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The Diversity of Napa Valley Cabernet
By Mary Ewing-Mulligan
Jan 30, 2018
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Duckhorn Wine Company, Napa Valley-Howell Mountain, Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 ($98):  I tasted five very fine Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon wines recently, and in the process, I received a lesson in the diversity of Napa Valley better than any I could learn from a textbook.  The wines were all from Duckhorn Vineyards, mainly from the 2014 vintage, and all priced the same, at $98 a bottle.  They were all outstanding Cabernets.  Although they shared certain stylistic similarities that I attribute to the winemaking, they all were highly individual wines.

A key commonality of the wines was their entry on the palate: they all entered my mouth gently and softly, expressing plenty of fruitiness but in the most unaggressive way. (I chuckled to think of the alternate word for a wine’s “entry,” which is its “attack” -- a completely unfitting description for these wines.)  Another similarity was the freshness of flavors in the wines, all of them expressing fresh fruits rather than super-ripe or jammy fruit.  Another was the beautiful balance between fruit and tannin, such that I needed to make a conscious effort to notice the tannins and describe them in my tasting notes.

And then there were the individualities.  For example, one of my favorite three wines was the 2014 Duckhorn Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon (six percent Merlot; aged in French oak 50 percent new).  It was the lightest in the group, which is to say it was on the lightest end of the full-bodied spectrum, and also relatively light in color.  It is a wonderfully smooth Cab, almost Pinot Noir-like in its fullness of fruit, with dusty tannins that emerge gently on the mid-palate and bring an earthy undertone to the black fruit and spice flavors.  Of the five Cabs, it was the only one to show these fine, dusty tannins -- the famous “Rutherford dust.”

In my notes, I described the Rutherford as “harmonious,” but that descriptor took on new weight with the 2014 Duckhorn Three Palms Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (three percent Merlot, 80 percent new French oak).  This wine is frankly full-bodied and dense with fruit, which is interwoven with tannins that seem a bit lean and woody now, but play so very nicely with the fruit.  The aromas and flavors suggest an herbal accent that accompanies blackberry, leather and mineral notes, giving this wine a somewhat high-toned and complex aromatic profile.  Despite any comments of leanness, this wine is round and rich in its own, not-excessive way.  From the warm Calistoga district, Duckhorn’s Three Palms Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon is a vibrant-yet-rich, glorious Cabernet.

The most different wine in the tasting was the 2013 Duckhorn Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon (blended with ten percent Merlot and two percent Petit Verdot; 85 percent new French oak).  Here, all the classic descriptors of mountain-grown Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon come into play: powerful, intense, concentrated, chewy, lean, muscular.  Amazingly, despite these characteristics, the wine is rich and inviting, with notes of ripe, dark bramble fruit. 

This wine typified Howell Mountain so well -- and I enjoyed its interplay of structure and fruit so much -- that it became my favorite.  Stylistically it’s worlds apart from the excellent Rutherford Cab, of course, but Napa Valley offers both styles.  I hasten to say that these are all superior Napa Valley Cabs, and the scores merely reflect my own judgement and preferences.

Howell Mountain, 95 Points
Three Palms Vineyard, 94 Points
Rutherford, 93 Points