Research Napa Valley, California’s 2012 vintage—the current year of release for most upper-echelon Napa Cabernet Sauvignons—and descriptors of the harvest don’t venture far from "near perfect," "idyllic," and "outstanding." Janet Myers, director of winemaking for Napa's Mount Veeder Winery, describes the Cabernets from that year as "very structural and concentrated." Weather during the 2012 growing season was overall moderate, yielding wines on par with the highly regarded 2005 and 1997 vintages from the area.
Eater decided to taste through Napa's top 2012 Cabernet Sauvignons available today, and below, the best bottles—from big and modern to classically styled—at a variety of price points.
Cask 23 from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars is sultry, polished and straight up delicious. Fruit from this 100 percent Cabernet wine comes from Stag’s Leap’s SLV and Fay vineyards, and the wine is aged in 95 percent new French oak. Its nose is intoxicating and fragrant, with notes of raspberry, black cherry, and floral rose. The wine is balanced with perfectly ripe black plum and cassis fruit edged with dried spice. Touches of vanilla bean and mocha accent the persistent finish. Expect mouthwatering acidity. This wine can easily age 10 or more years.
Poetry is a full-throttle, 15.2 percent ABV Cab built of 89 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 7 percent Merlot, 2 percent Cabernet Franc, and 2 percent Petit Verdot. Blackberry, cassis and dusty mineral aromas are penetrating and alluring. On the palate, it reveals more of the same flavors, plus blueberry, dried spice and tobacco notes. This wine is sumptuous and exciting, with a long finish marked by a streak of bitter chocolate.
CADE is an organically farmed, LEED-certified winery; it is part of the PlumpJack Hospitality Group, which was founded by politician Gavin Newsom in 1992. The CADE 2012 Howell Mountain Cabernet (93 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 3 percent Merlot) is a modern-styled wine, with thick, velvety tannins and heaps of juicy blackberry and cherry fruit. Mocha and toast around the edges gives it an even darker, richer feel. Ideal pairings for this 15.2 percent wine: a roaring fire, Barry White, and a bearskin rug.
This Bordeaux blend (91 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 5 percent Merlot, 2 percent Petit Verdot, 2 percent Malbec) is made from grapes grown at over 1,500 feet above sea level. It takes some time to open, but when it does, the wine reveals a compelling earthy, mineral quality throughout, along with hints of fresh herbs. On the palate, wooly tannins cradle a core of focused blueberry and blackberry flavors. Hold the Reserve for a few years before digging in and that fruit will shine through.
Wine: Henry’s Keep Proprietary Red Wine, 2012
From: Mount Veeder, Napa Valley, California
Brandlin’s flagship wine is so named because family patriarch Henry Brandlin used to save some of the best grapes from each vintage for his family’s private bottlings. The 2012 Henry’s Keep—a harmonious blend of 78 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 9 percent Malbec, 7 percent Petit Verdot, and 6 percent Cabernet Franc—opens with vibrant aromas of raspberry and black cherry, plus hints of black pepper and earth. On the palate, ripe red plum and blackberry fruit is packaged in a dark soil-and-mineral envelope. Tannins are chewy and a bit dry now; the wine will hold easily through 2025.
Wine: Rubicon, 2012
From: Rutherford, Napa Valley, California
Rubicon is the flagship wine of Inglenook, the iconic 19th-century Napa estate owned by Francis Ford Coppola. This is the first vintage of Rubicon that was overseen from start to finish by winemaker Philippe Bascaules, who spent 21 years at Bordeaux's legendary Château Margaux before coming to Inglenook in 2011.
Rubicon—a blend of 86 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 9 percent Petit Verdot, 4 percent Cabernet Franc, and 1 percent Merlot—opens with deep aromas of cigar wrapper, bramble, leather and dense red fruit. On the palate, there’s a broad foundation of blackberry and stone fruit, accented by deep notes of leather and baking spices. Smoked meats and a hint of caramel linger on the finish. With spot-on balance and acidity plus tannins to spare, this is one to hold. Bascaules says that Rubicon is the wine to choose "if you want to offer a bottle to a baby for a taste when he is 50." Inglenook only produced 5,000 cases of this wine.
The 2012 is Mondavi’s second Reserve from To Kalon Vineyard. It’s an elegant, full-bodied Cabernet, composed of 90 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 7 percent Cabernet Franc and 3 percent Petit Verdot, aged in 100 percent new French oak. The wine carries a dark core of black plum and berry, overlaid with fresh herb and coffee notes, and a sprinkle of ground minerals. Firm, fine tannins take hold midpalate, and continue through the finish. Robert Mondavi Winery celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2016 and, like the winery, this Reserve is classic but certainly not old fashioned. Drink through 2030.
Wine: Cask Cabernet Sauvignon, 2012
From: Napa Valley, California
Rubicon’s little brother, the Inglenook Cask Cabernet, has the same "complexity, density, softness and length" that you’ll find in Rubicon, says winemaker Philippe Bascaules, but "Cask is more generous immediately." However enjoyable it is now, the wine is still a candidate for mid-term cellaring.
Cask has terrific balance, composed of 85 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, with 12 percent Cabernet Franc, and 3 percent Merlot. The wine only sees 35 percent new oak, which isn’t all that much compared to other Cabs of its kind. As a result, the wine feels focused and pure; it smells of Indian spice and pencil eraser, and its dark berry fruit flavors are accented by graphite and tobacco. Nicely knit, textured tannins take it through the long finish.
Producer: Chateau Montelena
Wine: Cabernet Sauvignon, 2012
From: Calistoga, Napa Valley, California
This may not be an age-for-four-decades Cabernet, but that’s okay. Taken for what it is right now rather than what it might or might not grow up to be, the Montelena Cabernet is thoroughly enjoyable; a blend of 88 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 10 percent Merlot and 2 percent Cabernet Franc. It's nose is wide and pleasing, with red fruit preserves, dried spice and dust/chalk notes. Generous and velvety in feel, it serves up flavors of ripe raspberry and plum fruit, pencil eraser and hints of caramel and spice. Juicy, moderately sized, food-friendly and, for a Napa Cabernet, this wine is a relative bargain.
Smith-Madrone’s 2012 Cabernet (82 percent Cabernet Sauvignon,10 percent Merlot, 8 percent Cabernet Franc) is made from dry-farmed grapes grown at an elevation of 1,800 feet, at the top of Spring Mountain. This medium-bodied wine has lots of personality: Bright blueberry and blackberry notes on the nose are edged in tea and fresh herbs. In the mouth, bright berry and plum notes are framed in the flavors of pencil lead, tobacco, and black olive. Ripe and textured on the mid-palate, this wine closes with hints of toast and thyme. It holds its own next to wines twice its price.