Cool Victory for Cabernet

The 2010 wines from California are dense, balanced, and ideal for the cellar

Excerpted from the Nov. 15, 2013, issue

For the second year running, California vintners harvested their Cabernet crop after a trying, drawn-out and notably cool growing season. But much like the striking 2009s, the top 2010s are a remarkable collection of dense, deftly balanced wines, both rich in flavor and firm in structure. They are the kind of wines that should reward cellaring for 15 to 20 years, and they demonstrate why Cabernet holds such powerful allure for many wine lovers.

While vintners acknowledged the challenges of 2010, it turned out far better than anyone imagined, making it the best vintage yet of the 21st century, if ever so slightly. I rate the Napa’s 2010 vintage at 98 points onWine Spectator’s 100-point scale, extending a hit parade of outstanding harvests that began with 2004, including five years that rate a classic 95 points or higher. The vintage was also an impressive year for Sonoma Cabernet.

There’s never been a better time to be a lover of California Cabernet Sauvignon, a category undeniably powered by the performance of Napa Valley wines. Don’t let the higher prices for some wines scare you off. There are scores of excellent wines in the $60-and-below range.

Since last year’s report, we’ve tasted more Cabernets in our Napa office than in any previous year—nearly 900, including more than 500 wines from 2010 and more than 200 from 2009. Consumers would do well to focus on 2010 and 2009; early returns suggest 2011 will be far spottier, as it was the coolest and wettest vintage in decades.

The list of highly rated Napa Valley wines from the 2010 vintage is dominated by perennial top-tier Cabernet producers and is centered around the mid-valley appellations of Oakville and Rutherford. Oakville’s Beckstoffer To Kalon vineyard in particular was the source of many outstanding wines.

At the top of the list in 2010 is the Schrader Cellars Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard MMX (97, $400/1.5L), also known as “Old Sparky” and made only in magnum. Nine wines earned 96-point ratings, including three more from Schrader—its Beckstoffer To Kalon ($175), Beckstoffer To Kalon RBS ($175) and Beckstoffer To Kalon T6 ($175)—as well as Caymus Special Selection ($130), Harlan Estate ($800), Hewitt Rutherford Double Plus ($150), Lewis Hillstone Vineyard ($130), Lewis Reserve ($135) and Screaming Eagle ($850), the valley’s most expensive wine. Among those hitting the 95-point mark was the Hewitt Rutherford ($92).

Schrader’s Cabernets are among the most opulent and expressive, while Hewitt Double Plus has a tighter framework. The Lewis Cabernets are more in line with Schrader’s. Caymus Special Selection draws on grapes from vineyards throughout the valley, and this latest ranks among the best in a long line of exceptional bottlings dating to the late 1970s.

Despite their differing growing conditions, the 2010s share the intensity, focus, density and layers of flavors found in the top 2009s. In both years, the tannins are ripe and firm. In many cases, the 2010s taste like the ripeness level has been dialed back a degree or two compared with vintages such as 2007, in which the ripest wines achieved a berry pie quality.

The 2010s are nonetheless quite showy and attractive. They are charming to drink already, while their exquisite balance and finesse bodes well for aging. There are also many Cabernets from cooler regions that are less open, and those will benefit from at least a year or two of cellaring. While most California Cabernets are approachable on release, they typically reach a peak-drinking plateau around age six, then retain their fruit purity for another six or more years.

While you should focus on 2010, don’t ignore 2009—because Cabernet vintages overlap, the younger vintage often gets more attention than still-available and late-release wines from the preceding year. The market still offers scores of outstanding 2009s. By securing wines from either vintage you’ll be drinking well over the next decade or so, and in some instances much longer. It will be fascinating to watch how these wines develop in the years ahead.

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

For the complete California Cabernet tasting report, read the full article, “Cool Victory for Cabernet,” in our online archives.