Four decades ago, wine collectors had to wait four years after a vintage to get the best Napa Cabernet Sauvignons, mainly because the wines were loaded with astringent tannins that needed softening by time.
So wineries held onto them.
I mentioned this to a wine merchant the recently. He replied, “Yep, and now they’re releasing some wines at two years! And it’s worse than that. We’re already seeing some of the 2017s.
“It’s not your father’s Cab any more.”
Decades ago, we aged red wines because we knew drinking them early was madness. Aging reds has long been a noble tradition. Many people stashed the “hard,” young wines until time tamed them.
It started some 200 years ago in England with red Bordeaux and was popular in the United States in the 1960s. By the 1970s, collectors were eager to age California Cabernets, especially from great years like 1970, 1974, and 1990.
The subject of vintage variation often prompted spirited discussions among wine geeks.
Aging wine placed faith in balanced winemaking. But Cabernet has changed to a softer, less age-worthy wine. Also, today’s instant-gratification crowd has little patience.
As we noted here recently, aging wine isn’t as popular as it once was. This is particularly noticeable when it comes to high-end Cabs.
For the most part, today’s Cabs differ radically from those of the past in one major respect: the softer structure, which is directly related to both how the wine tastes when it is young (tasty without needing food) and how it ages (not as well as in the past).
By harvesting grapes later than was done years ago, to push grapes closer to raisins, the wines attain flavors that are slightly overripe and taste less like the varieties they came from — or not at all.
Also, fruit picked later can generate higher alcohols and have lower acid. Although wineries can replace lost acid, rarely is it enough to balance the wines.
With lower acids and higher alcohols, wines age for shorter periods and gain less complexity.
Then there’s the controversial subject of sugar. It’s when a winery makes a wine with residual sugar. That’s no surprise in inexpensive wines, but when wines sell for $80 and $200 and more, consumers can be duped into thinking they’ll age as well as they once did.
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Some buyers (newcomers, mainly) like sweet reds; traditionalists do not.
Wine critics have long faced this issue of sweet wines. Thirty years ago I dealt with sweet Chardonnays. I carried a Tes-Tape to measure for glucose and found many sweet Chardonnays.
Sweet red, however, is a new phenomenon.
In a wine shop last week, I ran into one of America’s finest winemakers. He was there to buy a bottle of an iconic Napa Cabernets.
A wine blogger had written that the wine was well balanced. The winemaker said he knew the wine was sweet. “I’m going to run the sugars on it to see what the sugar is,” he told me.
Days later, I got an email from him. The sugar test showed the wine had 8.29 grams per liter of sugar — nearly 1 percent. This is higher than many dry Rieslings!
So who’s to blame for expensive “sweet” Cabs? Among the culprits are wine merchants who fib about their aging potential. And ill-informed wine critics praise wines that are sweet and won’t age well. Also to blame are consumers who have willingly been brainwashed by high scores.
“Supercharging” Cabs with high alcohol, aging them in new oak barrels, adding concentrates and other tactics are all widely practiced. I was told this by two different winemakers I’ve known for decades.
And at a tasting I attended last year with 11 Sonoma County winemakers, many joked about making a 100-point “wine” without any grapes, just concentrates and tactics.
A man who has worked in the retail wine business for 30 years told me about 2010 that he had stopped making aging projections for red wines.
“Most Cabernets today should be served like cocktails,” he said. “You can’t age them like we used to, so drink ‘em young.”
And a final word on this: A wine collector friend said, “Most iconic Cabs are so soft they’re like Port. Serve them with cheese after dinner.”
Week: 2015 Domaine Maby, “La Fermade,” Lirac ($17) – The district of Lirac at the southern end of the Rhône Valley is known for elegant, fruit-based, medium-weight wines. This delightful import is akin to a slightly richer Beaujolais. Made from 80 percent Grenache, it has a load of fruit and needs no aging. It tastes better if served slightly chilled. Good value.