On Wine

The decline of 'cabernet-ness'

2014-05-15T20:00:00Z 2014-05-15T20:11:09Z The decline of 'cabernet-ness'DAN BERGER Napa Valley Register
May 15, 2014 8:00 pm  • 

The cynic in me has been saying for a few years that the more you pay for a cabernet sauvignon, the less like cabernet sauvignon it smells and tastes.

Sure, that is a gross generalization that’s hard if not impossible to prove, but a discussion I had recently with four men who ought to know helped certify the concept.

All have long made wine and are judges at major wine competitions where, in the last two decades, they have seen a decline in the cabernet-ness of California’s most popular red wine.

Three of the men are current winemakers and didn’t want to be identified for this story. The fourth is Dr. Richard Peterson, former longtime wine maker (Beaulieu Vineyard) and a consultant to many wineries.

Peterson said he was dismayed by many of the high-end cabernets he has tried over the last few years, noting that so few of the expensive wines he tastes have much relationship to the grape variety.

After trying a number of $30 to $40 cabs recently, Peterson said, he was struck by the fact that there was very little to like in these wines, which he said were “dark and heavy.” He said almost all of the wines had overripe flavors, a lot of oak, high alcohol, low acidity, and a lot of tannin.

“These wines were not cabernets,” he said. “They were caricatures of cabernet!”

We chatted about the fact that many red wines, not just cabernets, recently have become so intensely colored and flavored that they defy identification. As such, it has become impossible to taste the merlot in a merlot, the syrah in a syrah, or indeed virtually any distinctive varietal character in a varietally labeled “red wine.”

Even pinot noir is being made so dark that they taste more like syrah, said two of the other three winemakers to whom I spoke.

Peterson noted that the price of the wines was not only too high for average consumers, but he noted that there was better varietal character in many wines at lower prices.

“I have noticed something interesting: Low to medium-priced red wines tend to keep their alcohol levels under control, but most of the super-high-priced wines do not.” And that, he said, accounts for more varietal-ness in lower-priced wines.

“I think many lower-priced reds are deserving of the public’s support,” he said, but that many of the more alcoholic and pricey wines do not have much to recommend them.

One reason that lower-priced wines typically have lower alcohol levels is that profit margins on such wines are lower, thus wineries try to make them more cost effectively. And one way to save money on such wines is to keep alcohols down.

By U.S. law, the federal tax on wines with less than 14 percent alcohol is $1.07 per gallon, and the tax on wines with more than 14 percent alcohol is $1.57 per gallon.

As a result, many broad-market cabs are under 14 percent, which usually leads to better balance.

And that leads us to a classic example of balanced winemaking.

Wine of the Week: 2012 Newman’s Own Cabernet Sauvignon, California ($12) — The near-perfect aroma of Cabernet Sauvignon (dried cherries, dried herbs) has only faint traces of oak and good acidity with moderate (13.2 percent) alcohol. Nicely structured; a fine wine to serve over the next few years with red meats. Made by a team of winemakers headed by Joel Gott at Trinchero Family Wines, the excellence of this wine is no surprise: Gott is the son of Cary Gott, one of California’s finest-ever blenders. It won a Chairman’s Award (unanimous gold) from a four-person panel at the recently concluded Riverside International Wine Competition.

Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at winenut@gmail.com.

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(1) Comments

  1. Lenny Pepperidge
    Report Abuse
    Lenny Pepperidge - May 20, 2014 8:26 am
    Well put, but I fear it will fall on deaf ears. Too many in Napa are still thinking that the move to European wines is just a fad and that all those somms and Michelin starred restaurants will come back into the fold after they grow tired of their little dalliance. The reality is the opposite, the worship of cult wine, RMP and the international style was the dalliance, and as Americans palates mature, they are moving on for good.
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