Over the past few decades, the Napa Valley has become synonymous with award winning Cabernet Sauvignon. Originating from the Bordeaux region in France, Cabernet Sauvignon is truly wine’s ambassador to the world. Now in the annals of wine history, this varietal put the Napa Valley on the map in the 1976 Paris Tasting.
Cab vines makeup the majority of acreage in the Napa Valley. But the diversity of soil and climate in Napa County allows for the production of almost every grape varietal. These subtle differences in microclimate and geology were the focal point of splitting Napa County up into different sub-appellations or American Viticulture Areas (AVAs).
There are fourteen AVAs in Napa, and each one grows a different mix of varietals. For example, the coastal marine influence of the San Pablo Bay makes the Carneros AVA perfectly suited for growing Pinot Noir, which thrives in cool, windy areas. Consequently, Carneros’ Acacia Winery produces exceptional Pinot Noirs, competing with some of the world’s best.
Napa’s best, however, is Cabernet Sauvignon. Because this varietal can grow in a wide array of climates and soils, every AVA in Napa boasts Cab of their own. But there is a select set of conditions which makes for world class examples of the grape. These include long, sunny days in warm climates, in conjunction with porous, well draining soils.
Having perfect growing conditions does not ensure premium quality fruit. Because they grow easily in various conditions, Cab vines can give vineyard managers fits with their sometimes wild growth. Therefore, canopy management is critical to the ripening of the grapes. Many Napa Valley vineyards have developed innovative techniques to deal with this problem, yielding grapes with unmatched flavor and intensity.
It is then in the winemakers hands to turn this tannic berry into the opulent nectar of the gods. Until recently in California, Cabernet production was primarily a single varietal wine.
Because of the high pip to pulp ratio of the Cab berry, they can have very high tannin concentrations. The result is that many single varietal Cabs are harsh in their youth. Napa vintners are recognizing this setback and beginning to blend the grape with other Bordeaux varietals to not round out its strong flavors, but also to add complexity.
One of the first vintners to use this innovative technique was Inglenook’s John Daniel Jr. Daniel Jr. is one of the most influential figures in Napa’s viticultural history, and is considered by many as the godfather of the Napa Valley Cabernet. Inglenook’s 1941 vintage is regarded by many as the best wine ever produced in the Napa Valley.
It was not until 1976, however, that the Napa Valley Cab received world wide recognition. Warren Winairski’s Stags Leap Wine Cellars 1973 S. L. V. Cabernet Sauvignon won top prize at the 1976 Paris Tasting. This came as a surprise to everyone; Winairski’s Cab beat some of the best producers in Bordeaux.
This upset is now known as the vinous “shot heard round the world, " and catapulted Stags Leap as well as the entire Napa Valley. Since this event, the Stags Leap AVA has been producing world class Cabs with enviable consistency.
The crème de la crème of Stags Leap also includes Shafer Vineyards. The key to their success is the rocky hillside that is home to their vineyard. This rocky soil translates into a small quantity of grapes with intense favor and complexity. The Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon is regarded by many to be the best Cab in California, and is the definition of a cult wine.
The Hillside Select is like the White Rhino; you know it exists but have never actually seen it. Unfortunately, this is characteristic of many of the most exclusive wines from Napa. A Cab that has received international acclaim and is readily available at your local grocery store is Mondavi’s Opus One.
Opus One is one of the best wines produced in the famed Oakville AVA. Due to Oakville’s unique soils and warm climate, the Cabernet Sauvignon grape vine thrives in the AVA. Because of this, the region has attracted some of the best vintners in the world. There are also several other excellent wineries from Oakville which produce award winning Cabs. Paradigm Winery, Rudd Winery and Silver Oak Winery are among the industry leaders.
Just north of Oakville, you will find another region that is famous for Cab. The Rutherford AVA may be even better known than Oakville, and has surged to the forefront of the California Cab industry.
Because Rutherford is slightly North of Oakville, it is affected less by the coastal influence of the San Pablo Bay. Warm temperatures dry and heat the ground, which leads to riper grapes with more developed tannins. Cabs from Rutherford tend to be more complex than those from Oakville, but need to be aged longer because of their tannic nature.
Caymus Vineyards is located in Rutherford and has been producing Cab since their inception in 1973. Their 1990 Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon was declared, “Wine of the Year, " by Wine Spectator. Not long after receiving this award, they were given the title of, “The Best Winery for Cabernet Sauvignon in California. "
Whether Caymus is the best Cab producing winery in California is a matter of opinion, but it is fact that the Napa Valley is California’s epicenter for Cabernet Sauvignon. This delectable red has changed the way the world views California wine, and anyone who has experienced one can attest to its brilliance.
Benjamin Bicais lives in the Napa Valley and is the author of many articles about Napa Valley Wineries .