Veteran winemaker’s Old World–style Cabernets know precisely what they want to be.
Cathy Corison, among the modern Napa Valley’s first women owner-winemakers, makes 100% Cabernets that age with increasing elegance. They’re the kind you can’t wait to open because you know they’ll be great, but when you do you feel guilty imagining what another year or two (or five) in the bottle might yield. Corison Winery is best known for three satisfyingly complex yet restrained Cabernets. Its namesake winemaker maintains that conditions in the source Rutherford and St. Helena subappellations are so favorable for bringing Cabernet grapes to proper ripeness that blending in Cabernet Franc, Merlot, or other Bordeaux varietals isn’t necessary.
St. George to the Rescue
The grapes in one Cabernet come from the estate Kronos Vineyard, which adjoins Corison’s St. Helena Highway winery and tasting room. Planted in 1971 by a previous owner, it’s one of the Napa Valley’s oldest Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards. Many Northern California vineyards required replanting in the 1980s after phylloxera, a type of root lice, attacked the predominant type of rootstock, AXR-1, thought to be resistant to the pest. The Corison’s vines, planted on St. George rootstock, survived. As older vines often do (five decades is pretty long in the tooth for Cabernet Sauvignon), the Kronos ones produce smaller clusters with fewer berries, but their flavor is concentrated. In Corison’s hands, beautiful wines emerge.
Like an FM rock band that resisted the urge to go disco back in the day, Corison stayed a steady course during the late 1990s and early 2000s when high-alcohol “fruit-forward” wines captured the attention of critics and consequently a large segment of the public. Though her style may have drifted out of fashion for a while, her wines always had their fans. As the pendulum swung back toward a more classic Old World style, her consistency only enhanced her reputation.
Taste the Consistency
Among the joys of the Corison Library Experience, one of three offerings at the winery and highly recommended, is tasting the consistency, comparing the newest vintage to its older counterparts. For an even deeper immersion, try the Collector’s Vertical Tasting, at which some of the wines might be two decades old or more. Corison ages her wines longer than some peers, so for most vintages even the younger ones seem well on their way to maturity.
The basic Discovery Tasting, which focuses on current releases, provides a varied introduction to Corison’s winemaking. A recent lineup included three wines from her two other labels (“Corison” only appears on the Cabernets): Corazón Gewürztraminer from Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley, Helios Cabernet Franc and Helios Syrah wines from the estate Sunbasket Vineyard, and the much-lauded Corison Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. All tastings include a walk into the Kronos Vineyard and a short winery tour.
Tip: Tastings, which take place in the winery building or outside overlooking the Kronos Vineyard, are by appointment only. It’s best to reserve a slot a week or more ahead of your visit. The winery might be able to accommodate you on shorter notice except during summer and early fall.
The three wines below were tasted in mid-June 2020. As expected, they’re well balanced, but so seamlessly that the fact doesn’t call attention to itself. These wines know precisely what they want to be.
2017 Helios Sunbasket Vineyard Cabernet Franc. On first sip, this 100% Cabernet Franc impressed with its vibrant acidity, slight earthiness, and intricate flavors. Floral in both taste and aroma, the wine gets a boost from expressive tannins that in youth register pleasingly on the front palate.
2017 Corison Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s difficult not to like a wine this expertly conceived and executed. Emphatically Cabernet, it reflects its origins (three vineyards in Rutherford and St. Helena) and vintage, which included several midsummer heat spikes. Three attributes in particular struck me about this 100% Cabernet Sauvignon: the vein of acidity that underlies the fruit, the way the tannins lightly tickled my tongue, and the subtly long finish.
2017 Corison Kronos Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. Edging a little more into blue fruit territory than its Napa Valley sibling, the Kronos, also 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, is yet another bouquet of floral aromatics, defined acidity, wisps of minerality, punchy tannins, and concentrated but not overpowering fruit. The finish here is even longer than Corison’s Napa Valley Cab’s.
Why go: 100% Cabernet wines; relaxed tastings; Corison Library Experience.
Corison Winery appears in 10 Foolproof Napa Valley Cabernet Tasting Experiences.
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This story originally appeared online in 2017; it was fact-checked and updated in 2020 with the current-release reviews.