While many might argue that the heart of the Napa Valley (Rutherford in particular) represents the epicenter of great Cabernet production. I’ve always preferred the wines form the hillside and Howell Mountain in particular. These wines are fruity and rich enough, a little stress in their lives just adds a touch of detail and complexity which to me makes them better wines. I love me some Rutherford Bench Cabernet, but if I’m putting a bottle in the cellar, I’m reaching for Dunn Howell Mountain first and foremost.
Randy Dunn has been making these wines for decades and the style really hasn’t changed all that much. These are rich yet really structured wines. Many people think the Dunn Howell Mountain never actually matures. It does, it just takes plenty of time.
Tip: If you can’t wait 20 years for the Howell Mountain, try Dunn’s Napa Valley bottling which is 85% Howell Mountain fruit, a fraction of the price and only needs about 12 years to become drinkable!
Dunn Howell Mountain $80
Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello
If you’re looking for the greatest Bordeaux blend in America, look no further. Ridge has half a century of experience producing their famous blend from the Monte Bello vineyard, and if you ask anyone with experience with the wines, they’ll tell you these are some of the best wines California has to offer. Elegant, complex, layered and yet remarkably well balanced, these wines come from high altitude vineyards located south of San Francisco. The blend is always based on Cabernet but generally includes a bit of Merlot and maybe some Cabernet Franc or Petit Verdot.
For my palate, no American wine of my wine buying era (1980-2000) has been so consistent and aged so well. This might be the most expensive wine on this list at $100 per bottle, but I only recommend it because I think it’s worth it.
Monte Bello $100
Kuleto India Ink
I’m wrapping up my California Cabernet recommendations with one of my more recent discoveries, Kuleto’s India Ink bottling. Located on the eastern side of the Napa Valley, just a few miles south of Howell Mountain, Kuleto Estate is a relatively new operation producing a line-up of Cabernets from a patchwork of ridge top vineyards. These are really fantastic wines, but the India Ink bottling has stood out to me as the deepest, most mineral and potentially most rewarding example to cellar.
This is a rather massive style of Cabernet for my tastes. It is packed with sweet fruit, but there is so much minerality and structure here that I love going back for more! This is about as good as modern California Cabernet gets.
Kuleto India Ink $80
And now the hard part. With three more wines left, I have to struggle to fit in anything and everything that I’ve missed. Obviously there are many options here, but I’m sticking with wines that are unique in their class. You can swap out many a Bordeaux or Barolo for the one’s I’ve recommended along the way, but you would be hard pressed to find anything that could replace these next three wines. They might in fact be the best recommendations of this whole exercise. Since you’ve read this all the way through, I think it’s only fair that I share them with you!
Photo courtesy Jeff Kubina via Flickr/CC
Since we’ve been on a bit of a Cabernet kick here and I didn’t find a really representative example of Cabernet Franc in Bordeaux, how about the world’s best Cabernet Franc? Yes, this stunning example from the Loire Valley is arguably the world’s finest Cabernet Franc.
In classic Loire Valley style, Clos Rougeard is generally red-fruited and rich though still medium bodied. This is Cabernet Franc in all its glory, which means the aforementioned red fruits but also bits of tobacco, tomato leaf and mint. Then again, this is the Loire Valley, so add in tense acids, fine grained tannins and a fine mineral bed. All of that and brilliant wine making for about $80, you’re not going to find anything like this anywhere else in the world.
Clos Rougeard Saumur Rouge $80
Lopez de Heredia
Similar in style in some ways to the wine of Clos Rougeard are the wines of the venerable Rioja estate Lopez de Heredia. With two flagship wines, each coming from a single vineyard with varying proportions of Tempranillo and Grenache, these are elegant, lithe and perfumed wines. What really sets them apart is their ages.
These two wines, the Tondonia Gran Reserva and the Bosconia Gran Reserva, spend a long time in barrel and bottle at the winery. How long? The current releases are from the 1991 vintage, a particularly fine year, and 1994s are creeping into some shelves. No doubt these are idiosyncratic wines, but when they shine, as they usually do after about 30 years, they are absolutely compelling examples of traditional Rioja.
Bosconia Gran Reserva $90
Tondonia Gran Reserva $90
And now my final choice. I struggled with this one but ultimately had to remain true to myself. What other wine at this price or close to it do I buy, feel comfortable recommending (yes, there are wines I buy that might freak some folks out) and fit my criteria? I ended up with something strange, wonderfully rustic and certainly unique: Domaine Tempier’s two single vineyard Bandols!
For those unfamiliar with Bandol, it’s a wine based on Mourvèdre, which contributes some brute strength, purple and black fruit, animal and game aromas and a generally robust nature. Drips and drabs of Grenache, Cinsault and Carignan are added to drop in some additional complexity. Whatever the mix, these are real wines of character, pretty unique in the world and delightful additions to any cellar! In my experience, the Tourtine has been bigger though the Migoua shows more complexity. Buy one of each and find out for yourself.
Domaine Tempier Bandol Migoua $60
Domaine Tempier Bandol Tourtine $60