Next-Level Napa

Cabernets of Classicism and Composure from Mayacamas, Philip Togni and Ashes & Diamonds
Next-Level Napa
Such is their spotless track record of transparent, intricate, long-lived wines, two of these producers need almost no introduction. The third has a shorter history but is cut from the same cloth. Ashes & Diamonds was inspired into existence by the kind of elegantly etched classicism epitomised by Mayacamas and Philip Togni. Here, then, is a range of wines to thrill any lover of timeless, wonderous Cabernets.

Ashes & Diamonds founder Kashy Khaledi is a lover of hauntingly beautiful Loire Cabernet Franc, and this grape’s 1986-planted Oak Knoll vines lead the first wine here. It’s a pure, silky, nuanced blend realised by rockstar vigneron Steve Matthiasson (of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Spottswoode fame). The estate’s single-vineyard wines, meanwhile, are overseen by Diana Snowden Seysses, who splits her time between Napa and Domaine Dujac in Burgundy. From Saffron Vineyard high up on Mount Veeder comes a Merlot-dominant blend from 2019, while Rancho Pequeño Vineyard in Oakville delivers a kaleidoscopic Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa’s “vintage of the century”, 2018.

That same vintage ushered Philip Togni’s masterpiece into the world. Now in his nineties and working alongside daughter Lisa, this living legend studied in Bordeaux under Émile Peynaud, made wine with Alexis Lichine, and his CV lists stints at Chalone, Inglenook, Cuvaison and Chappellet, where he made the legendary 1969 Cabernet. His own estate has since become an icon in its own right. On their 10 hectares of organically farmed vines perched at 600 metres, he and Lisa seek—with great success—to emulate the longevity, rugged character and definition of Saint-Estèphe with a Spring Mountain stamp.

Which brings us to Mayacamas… where to start? How about with the words of Eric Asimov: “A legendary purveyor of classically structured, ageworthy Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.” Or perhaps Matt Kramer: “Really, you can’t do better than Mayacamas Vineyards for California wine profoundness.” Then, Jon Bonné: “Mayacamas Vineyards is among the classic wineries that have made California wines among the world’s finest.”

At its best, Napa is majestic and glorious to drink. These are Napa at its best.

The Wines

Ashes & Diamonds Napa Valley Cabernet Franc No.6 2019
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Ashes & Diamonds Napa Valley Cabernet Franc No.6 2019

When Kashy Khaledi first acquired the Oak Knoll vineyard, many advised him to graft it over from Cabernet Franc to Cabernet Sauvignon. But, compelled to see what might come of these 30-year-old vines if nourished correctly and farmed organically, he dug his heels in and kept the plantings intact. These vines now form the base of Ashes & Diamond’s flagship wine and are joined by organic fruit from Los Carneros and Yountville. Also located in Napa’s cooler south, these sites take in the morning fog and afternoon sea breezes from San Pablo Bay, preventing heat spikes and facilitating slow, even ripening.

Taking its cues from the top bottlings of Saumur-Champigny, winemaker Steve Matthiasson gives us a snapshot of Cabernet Franc’s aromatic finesse derived from the vineyard’s volcanic clay and sandy loam soils at the southern end of Napa Valley. This year’s blend includes 25% Merlot, and fermentations took place in stainless steel tanks. The wine matured in mostly old (16% new) premium French oak (Taransaud and Orion) for 19 months. The wine was held in bottle for a further two years before release.

At 13.2%, this is naturally restrained, balanced Napa with Cabernet’s Franc’s chalky texture, combined with integrated silky tannins, impressive intensity, and a long, perfumed finish. In a wonderful spot and a fine homage to its Loire inspiration. 

Ashes & Diamonds Napa Valley Cabernet Franc No.6 2019
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Ashes & Diamonds Napa Valley Saffron Vineyard Mountain Cuvée No.4 2019
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Ashes & Diamonds Napa Valley Saffron Vineyard Mountain Cuvée No.4 2019

The Saffron Vineyard on Mount Veeder is an excellent example of an ideal site managed by the right person. It’s a beautiful vineyard, nestled among redwoods high above the fog inversion line at an altitude of 457 metres. Daytime temperatures here are often 10 degrees lower than on the valley floor. With encouragement from Kashy Khaledi, the vineyard is organically farmed by the passionate and committed owner, Lisa Chu. (Khaledi convinced Lisa to increase her prices for all her customers, including him, so that organic farming could be implemented—a move that dramatically improved soil health and fruit quality.) Deep-rooted Bordeaux varieties were planted here in 2000 in thin soils of uplifted marine sediment and fractured shale.

Part of the Mayacamas coastal range separating the Napa and Sonoma Valleys, Mount Veeder is said to grow the most characterful wines of the Napa, “like a wild fish in a school of tank-raised trout”, as Matt Kramer once put it. While it has a reputation for robust, slow-maturing wines, Diana Snowden-Seysses’s Burgundian eye, choice of blend and the Saffron Vineyard’s crop of small, beautifully balanced berries infuses the natural power of the mountain with unusual silken grace. The 2019 is a blend of Merlot (60%), Cabernet Sauvignon (23%) and Cabernet Franc (17%). Once at the winery, the grapes were given a cold soak until spontaneous fermentation—which included 20% whole clusters—began. The wine then matured for 19 months in French oak (28% new, all Taransaud).

According to its maker, the wine is “bouncy and outgoing, with explosive red fruit flavours—like biting into a ripe, juicy plum—and fine, focused tannins”. Fusing the explosive intensity of low-yielding Veeder fruit with impeccable freshness and focused tannin, decant this and drink it over a couple of hours to experience the full magnitude of the mountain in all its classically shaped glory.

“From an unirrigated vineyard above the fog line on Mount Veeder, the 2019 Mountain Cuvée No. 4 Saffron Vineyard is a blend of 60% Merlot, 23% Cabernet Sauvignon and 17% Cabernet Franc, all aged in 30% new French oak. Offering up scents of black cherries and mocha, it's medium-bodied and streamlined, with soft, silky tannins and a softly dusty finish. Winemaker Diana Snowden Seysses has crafted an intriguing wine, as it tastes ripe yet comes across as lower alcohol (it's labeled at 13.4%) than most of its brethren.”
90 points, Joe Czerwinski, The Wine Advocate
“This well-proportioned wine blended from Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon offers good black-fruit flavors, nice hints of cinnamon and toasted oak, and a slightly firm texture due to fine-grained tannins and balancing acidity. It's an elegant wine that won't tire you out.”
93 points, Jim Gordon, Wine Enthusiast
Ashes & Diamonds Napa Valley Saffron Vineyard Mountain Cuvée No.4 2019
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Ashes & Diamonds Napa Valley Rancho Pequeño Cabernet Sauvignon No.4 2018
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Ashes & Diamonds Napa Valley Rancho Pequeño Cabernet Sauvignon No.4 2018

Rancho Pequeño Vineyard is part of Bart and Daphne Araujo’s Oakville property on the valley floor's east flank in the Vaca Mountains' foothills. The 10-acre vineyard was originally planted in 1985 and screams old-school Napa Cabernet: exposed south with very thin topsoils, warm and sunny afternoons, cool dusks and dawns and gentle sea breezes. A touch warmer than the Ashes & Diamonds home vineyard in Oak Knoll, it is biodynamically farmed by two of Napa’s greatest land stewards under the guidance of A&D’s legendary viticulturist, Steve Matthiasson. The soils are deep and loamy, washed down from the Vaca Mountains, resulting in a high water table and little need for irrigation.

It’s a sad reality when working with old vineyards that they are not around forever. As with the Red Hen Cabernet Sauvignon we released last year, this will be the final release of this wine as Bart and Daphne complete a total replanting of the vineyard. It is the swansong of a great wine, an exceptional vineyard and an outstanding vintage. In Kashy Kaledi’s words: “If you made a bad wine in Napa in 2018, you probably shouldn’t be making wine.” The fruit was picked in the last week of September and spent 16 days in tank followed by 19 months’ maturation in 32% new French oak. Winemaker Diana Snowden-Seysses has been described as bringing a Burgundian eye to a non-Burgundian grape, so you can expect a restrained and respectful touch across the single vineyard wines she makes. She describes 2018 as “a kaleidoscope of aromatics ranging from rose to game, bright and crunchy red fruit flavours with weightless power and purity”. Where do we sign up?

“A classic 2018 Napa Cabernet: rich ripe and powerful, with smooth tannins and a luscious mid palate wrapped in oak. Balanced and holding well. This had 14 days fermentation/maceration with a further 20 months in 35% new French oak.”
96 points, Michelle Cherutti-Kowal MW, Decanter
“Rich, ripe, blackberry cabernet aromas, the palate rich and full-bodied and long. A solid wine of real depth. Excellent cabernet.”
96 points, Huon Hooke, The Real Review
Ashes & Diamonds Napa Valley Rancho Pequeño Cabernet Sauvignon No.4 2018
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Philip Togni Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2018
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Philip Togni Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

The Philip Togni estate vineyard is in the Spring Mountain District AVA, just northwest of the town of St. Helena on the western side of the Napa Valley. Sitting on the eastern slope of the Mayacamas Range, it’s the coolest and wettest region in the valley, partly due to its proximity to the Pacific Ocean (50 kilometres) and San Pablo Bay (40 kilometres). Conditions on Spring Mountain are further moderated by aspect and altitude; most of the region’s vineyards face east, avoiding the harsh afternoon sun, and the steep terrain can reach as high as 800 metres.

The east-facing, organic, dry-farmed 10-hectare Togni plot lies high up on the mountain itself, above the fog line at just over 600 metres. Surrounded by oak trees and tall Douglas Firs, the site was first planted in 1981 to Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc. Following a conversation with friend and Bordeaux legend Paul Pontallier, Togni decided to mirror the varietal plantings of Château Margaux at his own estate. The plantings now stand at 82% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Merlot, with the balance comprising Cabernet Franc (2%) and Petit Verdot (1%). The make-up of the wines reflects these plantings. It’s a steeply terraced site, home to old vines (33 years on average) in rocky soils of weathered sandstone and shale.

Philip Togni Cabernet Sauvignon is made from estate fruit―the family has never purchased fruit, nor will they. “We know our site is special,” daughter Lisa explains. “We’re trying to make a wine that reflects this place.” In another tip of the cap to Bordeaux, Philip Togni’s preference from the outset has been to make wines more in the mould of Saint-Estèphe rather than Saint-Julien; in each given season, he and Lisa seek to emulate the longevity, rugged character and definition found in those wines. “That’s what we set out to do, and with a few tweaks, it seems as if that’s what we have achieved.”

The 2018 season was a classic at this estate, producing elegant, detailed, site-true wines. The fruit was picked in the third week of September with potential alcohol between 13 and 14%. The grapes were sorted, gently destemmed, crushed, and cold soaked for three days. After 20 days’ co-fermenting, the wine was pressed to French oak (40% new Taransaud and Nadalie). The wine was bottled in August 2020.

“Taking lots of air to show at its best, the 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon Estate is a brilliant, classic, age-worthy wine from this great estate. It certainly shows the more structured, vibrant style of the 2018 vintage with lively acids, yet it has utterly classic Cabernet crème de cassis and almost blue fruits as well as Bordeaux-like notes of lead pencil, cedarwood, tobacco, and assorted floral nuances. Medium to full-bodied on the palate, it brings rock-solid intensity, perfectly ripe yet building, firm tannins, and again, the vintage's freshness, purity, and elegance. It reminds me of a top Saint-Julien and classic, old school, structured Cabernet that will reward bottle age. It needs 7-8 years to hit maturity (it's approachable today with a healthy decant), and I have no doubt this will be a 30- to 40-year wine.”
97 points, jebdunnuck.com
“Philip Togni’s Cabernet Sauvignon is an instant classic in the phenomenal 2018 vintage. Leading with its characteristic black-toned fruit, dusty graphite, green tobacco, and masterfully integrated cedarwood spices, it turns a surprising corner on the palate, leaning into the freshness of the vintage, with a medium-bodied palate and layers of velvety textured red and black fruits intertwined with cigar box, sagebrush, and dried wildflowers.”
98 points, Jonathan Cristaldi, Decanter
“Medium to deep garnet-purple colored, the 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon Estate offers up intense notes of crushed black currants, fresh blackberries and ripe red plums with hints of pencil lead, black raspberries, underbrush and unsmoked cigars plus a touch of tapenade. Medium to full-bodied, the palate delivers bold, crunchy black and red berry layers with a lively backbone and firm, grainy tannins, finishing long and energetic. 1,470 cases were made.”
96+ points, Lisa Perrotti-Brown, The Wine Advocate
“The 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon Estate is sensual and polished. Bright acids lend energy as this super-finessed Cabernet opens in the glass. Crushed red berry fruit, cedar, rose petal and mint all open with a bit of coaxing. The 2018 is going to need a number of years to be at its very best. It is elegant, nuanced and simply impeccable, but also a bit reticent at this stage. Readers who are familiar with these wines know they need time to come into their own. If that is not possible, I suggest opening it well in advance, even a day or two.”
96+ points, Antonio Galloni, Vinous
Philip Togni Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2018
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Mayacamas Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2019
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Mayacamas Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2019

It was another terrific year for Napa Valley Cabernet. The 2019 season sits alongside the benchmark years of 2013 and 2016 and is a more than worthy follow-up to the acclaimed 2018 that preceded it—albeit one that produced wines in a very different style. Conditions were cool overall; in fact, 2019 was the sixth coolest vintage in 20 years, and high levels of rainfall mitigated the hydric stress so common in the region, especially for growers like Mayacamas that prefer dry farming. A warm end to summer paved the way for healthy crops of ripe, powerful fruit with perfectly mature tannins, mountain fresh acid lines and opulent, supple texture. It’s a stellar release that, as Jeb Dunnuck says, is “shaping up to be magnificent”.

Concrete (65%) and stainless-steel vessels (35%) were used for fermentation. Post-fermentation, the wine rested in large-format foudres for 20 months, followed by 14 months in French barriques and the usual two years in bottle.

“The 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon is a pretty rich, bombastic wine, especially for Mayacamas. A blast of dark fruit, incense, tobacco, licorice, spice and mocha hits the palate. I would give the 2019 at least a few years in bottle to settle down, as it is quite the powerhouse today. This is an unusually flamboyant wine with plenty of richness and a bit less in the way of subtlety. The opulence of the vintage comes through loud and clear.”
97 points, Antonio Galloni, Vinous
“Moving to the current releases, the 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon is clearly on another level. Cassis, violets, spring flowers, and graphite, as well as a beautiful sense of minerality, all emerge on the nose, and it hits the palate with medium to full-bodied richness, fine, polished tannins, fabulous balance, and a great finish.”
96 points, jebdunnuck.com
“Loaded with character and energy, this version reveals heavy notes of zesty sweet bay leaf and sassafras that infuse a core of steeped red currant and mulberry fruit, all carried by bright acidity and iron-laced tannins. The long finish pulls everything together, with the fruit, savory and mineral elements in harmony. Showing an old-school touch, this has a long life ahead. Best from 2025 through 2045.”
96 points, James Molesworth, Wine Spectator
“Seductive aromas of dark cherries, mulberries, spiced plums, wild herbs and dried spices. Medium to full body with finely grained tannins. Textural and suave with a voluptuous array of berries, cherries and raw cocoa on the palate. Velvety and well-balanced with a focused developing finish.”
95 points, jamessuckling.com
Mayacamas Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2019
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