When one is looking for top echelon Cabernet, for most wine lovers Bordeaux, France or California’s Napa Valley would probably pop up first.
Makes sense. After all, Bordeaux has quite a long history of producing world-class Cabernet based red wines. The much “younger” Napa Valley, on the other hand, vaulted onto the world wine stage, when a bottling from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars finished first in the 1976 Paris Wine Exhibition blind, comparative tasting of Californian & Bordelaise Cabernet based red wines.
What most people do not know or remember is that the 1973 Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon “SLV” was followed (in order) by 1970 Chateau Mouton Rothschild, 1970 Chateau Haut Brion, 1970 Chateau Montrose & then the 1971 Ridge “Monte Bello” in fifth place.
Back then, in the late 70’s, I didn’t even stop to think that the Monte Bello vineyard was not located in the Napa Valley. This iconic vineyard is actually located at somewhere between 2000 & 2600 feet elevation in the Santa Cruz Mountain appellation, near Cupertino, overlooking the Santa Clara Valley. I remember reading somewhere, that the vineyard is roughly 83.5 acres in size, spread out on 33 parcels on the hillside, (but not sure if this information is current today).
Makes you wonder why anyone would plant vines way up there on that remote, high elevation site? AND, it makes you wonder how could they have known the quality would be akin to Californian Grand Cru?
I’ve been fortunate to have tasted the 1971 Ridge Monte Bello a few times over the years & would wholeheartedly agree it is a standout wine.
Furthermore, just so you know, the 1971 Monte Bello was NOT a one vintage wonder for the winery either. Several other vintages–1968, 1970, 1971, 1977 (one of the very best Californians I have ever had), & later the 1981 & 1985 have also really stood out.
Another non-Napa Valley Californian Cabernet Sauvignon site which has stood out to me over the years is the Laurel Glen vineyard. Located at somewhere between 800 to 1000 feet in elevation atop Sonoma Mountain, it was originally 3 acres in size (today, listed at 16 acres in size), planted in 1968 to an unknown Cabernet vine selection, (which is today considered proprietary). Grapes from the earlier vintages were sold to Chateau St Jean & Kenwood. Patrick Campbell purchased the property in 1977 & produced his first commercial vintage with the 1981. Over the years since, Laurel Glen produced some very provocative, earth driven, more elegant, balanced Cabernets……some of my favorites over the years……AND, which got better with age (unlike many of its Californian peers). I was amazed, when the 1997 was released, as it was the very first Cabernet, Patrick (& co-winemaker Ray Kaufman) produced that was over the 14 degree alcohol mark. Patrick sadly sold the estate a few years back. Thankfully, I still have some older vintages stashed away somewhere.
When speaking of Sonoma born Cabernet Sauvignon, I also really have to mention those from Scherrer Winery & owner/winemaker Fred Scherrer. The grapes actually come from his father’s vineyard located on a bench above the Silver Oak planting in Alexander Valley. I am continually amazed at how elegant, classy, refined & wonderfully layered his Cabernets are. One could say, they are Cabs, crafted by a Pinot master. I am also amazed at how much better & more harmonious each get with some bottle age. Just know, Napa Valley Cab lovers, the Scherrer renditions display red fruit, not black fruit & deftly display a stony minerality rather than decadence & opulence.
A growing hotbed today for Cabernet Sauvignon in California is Paso Robles, which is located roughly halfway between San Francisco & Los Angeles. It seems the real sweet spot for this grape variety in the region is on the westside of Highway 101, amongst the rolling hills (& therefore hillsides) born of marine influenced, calcareous soils such as limestone & siliceous clay. People are now comparing these growing conditions more & more to Bordeaux’s St Emilion sub-region. The resulting wines therefore typically feature red fruit, rather than black fruit. In addition, what really initially caught my attention was the innate minerality underlying throughout the wine from beginning to end, which not only creates interestingness, but a fascinating buoyancy too. Where Justin Winery was the ground breaking pioneers back in the 80’s, it is becoming more apparent that today the Daou brothers star is really starting to shine brightly in the category of Paso Robles Cabernet based reds. There is sure much more to follow in the future, pending dealing with the area’s extreme water shortages the past several years.
I almost excluded mentioning the vast potential I believe there is in the Happy Canyon sub-appellation of Santa Barbara. Because it much further east, it is therefore much warmer than the other Santa Barbaran subregions. Coupled with more shale & gravel soils, this has the making for some very interesting potential. Keep an eye out. Happy Canyon’s time will come!