Rethinking the 2006 Napa Valley Cabernets
Around this time every year I go a little vintage crazy. My vintage diary, which I’ve kept annually for a long time, reaches a crescendo as the harvest draws to its inevitably dramatic close. (I strongly recommend budding wine writers to keep a vintage diary.) Then there’s my annual update on past vintages, due to my esteemed editor, Tim Moriarty, in mid-November. Once you assign a score to a vintage, you can’t just let it stand forever; rejiggering of vintage assessments is part of the wine critic’s job. Finally, I have to write my detailed analysis on the current, just-completed vintage, in this case the bizarre, memorable 2010. So I am thinking, obsessing, fixating on and about vintages.
In looking back, I see I haven’t been particularly kind to 2006 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, which I rated a respectable but not exciting 90 points. It kind of got lost between the 2005 and 2007 vintages, both 95 points, and both of them so flashy right out of the gate. So I decided to re-review 2006 Napa Cabs, now that I’ve tasted about 750 of them. (By re-review, I mean re-review my notes, not retaste the wines.)
In my 2006 vintage diary I wrote “cool, dry and late,” the second such year in what has now become six consecutive years of cool, late harvests (although you wouldn’t describe 2010 as “dry”).
But “cool, dry and late” was a general assessment. Closer up, there was more detail. Spring had been rainy, so even though most of the growing season was dry, there was a lot of moisture in the soil that did not evaporate due to the cool temperatures. A potent July heat spell broke the pattern, the heat shutting the vines down and further pushing off the ripening process for Cabernet, in most cases well into October. But, except for light sprinkles around Oct. 1, the month finished dry; on Nov. 2 I wrote, “First real rain statewide of the season…the latest rain I can remember…”. By then, of course, the Cabernet had been picked.
As I look at my individual reviews now, four years later, they’re actually pretty good. I scored about 250 Cabernets 90 points or higher, roughly one-third of all I tasted, a high average for a vintage. By contrast, that was less than the 50% of all 2007 Pinot Noirs I scored at 90 points or higher, which is why I called 2007 the greatest Pinot Noir vintage ever. There’s no chance I’ll call 2006 the greatest Napa Cabernet vintage ever, but clearly, I underestimated it. I can see, over the course of several revisions, that I penalized the wines for not being flashy and opulent. I now realize that the ‘06s traded those qualities for elegance and, in many cases, ageworthiness — qualities that can be hard to recognize in a young Cabernet.
My highest scoring Napa Cabs came from all over the valley. They included blends (the 100-point Cardinale), single-vineyard wines (Krutz Stagecoach, Piña Buckeye), mountain wines (David Arthur Elevation 1147, Kendall-Jackson Highland Estates Napa Mountain, from Mount Veeder) and Cabs from the flats (Peju H.B. Vineyard, Lail J. Daniel). So it’s hard to generalize where in Napa Valley did best, except to say that all the vineyards were farmed as impeccably as any on earth.
Prices were high. My least expensive 95-point or higher wine was $40 for the Vinifera Cab, but costs rose quickly after that; 13 of 30 were in the triple digits, topping out at $225 for that Peju H.B. One other thing of note is the number of lesser known wineries with very high scores: Napa Angel, Krutz, Hestan, Baldacci, Pina, Parallel, Vinifera, Sabina, De Sante, Hunnicutt, Roy Estate. That’s an interesting development. Many people might not realize it, but Napa Valley is the most intensely fermentive (no pun intended) wine region in California. It has the most new brands turning up, doing exciting things and wowing more often than not.
Bottom line: I’m upgrading my rating for the Napa 2006 Cabs. It was a better vintage than I thought.