“God made cabernet sauvignon, whereas the devil made pinot noir.” America's most influential winemaker, André Tchelistcheff, was referring to cabernet’s relative resilience and ease of growth in comparison to pinot’s more fickle, delicate disposition.
As my last edition of ‘Wine of the Week’ celebrated pinot noir done right, it seemed fitting to visit the deity of red wine grapes next.
On 7 June, 1976, Time reported the momentous results of a now fabled blind tasting in Paris. Two Californian wines had beaten their French counterparts to the top spots: the 1973 Chateau Montelena chardonnay and 1972 Stag’s Leap cabernet both took home the gongs for best white and red respectively. The man who was responsible for both? One Mr André Tchelistcheff.
Tchelistcheff had helped seal Napa’s position onto the world wine stage: chardonnay its queen, cabernet its king.
And to this day, California has continued to make some of the most exciting cabernets on the planet.
So for this week’s tasting, we have gone unapologetically Cali heavy. However, there are two other New World alternatives for good measure.
Warning: these are big wines. You’re gonna need a bigger decanter…
Orin Swift Palermo Cabernet Sauvignon 2018
The 2018 vintage will no doubt go down as one of the best the world over – and Napa was no different.
Yes, this means that prices at the very top end will become impossibly inflated; but also that some of the wealth has trickled down.
In the case of renegade winemaker Orin Swift, there was so much top-quality cabernet sauvignon, that some of the grapes usually reserved for their top labels (Papillon and Mercury Head) were shared with their more affordable Palermo.
The 2018 Palermo is like a greatest hits of Napa cab sauv: its fruit comes from all over the valley – from the floor to the higher elevations.
The likes of Sun Lake, Heitz and Stage Coach all donated grapes to this powerhouse.
The 2018 Palermo is like a greatest hits of Napa cabernet sauvignon: its fruit comes from all over the valley – from the floor to the higher elevations
A 15.5% volume is nothing less than you’d expect – and the result is a dark crimson wine as striking as the label that adorns it.
But it’s not all tongue-tainting tannins – there’s a real elegance to it. It starts with currants and vanilla – and later there’s licorice and even black tea.
Barbecue season has officially started, and this is a very strong contender…
Orin Swift Palermo Cabernet Sauvignon 2018, £44.99 available from Majestic.
Mt Brave Cabernet Sauvignon 2013
Mount Veeder is the birthplace of Napa Vallery wine – it's the holy ground for California winemakers. Wine has been grown here since the early 1860s by industry pioneers including Charles Krug, Agoston Haraszthy and William S Keyes.
The parcel that became Mt Brave Vineyard, in the northern reaches of the Mt Veeder AVA, was originally purchased back in 1841 – before the Gold Rushhad even begun.
It was named after the native Wappo people – known as ‘the brave ones’ – who were the original inhabitants of this land.
It sits high atop Mt Veeder at an elevation between 1,400 and 1,800 feet. This high altitude keeps midday temperatures cooler than those in the valley below, while the position above the fog line gives grapes longer daily exposure to sunlight. A perfect combination when it comes to making refined, elegant cabernet sauvignons.
The 2013 growing season was another banger – with temperatures regularly in the sweet spot between 85°-95°F, and barely any rain.
It’s not all sunbathing, though. Thin, rocky soils and steep slopes make water retention a challenge, but the vines’ beneficial struggle produces tiny berries with unusually concentrated flavors.
The resulting vintage of Mt Brave is an addictive burst of blueberries and raspberries, balanced with floral notes and plenty of minerality.
Mt Brave Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, £86.90; hedonism.co.uk
Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2018
It wouldn't be fair to visit Napa Valley without heading across the border to neighbouring Sonoma County. Sonoma is actually twice the size of Napa – and grows considerably more grapes, including some serious cabernet sauvignon.
Kendall-Jackson dips into a mixture of mountain and hillside vineyards to perfect its Vintner’s Reserve. The rich black cherry aromas are joined by blackberry and cassis, with vanilla and mocha blending in to help round it off.
Speaking of blending, the Vintner’s Reserve is not a pure breed, but rather softened with merlot and malbec, and enriched by cabernet franc and petit verdot. It’s a tried and tested combination that makes for an approachable and incredibly moreish wine.
Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2018, £18.75, 99wines.co.uk
Waterstone Cabernet Sauvignon 2015
Waterstone is one of the younger wineries in this line-up, formed just 20 years ago. The premise was simple: luxury wines at affordable prices.
And despite the winery going from strength to strength over the past two decades, they have managed to keep the prices below the £40 barrier.
Waterstone is a collaboration between veteran winemaker Philip Zorn and longtime wine executive Brent Shortridge. Between them, they have extensive relationships with Napa Valley growers and vintners.
And it’s this intelligent sourcing that’s been key to keeping quality up – and prices down.
They’ve managed the second side of the equation by avoiding the accumulation of land or facilities; Waterstone doesn’t have its own vineyard. Instead, it cultivates relationships.
Waterstone doesn’t have its own vineyard. Instead, it cultivates relationships.
When it came to 2015 – one of the earliest harvests on record in Napa Valley – the team needed to make sure they knew who they could trust to pick the right grapes at the right time.
On first tasting the 2015 Waterstone Cabernet Sauvignon, they definitely got it right.
There’s all the richness and depth you’d expect, yet some real complexity there, too.
Black cherry and cassis hit you first, followed by sweet pastries and violet. Rather than being tangy, the tannins are lighter than you might expect, and there’s a refreshing minerality on the finish.
Waterstone Cabernet Sauvignon 2015, £36.80; jameshockingwine.com
Terrazas Grand £45
I say Mendoza, you say malbec. But give me an Argentinian cabernet sauvignon any day.
Especially if it’s one from Terrazas de los Andes – and even better if it’s a Terrazas Grand.
The name comes from the unique geography of the Andes foothills – ‘terrazas’ – at a range of different altitudes, each with a different microclimate.
Terrazas Grand Cabernet Sauvignon is blended from five plots across two of Terrazas’ high-altitude vineyards – Los Aromos (3215 ft) and El Pedregal (3608 ft). This elevation – and the vast temperature differences between day and night – give the grapes wonderful aromatic complexity and flavor.
The gravely and loamy soil of Los Aromos vineyard in Luján de Cuyo reveals forest fruits, while the rocky terroir of El Pedregal in the Uco Valley brings the fire-roasted red pepper and hints of mint.
The overall result is a cab sauv that punches well above its weight, fusing French form with Argentinian finesse.
Terrazas Grand, £45, clos19.com.
Cape Mentelle 2016
As André Tchelistcheff started work on his award-winning 1972 Stag’s Leap cabernet, similarly exciting developments began in Australia the same year.
In the then relatively unknown wine-making region of Margaret River, Cape Mentelle was born.
Margaret River is purpose built for making wine. First, a peninsula surrounded by wild ocean on three sides that brings with it the cooling breezes needed for making Bordeaux varietal wines. It benefits from mild, wet winters followed by long, warm summers.
Gently hand-harvested grapes and careful vine pruning ensure that Cape Mentelle is one of the finest examples from the region.
The winery went on to break records with its cabernet sauvignon – the first wine ever to win the Jimmy Watson Trophy two years in a row.
Its 2016 cabernet sauvignon has plenty of brooding black fruits and bags full of dark cherries. This is an Aussie baller of a wine, yet kept in check – its velvety tannins and lingering minerality a sign of its surprising elegance and class.
Cape Mentelle 2016, £65, clos19.com
Newton Vineyard Single Vineyards Spring Mountain District 2014
Newton Vineyard is famous for its unfiltered wines. Its founders Peter Newton and Dr Su Hua were pioneers in this field.
The duo were decades ahead of the curve when they founded the winery back in 1977 – and have since become renowned for making some of the most refined unfiltered wines not just in the US but anywhere in the world.
It all began on the slopes of Napa Valley’s Spring Mountain – a then unheard-of region, which Hua and Newton have since turned into a haven wine lovers.
Alongside their Unfiltered Chardonnay, Unfiltered Cabernet Sauvignon and claret-blended Puzzle – all of which retail around the £50 mark – they also produce a number of single-vineyard flagships.
Although there are five different vineyards now, we’ve opted for where it all began – the Spring Mountain District.
This is a deeply complex wine – but despite all the layers it isn’t unapproachable. A lot of Napas need many years to be anywhere near this velvety.
Now, that’s not to say it’s a shrinking violet – far from it. There’s plenty of punchy tannins and smokey tobacco in there.
There’s no doubt the 2014 has many years left to give, but if you can’t hold back it’s already tasting brilliant now.
Newton Vineyard Single Vineyards Spring Mountain District 2014, £144, clos19.com