Subscriber login Close [x]
remember me
You are not logged in.

Iconic Stag's Leap Wine Cellars returns with a punch with 2015 Cabernets

Published:  26 March, 2018

Harpers tasted the new vintage from preeminent Californian estate Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, tracing the grapes and the soil to the same – if re-planted – site which gave birth to the victorious 1976 Judgment of Paris Cabernet Sauvignon.

Forty years have passed since the Judgment of Paris when "first-growth" Napa Valley estate Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars blasted out of the water old ideas of what makes a world-class Cabernet.

In that 1976 blind taste test which pitted New against Old for the first time in any widely publicised or controlled way, Stag’s Leap not only tore down established notions but established itself one of Napa’s most celebrated estates well-known today for its Cabernet-focused labels Artemis, SLV and Cask 23.

Co-owned by Italian winemaking icon Marchese Piero Antinori and Washington-based company Ste Michelle Wine Estates since 2007 and distributed by Enotria since 2014, the estate is not to be confused with the Treasury-owned Stags’ Leap, (the apostrophe was the subject of a court case and makes all the difference, so don’t get it wrong).

To confuse things further, the Stags Leap district AVA has no apostrophe.

At a tasting of the 2015 Cabernets which are just now being released, Harpers tasted Artemis Cabernet 2015 and also Karia Chardonnay from the 2016 vintage, both of which mark a time around a decade ago when the estate sought to avoid some of the Stag’s Leap confusion by naming some of the wines.

Stags Leap is a small appellation, just 18 producers in three square miles of prime Napa wine country, which makes differentiation all the more important.

With the help of its distinct name, Artemis, which joins the Greek goddess of the hunt to the estate’s own Native American legend of a stag leaping between rocks at its famous Fay and SLV vineyards, has cemented its reputation as the ultimate Napa Valley Cabernet.

According to head winemaker Marcus Notaro, Artemis uses a smidgeon of “Merlot to round out tannins and Petit Verdot to add perfume”.

But although sourcing is a very important part of "consistency" and the enduring style of the wine, he says there has been a clear evolution for Artemis, which starts off the list price for the range at around £40.

“It is more Cabernet focused than it was ten years ago,” said Notaro, who has two decades of expertise producing Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines for the likes of Col Solare in the Red Mountain appellation of Washington State.

“More Merlot was used back then. My focus is on making the best Cabernet Sauvignon possible. I love Cab and the blackcurrant component that we get form our growers.”

A large part of what goes into producing Artemis and Karia is the growers that SLWC use from around the Napa region.

For Karia, it’s a mixture of the 40 acres estate-owned Oak Knoll vines, and contractors from Atlas Peak, Carneros and Coombsville.

Artemis also benefits from the leftovers of the 100 combined acres of estate-owned vineyards Fay and SLV – the latter of which is responsible for the Judgment of Paris victory.

An iconic wine which is still being produced by SLWC, and makes its appearance among the 2015 releases, the SLV vineyard has undergone some major changes over the years - namely being wiped out in the 1980s bout of Phylloxera.

“We now have 33 acres of SLV, but just 4.5 acres of the original planting,” Notaro explains. “It’s interesting to see the difference between the two. Back then, the vines were allowed to grow much bigger: there was 8 feet between vines and 12 between rows. Modern vineyards are planted with smaller tractors, so you see much higher density where the vines are far more contained.”

The SLV and Fay single vineyard wines are 100% estate-grown and made from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.

Their history goes back to 1969 when founder and winemaking icon Warren Winiarski tried the homemade wine of Nathan Fay, the first person in to plant Cabernet Sauvignon in the Stags Leap district.

“He was so impressed he purchased the 40 acres available next door, which became the SLV plot,” says Notaro. “Then in 1986 when Fay was ready to retire, he sold what is now the Fay vineyard to Stags Leap.

“Although they’re adjoining, they’re very different vineyards with distinct personalities. Fay has older soil deposits from big weather events flooding over the creeks. Its soil is grey and silty, more alluvial, whereas SLV is dustier. In the 2015 you can taste that coarse rockiness in the soils coming through.”

Together, the SLV and Fay wines make the Cask 23, a wine which combines the brightness of Fay with the dusty cocoa powder, lavender, dark fruit of SLV.

Can Notaro pick a favourite, we asked?

“Two Cabernet Sauvignons from the same year, but they are very different,” he says. Fay is bright and lively, more showy. It would work very well with duck. SLV is a more serious wine. One for a big steak.”