Back-to-Back Classics

Golden opportunities for California Cabernet in 2012 and 2013

Excerpted from the Nov. 30, 2016, issue

California is in the midst of another run of strong vintages for Cabernet Sauvignon. The two current vintages to sustain the hot streak are 2012 and 2013. Both offer a high level of quality across the board, which makes them as good as it gets for Cabernet lovers, delivering plenty of enjoyment and appreciation in the coming years. They’re like fraternal twins, sharing the same fundamental qualities yet different enough from each other to provide fodder for comparison as they age.

Peeking ahead, the hits continue with 2014, which looks to be an early-drinking charmer. The 2015 vintage presents more uncertainty due to the year’s challenging weather, while the 2016 harvest was underway at press time, with a promising outlook.

My previous report on California Cabernet (“Return to Form,” Nov. 15, 2015) covered the first batch of 2012s to appear on the market. Now comes the second wave, overlapping the release of the 2013s. Overall, the newer vintage represents the bulk of this report—about three-quarters of the nearly 700 wines I have reviewed in blind tastings at our Napa office this year—yet approximately 150 2012s make their appearance here as well.

The reason for the staggered reviews is that wineries have their own release protocols; some release a new vintage as soon as one year’s supply expires, while others aim for a fall release. In terms of the 2012s, the later-released wines show more harmony and completeness than the earlier group, which tastes edgier and in need of more time in bottle.

Because high prices abound this year along with high scores, it’s necessary to have a sound shopping strategy in order to best enjoy the latest releases. How to approach buying these wines is a fundamental question. While prices continue to be high for many wines, limited production makes it hard to find many others; some bottlings sell out well in advance of release.

My advice is to look beyond the highest-rated Cabernets and explore the middle ground—those wines scoring in the low 90s or high 80s on Wine Spectator‘s 100-point scale that retail for $40 to $65 and offer immediate drinking pleasure. There are some top-flight names among the 2013s that fall in this category, including the Oakville Winery Oakville, Ridge Santa Cruz Mountains Estate, Chappellet Napa Valley Signature and Robert Mondavi Oakville.

Due to greater case volume, many wines in the 88- to 89-point range are more broadly available than the top scorers, making them good options for the near term. It’s also smart to look for wineries that show improving quality or for those rebounding from a tough period. William Hill is a case in point, with its 2013 Napa Valley (90, $45, 13,000 cases) delivering one of the winery’s best scores in years. You’ll also find well-priced Cabernets from Kendall-Jackson and Louis M. Martini, along with other solid values from Sonoma and beyond that merit attention.

While it’s exciting to capture the top-scoring Cabernets, most wine lovers will get more out of having four or six or eight bottles of a given wine at a fraction of the price. More bottles allow for the opportunity to experience a wine on several occasions, meaning that one’s enjoyment doesn’t have to be a hit-or-miss affair.

Of the two vintages that are front and center, the 2012s are the bigger surprise, since the harvest yielded a huge crop and the wines were rich and showy out of the gate. The 2013s have performed more like a Usain Bolt sprint, showing their power and form out of the blocks, but also making a triumphant acceleration as they hit their stride. Both years are gold-medal performances.

“The 2013s and 2012s may be the most similar back-to-back vintages in my 30-plus years of winemaking,” says Xtant winemaker Jeff Gaffner, expressing a sentiment shared by other vintners. “The growing seasons were as even as you can imagine. The fruit and berry size was almost perfect, especially as it related to canopy size. If you couldn’t grow your best grapes in 2013 you should probably quit.”

This assessment is borne out by my overall scores for the 2013 and 2012 vintages, which I rate 96 points each in Napa Valley. Though such high ratings may not come as a surprise for the state’s premier Cabernet region, other areas such as Sonoma and Paso Robles have been making steady gains, with rising quality and friendlier pricing. The 2013 and 2012 vintages in Sonoma, for example, are the region’s two best years ever for Cabernet, earning 91 and 92 points, respectively.

Among the 2013 Cabernets from Napa, a familiar cast of characters dominates the top wines, led by two bottlings with 97-point ratings: the Lewis Hillstone Vineyard ($150), from a higher-elevation site in the hills near the Auberge du Soleil resort, and Tor Melanson Vineyard ($200), located in the Pritchard Hill area. A step below at 96 points are a pair from Schrader, the Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard MMXIII ($400/1.5L), known as “Old Sparky,” and Colesworthy Beckstoffer Las Piedras Vineyard ($400/1.5L), both bottled in magnum only.

Also in the mix of classic-rated 2013s are longtime Cabernet stars such as the Caymus Special Selection, Colgin IX Estate and Harlan, and Lewis and Tor each field an additional pair of 95-point bottlings alongside their 97-pointers. Another perennial winner, the Shafer Hillside Select, checks in to this elite group of classics, representing the late-release 2012s. The extraordinary quality of these Cabernets validates the success of both vintages, inviting superlatives galore.

Winemakers are uniform in their evaluation of 2013 as a year of amazing structure and density. Many predicted the 2013s would be long-lived wines, and though projecting cellarworthy vintages is a common refrain among producers, the wines appear to be on that trajectory. Though the earlier releases showed some of the awkwardness of infancy, more recent tastings reveal a seductive textural suppleness and the very structure vintners were confident the vintage would reflect.

As good as the 2012 vintage turned out to be, many vintners are proclaiming 2013 nearly perfect. “Coming off the 2011 vintage, which was a wet and cool year, I really loved the 2012 vintage because it got wonderfully ripe,” says Mark Carter of Carter Cellars. But, he adds, 2013 “was a better vintage than 2012 due to the fact that it was the second year of the drought, making it even more intense and structured.” Slow ripening allowed vintners to pick at their own pace.

“It’s rare to have a vintage where the vineyardists and winemakers are all equally happy with the outcome,” says Celia Welch, owner of Corra and winemaker for Scarecrow, referring to 2013. While many vintners are calling the vintage one of the best ever, Welch is more evenhanded. “This was harvest number 31 for me, and I would agree that both the size and quality of the vintage was extraordinary, shaping up to be an outstanding year.”

“The amazing thing to me about 2013 is the concentration while still maintaining balance,” says Thomas Brown, owner of Rivers-Marie and the wine mind behind more than a dozen labels in Napa and Sonoma. “Everything is amplified, but in equal proportion. A few 2013s are beginning to shut down now mostly due to their bigness, and it’s anyone’s guess when they will pop back open. Given how strong they were in barrel, I think the future is very bright. They will also become much more consumer-friendly once they shed this initial bigness.”

Some vintners point to changes in vineyard management—along with the addition of tools such as optical sorters, which help eliminate marginal berries—as an important difference between recent vintages and those only a few years earlier. Fermentation methods have also changed in the past decade, says Jeff Ames of Rudius and Tor, citing advances such as the capacity to extract more sweet tannins from the fermenting skins, thereby avoiding the astringency and dryness associated with drying skins and seeds. Choices about barrels and aging periods, among other considerations, have also shifted. “It is literally a 180-degree flip on some things,” Ames says.

For now, Ames and other vintners maintain that 2012 will be the earlier-drinking vintage and 2013 the better candidate for cellaring. But don’t be surprised, they say, if the 2013s end up mirroring the 2012s with more bottle time. California Cabernets typically begin life rich and flashy, yet within five years they plane out. It is one difference between the aging regimes of California Cabernet and Bordeaux, whose reds start slower and take longer to achieve cruising altitude. However, at some point, usually by about eight to 10 years, the wines are more comparable.

The best way to approach vintages this impressive in California is to appreciate that there are many, many wines to choose from and it’s hard to go wrong no matter what you buy. Most of the Cabernets carrying formidable price tags are made in small quantities, so it’s good to be aware that, when it comes to the top labels, you’re paying as much for high demand as for high quality.

Overall, it’s a double win for California in 2012 and 2013. These are vintages that merit serious attention. But don’t forget to shop the entire market, not just the high-wire wines.

Senior editor James Laube is Wine Spectator’s lead taster on California Cabernet.

For the complete California Cabernet tasting report, including additional top wines with scores and prices, read the full article, “Back to Back,” in our online magazine archives.