The 2011 vintage was challenging in the Napa Valley, marked by a cool, wet spring and a delayed harvest that was hit by rain. Then came another challenge: The valley’s 2011 cabernet sauvignons were deemed inferior by many.
Wines from the top producers didn’t start hitting the market until last year. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how good some of them are. They aren’t the big, showy cabs that Napa Valley has become known for, but the really good ones have a finesse and balance that’s become the exception in riper vintages.
I wrote about the 2011s last year, but I’ve had the chance to sample more of them and thought they were worth revisiting. If you love ripe, jammy cabs with luscious fruit, the 2011s probably aren’t for you. The best 2011s, instead, reflects the varietal character of cabernet, with savory notes of anise, black olive and cedar.
“It’s very location-driven,” says Pat Stotesbery, proprietor of Ladera Vineyards, referring to the quality of the 2011s. “In supposed weaker vintages, hillside locations are the place to go,” he adds. Ladera is in the hills of Howell Mountain.
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He acknowledges that the wines “are a little less Napa-like,” but he says he prefers his 2011s to the richer 2010s. I found the 2011 Ladera Howell Mountain Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($90) to be concentrated and lively, with red and black fruit, a hint of anise and very firm tannins.
Another good hillside cab is the 2011 Smith-Madrone Spring Mountain District Cabernet Sauvignon ($48), which is a relative bargain. It’s savory and structured, with concentrated black fruit, notes of olive and anise and firm tannins.
Not all of the successful 2011s came from hillside vineyards. Spottswoode’s estate vineyard is in St. Helena, at the foot of the western hills. The Novak family has been farming the site since the early 1970s, and winery president and CEO Beth Novak Milliken says it’s easier to make a good wine in achallenging vintage “if you know your vineyard really well.”
The 2011 Spottswoode “Family Estate” Cabernet Sauvignon ($150) is sold out at the winery, but an Internet search indicates there’s still some in stores. It’s lively and concentrated, with black cherry and cassis, accented by savory notes of olive and anise, and it finishes with firm but approachable tannins.
Other 2011 Napa cabs to look for include Napanook, Dominus and Cliff Lede.
I suspect the best 2011 cabernets will age well, perhaps better than Napa’s riper vintages will. Milliken says the last vintage that was this challenging was 1998 — another year that was widely panned. But she thinks the 1998 Spottswoode is stronger today than the winery’s 1997, a vintage that got stellar reviews. “It’s a much more compelling wine,” she says.