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Examining 2011 Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon

On Wednesday, July 16, Inglenook hosted “A Day in the Dust,” the Rutherford AVA’s annual media and trade tasting of new releases. This year’s focus was 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon.

The event included:

  • a blind tasting of 13 Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon from the 2011 vintage for a small group of writers
  • vitculturalist/proprietor Davie Piña presenting a summary of the 2011 vintage
  • lunch with glasses of the 2011 Inglenook Rubicon Cabernet Sauvignon and 2012 Inglenook Blancaneaux white Rhone-variety blend
  • a walk-around tasting for trade and media of more 2011 Cabernet plus other releases from roughly 40 producers of Rutherford AVA wine.

2011 was a difficult vintage throughout California. Winter and spring were exceptionally cold and wet, leading to poor fruit set for some growers. Cool weather continued for most of the growing season, necessitating later than typical harvest. Ripening and harvest were further complicated by rain in early October. The end result was below average ripeness along with unusually high levels of mold and rot. As in other regions, the impact of these factors varied considerably from one vineyard to the next, sometimes from block to block.

Many analysts essentially wrote off the 2011 vintage. However, with the advanced viticultural techniques and precise sorting machines now available to wineries, very fine wine can be produced in years that would have been tragic in decades past. In regions such as Napa Valley, where maintaining brand reputation and customer loyalty is essential, vigneron spend a lot of money to ameliorate the effects of bad weather and will readily sacrifice quantity for quality. Some wineries, such as Honig, are already sold out of 2011 Cabernet.

Tom Rinaldi, winemaker for Hewitt Vineyard, told us that they did "“an awful lot of sorting and removal.” HUNNICUTT’s Kirk Venge said 2011 brought “a careers’s worth of rain” and they “controlled botrytis by being out in the vineyard, sometimes twice a day.” He found old, widely spaced vines with loose clusters fared best.

Despite best efforts, rot was an issue for many, perhaps most, producers. Ted Edwards of Freemark Abbey said he saw more botrytis in Cabernet Sauvignon around the valley than ever before in his 33-year career. He added, “We were lucky. Our vineyard crew was very aggressive.”

Winemakers also deviated from their normal procedures to compensate for the vintage. State and Federal laws require just 95% of a wine to be from the stated vintage. Tom Rinaldi blended in some 2012 wine and said that, in his 35 years making wine in Napa Valley, this was the first time he’s come close to the 5% cap for off-vintage content.

Many wineries, including Hewitt, turned to barrel fermentation. It creates a softer, richer wine but is much more labor intensive than fermenting in large tanks with automated pump-over or punch-down. Tom Rinaldi also said that, to prevent any traces of botrytis from showing in the wine, he didn’t do any stirring of the barrels. And he was careful to keep free run and press wine from each barrel separate until the latter could be carefully evaluated.

Paul Wagner of Balzac Communications noted, as did many attendees, that the wines seemed to show less oak than previous vintages. Yet, Jeffrey Stambor, winemaker at Beaulieu Vineyards, said they used 100% new oak—more than usual—in their George de Latour Private Reserve. He did agree that oak signatures were less obvious though, attributing this apparent contradiction to use of lower toast barrels and greater oak-fruit integration due to barrel fermentation.

The end result in general is wines that are very good, but also very different from those of more typical vintages. Color is deep and inviting, but rarely opaque. There is plenty of fruit, but little jam. Acidity plays a significant role in the structure of these wines. One might be tempted to say that these are early drinking wines. However, I think the combination of ample fruit and generous acidity may allow them to develop over an even longer timeframe than most Rutherford Cabernet.

Reaction from others on the tasting panel was very positive but reinforces the notion that the nature of 2011s is atypical and may be most appreciated by a different set of consumers whose palates favor Old World dynamics and expression of terroir. Traci Dutton, sommelier for the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, found quality high, but the profiles diverse. “These wines are really unique. They don’t all taste the same.”

Grooving on the acidity, sommelier/wine writer Randy Caparoso said wryly, “We should have these lousy years every year.” Another veteran sommelier/wine writer, Christopher Sawyer, ruminated on how 2011 Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon will fit in at the dinner table. “These are not the wines I’d be pouring with steak that has blue cheese running all over it. I’m thinking Ahi. I’m thinking roast chicken. I think these wines are real gems.”

Tasting Notes for the 13 Panel Wines plus 2011 Inglenook Rubicon
(in the order they were presented)

2011 rubicon 540

12C Wines Cabernet Sauvignon Beckstoffer Georges III Vineyard 2011, $78. 91 cases released July, 2013.
Aromas of smoke, tart blackberry, mocha, oak, tobacco and chewy black cherries. Medium-bodied with moderate acidity and very fine-grained tannins. Flavors of oak, black fruit leather and spice. Recommended

Beaulieu Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Georges de Latour Private Reserve 2011, $130. 5,600 cases to be released August, 2014.
Black currant, brown spice, toasted cedar, vanilla and malt on the nose. Medium-plus body with fine-grained tannins and high acidity. Piquant blackberry, oak and spice in the mouth. Highly Recommended

Conn Creek Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, $60. 100 cases to be released in Fall, 2014.
Bing cherry, candied cherry, mint, cocoa, brown spice and oak aromatics. Nearly full-bodied with very fine-grained tannins, medium-plus acidity and long flavors of blackberry cream, spice, oak and tobacco. Highly Recommended

Frank Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Winston Hill, $150. 1,089 cases to be released September, 2014.
This wine was less of a departure from typical vintages than most wines in this tasting. Aromas of milk chocolate, coconut, ripe black currants, brown spice and oak. Nearly full-bodied in the mouth with balancing acidity and fine-grained, grippy tannins. Flavors include mint, tart black currant, spice, oak and coconut. Highly Recommended

Freemark Abbey Cabernet Sauvignon Sycamore Vineyard 2011, $100. 1,500 cases to be released January 1, 2015.
Complex and engagingly Old World with aromas of black currant, black cherry, trail dust, mushroom, drying herbs, earth, vanilla and spice. Full-bodied with acidity and fine, powdery and chalky tannins well in balance. Lengthy flavors of black cherry, coconut, coconut, spice and earth. Highly Recommended+

Hewitt Vineyard Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon, $100. 3,200 cases, releasing Summer, 2014.
Mouthwatering red currant, coconut, dewy forest floor and spice on the nose and palate. Medium-plus body, acidity and grippy tannins of fine grain and chalk. Recommended+

HUNNICUTT Cabernet Sauvignon Beckstoffer Georges III Vineyard 2011, $85. 123 cases slated for September, 2014 release.
One the most highly regarded wines among tasters I polled, and also one of those I found most reminiscent of Bordeaux. Black currant/black cherry preserves, brown and black spices, oak and moist tobacco aromas. Full-bodied and showing excellent balance of acidity, alcohol, tannins of fine grain and chalk, and intensity on the palate. Long flavors of tangy black currant, spice, earth and dry herb. Very Highly Recommended

McGah Family Cellars “Scarlett” Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, $60. 471 cases released December, 2013.
Another crowd favorite, the McGah smelled of black cherry, black currant jam, mushroom, damp forest floor and spice. Almost full-bodied on the palate with medium+ acidity, fine powdery/chalky tannins and exceptional balance. The very long-lasting flavors echoed the nose. Very Highly Recommended

Pestoni Family Rutherford Grove Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, $55. 300 cases to be released in 2015.
Aromas of oak, brown and black spices, heady blackberry, oak and mint. Medium-plus body and juicy in the mouth with fine-grained and chalky tannins. Flavors of baseball card gum, tart black fruit and herb. Recommended

Provenance Vineyards Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, $47. 13,500 cases released in January, 2014.
Black cherry, moist cereal grain, dark spice and brown sugar on the nose. Full-bodied with prominent acidity and firm tannins of fine grain and chalk that will soften to reveal lush flavors with time in the cellar. Highly Recommended

Quintessa Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, $145. 9,000 cases released in April, 2014.
Mannered aromas of dried black currant, cigar box and dark spices aromas give way to a full-bodied palate with very fine-grained and chalky tannins. Rich black cherry, medicinal herb, spice and oak. Highly Recommended

St. Supery Estate Vineyards Rutherford Estate Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, $100. 340 cases to be released September, 2014.
A simultaneously lush and juicy tasters’ favorite with aromas of black currant, black cherry, dark spice, tobacco, oak and vanilla. The full-bodied palate is loaded with mocha, tangy black currant and spice. The fine-grained, chalky tannins are well-balanced by the fresh fruit. Very Highly Recommended

Wm. Harrison Vineyards Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, $55. 400 cases releasing in May, 2015.
A distinctive nose of chocolate mint, huckleberry, black cherry, brown spice and mocha. Full-bodied and replete with fine, powdery and chalky tannins. Very long flavors of oak, chocolate mint, dry herb, tart blackberry, spice and mocha. Very Highly Recommended

Inglenook Rubicon Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, ~$200. Estimated release September, 2014
This wine was poured at lunch but I essentially tasted it blind. I was talking to people when it was poured and had no idea what was in my glass. The wine quickly got my full attention though.

Opaque and ruby-black in color with a nose offering dense, dusty black currant and mocha. The palate is of medium-plus body with matching acidity. Tannins and flavor intensity are slightly more prominent. The dusty black currant and mocha recur in the mouth but are joined by violets, earthiness and ferrous minerality, all of which are harmonious and very long-lasting. Tannins are a blend of dry, slippery graphite powder and grippy light grains. Overall, the 2011 Inglenook Rubicon reminds me of top growth, Left Bank Bordeaux. Highest Recommendation

I will provide tasting notes on wines from the afternoon’s walk-around tasting in a subsequent article.

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