For more than a decade, I have hoped for a miracle. Then last week I realized the worst: Cabernet sauvignon has changed so appreciably that I fear we’ll never see it in the way we once did.
Cabernet has undergone a makeover that has, probably forever, made it little more than a parody of itself, entering a realm that 20 years ago I never would have believed.
Today, California cabernet is a virtual wine, made to be consumed as an aperitif and as young as possible. A long book could be devoted to this sad tale of decline. What follows is a brief look at the collapse of what once was California’s most prized possession.
First, let’s look back on what cabernet used to be. It was dry red wine. It was aged in oak not for oaky flavor, but for maturity and complexity. It was modest in alcohol – 12.5 percent for the vast majority; a few “over-the-top” wines reached 13.5 percent.
Also, it was designed to be aged a little bit, and a few a lot longer. When very young, the wines were tannic and needed taming. I still have some 1970s cabs in the cellar that are in great shape.
Moreover, once the wines got some bottle age and a bit of bouquet, they went nicely with food. Since they had good acid levels, food was a near necessity, and the list included steaks, chops, stews, roasted chicken, game and more.
What we have today, mainly at the $30-and-above price point, are wines that are the near antithesis of this: high in alcohol (almost nothing of supposed quality is less than 14.5 percent; some are 16 percent), very low acid levels (which almost guarantees that the wines won’t age well), and actual residual sugar in many.
This is wine that some reviewers say smells like chocolate, mocha, smoke and roasted nuts. These aren’t aromas derived from fruit; they come from the smoked oak barrels in which the wines were aged, clearly an idea that was never at play decades ago.
The most telling — and damaging — aspect of today’s cabernets is what I hear from wine makers, and always off the record. The phrasing may differ, but the sentiment is the same: “I may make cabernet, but I don’t drink it any more.”
I got an e-mail from Napa Valley wine maker George Vierra, who wrote, “We just opened a bottle of 1980 Vichon Eisele Vineyards Cabernet, 12.5percent alcohol. It had good color; fruity and herby nose, medium body, touch of astringency, correctly balanced, very long finish. I have a few more. Went great with leg of lamb.”
Minutes later came an e-mail from Christian Miller, a wine marketing researcher: “We had a 1991 Simi regular Cab yesterday that had aged beautifully. It would be fascinating to do a tasting of 10 or 20 year old flagship wines vs. ‘secondary’ wines to see which are aging better, although you might have to wait a few years to incorporate the full effect of the winemaking changes of recent years.”
I was a judge at the San Francisco Chronicle wine competition last week and one flight of 60 cabernets was utterly disappointing: almost all were huge, ungainly red wines that had no aroma I ascribe to cabernet. And these oafs had no food compatibility whatever.
The fact that today’s cabs don’t work with food prompted me to suggest that maybe they’d go with chocolate, to which a wine writing colleague argued, “What?! And ruin good chocolate?”
There are complicated reasons for this turnabout, but the bottom line is that we may have lost cabernet for all time. I can’t drink them young; I can’t imagine they will age well, and I cannot figure out why so many people are still buying them.
Is it political correctness? It certainly can’t be for the reasons we adored the grape and the wine decades ago. Have today’s consumers all been brainwashed?
Sure, a few elegant cabernets are still being made, but they are so rare as to be on a list of endangered species. (Curiously, some are reasonably priced, and probably because they don’t smell like chocolate.)
I hear rumors that wine makers are trying to cut back on alcohols. But we are locked in to a system that calls for this sort of mediocrity. And in some ways, the current situation is really laughable since the more you pay for a wine, the more likely it is to be weird and unlike cabernet.
P.S. Is there any connection to the decline in cabernet style and the dramatically increased sales of pinot noir?
Wine of the Week
2006 Tudal Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($45) – Lovely rendition of Cabernet with a trace of dried thyme and sage along with red and black cherry, and a perfectly balanced mid-palate; just 13.8 percent alcohol and good structure for aging a decade.
Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.