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Tasting: 12 experts weigh in on the best Cabernets

From the Napa Valley Wine Insider Digest: September 2022 series
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To look at whether any of today’s Cabs are balanced enough to recommend, I needed to avoid wines that were made to appeal to those who prized simplicity. I sought wines of balance.

My reasoning started with the fact that far too many of today’s pricey Cabs are absurdly low in acid, and high in pH. Many do not have the structure to age for even a few years. The only foods such wines go with are chocolate-covered.

Then we get to the situation that has irritated me most: It’s difficult to get Cabs’ facts from some wineries. I always ask for technical details. Many wineries either decline or lie. (I have sent wines to labs for analysis. Many lab tests have differed radically from the winery’s fact sheet.)

One good friend of mine has done statistical analysis on many industry wines over the last 30 years, and he reports that in more cases than he could count, “14.5% wines” tested out above 17%!

As a result, all I have left to go on is the alcohol. By federal law it mut be listed on the label – although it need not be accurate or even close to reality. When it’s very high, the wine will be awfully soft.

(Despite the law on alcohols, I learned years ago that there is no penalty for falsifying the alcohol on a label of a wine above 14%. I know (but can’t prove) that many wineries do not tell the truth. So, 14.5% on a label could well be a wine with close to or higher than 17%.)

Still, using the label’s alcohol statement, and heeding the plea of the above winery owner who asked me to look again at the issue, I began buying Cabernets from recent vintages. The only Cabs I sought were those under 14% alcohol. That clearly is an endangered category.

It took visits to two wine shops before I could find 12 under-14% alcohol Cabs.

I didn’t stage this event with a preconceived story idea. I just put the wines before judges who knew nothing about why they were trying these 12 wines. And then I listened carefully to their comments.

No one knew that there were 11 Cabernets and a Cabernet Franc. But after most of the judges had gotten through the first four wines, it was pretty evident that they all had figured out they were Cabs. It wasn’t until one judge, after trying seven of the wines, said they all seemed relatively tannic, that I had an inkling of what was happening in today’s Cabernet world.

What the young winemaker said about the wines being tannic was accurate – in terms of the perception many young people have of today’s Cabs. Most of the younger tasters were reared in a higher-alcohol world where tannins were masked to a degree. I didn’t think of these wines as particularly tannic.

I recalled many of the tastings I attended in the mid-1980s in San Diego. By comparison, these wines seemed to be perfectly in tune with those earlier wines.

Most of my tasting notes from a few weeks ago reflected this, since I referred to the tannins as being excellent for allowing the wine to improve for several more years. None of the wines seemed perfect for drinking immediately, but most could have been if they had been paired with some red meat or other appropriate foods. Or decanted for two hours.

Almost all of the wines showed pretty well and displayed fascinating characteristics that would have been perfectly appropriate had they been served with food or decanted.

However, what I took from this tasting is that most of the wines could easily benefit from several more years in the bottle, which was also a conclusion of other tasters as we began to discuss all 12 wines, one by one.

Clearly, this blind tasting is not intended to be scientific or particularly revealing, partially because I did not include a few very high alcohol, low pH wines to see how the tasters would react to them, but the reaction that I did receive was enlightening nonetheless.

Results were based on a cumulative ranking of votes:

1. 2019 Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena, Estate Bottled, 13.9% ($250): This stellar wine received four first-place votes and two seconds, and was impressive from the standpoint of its complexity and potential based on deep fruit, lavender, clove, and hints of Turkish pipe tobacco. Its gorgeously sculpted finish indicates it will be around for years if not decades. Tied for first-place on my scoresheet.

2. 2019 Timbercrest Farms Cabernet Sauvignon, Dry Creek Valley, 13.8% ($50): From a slightly cooler area, this stylish wine was described by tasters as being faintly minty with a delicate herbal note related to jalapeño, with a trace of tea and a softer finish, so less aging needed.

3. 2018 Louis Martini Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma County, 13.9% ($18): Very stylish and complete red wine with plums, hints of black tea and olive, a trace of oak, and plush structure better in 3-5 more years. My other first-place vote.

4t. 2020 J. Lohr Cabernet Sauvignon, Paso Robles, Seven Oaks, 13.9% ($18): Aroma of cocoa, black cherry, and oak, with a juicy, succulent mid-palate and long but not yet complex finish. Better in two years.

4t. 2017 Seaton Cabernet Sauvignon, Dry Creek Valley, Sally’s Block, 13.5% ($35): Faintly rustic, but fine varietal character with some grainy tannins and potential to age 3-5 more years.

6. 2019 Francis Ford Coppola Cabernet Sauvignon, Paso Robles, Diamond Collection, 13.5% ($18): One of the most complex wines in the event with superb aromas of plum, dried herbs and tea, cassis-pomegranate, a faint note of caramel and oak; lighter in body than some, but with sufficient acid to improve for 3-4 more years.

7. 2019 Chateau Grimont, Cadillac-Cotes de Bordeaux, 13.5%

8. 2018 Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley, 13.8%

9. 02016 Les Hauts de Lynch-Moussas, Haut-Medoc, 13.5%

10t. 2016 Chateau Moulin de Tafard, Medoc, Cru Bourgeois, 13.5%

10t. 2018 Chateau Saint-Aubin, Medoc, Cru Bourgeois, 13.0%

12. 2019 Michael Shaps Cabernet Franc, Monticello (Virginia) 13.5%

Wines of the Week: 2018 Louis Martini Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma County and 2019 Francis Ford Coppola Cabernet Sauvignon, Paso Robles. See tasting notes above. Excellent values.

One conclusion that could easily be drawn from this is that the wind that seemed to be better balanced ended up at the top of the heap, and Wines with less structural authenticity ended up scoring lower.

And one important point is that the winner of the tasting was from a wonderful historic property in the Napa Valley.

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