Going the Distance

California Cabernet extends its run with the 2014 vintage, marked by charm and sophistication

Excerpted from the Nov. 15, 2017, issue

California has another winner on its hands. After the success of the 2012 and 2013 Cabernet Sauvignons, the latest vintage in general release, 2014, represents the third great year in a row for the state’s superstar red, delivering supple and seductive wines. And there’s more good news on the horizon: The 2015 vintage could be a stunner as well.

The 2014s distinguish themselves with a youthful allure and charm that’s more akin to 2012 than 2013, which showed more tannic flex. In addition, the 2014 vintage is another captivating year in which a diversity of styles and regional expressions are on display. All three vintages were drought years, making it easier for vintners to size up their crop and trim as they needed. With the lessened occurrence of wetness, mold or bugs, Cabernet yields were above normal, allowing for greater flexibility in selection.

In fact, the 2014 vintage was overshadowed at first by the size and success of the previous two harvests. Yet the more wines I’ve tasted from 2014, the more I’ve become convinced that the vintage has the personality and definition to reward years of drinking or cellaring. Vintners agree that the 2014s developed more in barrel than expected, revealing greater concentration and depth the longer they aged.

“There was never anything not to recommend in the vintage from a growing or vineyard perspective, but for some reason the wines started out as medium-bodied at best,” says Thomas Rivers Brown, who makes the wines at his own Rivers-Marie as well as a number of other wineries, including 2014 standouts such as Schrader and Meyer, in Napa, and Kinsella, in Sonoma.

“Every time we tasted out of barrel, they were a bit darker and had more fruit concentration,” Brown explains. “I assume this was definitely a vintage characteristic, but it also had to do with just leaving them alone.” His takeaway: “What we came to really like about the vintage was its transparency.”

Since my previous report (“Back to Back,” Nov. 30, 2016), which focused on 2013 and 2012, I have reviewed nearly 725 wines in blind tastings at our Napa office, covering all of the state’s key Cabernet districts. The large majority of them come from 2014, with the rest mainly from 2013. A handful of late-release 2012s and early release 2015s fill things out.

Of the 480 2014s in this report, more than 250 earn outstanding ratings of 90 points or higher on Wine Spectator’s 100-point scale, an impressive figure by any measure. When more than half of the wines from a new vintage rate 90-plus, it’s time to buy—and that’s the case with 2014. Overall, I rate the vintage 96 points for Napa and 91 points for Sonoma.

The best wines from Napa, California’s Cabernet heartland, are rich and well-defined, without being weighty or overly tannic. Deep layers of dark berry, plum and licorice are shaded by savory herb and crushed rock, with tannins that can be polished or gravelly. Look no further than the cream of the crop, three 96-point efforts that feature different expressions: Colgin’s Cariad Napa Valley ($550), Gemstone’s Cabernet Sauvignon Yountville ($150) and Revana’s Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley ($165). The Colgin shows a measure of density that sets it apart, while the Gemstone is polished and refined and the Revana pure, rich and deep. Another 13 wines achieved classic status at 95 points, showing the depth of this exceptional vintage.

“We recently tasted 2014 Napa Cabernets from around the valley, and my impressions were that they are classic, balanced, perhaps slightly restrained on the aromatics,” says winemaker Ashley Hepworth of Joseph Phelps Vineyards. “Overall, it seemed like they were just starting to really open and shine. I have always liked this vintage and feel like it wasn’t flashy—or had too much of one characteristic right out of the cellar—but was more classic and will continue to evolve slowly and age really well.”

Dan Petroski, winemaker for Larkmead Vineyards, calls 2014 a winemaker’s vintage “because there wasn’t a significant heat wave during sugar maturation that forced our hand.” Moderate weather throughout August and early September allowed vintners to harvest when grapes were at their optimal level of ripeness, he says. Showing impeccable mid-weight balance, the wines feature considerably darker fruit tones than the previous two vintages.

“Any winemaker who thinned their crop, did not overirrigate and waited for full ripeness should have produced dark, extravagant Cabernet,” says vintner Chuck Wagner of Caymus Vineyards.

The downside for many lovers of Napa Valley Cabernet is limited availability and high prices. A number of the top wines are made in minuscule quantities (fewer than 500 cases), sell out quickly and are nearly impossible to find. Even if you are able to track down your favorite bottle, the cost is often prohibitive.

But there are many flavorful alternatives to the highest-rated Napa wines. The gap in quality between the most-expensive bottlings and those made in larger quantities, at lower price points, has been closing in recent years. Round Pond Estate’s Rutherford Reserve 2014 (91 points, $110), for example, is only a point higher than its Napa Valley Kith & Kin 2015 (90), a relatively new wine selling for $35. With a production of nearly 14,400 cases, the Kith & Kin is also much more widely available than the Rutherford Reserve, at 1,200 cases. (For more on Kith & Kin and other reasonably priced Cabernets, see “The Case for Cabernet.”)

Even producers of the growing wine-in-a-box category are elevating their game. Carrying a California appellation, Bota Box produced 550,000 cases worth of its 2014 Cabernet, which retails for $23 for a 3-liter box (the equivalent of $5.75 for a 750ml bottle). At 88 points, this is one of the best bargains on the market today, offering an entry point for drinkers new to Cabernet or not yet ready to trade up. As quality rises, wine lovers are discovering that boxed wine has its place. Fruity and easy-drinking, it provides value along with convenience and can be well-suited for large gatherings.

There are subtle stylistic changes at work across the state’s many appellations. Ripeness levels have been toned down a bit, as have extraction levels. There are still plenty of wines that have plenty of tannins, but there’s a greater emphasis on balance and textural nuance, which can be a challenge in making Cabernet. It is by nature a robust, thick-skinned grape prone to assertive tannins and often requires oak to round things out. A more judicious use of oak has been apparent recently as well, yet that’s not as contradictory as it sounds, since new French oak is more expensive than other kinds and trials with 1- and 2-year-old barrels have proven successful.

Another trend is the proliferation of new brands from established producers. It’s not uncommon now for wineries to produce multiple cuvées, whereas in years past one or two was the norm. Hall is the most assertive in this regard, turning out 16 individual Cabernet bottlings per vintage.

Looking ahead, the 2015s have only been in bottle a few months, yet enthusiasm for what vintners first thought might be an uneven year is growing by the week. For a vintage that initially seemed underwhelming, 2015 is shaping up to be one of the most pleasant surprises in recent memory. These precocious Cabernets are delicious already. Without any of the tannic markers that often tip the scales of uncertainty in young wines, they show the attributes you hope for in youth: concentration, depth, structure and complexity of flavor, along with the early signs of textural suppleness.

With the 2014s strutting their stuff and the 2015s waiting in the wings, there’s much for Cabernet lovers to be excited about right now—and much to anticipate.

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

For the complete California Cabernet tasting report, including additional scores and prices for top wines from Sonoma County and Paso Robles, read the full article, “Going the Distance,” in our online magazine archives.