Vertical Tasting of Corison Winery's Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley

While Napa Valley cult wines with 15+% alcohol continue to garner more than their share of wine press, a more restrained, laid-back, Old World style of cabernet sauvignon is available if you just know where to look.  For 25 years now, one of the best examples of this style has been Cathy Corison's flagship Napa Valley bottling, which dates back to 1987.  In contrast to many other wines in the "not overripe" category--wines that have a tendency to tail away with bottle age and lose their fruit--the Corison cabs have the material and balance to reward extended cellaring.  Many vintages demand it.

This spring I had the opportunity to taste 11 consecutive vintages of the Corison cabernet going back to 1999.  As a group, they proved Corison's long-time contention that her wines benefit from a decade in bottle and evolve with grace.  They also displayed impressive consistency of quality across vintages, since the vertical tasting included lesser vintages as well as stellar years.  In fact, the tasting made it clear that I originally underrated a few of the earlier vintages in the line-up, as these wines have not only gained complexity with bottle aging but have deepened in texture.  Some vintages were still shockingly youthful, with further development ahead.

Corison's wines are typically between 13.5% and 14% alcohol, with pHs in the moderate 3.55 to 3.6 range, and according to Corison that's why they age so well.  As she explained, "It's a failure in the vineyard if I have to wait until the sugars get too high for the flavors to get ripe. The longevity of my wines is due to their acidity.  Young cabernets with pruney flavors have no place to go."  Corison also noted that lower pHs make SO2 additions more effective and help to control brettanomyces.  The cooler aromas and flavors in her young releases, which may disturb cabernet neophytes who do not have experience with the wines of Bordeaux, are transformed over time into more complex secondary and tertiary elements such as mocha, cigar box, tobacco, chocolate, underbrush and various resiny perfumes, in much the way that traditionally made wines in Medoc region have always evolved.  Adds Corison:  "I value the red and blue fruits that we get in addition to the purple and black fruits at reasonable alcohol levels, and I love the good natural acidity at this level of ripeness."

The Corison wine is sourced from three vineyards, all on loamy benchland (alluvial fans) between Rutherford and St. Helena and planted at a density of about 2,000 vines per acre.  The vineyards she works with feature various clones and root stocks and had to be replanted beginning in the early '90s due to phylloxera, which means that the earliest wine I tasted, the 1999, was from very young vines, while more recent years have benefited from maturing vine age. (Incidentally, Corison introduced a second cabernet bottling in 1996, from low-yielding old vines planted on St. George rootstock in her own Kronos Vineyard, located behind her winery in St. Helena.)

Corison's winemaking is traditional and non-interventionist.  "There is no recipe, but after a quarter century of sourcing the same vineyards there are certainly patterns," she told me.  "Mostly I try to stay out of the way.  I destem and gently crush, then ferment in stainless steel, pumping over with a gentle pump and sprinkler device, with the temperature peaking early at just below 90°F."  The fermentation takes about a week and Corison racks quarterly during the first year, then less frequently during the second, "depending on what the wine needs."  She ages the wines in all French oak, 50% new each year.  Bottling generally takes place in July or August, almost two years after the harvest.

Show all the wines (sorted by score)

--Stephen Tanzer