Fourteen wines earn classic scores, with 37 more rating outstanding
For the past 30 years, senior editor James Laube has been reviewing and writing about California Cabernets. Each year, he conducts blind retrospective tastings of older vintages. He recently tasted wines from 2001. It’s a way, Laube says, to examine how California wines age and recommend when the wines are at their peak. It’s also fun, he says, to find the surprises—good and otherwise—that come with cellaring wines.
This is what you hope for when you cellar California Cabernet Sauvignon. In a recent blind tasting, the 2001 vintage provided one of the most satisfying and enjoyable reunions in memory. I can’t recall tasting so many great—and often stunning—wines after a decade of aging. This qualifies 2001 as one of the modern classics of California Cabernet.
Time is rarely this kind to any wine. But Cabernet can benefit and improve from cellaring, as many of these wines did. Still, the elite 2001s made an unusually strong showing. I tasted a total of 100 wines. Fourteen earned classic ratings (95–100 points on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale) and another 37 were rated outstanding (90–94 points).
The lone sore spot, and it is a big issue, is that 31 wines fell victim to various maladies. Poor storage (or weak corks) caused oxidation in many. That’s troubling since all the wines came directly from the wineries. Other wines were tainted by TCA or had spoilage issues, most notably by the secondary fermentation yeast brettanomyces. Any suspect wines were eliminated from scoring and only those rated 85 points or higher are included here.
In a great year, you expect the stars to shine, and with 2001 they did. At the top was the Peter Michael Les Pavots Knights Valley (99 points), which was gorgeous, much as this Sonoma wine was earlier this year in a full vertical of all the Les Pavots. It has all you want in a Cabernet blend, offering great flavors, depth and persistence. Two Napa Valley wines, Harlan Estate (97) and Pride Mountain Napa Valley Reserve (97), were awesome as well. Both are deeply concentrated, firm and tight, good bets, too, for another decade of aging. Also from Napa, all at 96 points, were Bond St. Eden, Paul Hobbs Stagecoach Vineyard, Lewis Cuvee L, Shafer Stags Leap District Hillside Select and Tor Rutherford Clone No. 4.
At 95 points were Kuleto, Merus, Robert Mondavi Reserve, Paloma, Schrader Cellars RBS Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard, all from Napa, and Ridge Monte Bello, from the Santa Cruz Mountains. The latter wine is one of the greatest Monte Bellos I’ve tried, with the ripeness of the 1997 vintage and the structure of the 1995. It, along with a few other wines, including Heitz Martha’s Vineyard (93), Viader (92), Kathryn Kennedy Santa Cruz Mountains (93), showed better than ever before.
Other wines, notably Joseph Phelps Insignia (87) and Dalla Valle Maya (88), performed about the same as on release. The former was never one of my favorite Insignias, and the Maya was tannic then and still is now.
Curiously, 2001 didn’t look like a great growing season early on to some winemakers. “Roller coaster” was an apt description from Xtant winemaker Jeff Gaffner in Napa.
An April frost hit some vineyards hard, with reports of up to 50 percent crop loss. May and June brought unusual heat, with May being one of the hottest months on record. With an early budbreak and hot summer, it looked like an early harvest. “All in all, it really wasn’t shaping up to be a crown jewel of a vintage,” recalled Elias Fernandez of Shafer Vineyards in Napa.
The situation changed during the second half of the summer, with milder weather in July and August, with temperatures rarely exceeding 85° F°, said Fernandez. September and October produced an even harvest.
Xtant's Gaffner considers 2001 the best Cabernet vintage since 1974. Fernandez Frias of Frias, in Napa, believes the cool growing season led to somewhat higher acidity, which made the wines lean early on but also contributed to the youthfulness of the wines now.
In the Santa Cruz Mountains, 2001 yields from Monte Bello were 1.25 tons per acre, with a strong showing by Merlot adding to the wine’s complexity. The final blend had 36 percent Merlot and 8 percent Petit Verdot. “With its firm, racy acidity and big, full tannins, the stress [of the growing season] seems to have emphasized the mountain character typical of Monte Bello,” said winemaker Paul Draper.
Auction prices for 2001s show the strength of such names as Harlan ($235 on release, $750 now), Shafer Hillside ($175 to $279), Pride ($115 to $222) and Schrader To Kalon ($75 to $242). Many others show price declines or little movement. Les Pavots is $121, up from $115, while the best value, if you can find it, might be Tor from Kenward Family Wines. Its two wines were released at $62 and have sold in the $47 to $55 range. Heitz Martha’s has gone from $135 on release to about $110.
Given the quality of this vintage, this is the perfect time to secure the top 2001s—if you can find them.
Graceful and complex, with layers of spice, dried berry, mocha, roasted herb and tobacco, smooth on the finish, with ripe integrated tannins. Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. 2001 California Cabernet blind retrospective (June 2011). Drink now through 2018. 4,800 cases made.