Wine critic James Suckling recalls a very special tasting he attended in Florence in 2006. The 1997 and 2001 vintages of top Californian cult wines, drawn from the cellar of Bordeaux Chateau owner and Swiss collector Silvio Denz, were blind tasted against a group of top Tuscan cult wines from the same vintages.

A dozen tasters, mostly Swiss wine merchants, declared the Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon Hillside Select the overall winner. Quite an accomplishment given that the Californian competition included celebrated names like Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley, Arajo Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Eisele Vineyard, Bryant Family Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley, Colgin Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Herb Lamb Vineyard, Dalla Valle Maya Napa Valley and Harlan Estate Napa Valley. (Florence Tasting: Cults Versus Cults or California Versus Tuscany by James Suckling, Wine Spectator, 27 November 2006)

While the result surprised Suckling, the Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon Hillside Select, first released in 1978, has long been making headlines. The Wine Advocate’s Robert Parker calls it one of Napa’s most profound wines.

Exhibiting flavours of black fruit, mocha, black plums, cassis, juicy black and red cherry, black tea, with spice and warm toast, the wine is aged for 32 months in 100% new 60-gallon French oak barrels and bottle aged for about a year before release.

When John Shafer bought Shafer Vineyards in the Stags Leap district in 1972, he was one of the first to cultivate vineyards on the hillsides. With gradients up to 45% and less than 50 centimetres of poor, rocky vocanic soil above weathered bedrock, conditions proved ideal for keeping yields low and creating ripe concentrated fruit.  The vineyards are sustainably managed with a range of vineyard exposures and a diversity of clones ensuring the consistency of the innovative Hillside Select style regardless of the vagaries of the weather.

John Shafer joked that at first he had a hard time convincing buyers that it wasn’t a cabernet merlot blend. The silky, supple velvety supple tannins of the intense, powerful yet elegant Hillside Select made the addition of merlot to soften the tannins unnecessary.

Shafer today is still very much a family-run operation. John’s son Doug, who made the wines between 1983 and 1994, now serves as President with John in the Chairman’s role. Elias Fernandez succeeded John as winemaker in 1994. Only about 2400 cases of the Hillside Select are made each year. It is part of a stable of acclaimed wines, including the syrah based Relentless and the Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay.

A selection of back vintages of Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon Hillside Select are available on the Cellarit Wine Market.

Merrill Witt, Editor

Photo Credit: Shafer