Friday, June 5, 2015

Two 2011 Napa Cabs From Cornerstone Cellars

Napa Valley is one of the great wine regions for Cabernet Sauvignon, but even great wine regions sometimes have disappointing vintages.  The 2011 vintage was just such a vintage for most Napa Valley winemakers. Wine Spectator said Napa grapes couldn’t catch a break in 2011, "from a cold, wet spring, a late fruit set, a mild summer and a harvest that dragged on into November, bedeviled by rain and rot." They even quoted one winemaker as saying "It was a horrible year for Napa Cabernet." But, not so fast, king-of-grapes breath. It has also been said, "You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows."

Craig Camp, managing director of Napa’s Cornerstone Cellars, knows a thing or two about Cab. He says a cool vintage is a blessing, not a curse. "To say that I have a chip on my shoulder about the 2011 vintage in the Napa Valley would be an understatement," Camp writes in an email. "Anyone who has spent any time in the vineyards of Europe can only be amused by the moaning about what a challenge this vintage was."  Camp feels that challenges are a part of agriculture, but as far as the wines go, "the wines that underwhelm you from this vintage are due more to decisions made by winemakers, not due to the weather."

Most folks have it backwards, Camp writes. "The problems climate presents to winegrowers in Napa are those of over-ripeness, sugars that mature ahead of flavors and lack of acidity. In truth, the hot vintages are the problem vintages in Napa, not the cooler ones. The producers that had the most problems in 2011 are those seeking to make the biggest, most powerful wines possible."

The Cornerstone approach is to shoot for a style of wine driven more by acidity than ripeness or alcohol. That’s why Camp is not singing the blues about 2011. "We were more than able to work with the natural ripeness grudgingly given us by Mother Nature," he continues. "We are very pleased with our 2011 wines and love their balance, freshness and length. That length is ... something that just does not exist without great acidity. Camp cites their '11 Cabs as being varietally correct. "They actually taste like the variety from which they are made. That means our cabernet has that bit of an herbal edge that makes the variety so compelling to me and so amazing with food."

Cornerstone Cellars Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2011

The 2011 Cornerstone Cellars Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is made up of 88% Cabernet Sauvignon grapes taken from Kairos Vineyard, Oak Knoll District, Oakville Station, and Ink Grade Vineyard on Howell Mountain with a 12% contribution of Merlot from Oakville Station.

The grapes were harvested throughout October of 2011. Aging took place over 22 months in French oak barrels, 65% new oak. Alcohol rings up at 14.3% abv and the bottle sells for $65.

The various sites from which the grapes were picked are like a Who's Who (What's What?) list of great Napa locales. Cornerstone gets this fruit regularly, and there is a reason for that. The quality exhibited in these grapes is noteworthy, and the folks at the winery took note.

This wine is dark and delicious. Opaque and deep burgundy, the nose brings an elegant package of cassis, graphite and smoke. The flavors are juicy and ripe, with blackberry and currant serving as a framework for the great oak effect. There are spices galore - cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper, anise, sage and even a hint of bell pepper. It's not a vegetal wine by a long shot, though. The richness and depth of the aromas and flavors are what I expect from a first-class Napa Valley Cab.

Cornerstone Cellars Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, White Label 2011

Camp explains why the Howell Mountain fruit is so desirable: "The vineyards of the Howell Mountain AVA are well above the fog line meaning many extra hours of sunshine, which paid off big time in the cooler 2011 vintage. In fact, I believe the wines from this AVA really benefited from the milder weather, which helped restrain the aggressive mountain tannins."

Camp feels their Howell Mountain Cab has great Cabernet structure, should be getting just about perfect in five to seven years and can be expected to develop for decades beyond. This wine hits 14.5% abv in alcohol and sells for $80 retail.

The nose on this Napa Cab is beautiful, and that's an understatement. It starts out bright and perky, darkening with time into a brooding bad boy. The cassis, blackberry and anise aromas develop a tarry sensation that means business. The flavor profile sharpens its focus, too. The red currant and plum turn black and the lighthearted cherry takes on an earthy, licorice note. The tannins are firm but forgiving, and the finish is long.

If the price tag means it's a "splurge wine" for your budget, let the splurging begin.

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