Aging Napa Cabernet
Napa is often referred to as “the Bordeaux of the New World” due to the quality of the Cabernet Sauvignon, in particular, and other Bordeaux varietals grown in the area. And Cabs such as Screaming Eagle, Harlan Estate and Bryant Family, among others, have commanded “First Growth-like” prices both on release and on the secondary market.
But the question that always arises is whether Napa Cabernet has the ability to age. Forget whether this Cab has the ability to age to the degree of Bordeaux, which often continues to evolve after three or four decades in the cellar. Many people question Napa’s ability or willingness to produce wines that will age well beyond a decade, let alone two.
Some point to the differences in climate. Bordeaux has a relatively moderate maritime climate, allowing the wines to maintain a natural acidity which, combined with the fruit and tannin structure, results in wines with good aging potential. Napa possesses a Mediterranean climate with an abundance of sun and heat, which can result in increased ripeness and sugar levels in the grapes. This often translates to wines of higher alcohol, lower acidity and plush tannins — factors that make the wines more approachable when they are young, but not necessarily conducive to aging beyond a decade at the most.
I recently attended a comparative tasting of older vs younger vintages of some prominent Napa Cabernets, led by the winemakers of the wines presented. Wines from the 1980s and early ’90s were compared to those produced in the late 2000s. The older vintages had aged extremely well, possessing a refined elegance and maturity along with lower alcohol and less jammy fruit … some might argue Bordeaux-like.
There seemed to be a distinct stylistic difference in the younger wines. Higher alcohol, ripe tannins and jammy fruit seemed to indicate wines that were produced to cater to the consumer who is more inclined to trunk age their wines than cellar them. Perhaps the style is a result of the climate (as many of the winemakers indicated), perhaps it is due to market factors, but one thing is clear … it’s time to end the Bordeaux of the New World debate once and for all.
That is not to say that Napa doesn’t produce great wines. It does, and some of the best wines in the world are grown in this small valley. There was a time when the comparison to Bordeaux may have been necessary to build Napa’s image and draw attention to the quality of wines being produced. But that time has passed. We all know that Napa produces great wines, but they are clearly different from Bordeaux. Producers should stop trying to be something they are not, and be happy with what they have (and the wine media needs to stop fuelling the comparisons): one of the most beautiful wine-producing regions in the world, with the ability to grow outstanding quality wines. Not a bad compromise.
Robert Mondavi Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 1988 vs 2008, Napa Valley ($150)
1988: Leather and hints of earth with not much fruit, but not showing signs of oxidation. Has held up well, but not a lot of life left.
2008: Bright aromas and flavours of blackberry, blackcurrant, dark chocolate and black cherry with firm but plush tannins and a lingering finish.
Silver Oak Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 1992 vs 2007, Napa Valley ($135)
1988: Still possesses great fruit and freshness, hints of herbaceousness and coconut, nice elegance and balance and a touch of acidity.
2007: Much more forward, with ripe fruit, dark tannins with a touch of char; lacks some of the elegance of the older vintage.
Staglin Family Cabernet Sauvignon 1996 vs 2008, Rutherford ($200)
1996: Very elegant with dark fruit flavours, mushroom and forest floor, and a touch of herbaceousness; multi-layered, subtle and quite delicious.
2008: Quite extracted and jammy with soft, ripe tannins; a little one-dimensional and a little hot (the 14.9% is showing). Needs a little restraint and a more balanced touch.
Clos du Val Cabernet Sauvignon 1992 vs 2007, Stags Leap District ($80)
1992: Showing signs of approaching the end of its lifespan, but still showing nice tertiary characteristics of mushroom and coffee with a refined elegance, fading on the finish.
2007: Quite ripe and extracted, lots of sweet tannin and dark chocolate; a little heavy on the oak but still quite tight; may become more refined with time.
Silverado Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 1999 vs 2008, Stags Leap District ($85)
1999: Lots of dark fruit aromas and flavours with a ripe, juicy mid-palate, hints of chocolate, firm tannins and a long finish with still quite a bit of life.
2008: Quite fresh, with dark berry and currant aromas and flavours with a hint of duck-fat and fresh earth; not overdone, with firm tannins and a rich finish.
Cliff Lede Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon ‘Poetry’ 2001 vs 2008, Stags Leap District ($165)
2001: Great balance and structure with lots of layers, elegant and firm tannins, loads of fresh rich fruit and a lengthy finish.
2008: Multi-dimensional with loads of ripe fruit, but not overdone; hints of tobacco and leather; a touch opulent, but still maintains excellent balance and well integrated tannins.