Cabernet Sauvignon is like a relationship with an old friend – sometimes it takes a while to get off the ground, but when it does, the relationship pays dividends over time. During the winter months, we like big reds with heartier foods, and while Bordeaux and Burgundy are readily available in Hong Kong, we decided to mix it up a bit to bring a bit of the blue skies and sun from California and revisit our old friend Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley.
Unlike buying Old World wines, many wine shops don’t have a lot of guidance or breadth of wines to choose from when it comes to purchasing Napa Valley Cabernets in Hong Kong. We instead decided to bring a round-up of Napa Valley to your home and let you decide for yourself how to curate a tour of California wine country on your own.
Big art meets big wine
Producing classic-style Bordeaux varietals, HALL Wines is not to be missed when visiting Napa Valley. We’ve always been big fans of their beautiful Cabernets, but the winery has more than just wine to offer visitors. In addition to producing award-winning Cabernets from its single vineyards in its St Helena and Rutherford locations, the winery boasts an impressive art collection and has a history of leveraging the latest technology, being the first LEED Gold-certified winery in Napa.
Located conveniently right of Highway 29, the St Helena location houses a massive art collection, a beautifully designed tasting room overlooking its historic Bergfeld vineyard and lush grounds for strolling and stretching your legs after the wine tasting, particularly if you’ve just driven up from the city.
A tasting at HALL has something for everyone and is much more than just wine. Owners and winemaker Kathryn Hall and husband Craig Hall are avid art collectors, with plenty of pieces available to the public on display at the St Helena property or via specially arranged tours.
In the large, modern tasting room with floor-to-ceiling glass windows overlooking the vineyard, it was hard not to feel a sense that we were floating in a glass house above the vines sipping HALL’s easy-drinking Cabernet Sauvignons. Our favourites included:
- 2014 Eighteen Seventy-Three: named after the year its key vineyard was established at HALL’s St Helena property, at one point producing 40% of Napa’s vintage. The 1873 is an earthy, structured wine with chocolate, tobacco, smoke, dark blackberries, soft tannins and a lush, velvety finish. It could use some ageing but is wonderful to drink now (unlike many of the Bordeaux you may find in the same price range).
- 2014 Jack’s Masterpiece: easy favourite and (too) easy drinking, value for money, more extraction and cherry fruit AND it also happens to be a 99-point wine (Robert Parker). But not only is it a great entry point for those who don’t like big reds, you can’t beat the lovely label: a labour of love and swirl of colours painted by the former winemaker’s son at one and a half years old.
- 2014 Bergfeld Cabernet Sauvignon, St Helena – A highly regarded 96-point wine, with all the grapes sourced from the namesake Bergfeld vineyard on its estate. A nice contrast to the more fruit-forward wines from HALL, with spicy, earthy notes alongside liquorice and cherry fruit. Drinkable now but could be aged for another 10 years.
HALL wines are available through its membership programme and at Kerry Wines in Hong Kong
Feel at home with world-class wines and food pairings in a rustic setting
No trip through Napa is complete without enjoying the wonderful farm-to-table ingredients that the region has to offer. During our trip to Cakebread, we were lucky enough to sit down for a leisurely lunch and wine pairing with namesake owner and winemaker Bruce Cakebread.
Affable, friendly and down to earth in hiking shoes, jeans and jumper, Bruce personally greeted us on arrival and was our host for the tasting. As we toured the grounds, which are undergoing a remodelling and landscaping project that is due to be completed in Spring 2019, he was quick to point out the environmentally conscious initiatives that they have recently implemented including their “green” car park (“the first in Napa to do it!”) and the strangely attractive solar-belly rubbish bins on the grounds – even before we had a chance to learn more about the wines.
After a tour of the grounds, complete with learning about the 40-year-old oak tree and massive rock (you’ll have to ask Bruce about the history behind the tree and rock if you’re lucky enough to meet him), we sat down for lunch at the Winery House Kitchen, or what he affectionately dubbed the ”ranch house“. Comfortable, homey and warm, it was as if we had been invited to lunch with a relative whom we don’t get the chance to visit often enough.
Over a beautiful four-course meal prepared by Cakebread Culinary Director Brian Streeter, we were treated to a showcase of elements of Californian cuisine, with the produce grown in their own garden. Paired with signature Cakebread wines, we were in culinary bliss:
- 2012 and 2007 Cakebread Cellars Sauvignon Blanc
- 2012 Cakebread Cellars Reserve Chardonnay
- 2012 Cakebread Cellars Syrah
- 2010 Cakebread Cellars Dancing Bear Ranch
We compared the 2007 and 2012 Sauvignon Blancs side by side for the first course of a gorgeous carrot salad, with the ’07 tasting almost like a nicely fortified wine. Known for their Chardonnays, we sampled the 2012 Reserve Chardonnay poured in different-shaped classes – a coupe and a regular white wine glass – which did alter the taste of the wine (a fun idea for your next wine and cheese blind tasting) and paired wonderfully with my perfectly pan-seared salmon. Though I didn’t have the pig trotters that the 2012 Syrah was intended to complement, its distinct dark plum, smooth, almost smoky notes would go well with hearty, gamy meats.
The winner, though, was the 2010 Dancing Bear Ranch from Howell Mountain, a velvety-smooth Cabernet tasting of blackberry and dark plum, with notes of leather, tea, smoke and earth, laced with some spice with a lingering finish. Named for a legendary lone “dancing” bear who showed up at a Cakebread vineyard during a party, this is a big wine that sings with tannins that cover the tongue but don’t overpower your taste buds so that you can still taste the fruit and enjoy it with food. Though typically we don’t like to pair reds with cheese, the wine went down beautifully with a cheese platter featuring hard and soft cheeses produced locally in Northern California.
When asked about his philosophy on winemaking, Bruce is focused on making balanced wines regardless of what wine it is and what you’re pairing it with (a big focus for him when thinking about what people like to enjoy with their wine). As a second-generation family winery that intends to remain independent (Cakebread is owned by Bruce and his brother Dennis), Cakebread continues its international distribution efforts, and it’s also clear that they have a penchant for understanding what people want to enjoy in their wines and not the other way around – which fully reflects the rustic nature of the simple yet inviting winery, grounds and staff who make up Cakebread. If you’re in Napa, be sure to book a food and wine pairing in advance to fully optimise your visit.
Cakebread wines are available through its membership programme and through international distributors, including Fine Vintage in Hong Kong
Play winemaker for a day (DO try this at home)
If you’ve ever wanted to try your hand at being a winemaker, you’ve come to the right place. Just off Highway 29 on the achingly picturesque Silverado Trail in Spring Valley is Napa’s iconic Joseph Phelps Vineyards. As one of the more upscale tasting room and wineries in Napa, available by appointment only, Joseph Phelps can be intimidating to those who are new to wine, but we still recommend booking a visit to treat yourself after a busy day of wine tastings with the crowds in Napa. We loved relaxing and resting our feet in the beautiful hardwood tasting room and also enjoying the outdoor terrace with views of immaculate, sweeping grounds overlooking a verdant countryside setting while enjoying their signature wines led by an informative “wine educator”.
Given that we were on a Cabernet adventure, we were overjoyed when we got the chance to participate in a private blending session and play winemaker in a guided seminar to blend our own version of Joseph Phelps’ flagship Bordeaux blend, Insignia.
As California’s first proprietary red Bordeaux blend, there have been over 40 vintages produced of this highly coveted, award-winning wine, which has been consistently rated 90 points and above. During the session we sampled the 2014 Insignia (latest release and rated 97 points by Robert Parker Wine Advocate) to calibrate our taste before carefully tasting and arranging the six wines (e.g., Cabernet, Malbec, Merlot, Petit Verdot of varying vintages) that make up the blend to determine our own impressions of Insignia – not an easy task considering the significance of this wine to the winery, but our host patiently guided us through the session with tasting notes while also sharing an informative view of the winery’s history, which of course is part of Napa’s history.
Reds aside, the whites are well worth trying at Joseph Phelps. If you have time, don’t miss the 2014 Viognier and the Sauvignon Blanc to round out the tasting experience.
Joseph Phelps wines are available through its membership programme and at ASC Fine Wines in Hong Kong
Take a bubbly break and cleanse your palate
We couldn’t let the day close without a sparkler, and right up the road on Silverado Trail is Mumm Napa. We enjoyed the host’s warm welcome even after what must have been a long day and an earnest effort to share tasting notes and highlights from the winery. If you’re looking for a simple introduction to sparkling wine or to cleanse your palate between tastings, Mumm is a great option.
Though Mumm is a Californian winery, they make their sparkling wines in the same manner as their French counterparts using the méthode traditionelle. But that’s where the similarities end – easy, friendly, relaxed yet informative, a visit to Mumm is the antithesis of a champagne tasting and reflective of the parts of California wine country that we enjoy – a casual, non-judgmental way to appreciate good wine without breaking the bank.
Walk-ins are welcome and you can enjoy your bubbly on the outdoor patio overlooking an almost pastoral setting surrounded by Rutherford’s vineyards. For a more unique experience, we recommend that you book ahead to reserve an Oak Terrace tasting of their library reserve wines, ranging from a dry brut style to demi-sec, which are a cut above the regular tasting and come complete with a California-themed tasting platter including fruits, nuts and cheeses, all sourced from Napa Valley or the surrounding areas. If you’re lucky, a bottle of their signature vintage sparkling wine DVX may be open – be sure to ask for a taste.
Mumm Napa wines are available at the winery through their membership programme and ship internationally. Contact the winery directly for more details.
While most of these wines are available in various part of the United States, we’ve noted which distributors carry these wines in Hong Kong. Contact the wineries directly for further details on international shipping.
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