Over the course of the previous five installments of this series on Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, I’ve focused on various specific appellations, trying to contextualize them in order to demonstrate what makes the wines from each unique. This final one, on Cabs labeled as simply Napa Valley, as opposed to any of the specific nested AVAs, is inherently problematic: Wines labeled as Napa Valley encompass a sweeping range of soils, micro-climates, geological histories, elevations, and more. In that regard, it’s just not possible to tie them all together in any satisfactory way.
To help shed some light on Napa Valley as a whole, I spoke with Vinous founder and CEO Antonio Galloni, who is not only one of the most important critics in the world of wine in general—his expertise literally spans the globe—but whose Vinous Napa Valley Vineyard Maps, done with critic and cartographer Alessandro Masnaghetti, are the most comprehensive and educational I’ve ever seen.
“The reason why I started to do those maps back in 2011,” he said, “is that I was tasting wines for Robert Parker [of The Wine Advocate],” and realized that, “if you woke up on the valley floor, you think you were tasting in Piedmont” from all of the fog. “And if you drive up to Pritchard Hill, it’s dry and sunny—and this is the same day.”
The range of elevation in Napa Valley plays a significant role in the ultimate character of the … [+]
Altitude, it turns out, isn’t just a defining characteristic of certain mountain appellations—Howell Mountain AVA, for example, begins at 1,400 feet above sea level; anything below that height is classified as simply Napa Valley—but also a key one in parts of Napa that we don’t usually associate with any sort of elevation.
“When you look at the existing AVAs, there are a whole bunch of areas that get left off, often because of altitude,” Galloni explained. “Rutherford’s a good example,” since its regulations require grapes to be grown between 155 and 500 feet above sea level. Any vineyards planted above 500 feet, even if they’re otherwise inside the AVA’s boundaries, are technically not part of the Rutherford appellation, and fall under the more general Napa Valley AVA instead.
“Napa Valley AVA, if you look at our map…there are a lot of vineyards that are outside of the dotted line,” Galloni pointed out. “It’s mostly just a question of elevation.” In other words, he told me, Cabernets labeled as Napa Valley AVA could be a mountain wine, a hillside wine, or valley floor wine, grown just outside of an AVA’s proscribed boundaries or elevations.
As a result, he said, “It’s impossible to say that Napa Valley has ‘this’ characteristic,” no matter how frequently the region as a whole is discussed in sweepingly monolithic terms.
The complexity of the region is incredible.
“What is Napa Valley? It’s a valley with mountain ranges on either side, and really interesting vineyards in that sort of transition,” Galloni continued. “If you look in the west…that’s where you have Harlan Estate and Futo…and if you go to the transitional areas, thats where you have Inglenook, Scarecrow.” Heading further east, he added, “you have the most fertile land in the middle…and on the other side, you have Dalla Valle, Peter Michael,” and other east valley standouts. “It’s a lifetime of trying to understand this,” he said.
With that in mind, here is a selection of 32 wines, from between 2016 and 2018, that exemplify the incredible range of styles and expressions that the region is capable of, even when labeled simply as Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.
Alpha Omega Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 Napa Valley
Sweetly fruited and dense on the nose, with reduced soy sauce glazing grilled plums, melted licorice, blueberries, and Luxardo cherries, all setting the stage for a palate of ripeness and energy, structuring tannins, and flavors of violet-tinged blueberries, lavender, sage, cafe mocha, and a savory finish that nods in the direction of tar and crushed brambly berries. Drink over the next 20 years.
Antler Hill Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 Napa Valley
Sweet black raspberries, blackberries, and black cherries lead to flavors of orange oils, singed sage, ample acidity, and a nice frame of ripe, red licorice-tinged tannins. Very ripe fruit. After a few years in the cellar, when the cedar and cigar tobacco notes in the background really start to emerge, this will hit its stride.
BRAND Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 Napa Valley
Grown on Pritchard Hill at 1,400 feet above sea level, this wine is dense and so wonderfully deep, with cinnamon-dusted chocolate mousse, mixed cherries, mountain berries, and camphor aromas setting the stage for a palate of vivid freshness juxtaposed with a taut tannic structure buttressing flavors of rooibos tea, cardamom, kirsch, a touch of chorizo, singed mint, camphor on the lavender- and violet-tinged finish, and deep saline minerality as a savory counterpoint to the ripe and generous fruit. This is absolutely delicious. Drink now after decanting – 2051.
Cardinale Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 Napa Valley
The nose on this wine is absolutely outrageous: Spearmint and chamomile are joined by gently singed sage, mineral, and then clear-as-day currants, cassis, violets, and cedar, setting the stage for a wine of magnificent balance, concentration, length, and poise. The currants, cherries, and brambly berries fan out on the palate, flashing with notes of sweet cigar tobacco, chocolate, cafe mocha, black cherries, lifted hints of fenugreek, licorice, and sarsaparilla. It finishes with a pulse of soy sauce through the long, savory, generous finish. Fantastic already, and with the promise of evolution to 2051 and beyond.
Chappellet Pritchard Hill Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 Napa Valley
So perfumed and lifted, yet with a core of gorgeous ripe berry fruit at its center: Aromas of fresh-cut cedar, violets, mountain berries, cherries, and kirsch show hints of espresso oil and chocolate, and precede a palate of taut structure and propulsive tannins that come in a beam, and carry flavors of cherries, black and purple plums, floral peppercorns, blueberries, boysenberries, chocolate-enrobed black cherries, lavender, and sweet spice. The long finish speaks of maduro tobacco and plum pits, and reinforces the impression of a wine just that the beginning of what will be a long, riveting, and deeply rewarding evolution over the next quarter century and beyond.
Component Wine Co. Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 Napa Valley
Incisive flavors of dark chocolate ganache and Amarena cherries are spiced with toasted fennel seeds and the suggestion of toasted coconut. The interplay of power and grace here is remarkable, and the balance and length suggest a 10 – 20 year life ahead. But like so many of the 2018s, it’s hard to resist right now.
Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 Napa Valley
A seam of mineral runs down the spice of this detailed Napa Cab, spiced with fennel seeds and cherry pits, as well as aromas of black raspberries and mixed cherries, all before a silky palate of beautifully balanced acidity and well-integrated tannins that all frame flavors of cherries, currants, a touch of cassis, licorice, pencil shavings, and a grace note of singed sage, blackberries, and cocoa powder on the finish, providing a final counterpoint of ripe fruit alongside more savory notes. Drink now – 2031.
Darioush Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 Napa Valley
Aromatically dense, there is a real sense of weight to the espresso beans, pie crust, and blueberry cobbler aromas before a palate of melted chocolate, black licorice, creme de cassis, smashed black cherries, cafe mocha, and then a wave of mineral-tinged chocolate-vanilla pot de crème rids in on the finish, where they are joined by plum and toffee pudding. Long, generous, and so appealing. Enjoy over the next decade-plus.
Dominus Estate 2016 Napa Valley
From the Dominus Estate vineyard in Yountville, this is labeled as Napa Valley. The nose is remarkably perfumed and lifted, with fist-fulls of black raspberries and Rainier cherries, as well as juniper berries, springtime flowers in full bloom, and sweet Middle Eastern spices. On the palate, this is kissed with sweet herbs and anise, yet there is a core of soy sauce-like umami that resolves in flavors of blackberries, black olives, currants, cedar, scorched earth, and mineral. There is such a sense of self-confidence to this wine, a refusal to be flashy for its own sake, and it’s all the better for it. Drink now and over the next 20+ years.
Dominus has produced a fantastic 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon that has the potential to age for decades.
Courtesy of Dominus
Flora Springs Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 Napa Valley
Comforting aromas of black raspberries and chocolate have a subtle potpourri lift of dried rose petals and orange peels, all teeing up a palate of notably sweet black raspberry and wild strawberry flavors that are pulled along with hints of cedar, blood oranges, and Earl Gray tea. Lovely right now: A classic example of a wine that can easily age for another 10 years, but that doesn’t require it.
Gamble Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 Napa Valley
There is a subtle floral tinge to the mixed currants, cassis, blueberries, and sweet and peppercorn spice here that lifts this red in fascinating ways. Alongside the excellent concentration and vibrant acidity, it’s a beautifully crafted wine with lots of life ahead of it. Enjoy over the next 15 years.
Geodesy Sage Ridge Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 Napa Valley
The fruit here—plums, blackberries, black currants—is just so generous and sweet-souled, yet with a gorgeous tinge of iron that brings it back down, literally, to earth. It carries its 14.9% alcohol brilliantly, and the suggestion of singed sage hovering in the background lends even further complexity to this terrific wine from Judy Jordan. Savor over the next 15+ years.
Grounded Wine Co. “Steady State” Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 Napa Valley
Generous blueberry and plum fruit on the nose are joined huckleberries and bluebonnets before a palate of sweet spice and more of that same fruit. A touch of blood orange and the suggestion of cooked honey and vanilla provide a nice counterpoint to the savory minerality anchoring it all. Drink over the next decade.
Hoopes Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 Napa Valley
Aromas of fresh-laid tar, leather, and flowers alongside wild berries set the stage for an assertively structured wine that wears its tannic framing nicely. Flavors of cherry pits, warm rocks, and cocoa powder lend it all excellent savoriness now, but I’d wait a couple of years to allow those sage and singed rosemary notes to really shine.
Hourglass Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 Napa Valley
Fabulous notes of springtime flowers, blueberries, a nod in the direction of tobacco, cardamom, Turkish coffee, and mineral. It’s all carried on a frame that’s silky, long, and virtually impossible to resist right now, though the next 20 years should provide even greater pleasures.
Joseph Phelps Insignia 2017 Napa Valley
This blend of 94% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Malbec, and 2% Cabernet Franc is magnificent as soon as you sniff it, emerging with a wonderful aromatic balance between the generous and the restrained, with aromas of licorice, sweet spice, cassis, cigar humidor, and singed sage preceding a palate whose floral peppercorns ring through the finish alongside vanilla pod, cassis, smashed blueberries, plums, and black cherries, all carried on a texture of wonderful silkiness, with just a subtle flash of spearmint and chocolate. Powerful and energetic, with another 25 years to go…but there’s no need to hold off, either.
Lail J. Daniel Cuvee Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 Napa Valley
This is absolutely gorgeous, restrained and balanced yet with serious energy. The palate flashes with flavors of toasty oak that is still absorbing, beneath which are blackberries, mountain berries, raspberries, cassis, pencil shavings, cracked peppercorns, pipe tobacco, sachertorte, and smoldering cedar. Give it a few years and then enjoy through 2050. Also, the Lail Blueprint Cabernet 2017 Napa Valley is terrific: Ripe and plush, with blackberry preserves, blueberry cobbler, cassis, cedar, sweet spice, and melted chocolate ganache. This is so well knit together, and even with a decade-plus of time left, it’s impossible not to love already.
Larkmead “Dr. Olmo” Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 Napa Valley
The nose here is gorgeous, with kirsch, black cherries, chocolate ganache, sachertorte, pencil shavings, and a dusting of sweet spice. There are hints of violets as well, and a bit of spice cake. On the palate, this is plush and ripe yet with an underlying sense of sage and forest floor, all carried by sappy tannins framing tongue-coating flavors of cherry liqueur, cassis, licorice, pencil led, and cigar humidor. Enjoy from 2023 and for the next three decades afterward.
Larkmead, in Calistoga, leverages its incredibly varied terroir to craft wines of distinction.
Courtesy of Larkmead
Louis M. Martini Lot No. 1 Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 Napa Valley
Amarena cherries and plum pudding aromas are sweet and effusive, with just the suggestion of toastiness to the oak in the background. On the palate, this is very ripe, and the Morello cherries and vanilla-coconut crème brûlée resolve in a finish of pastry creme, chocolate, and purple flowers, then a grace-note of soy sauce before it finally fades. This is a beautiful expression of the full-throttle style.
Michael Mondavi Family “Animo” Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 Napa Valley
Such a structured wine, with an excellent balance of fresh oregano and sage alongside mixed currants and pencil shavings, cigar tobacco, and cedar. Brambly berries lend it a sense of generosity, but this is more defined by its savoriness. A subtle and appealing red to enjoy over the next 15 years.
Memento Mori 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon
Crafted from fruit grown in Dr. Crane, Las Piedras, and Weitz Vineyards, as well as Oakville Ranch and Vine Hill Ranch, this is a magnificent mouthful of wine, overflowing with pure chocolate, cassis, kirsch, blackberry cobbler, crushed blueberries, charred rosemary, crème brûlée, and mocha, but also a handful of red cherries and mountain flowers, too. This was aged for 22 months in relatively thick-staved French oak, and promises another 25+ years of pleasure. A genuinely remarkable wine.
Palmaz Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 Napa Valley
Crafted from fruit grown on Palmaz’s estate vineyards on Mt. George, this is plush and exciting on the nose, with huckleberries, boysenberries, candied violets, pink peppercorns, sassafras, and Mexican chocolate. It remains consistent when sipped, with added notes of singed spearmint and peppermint, Maraschino cherries, plum pudding, licorice, and sandalwood, lingering with a finish marked by incense, sage, and mineral. Drink now through 2036.
Parallel “Eclipse” Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 Napa Valley
This is ambrosial, with blackberries, Amarena cherries, black figs, a wave of chocolate-enrobed cherry bonbons, and pipe tobacco, joined by Chinese five-spice powder and framed with sappy, teeth-coating tannins. Enjoy over the next 25 years…or tonight.
Pine Ridge Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 Napa Valley
Toasty aromas of graham cracker crust and cassis precede a palate that’s ripe yet energetic, dense yet cut through with acidity, and carries flavors of cherries, blackberry liqueur, mashed plums, sweet spice, and chocolate lava cake dusted with cinnamon. So appealing right now, and while it will age for several years to come, I wouldn’t want to wait too long: The fruit is really lovely.
Post & Beam Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 Napa Valley
Generous aromatics of chocolate-enrobed cherries and a hint of blueberries marked by the sweet vanilla of oak. The palate is very velvety, with black currants and boysenberries sweetly spiced with vanilla, chocolate, and clove, as well as an undertow of pencil shavings. Drink over the next few years.
Priest Ranch “Snake Oil” Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 Napa Valley
A wave of smashed blueberries and blackberries rolls out of the glass, joined by chocolate and hot slate, before a palate of pure silk, devoid of any rough edges even this early in its youth: Love the generosity here. Flavors of chocolate-covered black cherries, creme de cassis, mocha latte, sweet tobacco, and a lingering tug of mineral through the chocolate-enrobed finish flashed through with plum pudding. So generous, and wears its alcohol brilliantly.
Quilt Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2016 Napa Valley
Sweet tannins and plenty of dusty oak spice, vanilla, and milk chocolate pot de crème. The fruit is exceptionally ripe, but with the right food—charcoal-grilled strip steak, with minerality to counter the sweetness here—this will work well.
Realm Cellars “Moonracer” 2017
Flower-lifted aromas of almond blossoms and cooked honey lend unexpected layers to flamed orange peels, purple and black plums, crushed black raspberries, and kirsch-filled chocolates: Otherworldly. On the palate, this is silky and energetic yet so deeply layered, with a touch of leather and cigar tobacco underpinning flavors of black raspberries, currants, sandalwood, and cedar through the finish. This Cab-based blend, labeled Napa Valley but crafted from Realm’s Stags Leap District estate vineyard, will continue to impress for decades. I also recommend Realm Estate “The Bard” 2018, which has concentration to spare, but not at the expense of propulsive energy. The generosity of fruit that I’ve come to expect of 2018 is all here, as well as a serious core of hot iron, violets, lavender, cedar, cigar humidor, orange oils, star anise, and coffee oils, all of it harmonious and impeccably woven together even this early in what is sure to be a delicious decade-plus of life ahead. With air, Indian spices, toasted fennel seeds, a touch of cardamom, singed mint, and iodine emerge.
Royal Prince Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 Napa Valley
Notes of crushed purple flowers and blueberries, plums, and cedar tee up a velvety palate exuberant with more of those blue fruits, plums, cocoa powder, and mocha. This promises to keep on improving, so I’d hold onto it for a few years before enjoying through 2035.
Signorello “Padrone” Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 Napa Valley
This is a youthful wine that still needs time to knit together a bit more, but patience will be rewarded: Already, there is excellent savoriness here, with plums and brambly berries peeking through, as well as singed sage, peppercorns, and plum pits, framed by tannins that will allow it to age well for decades. Definitely one for the cellar.
Somnium Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 Napa Valley
The nose drips with cafe viennoise dusted with a bit of cocoa powder, before a palate of sweet, ripe fruit—cassis, crushed blackberries—as well as melted licorice, charred vanilla pod, plum pudding, spice cake, and a mineral note that sweeps in on the finish, where it’s joined by café mocha. Enjoy through 2031.
The Mascot 2016 Napa Valley
From the younger vines of Harlan, Promontory, and BOND—fantastic in their own right, but not ready for those particular wines quite yet—this 2016 glides across the tongue and is flashed through with purple berries, plums, cedar, toasted almonds, springtime flowers, sweet spice, and a hint of fresh wild herbs. It’s all so vibrant, yet with a core of blueberries, flowers, and a passing note of licorice that really keep it centered. This is a joyous wine, and delicious either on its own or alongside food. Savor it now or over the next five to ten years.