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05.03.2011

Tasting the Superstar Wines of Napa's Oakville AVA

oakville_logo.jpgNapa Valley is famous, or infamous depending on your point of view, for some of the world's best and priciest Cabernet Sauvignon. While it has yet to reach the heights of the few First Growths in Bordeaux in terms of pricing, the Napa Valley has been producing some of the most sought after wines in the Western Hemisphere for several decades.

Napa Valley, like so many wine regions, is not actually one place, but many - its various sub-regions offering a wide variety of topographies, microclimates, soil types, and exposures. The AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) that have been created to ostensibly highlight, if not demarcate, the differences between these sub-regions are increasingly well-known in their own right, thanks to the often famous wines that prominently feature their names on the label.

And while the superstar, cult, and simply super-expensive wines are spread throughout the 15 AVAs of Napa Valley, there is one that holds more of what might be called Napa's First Growths than any other.

In many respects, to the naked eye Oakville is one of Napa's least remarkable AVAs. Comprised of mostly flat or slightly sloping ground spread across the valley floor the only thing that marks the transition from the Yountville AVA to the South or to the St. Helena AVA to the north are the little signs that say it is so.

Yet amidst its flat unobtrusiveness lie some of North America's most expensive grapes, which produce more than their fair share of California's cult wines. Names like Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Bond, Rudd, OpusOne, Far Niente, Nickel & Nickel, and Dalla Valle all have Oakville as a subscript on their labels, the first three of which are among the most sought after wines in America. Of course, there are a lot of other great wines made in the AVA as well.

Oakville is home to the famed To Kalon Vineyard, purchased by H.W. Crabb in 1868, shortly after the installation of a railroad stop made the tiny village of Oakville spring to life. In 1876 Crabb's neighbor John Benson bottled his inaugural vintage of Far Niente wine just down the road.

By the year 1880 the Oakville area had 430 acres under production, and these would nearly triple to more than 1000 acres in the next 10 years and continue to grow until Prohibition turned off the spigot in the 1920's.

In 1965 Heitz Vineyards made the first vintage of Martha's Vineyard Cabernet, a wine that Robert Mondavi probably tasted around about the time he established his own winery a year later, and one of the most famous wines of the appellation.

Every year, the Oakville Winegrowers Association throws an annual tasting for members of the press and the wine trade to give many of us the chance to taste wines that few ever get to taste, along with many of the other excellent (and more affordable) wines made in the appellation.

I was able to sneak away from work a couple of weeks ago and spend a couple of hours tasting. Here are some of the highlights.


WINES SCORING BETWEEN 9.5 AND 10

2008 Futo Proprietary Red Wine $200
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dark cassis, chocolate and black cherry, and starts the mouth watering before the glass gets anywhere close to your lips. In the mouth a silky stream of powdery tannins envelopes flavors of cherry, black cherry, dirt, and leather that are at once both juicy and deeply rich. Stunning in its balance between muscle and elegance, this wine is quite simply, delicious. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon with 35% Cabernet Franc and 5% Petite Verdot. Click to buy.

1994 Dalla Valle Maya Red Wine
Light to med ruby in the glass this wine has a heady nose of roasted figs and chocolate. In the mouth, the wine is nothing short of stupendous, with a fantastic mélange of cherry, cedar, nut skin, and coffee with milk. It's hard not to use phrases like "liquid sex" to describe wines that have this sort of presence on the tongue. Supple, gorgeous, and very naughty, this wine cannot be spit out. It's hard to imagine that this wine will get any better with age, though I wouldn't be surprised if it lasted at this peak for some time longer. Click to buy.


WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 9.5

2007 Harlan Estate Proprietary Red $450
Med garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of bright cherry and tobacco aromas. In the mouth that rich pipe tobacco and cherry aspect prevails, with an incredibly plush, silky presence on the tongue. Notes of nutty cedar, sweet oak, and deeper wet woody notes linger in the very long finish. Wonderfully poised and delicious. Click to buy.

2003 Tierra Roja Cabernet Sauvignon $125
Light to med garnet in the glass, this wine has a remarkable nose of cherry, wet steel, dirt and cedar aromas. In the mouth the wine has a wonderful bright tautness, thanks to great acidity and a medium claret-style weight on the palate with a very smooth texture. Flavors of cherry and cedar dominate as the wine finishes nicely.

2008 Dalla Valle Cabernet Sauvignon $150
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and tobacco and has a bright purity in the nose that is quite disarming. In the mouth it offers textbook Napa Cabernet - cherry, tobacco, leather, and dark chocolate all wrapped in a silky robe of fine tannins. The finish is beautifully long and has a wonderful hint of aromatic sweetness. Stunning and remarkable quaffable even in its young state. Click to buy.

2006 BOND St. Eden Proprietary Red Wine $275
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a wonderfully stony quality to its nose along with smells of cedar, cherry and tobacco. In the mouth this minerality continues with a beautiful combination of graphite and stony austerity and a leathery cherry fruit that kicks the saliva glands into action. Nicely balanced with slim muscular tannins, this wine will improve over a decade or two. The last time I tasted this wine it was out of sorts with itself, but it seems to be singing beautifully now. Click to buy.

2007 Bond Vecina Proprietary Red Wine $275
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dark black cherry, cassis, and a dirty leather saddle. In the mouth the dark quality continues with black cherry and wet dirt flavors that taste like they were filtered through crushed granite. The dichotomy of minerality and fruit is quite astonishing and really pleasing. Supple tannins get stronger in presence as the wine finishes, suggesting another 5 years before this wine truly expresses all it can. Click to buy.

2007 Hoopes Cabernet Sauvignon $60
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a strong and juicy nose of cherry cola. In the mouth the wine has an explosively bright quality, with fantastic acidity that brings the cherry cola flavors alive in the wine in a wonderful expression of boisterous fruit. Deliciously gulpable, but with enough complexity to avoid being simple. Fantastically textured and with a long finish, it will be very interesting to see this wine age into something even more profound. If you can keep your hands off it. Click to buy.

WINES SCORING BETWEEN 9 AND 9.5

2007 Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon $750
Med to dark garnet in the glass, this wine has an unusual nose of nutmeg, sweet oak, cedar, and pencil lead. In the mouth the wine is exceptionally nutty, with flavors of roasted nuts, chocolate, sweet oak, and a woodiness to which the cherry fruit takes a distinct back seat. The wine is a bit confounding, as these flavors are not clearly evident of a surfeit of oak in the way that such a winemaking choice often manifests, yet I can't help but feel that such a choice is behind them. The wine finishes long in the mouth. Enjoyable, especially thanks to its gorgeous texture, but I am left thinking it is a little odd. Click to buy.

2006 Rudd Oakville Estate Proprietary Red Wine $125
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry, cocoa powder, and wet dirt. In the mouth flavors of cedar and cocoa powder mix with cherry and dirt. Nice acidity and hint of bitterness linger in the finish, along with the sensation of powdery tannins. Click to buy.

2008 Dalla Valle Collina Cabernet Sauvignon $75
Med garnet in the glass, this wine has a sweet nose of bright cherry aromas. In the mouth it offers wonderful cherry and bright vanilla flavors wrapped in a fleece of fine tannins. Great acidity, and a hint of floral notes persist in the finish. This second-label wine from Dalla Valle contains about 20% Cabernet Franc. Click to buy.

2008 Desante Cabernet Sauvignon $55
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a bright, fresh nose of cherry and cedar aromas. In the mouth flavors of cherry and other red berries are nicely balanced with earthier notes of tobacco and wet stone. A silky texture, good acidity, and nice balance without too much oak make for an excellent wine.

2007 Detert Cabernet Franc $60
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherries, nut skin, and a nice floral scent that is quite charming. In the mouth, flavors of cherry, sweet oak, and cassis also contain an alluring floral quality. Suede-soft tannins add a nice complexity to the wine. Definitely one of the better Cabernet Francs made in Napa. Click to buy.

2008 Liparita Cabernet Sauvignon $50
Bright, medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a wonderfully pure cherry fruit smell. In the mouth that purity continues with cherry fruit flavors that have an almost crystalline quality to them. Very faint tannins rustle around the edges of the wine, and the cherry adds some tart sourness that is quite appealing as the wine finishes. Click to buy.

2008 Vine Cliff "Private Stock" Cabernet Sauvignon $150
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a strong nose of cola and cherry aromas with a hint of tobacco. In the mouth flavors of cherry cola, cocoa powder, and cedar swirl together in a wonderfully compelling package amidst very nice acidity. The wine finishes long and beautiful.

2008 Stanton Cabernet Sauvignon $75
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of sweet black cherry fruit. In the mouth smooth, even polished, flavors of cherry, chocolate and tobacco mix with a hint of bitter herbs that emerge in the finish. The oak is very well integrated into this wine, but definitely present. Nicely balanced. Click to buy.

2006 Kelleher Cabernet Sauvignon $82
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherries, cola, and wet dirt. In the mouth it offers a lovely concoction of cherry cola, dirt, leather, and suede-smooth tannins. Nice acidity keeps the wine bouncy and friendly all the way down. Just a very nice Cabernet all the way around. Click to buy.

2008 Casa Nuestra Tinto Oakville Red Wine $45.
2008 Hoopes Cabernet Sauvignon $60. Click to buy.
2005 Kelleher Cabernet Sauvignon $82 Click to buy.


WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 9

2008 Tierra Roja Cabernet Sauvignon $125
Med garnet in the glass, this wine smells of sweet tobacco, cherry and oak. In the mouth flavors of cherry and cedar are dominated by sweet, heavy oak that brings its traditional flavors of coffee and vanilla to the party, but a bit too boisterously, like the loud guy in the corner that everyone is trying to ignore, but can't. Nice acidity saves the wine from being too overwhelming, but the oak is too in-your-face.

07 Desante Oakville Terraces Cabernet Sauvignon $70
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of sweet cherry cola. In the mouth flavors of cherry cola, tobacco and sweet oak have a polished, even glassy quality and fine grained tannins linger through the finish. Decent acidity.

2008 Meyer Family Cellars "Fluffy Pillows" Cabernet Sauvignon $45
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of sweet oak and cherry fruit. In the mouth, flavors of cherry and herbs mix with strong (too strong for my taste) flavors of sweet oak. Nicely medium bodied in the claret style, the wine finishes with a nice wet dirt note to mitigate the oak.

2008 Meyer Family Cellars "Spitfire" Cabernet Sauvignon $45
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of ripe cherry fruit and sweet oak. In the mouth, flavors of cherry and green herbs mix with coffee and cocoa powder, along with the sweet vanilla of oak. Nice acidity, but a touch too much wood for the wine.

2005 Meyer Family Cellars Bonny's Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon $135
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of oak, vanilla, and cherry fruit. In the mouth, flavors of sweet oak, cherry, and green herbs take on a menthol quality which seems to be a signature of this vineyard. The texture of the wine is glassy and polished with faint tannins creeping around the edges of the tongue.

2008 Vine Cliff Cabernet Sauvignon $75
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of sweet cherry and cassis fruit. In the mouth flavors of cherry and tobacco are balanced with flavors of wet stone and a hint of dirt. Good acidity and subtle tannins.

2008 Oakville Terraces Cabernet Sauvignon $110
Med garnet in the glass, this wine has a classic old world nose of green bell pepper and cherry aromas. In the mouth the wine is bright and fresh with excellent acidity and a wonderful balance to it. Flavors of cherry are equally met with strong flavors of green bell pepper, which may be a turn-off to some. It is a bit strong here even for my taste. Still, this is a nice wine.

2006 Cosentino Cabernet Sauvignon $75
2006 Detert Cabernet Sauvignon $75
2008 Vine Hill Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon $150
2007 Saddleback Cabernet Sauvignon $60 (wine club only)


WINES SCORING BETWEEN 8.5 AND 9

2007 Oakville Cross Cabernet Sauvignon $60
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry, cedar and cocoa powder. In the mouth the wine has a wonderful smoky note to it that encloses flavors of cherry, cocoa, and wet dirt. Light tannins and decent acidity.

2008 Textbook Cabernet Sauvignon $49
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cassis and black cherry fruit. In the mouth ripe flavors of cassis and black cherry bounce juicily around the palate. Fine grained tannins that have a leather flavor accompany hints of floral qualities in the finish.

2008 Oakville East "Core Stone" Cabernet Sauvignon $110
2007 Miner Family Cabernet Sauvignon $65
2006 Cosentino Meritage Bordeaux Blend $75
2006 Cosentino Merlot $75


WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 8.5

2006 Spoto Cabernet Sauvignon $85
2008 Oakville East "exposure" Cabernet Sauvignon $90

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