I’ve recently tasted a slew of mind-blowing Napa Valley cabernets—wines that stop you in your tracks; wines that make you wonder how wine can taste and feel that damn good.
And of course, these wines aren’t just good. They are great.
As a writer, words matter more to me than scores alone, but I gave every one of these 95 to 100 points.
Yes, these wines are expensive and, as such, they are not every-night wines. But great anything is expensive. A Porsche, an Armani suit, a table at The French Laundry.
So, what are the hallmarks of great Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon?
Complexity for one thing. Complexity is the “head trip” of great wine. The complexity of a top cabernet is endlessly compelling. I remember the late winemaker of Château Margaux, Paul Pontallier, telling me that when cabernet is great, it’s like looking down a long road. Your eye keeps traveling further and further and you keep seeing things with no end in sight.
But there are other attributes too. I think all great cabernets are precise and vivid. No molecule is out of place. The wine almost seems alive.
Great cabernet is also extremely distinctive—not just in flavor, but also in aroma and texture. It has its own memorable personality.
For me, great cabernet has to have contrapuntal tension—in the same split second, you sense its power and its refinement.
It has to have an impeccable tannin structure so that you sense the tannin as the majestic structure behind the wine, but don’t feel it as physically abrasive or drying.
And of course, great cabernet has to go on and on. The end should fade out ever so slowly, like a sexy French film.
Karen MacNeil’s Great Napa Valley Cabernets
EISELE Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 (Napa Valley, California) $550
Utterly precise, pure, and vivid with pinpoint balance. Haunting beauty and vitality. A soaring tannin structure arching over the wine like the flying buttresses on a cathedral. As classic and majestic as cabernet can get. Unforgettable. 100 points
MACDONALD Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 (Oakville, California) $175
For pure hedonism, this is it. Luscious dark blackberry flavors followed by wave after wave of spiciness, savoriness, and a “chaparral” flavor I associate with the dry mountain forests that ring Napa Valley. Extremely fine majestic tannins. A finish so long that it doesn’t ever quite seem to finish. 97 points
HARLAN ESTATE Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 (Oakville, California) $1200
Impeccable structure. Soaring and majestic. Every molecule of the wine is totally focused along the same flavor trajectory. Still tightly wound even despite its age. When this wine begins to unfurl itself, it’s going to be sensational. 97 points
CORISON “Sunbasket” Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 (Napa Valley, California) $185
From a vineyard in St. Helena (which the great winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff used to call a sunbasket) comes this exquisitely pure-tasting cabernet with flavors evocative of fresh-chilled cherries and lively exotic spices. Explosive yet beautiful and very long. 97 points
PETER MICHAEL WINERY “Au Paradis” Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 (Oakville, California) $225
Juicy and savory. Cassis laced with notes of wild herbs. The tannins are beautifully fine and give the wine a soaring structure. Long and wonderfully balanced. 96 points
LARKMEAD “Solari” Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 (Napa Valley, California) $255
On the beauty-to-power spectrum, Larkmead has always sat toward the left, closer to beauty and refinement. It’s sleek, spicy, and intense—like some alluring female athlete. Very fine tannins and lots of structure. 95 points
SPOTTSWOODE Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 (Napa Valley, California) $225
Vivid, pure blackberry and blueberry notes. Delicious flavors that reverberate wildly, as though the flavors were sounds coming from a huge church bell that someone has just struck hard. Dramatic fine tannin. 95 points
STAGLIN Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 (Napa Valley, California) $240
Soft, sensual, and violety. A very rich, expansive cabernet that unfolds ever so slowly like a red velvet curtain being gently lowered in the theater. Leads with its utterly supple texture. 95 points
OPUS ONE Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 (Oakville, California) $350
Exquisite structure and concentration through the entire sensory impression of the wine. Interesting cardamom-like spiciness and notes of sweet oak still apparent. Very long on the palate. 95 points
DALLA VALLE Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 (Oakville California) $200
Rich and intense with saturated blackberry flavors and a minerally rockiness. Sweet notes of oak still waft through the wine. Very hedonistic and exquisitely long. 95 points