Tasting Diversity: Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon Terroir

by Fred Swan - Guest Blogger

Napa Valley’s Rutherford AVA is one of the world’s best-known and respected regions for Cabernet Sauvignon. While Rutherford is a small growing area in the global sense and just one of 16 AVAs in Napa Valley, it covers a range of important categories of terroir. Consequently, Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon coming from different parts of the AVA will vary substantially in character, even if made in the same style by the same producer.

This article explores that through a tasting of three wines, all made by Trevor Durling of Beaulieu Vineyards. They were single-vineyard wines from the western Rutherford bench, valley floor and eastern bench. Each wine was 100% Cabernet Sauvignon and the winemaking techniques were identical. Alcohol levels for all three were around 14.8%.

Quintessa Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard

A view of the Quintessa estate vineyard on the eastern side of Rutherford.

The Rutherford bench wine came from 20-year old vines in the Hewitt Vineyard which sits on an alluvial fan at the base of the Mayacamas, roughly west of Grgich-Hills. The soil is gravely and well-drained with texture that gets gradually finer moving away from the hills. The vineyard is sheltered from the withering, setting sun by the mountains immediately to the west.

This wine is exactly what most people expect of a Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s flavorful with medium-plus body and tannins (fine-grained and chalky) and enough acidity to maintain balance. Flavors include ripe plum, black cherry, dark flowers, vanilla, charcoal, dark mineral and chocolate with a touch of dry herb and lavender. The finish is quite long.

The valley floor wine came from the Star Vineyard, located behind (south of) La Luna market. The soil is fluvial—finely textured earth deposited by the Napa River flooding and receding over thousands of years. The density of the soil causes it to drain less readily than the gravel. This type of soil is also more fertile than gravel. Vine roots stay cooler, which retards ripening, and the plants may be more prone to vigor as well. Balancing the colder soil is the fact that, in the absence of shade from either set of hills, valley floor vineyards are sunny all day.

The wine is both deeper in color—totally opaque—and more intensely flavorful than either of the other wines. It’s also rounder on the full-bodied palate, more about jammy fruit than texture. Aromas and flavors show the combination of very ripe fruit from all that sun and a lot of herbal character, perhaps due to cool soil or higher yield. I found jammy black fruit, licorice, green leafy spice, cocoa, and coffee along with both balsamic and bell pepper notes.

The final wine came from the Wildwood Vineyard on the east side of the Rutherford AVA. That vineyard is immediately north of Caymus and is bordered on the east by Silverado Trail. The vines grown on an alluvial fan created by Lake Hennessy and Conn Creek. As with the Hewitt Vineyard, the soil is gravelly but increasingly fine the farther it is from the hills. The makeup of the soil differs though, as the Mayacamas are predominantly sedimentary and the eastern, Vaca Range, mostly volcanic.

The Wildwood Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon is the most savory and structured of the three, despite coming from the youngest vines (10 years as opposed to 20). It is full-bodied with loads of fine, soft, and persistent, chalky tannins. Aromas and flavors include earthy black cherry, spice, violets, dry leaves, braised beef, juniper berry and dark chocolate.

Rutherford is at the widest point of Napa Valley. These three wines clearly showed differences in character largely attributable to site within the AVA, a range of expression created by soil type, facing and aspect to the sun. The delicious diversity of Rutherford is worth exploring for any lover of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

Here are some Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon from different parts of the AVA to consider:

Rutherford Bench

2013 Staglin Family Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford

Valley Floor

2014 Round Pond Rutherford Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

2013 Foley Johnson Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon

East Side

2013 Quintessa Proprietary Red Wine Rutherford

You may also enjoy last week’s article which looks at 2014 Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon.

JJ Buckley guest blogger Fred Swan is a San Francisco-based wine writer, educator, and authority on California wines and wineries. His writing has appeared in The Tasting Panel and SOMM Journal. Online, he writes for his own site, FredSwan.Wine (formerly NorCalWine), PlanetGrape, and GuildSomm. He teaches at the San Francisco Wine School. Fred’s certifications include WSET Diploma, Certified Sommelier, California Wine Appellation Specialist, Certified Specialist of Wine, French Wine Scholar, Italian Wine Professional, Napa Valley Wine Educator and Level 3 WSET Educator. In 2009, he was awarded a fellowship by the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers. In that same year, he was inducted into the Eschansonnerie des Papes, the honorary society of the Chateauneuf-du-Pape AOC.

Feature photo courtesy of Hewitt Vineyard. Quintessa vineyard photo courtesy of Quintessa. Map by Google.