There was a common thread among panelists’ comments at the latest Napa Valley Vintners and St. Helena Star Tasting Panel session this past month. On review were 2016 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon wines made from grapes grown on the valley floor and benchlands.

Brix Restaurant Manager Jamie Jamieson said, “We are buying heavy on the 2016 vintage; there is oak integration, lots of fruit profiles and acid levels; really great wines.”

Brian Mox, winemaker at Laird Family Estate, spoke of the balance; wines that are drinkable now but with years of aging potential.

Jennifer Lamb, proprietor of Herb Lamb Vineyards, had the group salivating as she pictured enjoying many of these wines with a large, sizzling Porterhouse steak. In fact, brothers David and Peter Stoneberg of Circle R Ranch on Atlas Peak did just that: they made a beeline to Oxbow Market’s Five Dot Ranch immediately following the tasting, carrying a bottle of Peter’s favorite wine from the tasting, Phifer Pavitt Wine DATE NIGHT.

Peter Marks MW noted the general brightness and freshness of the Cabernets and summed up the 2016 vintage as “yummy” — to which panelists nodded and chuckled in approval.

Balancing acidity and thoughtful oak influence were recurring comments around the room of 25 panelists. And you’d be incorrect to think this group is on automatic pilot: favorable to their regional wines as par for the course. There have been many tastings where the vintners (especially) in the room dissect the structural characteristics of the wines being reviewed and lament on missing acidity, overly aggressive maceration, overt oak use, and any number of other assails. So 2016 is looking to be a particularly special vintage in the valley.

What made 2016 such a standout year? Importantly, a four-year drought was finally broken with significant winter rains. Throughout the summer months, Napa Valley enjoyed cooler than average daytime highs with cool evenings, helping the grapes retain good acidity to balance out the richness in the wines. The favorable growing season continued through harvest, and most vintners’ fruit was in the cellars before winter rains started up again.

Not that there wasn’t a nay-sayer; iconic Zinfandel producer Jerry Sepps of Calistoga’s Storybook Mountain was looking for greater complexity in the wines, disapproving also of the weight of many of the bottles as they were passed around the room. Several of the bottles strained muscles, and sympathies went out to sommeliers who are required to handle the bottles with ease and agility.

Stay tuned for a taste-off of Napa Valley’s mountain appellation wines next month, but these are the top choices of 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon wines from the valley floor and benchlands:

Davies Vineyards Winfield Vineyard Calistoga ($95) No longer are the red wines made by the Davies family in the shadow of their famous Schramsberg sparkling wines. The family’s red wines are winning awards and turning heads with a unique identity and renown of their own. This 100% Cab has a silky texture, juicy acidity, plenty of concentrated black fruits and nutmeg-black pepper spice complexity.

Gibbs Vineyards Three Clones St. Helena ($35) Red plum, vanilla bean, coffee, toffee and sweet spice make this a no-brainer for holiday dinner guests. Who wouldn’t want to be greeted by all that goodness?

Honig Vineyard & Winery Napa Valley ($50) A top Napa Valley Cab at this price is hard to come by. Honig delivers high impact – deep black fruits with sweet oak spice, fennel, and orange peel complexity in their 2016 vintage.

Phifer Pavitt Wine DATE NIGHT Napa Valley ($90) Not all panelists were familiar with Phifer Pavitt prior to this tasting, and there was resounding appreciation of the wine, as well as a lot of “How could I not know about this?” statements. The 2016 is aromatically enticing with wild violet, blackberry, and blackcurrant fruit wrapped around a core of firm tannins with juicy acidity.

St. Supery Estate Rutherford ($125) They say a stunning entry makes for a lasting impression, and this wine pulls out all the stops: blackberry, black cherry, mint, and eucalyptus aromas swirl enticingly from the glass leading to rich, juicy sips of deeply complex Cabernet Sauvignon.

Other wines gaining top scores:

Fiftyrow Vineyards Alice Block Rutherford ($80) A silky smooth Cab, this wine has dollops of black fruit made complex with minty and spicy elements.

Hoopes Vineyard Oakville ($75) Big and dark, this wine’s concentrated black fruits are met with generous oak spice and structured tannins.

Merryvale Vineyards Napa Valley ($65) Black and red cherry fruits are woven with toast and dark spices on the palate, making this deeply colored wine a fine match for flavorful holiday dinners.

Somnium Wine Napa Valley ($185) A star is born with this dark-fruited, juicy Cabernet Sauvignon wine.

Not for the faint of pocket (book), this wine has all the right Napa Cab stuffing: blackberry and black cherry fruit balanced by structured tannins and bright acidity.

You can cellar it for a decade or more, but those loving Napa Valley Cab may want to show this off to friends and family now.

Catherine Bugue, the St. Helena Star’s tasting panel writer, loves writing about — and drinking — wine. She is also the co-founder of the Napa Valley Wine Academy in Napa. You can contact Catherine at catbugue@gmail.com. Only wines from Napa Valley Vintner member wineries are accepted and tasted. Many wineries offer local residents discounts on their wines through the Napa Neighbor program, visit napavintners.com/programs and click on Napa Neighbor to learn more.

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