The Santa Cruz Mountains is probably best known these days for pinot noir, but some of the area’s earliest enological recognition was based on the quality of its cabernet sauvignon. By 1889, there were more than 100 acres of cab and other Bordeaux varieties planted in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and some of the wines received international acclaim. The section of the mountains running from Woodside to the Lexington area near Los Gatos became known as the “Chaine d’Or,” or golden chain, largely because of cabernet.
Even though pinot hogs the spotlight now, the area still makes some excellent cabernet. One of California’s best cab-based wines, Ridge Monte Bello, comes from a distinctive site above Cupertino, and a number of other wineries continue to have success with the grape. Today, according to the Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Association, there are about 1,300 acres of grapes planted in the appellation, with cabernet accounting for about a quarter of the acreage.
Cabernet got its afternoon in the sun recently at the Premier Cruz tasting in Los Gatos. Nineteen wineries participated; most producers poured a current release as well as an older wine. (In one case, a lot older: Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard opened a 1978 Bates Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon.)
Santa Cruz Mountains cabs tend to come from the warmer side of the appellation, which overlooks San Francisco Bay, although there are some pockets elsewhere that are warm enough to ripen the grape. And “warmer” is a relative term: Most of the appellation simply isn’t hot enough to yield big fruit bombs. Rather, these are savory wines, scented with the aromas of the mountains, like bay leaf and fir. They’re firmly structured but not tannic monsters.
The peak example is the 2013 Ridge Monte Bello ($185), which is 80 percent cab, with the balance made up of petit verdot, cabernet franc and merlot. The wine is dark and dense, with black fruit, roasted coffee, hints of wild fennel and bay leaf and drying tannins. It’s still very tight but shows incredible promise.
Mount Eden Vineyards, above Saratoga, is known for its chardonnay, but winemaker Jeffrey Patterson also crafts exemplary cabernet. The 2012 Mount Eden Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon ($70) displays lively red fruit, a hint of bay leaf and nice weight and texture. The 2013 Beauregard Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon ($100) is also very good, with red fruit, savory notes of cedar and bay leaf and fine tannins.
Not all the wines are quite so pricey. At Kathryn Kennedy Winery, for example, Marty Mathis produces a very expensive estate cab (I haven’t tried the current vintage), but he also makes the 2014 Kathryn Kennedy “Small Lot” Cabernet Sauvignon ($45), which draws on small vineyards sprinkled around the appellation. The current edition is dense, dark and very young, with black fruit, bay leaf and firm tannins. (Mathis did bring along a 1997 estate cab, which still has vibrant color and flavors of sweet cherry and cedar.)
The venerable Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, founded in 1975, poured its 2013 Luchessi Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($42), a piney wine with plump black fruit, firm structure and a long finish. (The aforementioned 1978 cab had taken on some meaty overtones and still had a tannic bite.)
Lexington Wine Co. is a sibling winery to Thomas Fogarty that focuses on Bordeaux varieties grown at the Gist Ranch vineyard. The 2013 Lexington Cabernet Sauvignon ($55) is quite structured and savory, with ample dark fruit. It would reward a few years of cellaring.
Other highlights included the 2013 Left Bend Fellom Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon ($55), a promising baby with lively black fruit and firm tannins; the 2012 Martin Ranch Therese Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon ($49), with its red cherry fruit, notes of cedar, cinnamon and mocha, and firm tannins; the approachable 2012 P&M Staiger Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($35); and the 2012 Silver Mountain Bates Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon ($42), which is plump and lively, with black cherry, anise and bay leaf flavors. Silver Mountain doesn’t make a cab every year; it’s usually a component in the winery’s Alloy blend.