We have often imagined the panic Napoleon Bonaparte III caused in 1855 when he asked wine merchants to rank the 62 chateaus of Bordeaux. The idea was to showcase the best wines from the world’s most renowned region in advance of an international expo, but there must have been considerable angst among the judges on which chateaus to include.
Despite the pressure, the wine negociants declared only four chateaus as first growths — Chateaus Lafite-Rothschild, Latour, Margaux and Haut-Brion. A fifth – Mouton Rothschild – was added in 1973, but with that exception the 1855 Bordeaux Classification has withstood the test of time.
Nowhere else is there such a classification system that has endured the test of time. But, what if merchants – or master sommeliers – were asked to classify, say, the wines of Napa Valley. Which five would be classified as first growth?
We asked several merchants for their thoughts and the choices ranged from the historic properties, such as Chateau Montelena, Beaulieu Vineyards, Heitz and Ridge to relative newcomers, such as Screaming Eagle, Abreu, MacDonald, Colgin and Harlan. A consensus is impossible, but here are some thoughts to keep the conversation going:
There are several Napa Valley pioneers who got the wine industry started, but their wines today are not the same as the wines they made in the mid-80s. New owners focused on the bottom line, new winemakers and new sources of fruit have lessened their appeal and complexity.
New styles of winemaking have emerged as well. We remember those wines of the mid-80s and ‘90s. They were tannic, long-lived and winning awards when tasted against French counterparts. Let’s remember the 1976 Judgment in Paris in which Stags’ Leap Wine Cellars’ cabernet sauvignon was ranked better than Bordeaux grand cru in a blind tasting.
Iconic Napa winemakers such as Andre Tchelistcheff stressed balance and elegance over power. These wines had good acidity and what winemakers often call “tension.” Unfortunately, these wines required age for the wine to shed its tannin, so to make their wines more appealing to consumers who wanted instant gratification, they softened them.
Around 1990, Napa Valley winemakers began to introduce new clones when they replanted vineyards. The new grapes were sugar factories. As the climate warmed to add even more sugar, the wines became more extracted, high in alcohol, low in acidity and jammy enough to lick off a knife. Some even had to add tartaric acid to provide balance.
Although Europeans found California wines unbalanced, the new style gained footing thanks largely to American critics who lavished high scores on them. Today, these heady wines are garnering $500 to $1,500 a bottle. Even producers of inexpensive wines infuse their wines with grape concentrate to make these sugar monsters.
Never before have we seen so many cabernet sauvignons cost so much. Screaming Eagle, a poster child for excess, has a 10-year waiting list of consumers willing to pay $1,100 a bottle. In the 2018 vintage, Colgin sells for $675, Dalla Valle for $450, Harlan Estate for $1,620 and Paul Hobbs for $500. Opus One raised a few eyebrows when it was the first Napa wine to set the price at $50 in the mid-1980s. Today it sells for more than $350 a bottle. These producers think of their wines as Napa’s first growths.
We don’t get much opportunity to taste the uber-expensive wines from Napa Valley, but we found a few that are worth noting.
Roy Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($265). Only 554 cases are made from vineyards on the volcanic hillsides of the Vaca Mountains in southern Napa Valley. Winemaker Philippe Melka unabashedly calls this a “grand cru’ because of its unique terroir. Only 6 percent petit verdot is added to the cabernet sauvignon to produce ripe plum and dark cherry flavors with layers of herbs, baking spices and mocha. Good structure and tannins make it a wine for the ages.
Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($175). This historic property has managed to maintain its reputation over the years. Although founded in 1882, the estate didn’t take off until 1968 when co-owners Bo and Jim Barrett hired Mike Grgich and replanted the vineyard. The 2016 has very opulent floral aromas with ripe, rich blackberry and plum flavors with hints of toffee and spice.
Spottswoode Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($235). From vineyards that embrace green viticultural practices, this dynamic wine balances elegance with power – a fine needle to thread for a winemaker. Supported by a nearly perfect vintage, winemaker Aron Weinkauf has crafted a wine with black cherry and plum notes with fine tannins and delicate floral aromas. This wine will last for more than a decade in the cellar.
Coeur de Vigne Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 ($90). Legendary wine consultant Andre Tchelistcheff advised his friend James O’Neil Sullivan to plant cabernet sauvignon on this 26-acre site in 1978. It has been producing grapes for some excellent wines since but the estate has made even better strides since it was purchased in 2018 by a family-driven group led by Juan Pablo Torres Padilla. This wine with classic structure is blended with merlot and malbec, which gives it more dimension and texture. Rich and ripe black cherry flavors, clove and pepper with oak-inspired hints of chocolate and vanilla. Tannins are round.
Faust Napa Valley The Pact 2018 ($125). When the Huneeus family purchased this 121-acre plot in 1998, he created a buzz for this newly recognized Coombsville district. Benefiting from cooling breezes from San Pablo Bay, Faust has an expressive cabernet sauvignon without the need for any other grape varieties. Silky, elegant in style with currant and cherry aromas, dark fruit flavors and a dash of mint and cedar.
Darioush Napa Valley Signature Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($110). This is a full-bodied wine from vineyards in Coombsville and Mount Veeder. Black fruit notes, dense, tannic and showing hints of lead pencil and spice. A very solid performance from a well-respected producer.
Duckhorn Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford 2018 ($105). The Rutherford region remains one of the best and most historic regions for classic cabernet sauvignon. This wine shows off dense and juicy dark fruit flavors with good structure.
Mathew Bruno Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($120). This is a producer worth watching if this full-body wine is any indication. Using grapes from a Ruthford vineyard that was originally planted in 1895, this cabernet sauvignon sees a lot of oak: 100 percent new French and American oak barrels. The best lots are selected after 22 months of oak aging. Classic plum and black cherry notes with layers of spice and herbs. The Bruno label debuted in 2009.
Brandlin Estate ThS Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($135). Named after owner Thomas Schmidheiny, the ThS is all cabernet sauvignon even though previous vintages have been Bordeaux blends. That says a lot about the winemaker’s confidence in cabernet sauvignon in 2018. These mountain-grown grapes have produced an extraordinarily powerful wine with floral, tea aromas and black currant, blackberry and boysenberry flavors. Long finish.
Priest Ranch Snake Oil Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($110). Grapes from three special hillside blocks of the Somerston Estate were chosen for this very special cabernet sauvignon. Dense and layered raspberry and plum flavors with hints of cassis, cocoa and mineral. Complex, full body and fine tannins.