Senior editor James Molesworth is Wine Spectator's lead taster for California Cabernet Sauvignon. He recently returned to Napa Valley for more visits with top wineries. And don't miss our Q&A with James on his Napa Cab eureka moments, his scoring philosophy, and what he's up to when he's not tasting wine.
Cabernet is big. It makes big wines. It can make them on a big production scale. It’s macro-terroir. It’s big business. At least, that’s the way it seems on the surface, if you take the wide-angle view of Bordeaux, Napa and the global Cabernet market as a whole.
But within the pixilation there’s another, smaller approach, a Burgundian approach to micro-terroir. Hands-on vinification. In Bordeaux, this would by typified by the Right Bank. In Napa, this trend is typified by the myriad small-production, vineyard-designated bottlings that have swollen the Cabernet ranks in recent years. At its most successful peak in Napa, this is perhaps best practiced by Colgin.
Colgin Cellars was founded in 1992. Now partly owned by Ann Colgin and her husband, Joe Wender (the couple sold a majority stake to French conglomerate LVMH in 2017, and they also own Burgundy négociant Camille Giroud), Colgin Cellars made its reputation on a Cabernet Sauvignon made from fruit purchased from Herb Lamb Vineyard, but that cuvée ended with the 2007 vintage. Along the way, Colgin bought the Tychson (pronounced "tick-son") Hill property in 1996, located in St. Helena, planting it immediately (today it totals 6 acres of Bordeaux varieties). In 1999, she bought the 125-acre No. 9 parcel on Pritchard Hill, the first purchase made in the area after it was opened up by the Long family. She also planted that right away (today it totals 20 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Syrah). Starting in 1999 she signed a long-term contract for fruit from Abreu’s Madrona Ranch vineyard. By 2002 all the wines were being made at the winery on what came to be called the IX Estate. Epitomizing the Burgundian approach, all four Colgin wines, made by winemaker Allison Tauziet, are based on their vineyard sources, with no blending of sites. Total annual production across the range of wines is about 2,500 cases.
At the IX Estate, Tauziet takes me through the vineyard, located on a fairly steep slope ranging from 1,100 to 1,350 feet of elevation. It sits just in the fog zone and enjoys a cooler aspect, though not as dramatic as some of the spots higher up on other mountains such as Howell. Because the humidity from San Pablo Bay is pulled into the site, airflow is at a premium. Over time, the initial plantings have been retrained, bringing their fruit zone up another 6 inches. The site’s clay soils are red, rich in iron and have good water retention, but they’re balanced by a gravel component that allows for good drainage. Planted at 3’-by-6’ spacing, the density is notable, as the extra competition wouldn’t seem to be necessary in what is already a naturally low-vigor site.
“We want the vines stressed a bit, a little bit hungry,” explains Tauziet. “That way they pull more into the wines in terms of color and flavor. But we also want them healthy. We want shoots reaching the top wire and a volume of canopy along the sides to manage airflow and provide that dappled sunlight protection on the clusters. We want everything on the vine working the right way.”
Tauziet and Colgin are aiming for finesse and freshness in the wines—terms not usually associated with Napa Cabernet. But finesse and freshness are relative; Cabernet is Cabernet, after all, and the Napa Valley penchant for new oak and over-extraction can sometimes make the wines outsized. Tauziet and Colgin understand than power comes easily in Napa. The pursuit is in the finesse.
“We know we’re going to have hot weather in September—that’s the wonderful intensity of Napa,” says Tauziet. “But we don’t want it at the expense of freshness. We don’t want to lose everything we’re working all year for. Here we have glistening sun but with freshness. The combination is like in Provence, in the vineyards that are along the coast. Napa is Mediterranean in its climate, and so while power comes naturally, that nuance of freshness, a little salivating savory note is what we like to have. Otherwise it’s all just sweetness of fruit.”
We then cross the valley and head over to the Tychson Hill property, which sits well below the IX Estate’s elevation and faces east. It’s on a loamier soil with larger pieces of gravel and flakes of obsidian peeking up. Here the days are warmer and the temperature highs are markedly higher than at IX Estate but the diurnal swing is greater. The site sits in a comb between the feet of Diamond and Spring Mountain and the cool air at night spills down into the vineyard and then sits there longer through the next day before lifting.
Tasting the 2016, ’15 and ’07 vintages of Tychson Hill (typically a 95 percent Cabernet Sauvignon blend with drops of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot) shows that freshness. Both of the two younger vintages show pure beams of red currant, açaí and raspberry fruit laced with light anise, rooibos tea and floral notes, backed by fine-grained finishes. The 2007 is a bit broader in feel, with its development yielding cedar, graphite and loam hints along with the raspberry and red currant reduction notes—it feels heavier. It’s proof the pursuit of freshness is showing success; as in the ensuing years, Tauziet has eased off on the new oak, dropping from 90 to 100 percent down to around 75 percent.
Tasting the ’16, ’15 and ’10 Cariad (typically an approximately 60/15/15/5 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot from the Madrona Ranch vineyard) continues to provide proof. The 2015 is packed with plum and blackberry fruit, with beautiful polish and poise; a prototypical display of the vintage in general. The 2016 is dreamy in feel, with remarkably pure plum and blackberry notes, very supple, with a gorgeous buried graphite edge on the finish adding lift. The 2010 is still tightly packed with fruit and shows light singed juniper and sage hints through the finish, but while it has yet to open fully, I prefer the purity and drive of the younger vintages.
The ’16 , ’15 and ’09 trio of the IX Estate (two-thirds Cabernet Sauvignon with Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot) is a showstopper. The ’09 is very youthful still, with a range of darker currant, fig and açaí berry fruit tugged by a cast-iron note through the finish. The wood treatment is noticeable here, but the fruit powers through. Then the ’15 and ’16 seem to capture the essence of the evolution at Colgin, offering jaw dropping displays of dark plum, black currant and fig fruit that nearly steal the show, until you look closely and see the range of detail to the sage, bay, warm cast iron and singed juniper nuances. And yes, despite their seeming heft, the two younger vintages come off as nearly lithe in their grace.
The fourth wine made here is a Syrah from IX Estate, for which my colleague Tim Fish is responsible for passing judgment. But as the Rhône guy at Wine Spectator, I enjoyed the 2016, ’15 and ‘10 vintages immensely.
“Everyone is diving in deeper, trying to make unique wines that aren’t just sweet fruit, and are consistent from vintage to vintage,” says Tauziet.
It’s a bit of a grand statement, as there are still plenty of overdone Cabernets coming from California. But I think it was uttered more in relation to the cadre of those taking the Colgin approach—small-production, site-specific wines, made with a tilt toward the relative finesse that Cabernet can attain. And if Colgin is leading the way, the results suggest others should be following their path.