April 9, 2007
Napa Cabernet: A Status Report

The culinary highlight of the weekend was a blind tasting of six Napa Valley cabernet sauvignons from 2002. I chose this theme because cabernet sauvignon is California's most highly regarded varietal, with the best examples coming most consistently from Napa Valley. Often, however, I just don't get the excitement - or the prices - they prompt.

This group was no exception. All were premium or super-premium releases, ranging from $40 to $115. Collectively, they were fine wines, generally concentrated with ripe cherry flavors. A couple had notes of eucalyptus and mint. Just one was peculiar - soft, sweet and abrupt. The others were balanced and vibrant, with a couple downright elegant. But I was perplexed by their overall fleeting finishes. They were what they said they were, but they didn't have the complexity, buoyancy and length that made them especially exhilarating.

The consensus favorite - six tasters were involved - was the Hartwell Vineyards 2002 Napa Valley Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon ($115), the most muscular and tannic wine in the flight. The fruit ran to ripe blackberries and cherries, and the structure was classic Stags Leap - sabre-like in combining resilence with spring. I liked its richness and ripeness, but I would have liked it even more had the tannins been mellower.

Coming in second overall was the Terra Valentine Vines 2002 Napa Valley Spring Mountain District Wurtele Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($50), notable for its lush and varied berry flavors, firm yet supple structure, and note of chocolate, a frequent trait of Spring Mountain cabernets.

The best buy finished third, the Silverado Vineyards 2002 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($40), which I liked for its fresh smells of cherries, berries and plums, its fruity and slightly minty flavor, its balanced tannins, and its finish, the most resonating in the flight.

All the wines were double decanted, a step I usually avoid but in this instance used because of the youth of the wines and because of what I've been reading and hearing lately of the benefits of briefly aerating relatively new releases. Double decanting involves pouring the contents of each bottle into a decanter, then returning it to its original bottle.

The 2002 growing year in the Napa Valley, incidentally, started off apprehensively, with an April frost and May rains, but summer was mild, with warm days and cold nights. At harvest, the juice was lauded for its intense color and focused flavors. Each of these wines was fairly high in alcohol - around 14.5 percent - but none was harsh with heat.

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