The 1997 vintage was one that had Napa growers smiling from ear to ear. They brought in a large crop of excellent quality, with 144,000 tons harvested compared to an average of 121,000 tons over the preceding decade. The optimum growing conditions over the summer and through the harvest produced wines that are superbly concentrated, dense, rich, and powerful yet balanced.
The growing season got off to an early start with bud break coming a month early in the warm late-winter and spring conditions. The vines seemed to shrug off a little rain that fell in early June. The summer was warm but not too hot, with one heat spike in early August, followed by moderate to cool temperatures, to slow ripening. September conditions were excellent — the grapes had a long period of ripening without any heat spikes, allowing growers to wait to pick at optimum ripeness. It is one of the greatest vintages of the decade, with wines that are firmly in their prime today. They have incredible extract, depth, and structure, with solid, dense fruit centers to match.
Early bud break, due to dry spring
Unexpected rain had little to no effect
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.