Senior editor James Molesworth is Wine Spectator's new 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.
When I returned to Napa last week, I caught up with Chris Carpenter again, winemaker for Jackson Family Estates. He’s one of the valley’s "mountain men," working with vineyards in the Howell Mountain, Spring Mountain District, Mount Veeder and Diamond Mountain AVAs.
Carpenter has a unique overview via working in Napa Valley's four main mountain AVAs. Carpenter started at Lokoya in 1998, and by 2001 he was in charge of the winemaking. On this visit, he treated me to a vertical tasting of the 2007 through 2015 vintages (save for 2009).
Up until 2013, the wine was sourced solely from the Spring Mountain Vineyard. Since then, two additional vineyard sources have been added: Yverdon and Wurtelle vineyards.
“Wurtelle is down below on the mountain, at about 900 feet elevation, and it stays warmer throughout the day,” explains Carpenter. “It’s the dark fruit and body of the wine."
"Yverdon is up top, at just under 2,000 feet. It’s much, much cooler, and the latest vineyard we harvest," he says. "It brings high notes of red fruit and flowers and I really like that component. Lokoya has a signature and, frankly, it’s a California signature. Yverdon brings highlights which I love, but the bulk and depth of the wine is Wurtelle.”
Yverdon, which is owned by Jackson Family, features a very shallow, rocky sedimentary soil (there are no volcanic soils here) while Wurtelle, which is farmed by the Jackson Family team, features a deeper loamy aspect, catching the scree eroded from the hillsides.
“But I’ve found on Spring Mountain it’s more about temperature than soils, per se," says Carpenter. "The character of these two vineyards is really about how much colder Yverdon is than Wurtelle.”
Tasting the Lokoya Cabernet Sauvignon Spring Mountain District 2007, the wine shows evolution, though retains a youthful core of warm plum and fig paste fruit, with the backdrop of subtle apple wood, roasted cedar and earth hints indicating its age. The 2008 is notably fresher, with a juicy and intense core of blackberry, plum and fig that feels gently steeped, picking up briar and licorice snap notes. Its toast component is stronger, but it’s also well-integrated. The 2010 is singing today, with a full-on and vibrant display of plum, açaí berry and boysenberry fruit that comes off as very pure. Its toast frame glistens, integrating through the long, fine-grained finish, where a mineral tug appears. It’s classic level in quality for sure.
The 2011 has a sappy and intense core of kirsch, plum and fig, with slightly softer edges than the other, but still lively licorice snap and tarry echoes on the finish. It’s a very strong showing for a vintage with a down reputation—an example of how different mountain vineyards can behave in extreme years versus the valley floor (2011 was a rain-plagued vintage). The 2012 shows a strong apple wood note with a brambly and youthful mix of plum, blackberry and fig fruit flavors. Its toast component is prominent, yet the fruit is copious and open in feel, giving the wine balance. It’s also a point where Carpenter began to ratchet down the new oak aging regimen, from 100 percent down to 90 or 80 percent.
“I began to see I could get the same impact with less oak. Because mountain fruit can really stand up to a lot of oak, in some years I went heavier than I should have, and then I couldn’t come back down in the blending. So now I keep a percentage in used barrels so that when we get to the final blending stage, I can tweak a bit if necessary. Because mountain fruit holds its acidity better and longer from the big diurnal shift and the smaller pulp-to-juice ratio. It can take more oak, but it doesn’t necessarily need more oak.”
The troika of 2013, ’14 and ’15 are exceptional, with the 2013 showing the most intensity of the entire flight, with grippy and energetic blackberry paste and fig preserve flavors, superb focus and a long, iron-edged finish that has wonderful vibrancy. The 2014 shows the expressive aromatics that mark this vintage in general in Napa, with lightly mulled fruit aromas, hints of charcoal, bay and anise, and a long, fine-grained and tensile finish that supports it all easily. The 2015 remains consistent with my official review—another powerful yet pure expression of mountain fruit.
“Mountain fruit has a counterweight to it, with those tannins and acidity. The valley floor is different," Carpenter says. "There’s plenty of tannin in valley floor fruit, of course, but it’s softer, and allows the wine to be more seductive and lush in feel. Mountain fruit is structure, concentration and acidity. It’s a totally different ballgame.”