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Over a decade ago, wine experts were terrified that the question of how to find the best Napa Cabernet would change to how to find the cheapest wine.
In a report released by Wine Vines Analytics, Leo McCloskey, then the president of a wine metrics company, asked if Napa Cabernet would become a commodity; in other words, if Cabernet produced in Napa would forsake quality for mass produced, bulk wine.
At the time, McCloskey and other experts feared that too much New World wine was being planted and that Napa Cabernet would lose its distinction. The good news: while some bulk and commodity wine is produced in Napa, there’s still a distinct, high-quality, regional Cabernet that evokes the unique characteristics of Napa as a wine region.
The problem? It’s harder to find it, with so many options at our disposal.
Consider this your guide to finding the best Napa Cabernet, from the importance of wine regions to what to look for. I’ll finish off by giving my personal recommendations where you can buy the very best Napa Cabernet today.
Why do wine regions matter?
Wine regions make a big difference in terms of wine quality and characteristics–that’s why Cabernet in Napa is different from Cabernet in Bordeaux.
From the soil to the climate and even cultivation practices, wine regions shape flavors, acidity, and even how full a wine is. And, naturally, some wine regions and climates are more optimal than others for different kinds of wine.
New vs Old World Wine
Before I discuss how to find the best Napa Cabernet, it’s important to discuss the differences between new vs old world wine.
New and old world wine refers to the general regions and cultivation methods. While there is, of course, ample variety from one new wine to another, it’s also true that most new world wines have key characteristics in common with other new world wines (and the same can be said for old world wine).
Wine terroir is a way to distinguish between Cabernet grown and produced in one region over another, and key to the differences between New vs Old World wine.
Terroir includes key factors like soil type; climate; the amount of daylight; and weather patterns, all of which impact what grapes can be cultivated, and the final characteristics of the wine produced.
Old World Wine
Old World wine is produced in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. Compared to new world wine, old world wine tends to be relatively lighter in body, more acidic, and more tannic. Because of these qualities, old-world wine comes off as more astringent, even though alcohol levels are lower.
Minerality and earthy notes are more common. In addition, labeling standards are more strict, from the grape type to even how a wine is labeled. French Champagne is an iconic example of Old World Wine, as is Tempranillo from Spain. Aging is more common as well.
New World Wine
New World wine, which is how Napa Cabernet is classified, is produced in North America, South America, and other locations like Australia and New Zealand.
Compared with Old World Wine, New World Wine has less stringent labeling standards and tends to be more acidic and fuller in body. While often enjoyed without aging, aging has a sweater vanilla note. Instead of earthy and mineral tones, these wines tend to be more fruit forward.
What’s unique about Napa wine?
The Napa Valley is heralded for its California wine for a reason. Registered as an AVA (American Viticultural Area), it produces both commodity and terroir wine over an estimated 43,000 acres and over 400 wineries.
For New World Wine, it’s still a well-established tradition, with the first wines produced in 1858. While the Napa wine industry has encountered some hardships, it is proven resilient and to this day is also a great region for wine tourism.
Napa Valley is home to numerous wine varieties. Best known for Cabernet Sauvignon; Merlot; Cabernet Franc; Pinot Noir; Zinfandel; Chardonnay; and Sauvignon Blanc, you can also find other wine varieties, such as Petit Verdot, Petite Syrah, Pinot Gris, Malbec, and Sauvignon Blanc, among others.
The terroir of Napa Valley is part of what distinguishes its wines from other wine regions. Napa Valley, in many ways, is ideal for growing ample varieties of grapes. The region includes microclimates, with different soil types and geography.
Soil in the Napa Valley includes rich deposits of clay, sand and gravel. Near valleys, you can find volcanic soil, while the Southern regions are more rich in calcium.
Shifts from morning to night temperatures that are moderate but variable enough are complemented with a relatively dry weather pattern; cooling fog and winds; and warmth between mountain ranges and enough sun.
Wine regions around the world are starting to be more deliberate in their practices to promote sustainable cultivation, and Napa Valley is among those.
In recent years, Napa Valley has stepped up its commitment to sustainable agriculture by setting planting limits; making smart choices for agricultural preservation; and partnering with Porto Protocol to reduce emissions exacerbating climate change.
Cabernet in Napa Valley: What to look for
Now let’s look at how to find and identify the best Cabernet in Napa Valley. If you’re like me, it can be overwhelming when you have so many options–and with this wine region producing about 4 percent of all wine in California, it may not seem like much–into you look at the sheer variety.
Types of Cabernet grown in Napa Valley
First and foremost, Napa Valley produces both Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, and both have excellent options and associated wineries.
I’ll discuss the general characteristics of Cabernet Sauvignon vs Cabernet Franc, before diving into how Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc is distinct in Napa Valley.
Cabernet Sauvignon is among the most planted in the world and enjoys immense popularity, both in the United States and abroad. It’s thought to have origins in the 17th century, when French wine growers crossed Sauvignon Blanc with Cabernet Franc.
Generally a red, full-bodied, and tannic wine, it’s known for its variability based on region. For instance, Australian Cabernet Sauvignon tends to have minty undertones, while Cabernet Sauvignon in Graves, France has prominent black currant notes.
A much older wine, Cabernet Franc is often blended with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Comparatively paler of a red wine, with a lighter body, than Cabernet Sauvignon, it too is known for its versatility based upon wine region, taking on flavors as diverse as smoky to spicy and fruity. It also happens to be one of the top 25 most planted grape varieties in the world.
Unique Napa Characteristics
Since both Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc are exceptionally versatile, it’s no surprise that both are unique in Napa Valley vs other growing regions.
Due to the shifts in temperature from morning to night, along with the unique soil and signature fog, Napa wines tend to ripen more slowly and produce more acidity. For this reason as well, much of Napa Cabernet can be aged in ways New World wine isn’t always.
In order to find the best Napa Cabernet–whether you’re looking for Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc–you’ll need to make sure you’re buying wine that is terroir. Opt for small-batch wine if you can, and better yet if you can trace information about the winery, its history, cultivation methods, and practices.
What to look for Napa Cabernet Sauvignon
For the best Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, you’ll want to find a wine that highlights the best of the region. Due to the less fertile, dusty soil, you’ll find signature Cabernet Sauvignon from nappy has more earthy and complex layers.
Signature flavor notes of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon feature dark and black fruits, such as black currant, black cherry, and a hint of blueberry. The complexity comes from spice accents like licorice, anise, and espresso. For a unique twist, look for mint or sage.
Beyond flavor notes, you’ll want to look for a Napa Cabernet Sauvignon that is lush and bold. High levels of tannin provide structure and add complexity. Aged Cabernet Sauvignon adds even more depth and complexity, with a light vanilla and buttery finish.
What to look for Napa Cabernet Franc
Cabernet Franc, by nature, is a lighter-bodied and less bold wine–something to keep in mind when searching for your best option for Napa wine. It’s also more fruit-forward– perfect for food pairings like cheese and seafood.
The best of Napa’s Cabernet Franc features dark and bright fruit notes such as blackberry, cherries, and plum, complemented by strawberry, raspberry, and even huckleberry. Coffee and mocha add to a pleasant experience.
Medium tannins provide a little bit of layered structure but don’t feel too overpowering for the pleasing, fruit-forward flavors.
Opt for a young vintage (a few years) to keep that pleasant fruit-forward profile but experience the bright vanilla, chocolate, and buttery tones. If drunk young, acidic is more prominent instead and pairs well with the brighter side of strawberry notes.
Where to find the best Napa Cabernet: My Picks
Now that you know how to find the best Napa Cabernet, and what makes Napa Cabernet unique vs other wine regions, I’ll tell you my top picks for the best Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc that feature the best characteristics of Napa Valley.
Best Napa Cabernet Sauvignon
H.B. Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
Make no mistake: the H.B. Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from Peju is not the most accessible wine, priced at almost $250/ bottle.
But it’s a true experience, even if you just try a glass. The wine is aged in French Oak and aged with precision for a deeply complex, layered, and unique experience. Cedar, bay leaf, and pepper add spice to powerful and ripe bright fruit, nestled with mocha and present tannins. A dusty feel accompanies a long, full finish. Buy Here.
2017 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
If you’re looking for one of the best Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon options for under $50/ bottle, this is a great selection from the Louis Martini winery.
A blend of 95 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and just 5 percent Petite Sirah, enjoy the ripe dark currant and plum notes that are balanced with fennel and cedar. Tannins are noticeably structured, while 17 months of barrel aging add a rounded, long finish. Buy Here.
2016 HALL Eighteen Seventy-Three Cabernet Sauvignon
Earning a very respectable 94 out of 100 points from wine critics, this Cabernet Sauvignon features the deepest hues and dark fruit flavors emblematic of the wine–with regional twists. A rich, inky ruby color impresses with a flavor profile of dark currants and raspberries.
A full, soft, and rich mouthful greet with plays of Asian spice, cocoa, and slight traces of both smoke and spice, from tobacco and peppery notes. The young vintage offers a play of liveliness with a richness that makes for overall balance. Buy Here.
2017 Winemakers Series Lot 1 Cabernet Sauvignon- Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars
A moderately-priced bottle of wine for the signature flavors of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, I love this option for surprisingly rich undertones of fig and creme brulee.
Ruch and structured, with present tannins, you’ll still enjoy the dark fruit flavors of blackberry and a bit of blueberry, with just a hint of orange for a satisfying finish. Buy Here.
2016 Cabernet Sauvignon- Castello di Amorosa
A signature experience for Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, this bottle from Castello di Amarosa is among the best options under $100.
Earning 91 points, it manages to be fruit-forward and powerful but still balanced, with flavors of black cherry, pomegranate, and dark chocolate providing a luxurious feel and blood orange bringing balance to good textures and lovely finish, with a pleasing body. Buy Here.
Best Napa Cabernet Franc
2017 Chappellet Cabernet Franc Napa Valley
Priced at around $80 a bottle, this Cabernet Franc features some of my favorite characteristics of the wine in the Napa Valley region.
Fruit forward and playful with floral notes makes for a bright wine that’s more layered than first appears. Raspberries and boysenberries are ripe, complemented by bouquets of violets and a hint of mint. While the aging provides some richer fuller notes, it’s still playful enough for a first course. Buy Here.
2016 Peju Cabernet Franc
This 2016 young vintage Cabernet Franc from the esteemed Peju winery is a crowd-pleaser, with a balance of flavors and a bright, inviting appeal overall.
Blueberries. Raspberries and currants mingle with sweet and smoky cigars. The fruit-forward flavor presents as juicy and supple, with structured but not overbearing tannins and a smooth, elegant finish. Buy Here.
2016 Darioush Cabernet Franc
This 2016 Cabernet Franc embodies the Napa Valley tradition of pairing the key characters of the wine-growing region with Bordeaux inspiration.
Balanced in acidity and tannins, the 2016 Darioush features dark, almost jam-like blackberry and dark fruit notes, accented with chocolate, espresso, and vanilla for oak aging. Mildly smoky flavors add a bit of character. Buy Here.
2016 Robert Keenan Cabernet Franc
Averaging 91 to 92 points by critics and at a price point under $100 a bottle, this Cabernet Franc from Napa Valley is described as elegant, with a purple-red hue and a palate of roses, cherries, and even mulberries.
I love how cedar brings some earth balance, and cinnamon uplifts the fruit with just a bit of spice. Juicy fruits are accompanied by a long and structured finish. Buy Here.
2012 Hourglass Cabernet Franc
If you’re looking for a more layered take on Napa Cabernet Franc, this is one of my favorites picks. It’s 83 percent, Cabernet Franc, with 11 percent Cabernet Sauvignon for a richer feel, and just a little Petit Verdot. This special blend impresses with black raspberries, blueberries, and a full body with a succulent almost fleshy presentation. Buy Here.
Affordable Napa Cabernet Alternatives
Looking for an alternative to Napa Cabernet? Here are my top recommendations for fruit-forward red wines that feature elegant and layered flavors from around the world, all-around $40 a bottle.
Malbec from Argentina or Chile
Malbec from Argentina and Chile exhibits black cherry and blackberry flavors and manages to balance a light body with bolder flavors. Accent notes of chocolate and smoky-sweet tobacco, depending on the region, mingle for a wine that is not too heavy but presentation worthy and a great alternative to Napa Cabernet.
Suggested Wine: Terrazas de Los Andes Reserva Malbec 2016
Looking for a Nap Cabernet alternative that is full-bodied and fruit-forward but has some earthy undertones? Consider Australian Tempranillo, with its balanced acidity and tannins as a pleasant accompaniment to any meal.
Suggested Wine: Angullong Fossil Hill Tempranillo 2018
Warm Climate Merlot
Merlot features a rich hue and is one of the most popular red wines in the United States around the world. While cool climate Merlot offers wonderful flavors, a warm climate is a closer alternative to Napa Cabernet, featuring dark fruit like cherries, blackberries, and, when aged, hints of vanilla. Meanwhile, I love the overall balance and elegance.
Suggested Wine: Emmolo Merlot 2017
Answer: While there is no one best year for Napa Cabernet, wine critics have often pointed to 2013 and 2012 as some of the most prized vintages. 2016 also has a nice share of well-rated Napa Valley Cabernet. Of course, the best Napa Cabernet also depends somewhat on your preferences for California wine.
Answer: While travel is obviously restricted right now, most consider August through October or March through May to be the best times of the year to visit Napa Valley, as this is where you’ll experience the most abundance and greatest variety. Of course, visiting Napa Valley during this time comes with downsides, such as higher prices and crowds.
Finding the best Napa Cabernet requires being knowledgeable about the region, understanding the key characteristics, and buying a wine that suits your personal preferences. And if you’d rather have wine shipped and selected for you, be sure to check out my recommendations for the Best Napa Valley Wine Clubs.