Stags Leap: a perfect fit for Cabernet

Stags Leap: a perfect fit for Cabernet

When Goldilocks invaded the home of the three bears, she ate the porridge that was not too hot and not too cold, slept in the bed that was not too hard nor too soft, and crushed a chair with her own weight in a quest to find one that was ‘just right’.

After years of tasting Napa Valley wines, I have settled on my own ‘just right’ place for Cabernet Sauvignon. I haven’t broken a thing, except the notion that dusty Rutherfords, tradition-steeped Oakvilles and cellarworthy Howell Mountains were the ‘best’. If I had to choose one region for Cabernet to drink now, and in 10 years (and perhaps 20), it’s Stags Leap District.

Last month, Decanter’s former editor Susan Keevil convincingly made the case for Napa’s numerous AVAs and their regional differences. SLD is the one for me – it offers all I admire in Cabernet: tannins that aren’t too hard, acidity and structure that aren’t too soft; fruit character that isn’t too warmly ripe, nor too coolly herbaceous; power and intensity, but with the bonus of elegance and refinement.

‘Stags Leap Cabernets tend to be understated in a good way,’ says Silverado Vineyards winemaker Jon Emmerich, whose 2002 SOLO Cabernet ($75) has a lively, tangy palate of plum and black cherry fruit and the suppleness characteristic of the region. ‘Soils, clones, trellising and winemaking techniques vary between producers, but the wines typically show bright fruit, firm acidity and backbone, and much softer tannins than our neighbours.’

That theme plays out in Hartwell Vineyards’ fruity, polished 2003 Cabernet ($115). The 2003 Chimney Rock Cabernet ($58) shows its Stags Leap provenance with juicy black cherry/blackberry fruit and crisp acidity, plus a layer of lavish oak. Baldacci Family Vineyards’ 2003 Cab ($49) crackles with acidity that lifts the generous black cherry fruit.

Then there is Shafer Vineyards’ lusciously ripe, heady (14.9% alcohol) 2002 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon ($190), which balances size and richness with sparkling acidity and a seamlessness that I didn’t find in the 2001 vintage.

Cliff Lede Vineyards, Clos du Val, Pine Ridge Winery and Robert Sinskey also excite with their SLD Cabs, yet the torch-bearer is the inimitable Warren Winiarski, owner of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and legend of the 1976 Paris tasting.

Winiarski describes his Stag’s Leap District Cabernet (the Cask 23, SLD and Fay bottlings) as ‘an iron fist in a velvet glove’. He set the standard to which Stags Leap District producers aspire and that many achieve: plump cherry/berry fruit, supple texture, velvety tannins, mouthwatering acidity, moderate alcohol and enough structure for ageing.

Napa Valley terroir isn’t just about dirt – it’s also defined by climate, exposure, moisture, drainage and other variables. Geology and meteorology merge in SLD, where Cabernet Sauvignon gets its intense purple colour, perfumed violet nose, sprightly fruit, gentle tannins and racy acidity from the elements, becoming a wine of grace, and with a sense of place.

Stags Leap District is Napa’s smallest AVA, just 1.5km wide and nearly 5km long, with 526ha (hectares) under vine. In the cool southern end of the valley, north of the town of Napa and east of Yountville, the AVA is bisected by the Silverado Trail.

The Vaca Mountains are on the east, Napa River on the west. In between are volcanic soils deposited by ancient eruptions and erosion, and bale-loam and clay soils strewn by the river. Towering over these coarse, well-drained soils are the Stags Leap Palisades, a bare-rock formation that reflects daytime heat into the vineyards, encouraging the ripening of fruit. In the evening, San Pablo Bay breezes waft north through Carneros and into SLD, to be trapped at the narrow end of the district causing a swirling effect that preserves the grapes’ acidity and freshness.

Legend has it that a stag escaped hunters with a mighty leap between two peaks of the Palisades, giving the region its name. In 1986, Winiarski and then-Stags’ Leap Winery owner Carl Doumani went to court over their similar names. The issue was resolved by apostrophes, Winiarski’s Stag’s becoming possessive, and Doumani’s Stags’ becoming plural possessive.

On being approved in 1989 as an AVA, Stags Leap District asked for no apostrophes. Its marketing arm sings an iron-fist-velvet-glove-style ‘rock soft’ theme, and as silly as that is, I hum along, digging the beat.

Linda Murphy is our West Coast correspondent, and the former wine editor of The San Francisco Chronicle

What Linda’s Been Drinking This Month

Russian River Valley

Pinot Noir

As new Pinot Noir players emerge in California, I find myself pulling corks on more Russian River Pinots than any others. Perhaps it’s my appreciation of the pioneering efforts of Joseph Swan, Rochioli and Williams Selyem, but more likely it’s the crystalline fruit character, supple texture and crisp acidity of Russian River Pinots that keep me drinking them. Current favourites: the spicy, exotic Siduri 2004 Keefer Ranch Pinot Noir ($42, US markets) and the earthy, complex and cellarworthy Merry Edwards 2004 Olivet Lane ($57, US markets).

Written by Linda Murphy