Dan Berger, On Wine: Is cabernet worth it?
On Wine

Dan Berger, On Wine: Is cabernet worth it?

From the Napa Valley Wine Insider Digest: Nov. 18, 2019 series

It wasn’t just hyperbole when I recently said that two of the best Cabernet Sauvignons available in the Napa Valley were from Australia. But perhaps I was simply a bit irked that so many $200 to $500 bottles of home-grown Cabs are mute.

That is, they have nothing to say except, “Hey look at me!” Many of them don’t smell or taste anything like Cabernet. Moreover, many are made in ways that sacrifice their ability to age beyond 10 years.

I admit that my column on Cabernet of a week ago may have merely been my way of venting frustration about the kowtowing many people offer to expensive stuff that I wouldn’t drink if I got it for free.

And to answer those who took issue with the acrid tone of that article, I offer an example of greatness. It’s one of the Napa Valley’s most superb Cabs — Cathy Corison’s eponymous 2016 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($100), just released, about which Cathy says on her website:

“Redolent with bright red currant, blueberry, tart cherry and darker plums, cassis and blackberry fruit, it is wildly complex. The fruit aromatics are complexed by baking spices and floral notes including dried rose petals and violets. Varietal dried herbs add yet another dimension. An alluring yin of minerality and snappy natural acidity play off against the yang of a broad, luscious mouthfeel.”

I couldn’t have said it better, except perhaps to add that the dried herbs are what make this wine such a winner for me, since we got hints of thyme, wet earth, olive, and sage along with glorious fruit in a really dry wine.

(Many expensive Napa Cabs are too sweet for me…)

This Cab is still a baby. I know because I’ve tasted many Corison Cabs over the years that were 15 to 20 years old, and they are always better for the time in bottle.

So too with at least a dozen other Napa Cabs that deliver balance above clumsiness. Among the better-balanced wines from year to year are Cabs from Frog’s Leap, Freemark Abbey, Chateau Montelena, Ramey, Silverado, Chimney Rock, Robert Sinskey, Grace Family, and Dunn.

And there are others as well. But with alcohol levels of most high-end Cabernets creeping up to and above 15%, one of Cab’s raison d’etre has been discarded. That is the ability to deliver far more down the road than it does as a young pup.

Our comment about the longevity of the Corison wine wasn’t a guess. It is below 14% alcohol with superb acidity. And it needs years to go before reaching maturity.

For me, young Napa Cabernets are about as interesting as finger paintings by 4-year-old Pablo Picasso. Amusing, but they show little of what’s ahead.

If a great Cabernet has a manifest destiny, it is embedded in what it will deliver in years. Sure, many Cabs taste OK when young, but most won’t make it past early puberty before they collapse.

Indeed, the real potential of great (and thus pricey) Cabernets is that they will deliver so much more after proper cellaring. Will most of today’s cult-priced Cabs deliver on that promise? The answer reminds me of a politician’s promise – hollow if not fraudulent.

Most winemakers know that few, if any, more than 15.5%, low-acid, high-pH Cabernets will make it to age 10, let alone 20 or 30. But how many of today’s cult Cabernet winemakers will admit this? Approximately none.

I’ve said it before: many are little more than alcoholic grape juice. You can’t drink ‘em now, but holding them is a sucker’s bet.

Indeed, most of the winemakers who make these concoctions say they never consume them. Truth be told, most Cab winemakers would rather drink an import, a cool-climate Pinot Noir, or an Italian Barbera than their own firewater Cab.

Those who like young Cabernet have oodles of options.

— Try a Cabernet with an appellation smaller than the state. A “California” appellation isn’t, in and of itself, a bad thing. But if you know nothing of the wine you’re considering, that designation indicates the blend could well be a bit simple.

Of California’s various appellations, reasonably priced versions from the Central Coast often are interesting since some of them are blends of fruit from Monterey County (providing herbs) and Paso Robles (for deep fruit).

Other areas that produce good early-drinking Cabernets of value are Mendocino County, Sierra Foothills, Livermore Valley, Alexander Valley, and Sonoma Valley. The latter two are among Sonoma County’s better regions and may cost a bit more.

— Seek wines with alcohol levels less than 14%. This complicated topic entails some serious political considerations(!), and it’s far too technical to get into here.

— Seek alternative wines, such as Merlot. Cabernet Sauvignon is a rugged grape variety that has a lot of natural tannin. Merlot tends to be softer.

— Most $10 to $15 Cabs are more approachable when young than are $30 to $40 Cabs.

— If you’re aiming to drink a young Cab now, decant it into a pitcher (especially screw-capped wines) and let it aerate for an hour.

— If any red wine tastes too soft, chill it slightly to make it taste a little crisper.

Wine of the Week: 2016 Frog’s Leap Zinfandel, Napa Valley ($30): I loved this wine when it came on the market a year ago. A few days ago, we tried another bottle and it was significantly better. The brambly/raspberry spice in the aroma is now more expansive, and the wine’s lower alcohol (13.8%) gives it great food compatibility. This was made in a classic 1970s style. The 2017 Zin (just released) is a worthy successor, but many shops still have this vintage.

Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a subscription-only wine newsletter. Write to him at winenut@gmail.com. He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 AM.

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