We probably have more Cabernet Sauvignon in our cellar than any other single varietal, And we’ve loved about 95% of those we’ve tried that are 15 years old — and many that were much older.
But we have very little Cabernet that was made within the last 25 years.
I grew up with the varietal in the 1970s, buying many from the Napa Valley. By 1980, I realized that drinking young Cabs could be self-inflicted torture. The tannins often were so hostile in young wines that the only cure was to age them.
It was also evident that not every bottle we cellared responded properly. Often the best candidates to age were those least enjoyable on release. (We still have one bottle left of 1969 Mayacamas Cabernet. The last time I opened one, about 1998, the tannins were so hard I thought it needed another 30 years!)
But Cabernet today isn’t what it once was — and I have serious reservations about what it has become, at least as an aging wine. It’s a topic I’ve written about for decades.
— Back in the 1980s, Cabernet alcohol levels were rarely above 13%. With today’s Cabs, 15% is the norm. (Result: softer wine.)
— Back then, Cabs’ acid levels were closer to 7 grams per liter (tart). Today you’d be hard-pressed to find anything above 5 grams per liter. (Result: softer wine)
— Back then, Cab pH levels were 3.4 to 3.5 (tart). Today they are 3.75 or higher – some a lot higher. (Result: softer wine.)
In sum, wines back then were tart, but time in the cellar softened them. And most improved markedly. Today’s softer-on-release Cabs are easier to drink now.
But what happens to softer wines with time in a cellar usually is sad. The wines get softer still, and some get so soft they’re horrible accompaniments to food.
Decades ago, everyone said Cabernet should go with char-grilled steak. Today’s softer Cabs go with steak only if it’s covered in chocolate sauce.
Not only that, but with high pH levels, all red wines are less stable. And less stability = earlier consumption.
So back to our question of the week: What to do with Cab today? Drink ‘em young or age them?
One of the great things about the flavors of old classics was astounding complexity. A year ago, we opened a bottle of 1974 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cab as part of a dinner we staged for the winner of a charity auction. The most amazing thing about it was how much primary fruit remained.
Other aromas included tree bark, a faint aroma of old leather, hints of dried herbs, tea, olive, tobacco, and pine. Its balance made it stunning with our main dish. It was simply one of the finest red wines we’ve ever tasted, and didn’t seem as old as it was.
Months later, I attended a tasting of 17 wines each of which had received scores of 100 points from a famous east coast reviewer. Their vintages ranged from 1987 to 2002.
Most had begun to show oxidation rarely seen in any of our older cabs, with their extremely low pH levels (3.4 to 3.5). Low pH protects all wine from premature senility. I later asked several winemakers what their pH levels were. The average answer was 3.75.
Almost all of today’s Cabs have pHs near or above 3.8. This is simply not low enough for the wines to benefit from much bottle age.
You have free articles remaining.
So, I might suggest that with most of today’s Cabernets, even pricey ones, the best thing to do is drink them within a decade of release. But to do that basically eliminates Cabernet ever achieving the complexities for which it is rightly famed.
Does this mean that wine buyers have fewer choices than ever before? I think so. It seems as if today’s quest for more hedonistic, early-to-drink reds has left us all with grapes that have been defanged.
So not only do today’s Cabernets usually fail the test of aging, but even in youth they fail to deliver varietal aromas or flavors: they don’t smell or taste like Cabernet.
As for the prices for many Cabernets, I believe many (most?) are completely unjustified. Some people don’t mind paying a lot for a supposedly great wine, but do such wines deliver nirvana? To me, most young Cabs aren’t very interesting, nor do they improve with age.
Many factors should be taken into consideration before deciding to age any red wine. But if you had to rely on one single factor, I’d base buying decisions for any red wines on pH. Lower is better.
If you’re thinking of buying a red wine with any hope of getting complexity from cellar aging, of about a decade from release date, here is a simple chart that may help. (Cellar temperature should be about 60 degrees year-around and constant.)
pH Likely Aging Potential
— 3.3 to 3.4 — Excellent (Should be fine in 20 years)
— 3.5 to 3.6 — Very good to excellent
— 3.6 — Good potential
— 3.7 — Some likelihood
— 3.8 — Aging unlikely unless cellar temp is low
— 3.9 — Very Unlikely
— 4.0 or higher — Drink last week
If you want to age a red wine, say from a child’s birth year, before plunking down plastic, ask the winery what the wine’s pH is. If the winery declines to tell you, ask yourself: what is the winery is hiding? And why?
Final tip: If you want to age a wine from a child’s birth year for his or her 21st birthday, best bet probably is a Vintage Port from Portugal.)
Wine of the Week
2013 Tom Eddy Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($150): Black currants, leather, licorice and delicate dried herbs with excellent balance. Not many Napa Cabs impress me with both some early approachability as well as potential to age 20 years or more, but this one has the proper stuffing. Tom has been making wine for four decades and now has his own showcase property north of Calistoga. This wine has the perfect structure to age well, and Tom’s track record on aging is exemplary, always based on modest pH levels. This wine has a solid 6.8 grams per liter of acid and a low pH (3.56). Only 750 cases produced.