There is nothing quite like Cabernet Sauvignon. While other varieties swim in and out of fashion, Cabernet—one of Washington state’s signature wines—paddles above the fray. Is it the flavor profile, which combines lush black currant fruit with dark earth tones, often swaddled in alluring oak notes of dark chocolate, espresso and cedar? Is it the texture, with its notoriously tannic chew, a toothsome character that stands up to the biggest, bloodiest rib-eyes? Whatever the reason, the grape’s insistent popularity allows the best Washington Cabernets to command high prices.
Those top-tier Washington Cabs tend to be good in just about every vintage, but what about less pricey versions? The truth is: It’s not easy to make a budget Cab. The convergence of a number of different factors is required to make a vintage that allows for successful, inexpensive Cabernets. In Washington, 2012 was just such a year, with a bevy of outstanding, age-worthy releases that are hitting the shelves now.
It all starts with perfect growing conditions: Cabernet is a heat-loving, late-ripening variety. According to Greg Harrington (Gramercy Cellars winemaker, Master Sommelier and Seattle magazine’s 2014 Winemaker of the Year), the 2012 season had adequate heat and a full growing season, which wasn’t cut short, like many others, with a fall freeze.
That combination is uncommon in Washington, and shows up only once or twice in a normal decade of harvests. An early autumn frost halted the 2009 harvest in its tracks, and 2010 and 2011 were a pair of cool vintages.
After that troika, steady 2012 was especially welcome. “The length of the growing season in 2012 allowed us to attain perfect physiological ripeness of all our Cabernet blocks and great balance in the wines, contrasted with the previous two vintages, where we had to reduce crop loads by nearly 50 percent in many cases to achieve the same degree of ripeness,” says Rich Funk of Saviah Cellars.
“The nice thing about 2012 was that both the volume and the quality was high,” adds Marie-Eve Gilla, winemaker for Forgeron Cellars and a native of Burgundy who has established a reputation for fine Cabernets at various price points.
In other words, the juice in 2012—which was used to make wines being released right now—was good, and there was lots of it. There was plenty for wineries’ high-end, high-price, flagship Cabernet Sauvignons, and enough for a trickle-down effect; barrels of Cabernet juice that in other vintages would have wound up in $40-plus bottles were instead moved to more accessibly priced labels, most of which sell for $20 or less.
Looking back, the 2010 and 2011 inexpensive Cabernets that have been available for the past few years have been hit-or-miss propositions (with the misses in the lead). Cabernet grapes that are harvested while still underripe lead to wines with overtly green-veggie notes (think canned green beans and raw green bell pepper) and tannins so astringent that the wines should be served with a sidecar of water. And so the experience of moving on to these beautiful, well-priced 2012 Cabs has been like swimming across a chilly bay and emerging onto a beach where your friends have built a huge bonfire. It’s a welcoming feeling.
2012 Saviah Cellars “The Jack” Cabernet Sauvignon ($15)
Vineyards more commonly seen in a higher-priced Cab dot the landscape of The Jack in 2012: Bacchus, Pepper Bridge, Seven Hills, Stillwater Creek. Recognized frequently in Seattle magazine’s Washington Wine Awards, it drinks like a pricey Washington Cab, with cassis and black cherry fruit married to complexities of flower and oak barrel, of earth and herb. PAIRS WITH: Carne asada tacos and a side of poblano-spiked beans.
2012 Buried Cane “Roughout” Cabernet Sauvignon ($15)
Buried Cane is part of Middleton Family Wines, the same family that owns Cadaretta, and a very small amount of the first fruit from Cadaretta’s new estate, Southwind Vineyard in the Walla Walla Valley, found its way into this bottle. In addition to the Cabernet, it includes 12 percent Merlot, 9 percent Petit Verdot and 4 percent Cabernet Franc. One sip reveals a wine punching well above its price class. Usually, Cabernets at this tariff have clear holes in the palate. This is closer to seamless, and even contains some legitimate Cabernet tannic chew on the finish. The mix of dusty black currant fruit and mocha barrel notes is lovely. PAIRS WITH: A warmed pita stuffed with beef-lamb shawarma and all the fixings.
2012 Purple Star Cabernet Sauvignon ($18)
Kyle Johnson earned a fine winemaking reputation with the dearly departed Olsen Estates before starting his own label, Purple Star. He pumps out bottles of fine values, none more so than this 2012 Cab. The fruit comes mostly from a 1996-planted vineyard called Nine Canyon, a site that sits just outside the Horse Heaven Hills AVA. The aromatics are complex for this price point, offering wonderful savory notes (beetroot, tarragon, bay leaf) to go with the cherry and black currant fruit. The polished tannins present a silky mouthfeel that balances fruit and earth elements beautifully. PAIRS WITH: Beef shanks braised slowly in a pot containing half a bottle of Purple Star Cab, lots of fresh herbs and a mess of pungent leeks.
2012 Blacksmith Cabernet Sauvignon ($22)
In addition to making Forgeron wines, Marie-Eve Gilla has quietly established a side label, Blacksmith, which takes advantage of exceptional opportunities around harvest time. A shining example is this Cab, a result of the fact that Gilla harvested 28 tons of Cabernet Sauvignon in 2012, compared to 8 tons in 2011. She crafted the most overtly pretty Cabernet of the bunch, awash in floral aromatics of violet and lilac. However, it is a powerhouse on the palate, with enough tannic structure to suggest an easy decade of fascinating evolution ahead. PAIRS WITH: A dry-aged rib-eye, cooked to medium-rare in a smoldering cast-iron skillet. Top it with a brandy peppercorn cream sauce if you’re feeling frisky.
2012 Gramercy Cellars Lower East Cabernet Sauvignon ($32)
Pricier than the rest, this still presents exceptional value, as most of Gramercy’s wines start at $40 and go up from there. Lower East is the gateway drug into the top-tier Gramercy lineup, and it is rarely sold outside the Pacific Northwest. The 2012 comes from an all-star vineyard foursome, three from the Walla Walla Valley (Gramercy Estate, Octave and Pepper Bridge), plus the outstanding Phinny Hill in Horse Heaven Hills. What Lower East does beautifully, year in and year out, is to establish itself as a true four-corners Cab, with fruit, earth, savory/herbal and barrel notes in fine balance. This is polished, classy, elegant juice. PAIRS WITH: Oxtails, roasted first until golden brown and then braised slowly in Lower East until the meat is spoon-tender. Accompany with a side of root vegetable gratin, and a green vegetable or two to keep the cardiologists at bay.
Paul Zitarelli is the owner of the SoDo-based online retailer and mailing list Full Pull Wines (fullpullwines.com), specializing in Northwest wines.