A few weeks back, I spotlighted a number of Napa Valley’s most extravagantly rich collectible red wines, on the theory that even if you’ll never be able to afford or find them, you might as well read about them and drool. Of course, you don’t have to spend three hundred bucks or more for a superlative red wine from Napa Valley. But it can be surprisingly difficult to find seriously rich, balanced examples from red Bordeaux varieties, especially cabernet sauvignon, at anything like sane prices. After all, there is still major cachet to “Napa Valley cabernet” on a label. Following Bordeaux, Napa remains the world’s richest source of superlative wines from cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc.
I did an informal search of the International Wine Cellar’s massive annual coverage of California’s North Coast wines in the current issue in search of outstanding examples–i.e., those rating 90 points or higher–that retail for $50 or less. You’d be surprised how few there were. Below I briefly highlight several examples. A couple of them are made in limited quantities, so you might start your search by going to the winery’s web site. By the way, all of my choices are from the excellent 2009 vintage.
World’s End is the California project of Jonathan Maltus, who is also responsible for a number of terrific wines in the Saint-Emilion region of Bordeaux, including Le Dome, Le Carré and Les Astéries. The 2009 World’s End Merlot Little Sister Reserve Napa Valley ($45), made from fruit grown in the relatively cool Coombsville area, is an elegantly styled example of the variety, offering juicy, classically dry flavors of black raspberry, currant, licorice and menthol; a firm structure; and very good length. It will benefit from a year or two in the cellar to absorb some of its chocolatey oak.
Wine auctioneer and concert pianist Fritz Hatton has an avid following for his Arietta label, and his winemaker is the talented Andy Erickson, who also makes such cult wines as Screaming Eagle and Dalla Valle, not to mention his own Favia bottlings. The Arietta 2009 Quartet Red Wine Napa Valley ($50), a four-variety Bordeaux blend based on cabernet sauvignon, boasts expressive aromas of plum, redcurrant, raspberry, spices, loam and licorice. It’s lush and rather open-knit but vibrant and not at all overly sweet, offering plenty of immediate appeal but also harmonious acidity to frame its red berry, licorice and floral flavors.
Beringer Vineyards has been a source of many outstanding cabernets going back decades (the winery and original vineyards date back to the 1870s). Beringer offers several pricier single-vineyard cabernet bottlings every vintage, but the winery’s 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Knights Valley ($50), made mostly from vineyards on rocky soil, is an outperformer for its price. It leads off with very dark aromas of blackberry, minerals, bitter chocolate, menthol and crushed rock. The palate impression is surprisingly lush and broad for a mountain wine, with currant and black cherry fruit dominating. The suave finish features serious but fine tannins. You can enjoy this one now or cellar it.
David Jeffrey spent the 2003 harvest in Bordeaux, then purchased vineyards in the moderate Chalk Hill area of Sonoma County with the objective of making Bordeaux-style wines with full ripeness at moderate alcohol levels. His Calluna Vineyards 2009 Merlot Aux Raynauds Chalk Hill ($40) is fat and concentrated, delivering a lovely glyceral texture without any excess sweetness, in the style of a top claret from the Right Bank. With its aromas and flavors of cherry, currant, licorice and smoke, its supple middle palate and its dusty tannins, this intriguing California merlot has the balance to age.
Chappellet Vineyard was making structured, ageworthy cabernets on Pritchard Hill decades before such current stars as Bryant Family Vineyard, Colgin Cellars and Ovid set up shop on these rugged slopes overlooking Lake Hennessey. The Chappellet Vineyard 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Signature Napa Valley ($48) shows brawny power to its medicinal cassis and black cherry fruit and menthol flavors complicated by tobacco leaf and chocolate. It’s in a fairly dry style, showing little easy sweetness, and its substantial mouthcoating tannins call for at least several years of aging.
Finally, this year’s set of releases from Robert Craig is the best I’ve yet tasted from this producer. The winery’s single-vineyard bottlings are above the price threshhold for this article, but the more widely available 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Affinity Napa Valley ($50), which includes all five Bordeaux red varieties, is no slouch. Its aromas of crystallized black cherry, coffee, mocha and loam are lifted by spices. This broad, smooth blend boasts lovely intensity as well as a firm spine of acidity and dusty tannins to give shape and grip to its flavors of black fruits, licorice and dark chocolate.