Valley's Cabernets are characterized by fruit notes of cassis, black cherry, and licorice and sweet oak notes of chocolate, mocha, cedar, and tar. Today, most of the best wines are aged entirely or almost completely in French oak barrels, which tend to produce somewhat more refined wines than do most American barrels. (These latter barrels often introduce exotic and pungent suggestions of scotch, bourbon, tar, coconut, and dill.) But the use of expensive French oak is no guarantee of a good bottle: too many wines today, due to high crop levels or insufficiently ripe fruit, do not have the stuffing to support their oakiness and can quickly be dominated or even dried out by their wood component. The best California Cabernets mellow and soften with five to ten years of bottle aging, developing more complex and less fruit-dominated notes of tobacco, leather, and earth, with mellower wood tones. Compared to the top Bordeaux, however, many California Cabernet Sauvignons merely endure in bottle rather than truly become more interesting. There are no shortage of quality producers, even if these wines are rarely values. And it remains to be seen if today's outsized showstoppers, made from superripe grapes and undeniably impressive on release, will reward extended bottle aging or will turn out to have been best suited for drinking in their youth.
Many wines labeled Cabernet Sauvignon contain small percentages of other so-called Bordeaux varieties -- chiefly Merlot and Cabernet Franc but also Petit Verdot and even Malbec (varietally labeled wines in California must contain at least 75% of the variety named).
Cabernet Sauvignon also flourishes in Washington State, Australia and even Chile. In Washington, prices have been creeping up at the high end, with some producers aiming to compete with cult wines from the Napa Valley. Consider Chateau Ste. Michelle and Woodward Canyon. In Australia, look to the Coonawarra and Margaret River regions. Chile can reveal excellent bargains to those who know where to look: Montes makes a strong range of quality bottlings, as does Casa Lapostolle.
As Cabernet Sauvignon is bold and assertive on the palate, it pairs best with foods like grilled red meats. Taken together, the proteins and fats in the food neutralize some of the stronger tannic qualities of the wine, leading to a harmonic combination that enhances both partners.