There are a number of unusual things about Silver Oak Cellars. Firstly they make only Cabernet Sauvignon, strange here given that even if the Cab’s the main event there’s usually plenty of serious tinkering with other varietals. Secondly the wines are aged exclusively in American oak. Also they produce two versions, one Cabernet from Napa Valley fruit and the other from fruit grown in the Alexander Valley. It was three vintages of the Napa Valley blend – 2008, 2005 and 2002 – that were shown by Vivien Gay at the Napa Valley Vintners’ tasting this summer. In addition identical vintages of single vineyard Merlot from Twomey Cellars were also shown, Silver Oak’s distinctly francophone sister property.
Silver Oak itself was founded in that halcyon period in the early 1970s when all manner of interesting, funky and ambitious boutique wineries pioneered by outsiders sprang up across the Napa Valley. The Duncan family, who established the winery in 1972, remain in charge, underscoring an additional feature of wineries here, that there is still a very high percentage of original family ownership, despite several high profile takeovers in recent years.
From the outset the idea at Silver Oak was to produce separate Cabernets from Napa and Alexander Valley fruit. The Napa tasted blend comes from fruit from 113 acres [46ha] of vineyards on Soda Caynon Ranch, 18 acres [7ha] from Jump Rock vineyard high up in Atlas Peak AVA and the 8 acre [3ha] Navone Vineyard in St Helena. Fruit is also sourced from other growers in the valley, so the blend benefits from the different characteristics these diverse terroirs bring. It also means the harvest is often a long one. The 2002 vintage, for example, took 32 days to pick, between September 13 and October 15.
One thing that the Napa Valley Vintners’ tasting made perfectly clear, but which is still not that well understood in Europe, is just how much vintage variation there is in the Napa. Granted the wines always seem to be turning in big alcohol levels year in, year out – nothing is ever below 14 degrees it seems – but there are real and genuine differences between the characteristics of the vintages. It’s clear that 2002 was wonderfully rich and big in the Napa for Cabernet but 2005 feels much trickier from the half dozen samples tasted. That large harvest has produced wines less concentrated and complete than both 2002 and 2008 for me. The 2008 vintage itself, a comparatively cooler Napa year with a small crop, has made wines of lovely delicacy, complexity and balance which are already a joy to drink. These vintage variations do come through similarly in Silver Oak, less so with Twomey, maybe the vintage was more successful for Merlot? I’d be interested to hear from others on this.
In the Silver Oak Napa Cabernet the influence of the American oak is more obvious in the young wine, as you’d imagine. A little like Ridge’s Monte Bello, the American oak notes disappear as the wine ages. The 2008 showed beautifully – very full and attractive with plenty of depth. The 2005 Napa Cab was less expressive for me. Although there was plenty of inky, blackcurrant fruit, the overall feeling was one of a more compact wine, which dipped in the middle and I felt it had less potential overall than 2008. The 2002 was a real treat. This is a powerful wine with plenty of density and chew. It was less revealing on the nose than on the palate which demonstrates that it probably needs a good few hours in a decanter to show its best [which may have also benefitted the 2005 to be fair]. It is a wine that will certainly take more age.
Silver Oak Cellars, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, 2008
Deep and saturated look; ripe blackcurrant characters, some vanilla oak lift to the aromatics; nice lift overall; v attractive; good entry to the palate, nice fruit; lots of material and chew here; dense and chewy on the finish. Good wine. 83% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc & 3% Petit Verdot. 100% new American oak. 92+/100 Drink now – 2025
Silver Oak Cellars, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, 2005
Deep looking; sturdy nose; some wet rock; blackcurrants and ink; blackcurrants on the palate; lacks a bit of middle. Some length at the end but dips a fraction in the middle. 80% Cabernet, 10% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc. 100% new American oak. 89/100 Drink now – 2020
Silver Oak Cellars, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, 2002
Dark looking; some red at edge; sturdy, wet rock nose; some development; palate attractive with lots of stuff going on – more expressive than the aromatics at present [maybe this sample needed a bit of decanting?]. Definitely all there on the palate. Big wine with density and chew. Excellent length. Cries out for rib of beef. Will age further. 83% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Franc & 2% Petit Verdot. 100% new American oak. 92+/100 Drink now – 2030.
Twomey was established by the Duncan family in 1999, the original inspiration being a plot of French Merlot clones on the Soda Canyon Ranch that was particularly impressive. The decision was make to make this as a single vineyard wine with its own label to compliment Silver Oak’s Cabernet Sauvignons.
The Merlot is vinified at Twomey’s Calistoga facility and winemaker Daniel Baron uses Bordeaux techniques picked up in various winemaking stints in St Emilion and Pomerol to help express the best qualities of the Merlot fruit. French oak is employed here, usually for 13 months or so, the exact proportion of new oak depending on the vintage. Former JP Moueix Merlot magician Jean-Claude Berrouet is also now on hand as a consultant. The wines show attractive mid palate richness and spicy aromatics from the small, but increasing percentage of Cabernet Franc in the blends. Overall this is delicious and nicely balanced Merlot. The wines are priced around $50 [£35] on release.
Twomey, Merlot, Napa Valley, 2008
Deep-ish; earthy at edge; dusty, iron and ferrous notes; little leaf and spicy Cab Franc influence; some chew on the palate; attractive mid palate richness; good bite and end. Nice tightness here. Very good wine. 92% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc, 13 months in oak, 13.7% alc, 33% new oak. 91+/100 Drink 2014-2024
Twomey, Merlot, Napa Valley, 2005
Deep, red at edge; silky, feminine and open; creamy note and quite seductive; black fruits; blackcurrants; attractive; good density on the palate; quite serious. This still has some way to go. Good length. 96% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Franc, 16 months in French oak, 65% new. 92/100 Drink now-2020
Twomey, Merlot, Napa Valley, 2002
Very dark and saturated look; red at edge; mature Merlot; quite silky with some spices and exotic lift; some lapsang souchong notes; chew and density to the palate with acid. Warm finish. Fully mature. 99.4% Merlot 0.6% Cabernet Franc. 91/100 Drink now-2018
Tags: Alexander Valley, Atlas Peak, Cabernet Sauvignon, California, Daniel Baron, Duncan Family, Jean-Claude Berrouet, Jump Rock Vineyard, Merlot, Napa Valley, Navone Vineyard, Silver Oak Cellars, Soda Canyon Ranch, St Helena, Twomey Cellars, Vivien Gay