A Showstopper Line-Up of Napa Valley Cabernets
Sometimes cabernet sauvignon takes your breath away.
That’s how I felt on Sunday, during a seminar I conducted with Gary Fisch, owner of the renowned retail store Gary’s in New Jersey. I was nothing short of amazed by the complexity and sheer deliciousness of several of the cabernets in the tasting. We tasted two vintages—the 2011 and 2012—of each wine.
It was, in retrospect, a perfect way to show the personality and wine style of each winery, since these two vintages could not be more different. 2011 was a “Bordeaux vintage”—cool, allowing the wines to show the distinctive characters of their sites; 2012 was warm and easy—what we think of as a “California vintage”—giving the wines greater weight and fruit, but also greater homogeneity.
What struck me most was the purity of the flavor in the best of these wines—as if every molecule was lined up along a single, dramatic trajectory of flavor. When Napa Valley cabernet soars; it soars high, with wines that are vivid and intense.
Vine Hill Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon (Oakville, Napa Valley)
The vineyards of Vine Hill Ranch (quite close to Harlan) produce cabernets that more people should know about. The wines have deep, dark flavors of incense and cedar, exciting spikes of exotic spiciness, masses of savory flavor and streaks of minerality. The richness and fascinating flavors are nothing short of stellar. 2011: 95 pts.
VHR: Farming Napa Valley History
In the 1960s, Bob Phillips, now 89, transformed the Vine Hill Ranch, where fruit orchards and hay fields once stood, into one of the most sought-after vineyards in Napa Valley for Cabernet Sauvignon. Bruce Cakebread, who has bought grapes from Vine Hill Ranch since 1981, says of Phillips, “He's really dedicated to his vineyard. We’ve gone through replants and phylloxera together, and he'll go to the Nth degree to grow the best grapes.”
The 70-acre vineyard, nestled between Harlan Estate and Dominus in the southwestern corner of Oakville, undulates from the benchlands to the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains, with seven different blocks all dedicated to Cabernet. It's in Phillips' modest nature to have chosen farming over winemaking, and he's sold grapes to some of Napa's finest producers, including Cakebread, Etude, Lail and Bond. One of the first to source his vineyard was André Tchelistcheff for his Georges de Latour bottlings at Beaulieu Vineyards.
In 2004, Phillips’ son, Bruce, along with vineyard manager Mike Wolf, talked Phillips into making wine. Grapegrowing, however, remains a big part of the business; only 10 percent of what they grow goes into the VHR label, which debuted in 2008. “Our passion lies in the vineyard, and the core business will always be growing,” says Bruce, who manages grower operations for VHR.
Winemaker Françoise Peschon utilizes what Phillips calls the “winemaker's toolbox,” designating sections within the estate to craft the blend. “The fruit from the higher-elevation blocks has a rich, earthy, chaparral quality, with intense black fruit, while the benchland blocks offer bright fruit flavors with silky tannins,” says Bruce. “Our program is driven by the vineyard, is an exploration of the site and an expression of each vintage.” Rating: 93
The 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon is soft, supple and gracious. There is little question the 2011 is the most mid-weight, accessible vintage produced here yet. Sweet tobacco, licorice, menthol, cloves and black cherries meld together in this expressive, nuanced Cabernet Sauvignon. Winemaker Francoise Peschon aged the 2011 in 100% new French oak barrels, but there is no sign of new oak at all. The 2011 is an excellent choice for drinking over the next handful of years. Readers lucky enough to own preceding vintages will want to hold onto those, and drink the 2011 in the meantime. Rating: 94