Hailing The Cab: The big, bold style of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon has gripped the wine world

Cabernet is the variety that put California on the international wine map. It is also the single most widely planted wine grape in Napa Valley and, indeed, around the world. There are more than 450 wineries in Napa, a valley that is 30 miles (48km) long and five miles (8km) across at its widest point.

But Cab is also a team player. It is the lead grape in nearly all Bordeaux-style blends from Napa. And as long as 75% of the grapes in the bottle are Cabernet Sauvignon the wine label may read Cabernet, although many Napa vintners prefer to label a Bordeaux blend as a ‘Meritage’ or a red blend. At last month’s Collective Napa Valley Together Again Weekend, an auction that raised US$3.8 million (HK$29.8 million) for local charities, I visited one of Napa’s noted wineries, Alpha Omega, for an al-fresco lunch hosted by owners Robin and Michelle Baggett.

Alpha Omega appetite

The scenic winery is located in the prime Rutherford sub-appellation of the larger Napa AVA (American Viticultural Area) and was founded by the Baggetts in 2006.

Highlighting Alpha Omega’s barrel during fermentation program, winemaker Matt Brain during lunch uncorked the 2018 ERA Barrel Select Reserve, a limited production of 900 cases. We also savoured the 2012 AOX Barrel Select, another limited-production wine available through the winery’s allocation list. “These are barrels that speak to me,” notes Brain. Expressing remarkable texture and density, the AOX was a delicious pairing with the dessert of rich, dense chocolate block cake.Alpha Omega has made its mark with Cabernets that reflect Napa’s powerful, full-fruit style. Brain is bringing his own touch, though. “Definitely I want to continue the fantastic wines that put us on the map, but the difference is to subtly start to layer in my own personal beliefs, to bring in a little bit more balance, more complexity of the vineyard,” he says.

To that extent, he brings what he calls multiple picks and intentionally assigned cooperage. “I’ve actually been going to vineyards and doing two picks [of grapes] – one smaller, just a little bit earlier in season, and blending it back for a little bit of herb, spices and terroir expression to the wine.” He works closely with individual coopers for custom-made French oak barrels to help enhance the wine’s flavour profile. “If you play in the playground of ripe Napa Cabs, you run the risk of losing individuality,” he opines.

Brain is a big proponent of barrel fermentation in a warm room. “It speeds up the fermentation process and we get really good concentration,” he says.

Winemakers for a day

Before lunch, Brain led a blending session in the winery for a small group, offering the barrel samples of 2022 Cabernets from four different vineyards: two wines with tension and complexity, and two that were hedonistic and rich. While a few of the novice winemakers gravitated towards the leaner wines, most went for the riper, richer rewards reaped from Tench vineyard on Atlas Peak. Brain also offered Malbec and Petit Verdot for blending “to see how blenders shaped the Cabernet”.

As for the Omega Alpha 2022 Cabernet, which made the top 10 list of lots at the weekend’s barrel auction, Brain states: “It’s a great vintage – approachable and lighter in tannins.”