The Grapevine

Napa’s 2011 cabs are more elegant, nuanced

March 24, 2014 

Laurie Daniel

Napa Valley is usually blessed with the sort of sunny, warm weather that allows a winemaker to produce just about any style of wine that he or she wants. Big, ripe and bold, or more elegant and restrained — nearly anything is possible.

In 2011, nature nixed that. The vintage was marked by a cool, rainy spring and a delayed harvest that was hit by rain. There was a lot of hand-wringing, and some early vintage assessments were less than kind.

I tasted a lot of 2011 Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon recently, at a series of tastings associated with the annual Premiere Napa Valley auction for the wine trade. If you like your cabernet powerful and concentrated, with big, ripe, jammy flavors, most of the 2011s probably aren’t for you. But if you think, as I do, that power isn’t everything, and your preference is for wines that are more elegant, lively and nuanced, you should be able to find a lot to like.

People who dismiss the vintage out of hand, says winemaker Celia Welch — who makes wine for high-profile clients like Scarecrow and Barbour, as well as her own label, Corra — “are really going to miss out on some interesting wines.”

Certainly not every 2011 Napa cab is of high quality. Vineyards on sites that are not well-drained and those with bigger crops sometimes did not fare well. Vintners had to be very rigorous in selecting only grapes that were in good condition, with no signs of rot or mold.

Part of the perception problem may be that the expectations about Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon have changed over the past 35 years. Bordeaux — which has growing conditions that are much more iffy, leading to more restrained wines — used to be the benchmark, notes Dirk Hampson, CEO and director of winemaking at Far Niente in Oakville. But in the past 15-20 years, the idea of what’s ripe has shifted, he says, and many wines have become more jammy, higher in alcohol and thicker on the palate. By comparison, 2011 may seem deficient to some people.

Hampson thinks the better 2011s have the structure and length to age nicely. He compares the vintage to the much-maligned 1998 and 2000 vintages, which he says have shown the ability to age.

The 2011 Napa cabs are just starting to roll out. Many of the higher-end wines won’t be released until later this year. But some good ones that have been released or will be available in the next month or so include the 2011 Far Niente ($135), 2011 Textbook “Mise en Place” ($49), 2011 Robert Mondavi Napa Valley ($28) and 2011 Beaulieu Vineyards Rutherford ($32). All exhibit ample fruit, nice freshness and some subtle savory notes, like black olive, anise, thyme and/or cedar.

PICK OF THE WEEK

Tangent 2012 Albarino ($17) From its Edna Valley vineyard, Tangent produces an exemplary California version of Spain’s albarino. The wine is very fresh, with racy white stone fruit and citrus flavors and some fleshiness.

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