This wine column began national syndication in March 1979, and even before I had made nickel on it, I faced a serious dilemma: should I spend $25 on a bottle of a Cabernet Sauvignon?
This was no ordinary Cabernet. It was from Heitz Cellar and had just been released a few months earlier. It had been made from grapes grown in the famed Martha’s Vineyard, on the western edge of the southern Napa Valley, and it was from one of the more acclaimed vintages in the history of Napa, 1974.
This was one of the most celebrated wines of the era and was in great demand — although the number of wine collectors around the United States then was fairly scant. (In 1979, most Americans thought wine was consumed only by derelicts in gutters or by wealthy snobs who had more money than brains.)
I recalled the dilemma I faced. Twenty-five bucks would have gotten me three bottles of most any other Napa Cabernet extant at that time, and I would have had change left over. (I ended up with six bottles of the Heitz.)
As I mused recently about the era, it struck me that the common practice back then was to release Cabernets at about 4½ years of age, mimicking top-growth Bordeaux reds. The reason for such a long waiting period was simply that all Cabernet-based wines shared one common trait: they were laden with astringent tannins, making them not only hard to like when young, but also hard to evaluate.
Even professionals with long experience dealing with such brutish wines have a hard time dissecting them. There is only one solution to this problem: time in the bottle. So for that reason, wineries used to wait for years to allow the tannins to subside a bit.
Even the best evaluators would still have to deal with roughness at five years, aerating the wine and spending a good deal of time watching as the liquid changed ever so slowly, so they could make a final call on the quality.
Most of those I knew in 1979 accepted the ‘74 Heitz on face value, without trying it. They bought it on faith.
I was lucky: I was a member of the weekly California Grapevine tasting panel, so I had a chance to try it on release. Even though I noted how tight and restricted it was, its true greatness was never in doubt to any of us.
Over the decades, Cabernet has been made differently from the way it had been. Alcohols have risen, making the wines more succulent. Acids have been allowed to subside, giving the wines a little more approachability.
In general, Cabernets do not age long as they once did. As a consequence, wineries do not feel compelled to hold onto their wines as long as they once did.
Instead of a 4½-year waiting period, wineries now release their wines at three years, if not even sooner. Today, major wine publications put out guidelines on which vintages they will review, which means that any “older” wines that were held back to benefit consumers may also be delayed long enough so that the publications will refuse to review them.
We are now approximately eight months from the 2018 harvest, and I have already begun to see some Cabernet Sauvignons from the 2017 harvest on the shelves. That’s only 2½ years. So even though viticulture and winemaking techniques have changed the wines’ aging potential, tasting them this young can be an act of vinfanticide.
As much as I appreciate the fruit in younger reds, it always strikes me that most young red wines are merely grape juice with alcohol. Many do not smell or taste like wine yet, and still there are people willing to go out on a figurative limb by putting scores on these yet-to-be-formed infants.
The early release of wines that could benefit from more time also has led to a difficult situation for most restaurants: not much to like with a meal now.
We have often walked into high-quality restaurants with high hopes of having a great meal only to find that all the Cabernets listed are so young they cannot possibly enhance a meal.
Several California wineries take steps to hold onto their Cabs a bit longer than most, giving consumers a chance to enjoy the wine a bit closer to the release date. Jordan Winery just released its 2015 Cabernet in 750-ml bottles, and is holding the 2015 magnums back for many more months because of their greater aging potential.
Jordan’s 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon ($57), evaluated six weeks ago, displays some of the classic herbal notes of the variety, and now has a bit more depth than many of the past Jordans because it was the first made by the winery’s only winemaker, Rob Davis, that was aged entirely in French oak barrels.
From a cooler vintage than 2014, the 2015 wine shows potential to age for at least a decade. (At a recent tasting of older Jordan Cabs, the first Jordan vintage, 1976, proved to be alive and delightful.)
Although aging young Cabernets is the best way to treat young wines, decanting them when they are very young is a tactic that can help give them some air that helps with their aroma. A rough decanting of very young red wines can help soften a red.
And though air helps young reds, nothing replaces an extra few years in a cellar.
Discovery of the Week: 2017 Farmhouse, California (Cline) ($15) – Cline Cellars in Sonoma County has a strong connection to ancient Contra Costa County vineyards, and this delightful blended white starts with 41 percent Palomino grapes (!) plus 25 percent Muscat. Another 5 percent is the floral Viognier, and where is even a tiny bit of Riesling. The wine’s floral components are fascinating, but it is relatively dry, and certainly priced affordably. May be found discounted.