The new, old Napa

Ask a Napa winemaker what they thought of the 2011 vintage and you’re likely to get one of two answers. For some it was an opportunity, for others a disaster.

The cooler-than-normal growing season, with rainfall more than a third the usual level by the end of June, caused a variety of problems. Some vineyards reported botrytis in the Cabernet Sauvignon for the first time in living memory, crops in some AVAs were down by a third, and rain in the middle of October hampered harvest. The grapes were lighter and smaller, with thicker skins and an intensity of flavour that was “Bordeaux-like”, as Michael Silacci at Opus One said with approval. The previous year, 2010, had also been cooler and damper than usual.

These vintages forced many winemakers to produce wines that were lighter, more restrained, lower in alcohol and altogether different in style to the overwrought Cabernets for which Napa is notorious. Cool vintages prove that Napa can and should produce wines with finesse and restraint.

Delia Viader and her son Alan, at the Viader winery Delia founded 30 years ago on Howell Mountain, feel their time has come. “We’re finally here,” Alan says. “Consumer tastes have changed to the point where they appreciate subtlety. People have tried the old style and are now coming back to real wine.”

This change in consumer perception is not confined to Napa, of course. In Australia winemakers are variously praising and worrying about the “pendulum swing” – particularly as Barossa Shiraz producers chase elegance – and whether it will go too far and compromise the region’s signature broad-shouldered style. In Napa, there are similar worries. French consultant Philippe Melka, based in Napa with his own Melka label and a dozen high-end consultancies, warns that if you “Bordelaise the California fruit ... you reduce everything and you remove what California can give.”

But – as anyone who has tasted 30 and 40-year-old Napa Cabernet will attest – the valley is not hard-wired to produce blockbusters. The winemaker has choice.

At a recent tasting in St Helena, four winemakers – Tim Mondavi of Continuum, Cathy Corison of Corison Winery in Rutherford, Chris Howell of Cain Vineyards on Spring Mountain and Jean-Charles Boisset of Boisset Family Estates, owners of Raymond Vineyards and a handful of other California properties – stressed the role of the winemaker in setting style. “When we want to talk about place, we are essentially talking about winemaking choices,” Howell said.

Mondavi agreed that often, “the hand of the winemaker is evident”. A winemaker’s choices in terms of picking times and vinification are crucial in deciding the style and weight of a wine.

At the same time, the winemaker must work with the raw material he or she has been given – or, as Howell put it, “site will prevail”. This is why 2010 and 2011, when growers struggled to get ripeness, are so important.

For some retailers, the gradual pendulum swing is welcome. “It’s definitely having an effect,” Greg Sherwood MW at London’s Handford Wines, which has an extensive Napa list, says. He namechecks wines such as Shafer’s famously robust One Point Five Cabernet Sauvignon, which in “2007 [another cooler vintage] and 2010 is quite elegant”.

He adds that prices have remained stable for a few vintages – a wine that was £35 three years ago is still £35. “That’s a price drop, as far as I’m concerned.”

At Roberson, another major London retailer of California wines, buyer Mark Andrew says he is seeing “the best California for 10 to 15 years”.Andrew is outspoken about Napa, which he has always considered monolithic, but he agrees 2010 and 2011 are “a crossroads for some producers. There’s a repudiation of over- ripeness, over-oaking and low acid”.

Referring to the famously restrained styles of the 1970s and 1980s, Andrew says there are “new old things” coming out of Napa, and cites the long-established Spring Mountain winemaker Stuart Smith of Smith-Madrone as an example of finesse and elegance.

Because of its premium prices, great Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, of course, has long been the preserve of the very rich, specialist consumer. But if Sherwood is right and prices are stabilising, and if we are genuinely seeing a sea-change in style, then look out for the new vintages as they come on stream, and note their structured tannins and more restrained fruit and alcohol.

The region’s most farsighted winemakers are turning back the clock: this is the new old Napa.

Ten wines you must try

1.    Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley 2009

Wonderful sweet cherry nose with hints of herb. The palate is savoury, perfumed with parma violets, blueberry and red cherry. Precise tannins, juicy finish. (2015-2025)

£39.95 Roberson

2.    J Davies Cabernet Sauvignon, Diamond Mountain 2010

Fresh dark fruit on the nose with cassis, spice and aniseed. Precise, grainy, firmly-structured tannins, wild, woody blackberry, sweet black cherry notes. Long. (2014-2025)

£50.98 Vineyard Cellars

3.    Newton Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain District, 2011

Cherry, smoky mocha and cedar on the nose; superb lively, dry tannic structure, lovely ripe  sour plum and damson. Magnificent. (2015-2040)

n/a UK

4.    Chappellet Signature Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley 2010

Blackberry and nettle on the nose, sweet hay, cherry, damson and plum, soft tannins are sweet, dry and grippy, with a hint of juiciness to come. (2015-2025). Current vintage 2005.

£30-35 Hedonism, Seckford, Fine & Rare

5.    Diamond Creek, Gravelly Meadow Cabernet Sauvignon, Diamond Mountain 2010

Open, fresh mineral nose, wet stones after rain. Opulent palate with blueberry and damson, tannins starting soft and then rapidly gaining powerful grip. Superb. (2015-2035)

£120-130 Vineyard Cellars

6.    Corison Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley, 2010

Fresh hay, sweet plum, damson, fresh cherry and blackcurrant. Fresh palate with racy acidity and suave tannins, some perfume –violet and pot pourri (2014-2030)

£60 Roberson

7.    Cain Cain Five, Spring Mountain District, 2009

A classically restrained Bordeaux blend. Sour plum and damson, some redcurrant, mineral tones, robust, firm, intense young tannins which promise mouthwatering juice. (2016-2030)

£50-60 Justerini & Brooks

8.    Viader, Viader, Napa Valley 2009

Hay and bell pepper on the nose, ripe cherry and wild strawberry palate, bright acidity, tannins gentle then with grip. Precise core. Utterly delicious (2014-2030)

£50-60 Fine & Rare, Corney & Barrow

9.    Dyer Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Diamond Mountain, 2010

Fresh mineral nose with capsicum, on the palate blueberry, aromatic earth and herbs, elegant decay, earthy tannins which dissolve into juiciness. (2014-2025)

n/a UK

10.  Spring Mountain Vineyard Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain District 2008

Raspberry on nose and incredibly fine tannins on the palate. A delicate though robust structure, sharp acidity, precise, the epitome of power with finesse. (2014-2030)

n/a UK

Tasted by Napa Mountain vs Valley wine panel

Cathy Corison, owner, Corison Winery, Rutherford

Tim Mondavi, owner, Continuum Estate, Pritchard Hill

Chris Howell, winemaker, Cain, Spring Mountain District

Jean-Charles Boisset, Raymond Vineyards, St Helena

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