For decades California was known for reasonably priced wines that contrasted sharply with the expensive, iconic wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy. However, that price gap has closed in recent years as California producers feel their red wines are every bit as good and have priced their wines accordingly.
We’ve often mused over which Napa Valley producers would qualify as a first-growth, the top tier of a controversial classification established in the Medoc in 1855. Only five chateaus made the cut; another one was added in 1973. The selection was based mostly on who was making the most expensive wine.
If the same criteria were applied to Napa Valley wines, the first-growths would be Screaming Eagle at $2,500 a bottle, Harlan, Opus One, Colgin, Bryant and Scarecrow to name just a few. Napa producers making a trifling $200 wines – and there are many – wouldn’t even be considered.
If history was a factor in ranking top wines, there are only a handful of Napa Valley producers who were around in the late 19th century. Among them are Chateau Montelena, Beaulieu Vineyards, Chappellet, Spottswoode, Charles Krug, Beringer, Freemark Abbey and Inglenook. But over time these wineries have changed ownership and, in some cases, aren’t making first-growth-quality wines today.
By 1975 more top producers were releasing their premium wines – Caymus, Joseph Phelps, Ridge, Louis Martini, Robert Mondavi, Heitz, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Shafer, Sullivan to name a few. Napa Valley was in full swing then.
History and cost aside, though, who would you say produces first-growth-quality cabernets in Napa Valley today?
Any answer is steeped in bias, of course. And, there are many more than five top producers who should make the cut. However, you would have to include Chateau Montelena, Caymus, Joseph Phelps, Chappellet and Heitz among the cabernet producers who have been around a long time and still making legendary wines.
We haven’t had the privilege of tasting the uber-expensive cabernet sauvignons, so we can’t attest to their first-growth quality. However, there is a plethora of cabernets selling for $100 to $200 a bottle that one could argue are a bargain when compared to a $1,000 Colgin cabernet.
If there is ever a year to indulge in reckless luxury, it’s 2020. Here are a few legendary cabernet sauvignons we have recently tasted that would make special holiday gifts for special people or yourself:
Robert Mondavi The Reserve To Kalon Vineyard 2017 ($175). This venerable Napa Valley producer, owned by Constellation since 2004, has tapped into the prestigious holdings of the To Kalon Vineyard in Oakville, a source for some of the best cabernet sauvignons. Mondavi has had the trademark To Kalon since 1988 and takes advantage of its spectacular fruit in this rich, full-bodied and complex cabernet sauvignon. Only the best lots are used for The Reserve. This is as close as you’ll get to a “first growth” cabernet – aromatic with sage and black currants followed by a broad flavor profile of dark fruit, cassis and vanilla.
- Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($175). With a history that dates back to 1882, Chateau Montelena is an indisputable icon in Napa Valley. Although its chardonnay got the attention for besting French burgundy in the 1976 Judgment of Paris wine competition, its cabernet sauvignon deserves the gold. This wine has a stunning, deep bouquet of red berries and dense black fruit flavors with hints of tea, leather and coffee. As a substitute, consider the 2017 Chateau Montelena Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($65).
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars SLV Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 ($195). We’ve enjoyed this wine and the even better Cask 23 for years. Original owner and St. John’s College graduate Warren Winiarski is no longer at the helm, but his wine’s reputation lives on. His 1973 cabernet sauvignon beat Bordeaux in the Judgment of Paris competition. This 2017 cabernet sauvignon has effusive mushroom and violet aromas with plum and black fruit flavors, a dash of mineral, cocoa powder and fine tannins.
- Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($145). An icon in Rutherford since 1936, this monster wine with chewy tannins has amazed us for decades. It has great structure, concentration, dense dark fruit and the classic “Rutherford dust” that makes the region so special.
- Chappellet Pritchard Hill Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 ($250). The more complex and long-lived cabernets come from mountain-grown grapes. This gem from the esteemed Pritchard Hill sets the bar high. Layers of blue and dark fruit, licorice and herbal aromas linger alongside the concentrated ripe black cherry flavors and long finish. Not surprisingly, it earns the highest scores by wine critics.
Spottswoode Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 ($225). Petit verdot and cabernet franc lend a hand to this concentrated cabernet sauvignon blend that begs for beef. The fruit is deceivingly fresh but there is good concentration and finish to portend good things to come. Plum, mint, spice and hints of cocoa and vanilla. In 1985, Spottswoode became one of the first vineyards in Napa Valley to be farmed organically.
- Sullivan Rutherford Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($110). Although this estate has been around since the 1970s, new owners are only now restoring its legacy with some amazing wines. The additional bottle age helps soften this delicious wine that balances finesse with power. It too possesses classic Rutherford Dust character. Velvety plum and opulent black cherry flavors with a dash of dark chocolate and ridiculous complexity.
- Ladera Howell Mountain Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($115). Howell Mountain produces some of the most respectable cabernets in Napa Valley. This powerful version has fine tannins, hedonistically rich black cherry, cassis and blackberry flavors.
Amici Olema Sonoma County Pinot Noir 2019 ($20). A good bargain for pinot noir, this wine has classic cherry and raspberry notes with hint of spice and vanilla.
- Roaming Dog Columbia Valley Chardonnay 2019 ($14). This is one of the best values in chardonnay that we have tasted in a long time. Classic tropical fruit flavors and a hint of oak.
- Decoy Limited Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($30). Duckhorn’s Decoy series continues to represent outstanding wines that outperform their prices. We loved this wine for its rich, fruit-forward style. Lots of blackberry and cassis flavors with a hint of dark chocolate. The Decoy Red Blend brings together a lush blend of merlot, zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon and tempranillo for the same price.