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Mountain Cabernet
By Mary Ewing-Mulligan
Aug 14, 2018
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Acumen, Napa Valley “Mountainside” Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($60) & “PEAK” Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($150):  So much excitement exists around Pinot Noir in California now, it can seem that Cabernet Sauvignon is becoming an also-ran.  Of course, Cabernet is California’s most celebrated red wine, and in Napa Valley -- California’s most celebrated wine region -- it leads in volume of production, crop value, and reputation.  But is there anything new and exciting about old, reliable Cabernet?

Meet Acumen, a wine estate in the Atlas Peak district of Napa Valley, that originated just six years ago.  Proprietor Eric Yuan has amassed 116 organically-certified acres of vines spread across two sites in a remote, cool locale of steep slopes, high elevation and rocky, volcanic soils.  From these estate vines, Acumen produces several red wines based on Cabernet Sauvignon that are masterful expressions of this noble grape.

Henrik Poulsen, Director of Winemaking at Acumen, believes that Atlas Peak is “Napa Valley’s next frontier for great mountain-grown wines.”  (Acumen’s founding winemaker was the late Denis Malbec, with whom Poulsen worked since 2013.)  Atlas Peak is situated in the eastern mountains of Napa Valley and enjoys temperatures that are typically five to ten degrees cooler than the valley floor.  The area also experiences day-night temperature fluctuations of as much as 50 degrees.  These two factors slow grape ripening, prevent dehydration and sun damage to the berries and enable grape flavors to develop fully without excess ripening.  In fact, one characteristic of the Acumen wines that impresses me is the freshness of their fruit flavors.

Acumen ‘s two vineyards are the Attelas estate of 32 acres situated at 1,300 feet, originally planted in 1992 and formerly the home vineyard of the legendary winegrower, Dr. Jan Krupp; and Edcora, an estate of 84 acres situated 350 feet higher up the mountain, which was purchased in 2014.  With southwestern exposure compared to Attelas’s northeast exposure, Edcora is about ten to 15 percent warmer than Attelas.

From these vines, Acumen produces two ranges of wines:  The small-production PEAK wines (all $150), which are selections of the best barrels from the best vineyard blocks, and the Mountainside wines, which are less expensive and more generally available.  The Mountainside line includes a Sauvignon Blanc ($30), the only wine that is not entirely estate sourced.

Acumen’s 2014 Mountainside Cabernet Sauvignon is 78 percent Cabernet Sauvignon with 7 percent Merlot, 6 percent Malbec, 5 percent Cabernet Franc and 4 percent Petit Verdot.  To my taste, it is a classically-styled Cab, with a lean structure of firm tannin and fresh acidity, and a pure expression of concentrated, fresh Cabernet flavors.  Its aroma suggests red fruits (cherry, currants, pomegranate, plum) with spicy, toasty notes of oak; its flavors also include cocoa, charry notes, tea, chocolate, coffee and a marked earthy minerality.  Although I describe the structure as lean, the wine has soft, velvety texture surrounding its firm backbone, and its tannins are well integrated with its fruit, even at this young stage. 

The 2014 PEAK Cabernet Sauvignon is 97 percent Cabernet Sauvignon with 1 percent each of Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot.  A barrel selection from both the Attelas and Edcora estates, it is a fuller, richer wine than the Mountainside Cabernet.  Its aroma suggests blue and black fruits (blueberry, blackberry, black cherry) with gentle fresh-herb notes and oak-driven sweet spices.  The wine’s taste is as much about its texture, weight and mouthfeel as it is about its flavors.  (Chocolate, cocoa, coffee, black licorice and pencil shavings emerge in the mouth.)  The wine’s attack is soft and velvety, leading to an impression of full body and dense texture.  But this is not a super-ripe, near-sweet Cabernet: it is truly dry, and its fruit flavors are fresh rather than baked.  The wine’s tannins are soft, and very much present, but they are in proportion to the fruit.  While the Mountainside aged for 19 months in 72 percent new French oak, the PEAK aged 22 months in 85 percent new French oak.

The two other 2014 Cabs in the PEAK line are Attelas and Edcora, each exclusively from the named site.  They are both amazing wines, the Attelas expressing a cooler-site style with finesse and depth, and a strongly mineral note; and the Edcora richer, rounder, more ample and fruitier, a wondrous expression of Cabernet Sauvignon. Of the two, the classicist in me prefers Attelas.

2014 Acumen Mountainside Cabernet Sauvignon, 91 Points
2014 Acumen PEAK Cabernet Sauvignon, 92 Points