California, and the Napa Valley in particular, seem to
have become, in recent years, so closely associated with the
pinot noir grape variety that it is easy to forget that the
wine that won best red at the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976,
and set in motion a revolution in the perception of US wine,
was actually a varietal Californian cabernet sauvignon.
That wine was, of course, Stag’s Leap, and in the process
of winning the tasting, it triumphed over some of Bordeax’s
greatest crus classe, causing considerable stir not only in
France, where the suggestion that the New World was capable
of producing wines on par with the finest clarets was
tantamount to blasphemy, but throughout the wine drinking
world. In fact, one might venture to say that the current
taste in the UK and abroad for fine wine from the New World,
owes much to the success of Stag’s Leap back at the so-called ‘Judgement of Paris’.
Some critics have argued against the verdict of the
tastings, saying that a fruit-driven Calfornian cabernet
will always triumph over the austerity and hard tannins of
a relatively young claret that has not reached maturity (the
French offerings were six or fewer years old at the time.)
This is to miss the point, though; in reality the judges
appeared entirely unable to distinguish the supposedly more
elegant clarets from the American usurpers.
Since this momentous event, Stag’s Leap has not been resting on its
laurels, though; new land has been bought, and the vineyard now
produces a range of wine, including a chardonnay varietal
and a red produced from vines situated in Sonoma.
The wine in which we are interested, however, is the Cask
23 Cabernet Sauvignon, which is the estate’s premier wine,
produced with grapes from both the original vineyard and the
adjacent Fay vineyard. Although it is labelled as a cabernet
sauvignon, there is often a small amount of petit verdot
added. The grapes are carefully selected from the highest
quality plots of the Stag’s Leap Vineyard and the Fay
Vineyard, the former having volcanic soils, whilst the
latter is predominantly alluvial. Ageing is for around 24
months in mainly new French oak.
One might expect, given experience of lesser New World
cabernets with similarly high alcoholic contents, that the
Cask 23 would be powerful but flabby – like an ageing Arnie,
perhaps. This is far from the case however. Taking the
superb 2000 as an example, there is impressive definition,
augmented by well developed complexity. The nose is nutty
with overtones of cherries and the texture is rich and
silky. There is plenty of fruit here, but it is not allowed
to dominate; there are well structured tannins and a
definite taste of dark chocolate, culminating in a lingering
finish that, to put it crudely, is supremely more-ish.
What Cask 23 offers is a fine classical wine that
obviates the need for patience and cellaring time that is
the inevitable consequence of owning and at some point
drinking the best cru classe claret, yet which still offers a
classical elegance and distinct identity that makes it one
of the world’s truly great red wines.