Old Napa, New Napa, and now New, Old Napa
Updated: Jun 27
As we continue our series of the best age-worthy wines of the world so we can compare them to similar wines in the Sierra Foothills, eighth on our list is Cabernet Sauvignon from the Napa Valley of California, or Napa Cab as it is colloquially called. No matter where I place Napa Cab on these lists, half of the commenters will tell me it should be higher on the list and half will tell me I’m an idiot for even including it. It is a very polarizing aged wine.
(Note, if any of the terms or expressions used in this post don't make sense, scroll down to the blog post of February 2, 2023 entitled Understanding Aged Wine. Hopefully that will help.)
I think the main reason for this polarization is because the Napa Valley is such a young region, when comparing it to other wine regions around the world. It is still evolving and trying to figure out who it is, especially when it comes to aged wines. For me, when I think of aged Napa Cab, I divide it into two very different eras with the dividing line being the emergence of critic Robert Parker and the influence he had over the region.
Napa Cabs of the “Pre-Parker Era” of the 1960’s and 1970’s are stunningly beautiful. They are Bordeaux-like with raspy tannins, bright acidity, and reigned in alcohol. The fruit is fresh and intense, and these wines age with precision and grace, somewhat mimicking the aging profile of a Left Bank Bordeaux.
These Pre-Parker Napa Cabs are the wines that bested those Left Bank Bordeaux wines in the Judgment of Paris in 1976, a blind tasting competition that changed the trajectories of both regions. Bordeaux, which had been floundering a bit in the 1970's because it had been resting on its laurels, started updating its vineyards and facilities. Bordeaux, though, made the decision to merely upgrade and continued to hold fast to a style that had proven itself for centuries. It didn’t take long for Bordeaux to reclaim its prominence and produced some of the most epic vintages ever in the 1980’s. Napa, on the other hand, headed down a different path, some might say a greed-driven one, as it took advantage of its newfound notoriety.
Money and collaborations started pouring into the valley in the wake of the Judgment of Paris. The most notable partnership was the creation of Opus One by Baron Phillippe de Rothschild and Robert Mondavi. Soon Christian Moieix of Petrus fame and dozens of others were buying land and starting wineries in Napa. Ironically, though, as Napa became more and more Frenchified, it became less and less Bordeaux-like.
And then along came Robert Parker whose publication the Wine Advocate became the single greatest influencer in the history of wine. A high Parker score was a guarantee of success. Unfortunately, Parker’s taste and palate tended towards big, rich, high-alcohol, low-acidity wines. If a wine lacked these features, it was not going to be awarded with a high score. In the Napa Valley where the boom times had made wine very expensive to produce and where new shareholders needed to be appeased, the wineries were forced to chase Parker scores and the high-priced marketability that came with the scores. The old family-run wineries and the Pre-Parker style could no longer compete.
Parker Era wines and Pre-Parker Era wines are very different, and they age very differently. Pre-Parker Era Napa Cab are supported by a balanced tannin-acid backbone that provides for very slow and long-term aging along the lines of a Bordeaux or Brunello. Parker Era wines are high-alcohol agers that develop more in line with the curves of a Chateuneuf du Pape or a structured Zinfandel. Don’t get me wrong, Parker Era Napa Cabs can age delightfully, and I have a cellar full of wonderful versions from the late 1980’s and 1990’s, but while enjoyable, these Parker Era Cabs are admittedly prosaic when compared to the poetic Pre-Parker versions.
Okay, so let's take a look at those aging curves and how they compare.
Due to the more protective anti-oxidative structural support of the Pre-Parker Napa Cabs, these wines are longer-lived than the Parker Era versions. The desiccative tertiary period is much longer and the drinking window is much wider. Interestingly, these tertiaries also start developing a little sooner with the Pre-Parker wines because the Parker wines are so heavily extracted and fruit forward, the primary flavors tend to hand on a little longer.
Here's what that means in terms of drinking preferences for these two versions. We map these according to personal tasting preferences, noting that aged wine drinkers generally fall into one of three categories. The aged wine dabbler is someone that mostly drinks aged wine but will sometimes delve into the joys of tertiaries. The aged wine lover drinks and enjoys all wines but particularly delights in a wine's complexity peak. The old soul drinks almost exclusively aged wines and particularly enjoys them in their decaying stages.
Here’s the cool part and why these wines have made the list: Everything is peaking right now! This is the golden age of drinking aged Napa Cabs! The peaks of the longer-lived versions of 60’s and 70’s is overlapping with the shorter-lived versions of the 90’s. So, you can open almost any aged Napa Cab and be assured that it going to be at a good spot on its curve.
Another cool thing about drinking aged Napa Cabs is that you don’t have to worry too much about vintage variation. There are a handful of vintages to mostly avoid, like 2000, 1998, 1989, 1988, and 1983, but even in those years higher-end versions are very good. And there are a handful of exceptionally great vintages where even the lowest priced wines are delicious, like 2007, 1997, 1994, and 1985.
As for the present, exciting things are happening. It is fascinating watching the Post-Parker Era evolve. Over the last couple of decades, we have seen a significant movement away from Parkerized wines. Subtlety and nuance is returning, and even acidity is on the rise. I expect history will look back on the Parker Era as a necessary growing step for the Napa Valley. It helped push Napa away from Bordeaux and started it on a path of finding itself.