Californian Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet blends offer a broader range of styles than almost any wine category I can think of. These wines can exhibit an extraordinary spectrum of characteristics, from restrained, nuanced and fragrantly delicate to sweet, potently alcoholic and, frankly, terrifying.
In many wineries, alcohol and extract have been rising for years. With some reaching 16-17% ABV, it’s not surprising that collectors are shying away from those behemoths. Here are five wineries that feature in our All-American Online Wine Auction that challenge the assumption that Californian wines lack subtlety and grace.
1. Distinct expressions of Napa’s varied terroir
Mixed Diamond Creek 1995: Gravelly Meadow, Red Rock Terrace & Volcanic Hill
Founded in 1968, Diamond Creek is California’s first exclusively Cabernet Sauvignon estate vineyard and an early champion of terroir-defined Californian Cabernet. Owner Al Brounstein smuggled cuttings from 1st Growth vineyards in Bordeaux and planted them on Diamond Mountain with hopes that the area’s distinct soil types would each yield a unique expression of Cabernet.
His vision proved prescient, and Diamond Creek’s singular, site-specific wines still fuel collectors’ passions. This lot includes three pristine magnums of the superb 1995 vintage from three of the winery’s most iconic vineyards: Gravelly Meadow, Red Rock Terrace and Volcanic Hill. Each site has its own charms, but all are connected in form, and yield wines of earthy, cedary beauty with age.
2. Family vintners embracing elegance and vintage variation
Dunn Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 1997
Randall Dunn made his name as winemaker at Caymus in the late 1970s, before finding a Howell Mountain plot to grow his own grapes. His first vintage of Dunn Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon was in 1979, a revelation that showed the potential of Howell Mountain Cabernet.
Dunn’s wines are suave and subtle, with a freshness and vibrancy along with a structured core that comes from mountain fruit and a careful hand. The 1997 vintage is about the finest 1990s example you’ll find of this outstanding wine.
3. Napa’s own Grand cru
Heitz Cellar Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 1991
Heitz Martha’s Vineyard is arguably the single most acclaimed vineyard in the Napa Valley: The Cabernet Sauvignon has been an icon since Joe Heitz’s first bottling of the 1966 vintage, which pioneered the practice of single-vineyard designation in the U.S.
The 34-acre vineyard produces wines that are truly individual in nature — reticent and high-toned, with a mint-like eucalyptus note that becomes more pronounced with age. The wines have the structure and character to age beautifully for decades; the classic 1974 vintage is still in its glory days. The 1991 vintage may be the greatest of the 1990s, with chocolate, mint and black cherry gently giving way to leather and tobacco.
4. As epic as the most ageworthy Bordeaux
Chateau Montelena 1996
Chateau Montelena is one of the most European-style wines in our sale. The Cabernet Sauvignon is, to my mind, crafted in the image of the great wines of Bordeaux. The Estate Cabernet can be closed, powerful and tannic in youth, with fresh acidity and bright fruit. In great vintages like the 1996, it is a wine for the long haul, but when the tannins do soften out and yield, the elegance and grace of Montelena set it apart.
5. Still holding its own among the world’s best
Ridge Monte Bello 1994
Paul Draper’s wines at Ridge are perhaps the most understated, sophisticated and compelling in all of California. Ridge Monte Bello is the flagship Cabernet blend, renowned for helping change the perception of Californian wine with the success of the 1971 vintage in 1976’s famed Judgment of Paris competition (and taking first place in the 30th anniversary re-tasting).
The wines come from the high peaks of the Santa Cruz Mountains, and this elevation leads to concentrated — but not overripe — flavours and a robust tannic structure. This lot, a full case of the almost peerless 1994 vintage, offers Old World-style drinking at its very finest.
Visit Christie’s All-American Online Wine Auction to discover these five Californian cabernets and other exceptional American wines, now through 14 July
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