A big change from the ultra-ripe 2001s, California’s 2002 Cabernet Sauvignons have firm tannins and racy acidity, and will appeal to those who like a more European style, writes NORM ROBY.

We are bullish on 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon,’ says Jack Stuart of Silverado Vineyards. With more than 25 Napa Valley vintages under his belt, Stuart has always been known as a straight-shooter, not a spin doctor. Following the highly regarded 2001 vintage, 2002 is a vintage that many winemakers believe will turn out to be a sleeper for Cabernet Sauvignon.

After tasting through as many 2002 Cabernet Sauvignons as we can get our hands on, I believe 2002 will not be a secret for too long. It reminds me of 1991, which also started out as an overlooked, slow-to-evolve vintage that followed an ultra-ripe, flashy year. In trying to pinpoint the differences between 2001 and 2002, Doug Shafer of Shafer Vineyards explains: ‘The 2002s have great colour, distinctive ripeness, and a noticeable masculine-type firmness to their structure and texture. They don’t seem to have the fat/juicy texture of the 2001s. Instead, we notice more of a streamlined, ripe and racy texture with some wonderfully firm tannins.’

In fact, 2002 may change the way many international wine lovers think about California Cabernet Sauvignon. The finest and most typical wines avoid that juicy-jammy opulent style that is so obvious but often lets you down in the finish. Every now and then a vintage comes along in California – and I am reminded of 1985 and 1991 – that shifts the style of Cabernet Sauvignon towards muscular and balanced wines with good acidity. In other words, 2002 Cabernet from California will appeal more to the European palate, which appreciates wines that age slowly, than to those seeking blockbuster, over-the-top wines.

THE GROWiNG SEASON

In Napa, Sonoma and other parts of the North Coast, the winter months were relatively warm and dry. There was frost damage in April, and in late May rains occurred. However, in general it was the dry winter rather than the May rains that contributed to small berries and small clusters. June temperatures were moderate, and as one winemaker explains: ‘Low morning temperatures seemed to follow throughout the summer. By August, it seemed as though we would not be harvesting until October. Then the weather pattern changed dramatically in September with high daytime temperatures and dry north winds.’ The Cabernet fruit went into a period of rapid increases in sugar concentration.

These hot spells accelerated ripening and caused many varieties to mature quickly, including Cabernet. By early September, Cabernet was beginning to be harvested. A second heat spike during harvest in September stressed the vines and dehydrated the berries slightly.

The picking of Cabernet continued until well into late October. What was unusual, says Tom Rinaldi of Provenance, was, ‘the absence of rain during the later stages of the harvest which allowed picking at optimal ripeness by giving the grapes extra hang time’. At nearby Caymus Vineyards, Chuck Wagner began picking his Cabernet vineyards the second week of September and continued to 25 October.

In Paso Robles and the Central Coast, the winter months were the driest in five years, which reduced the crop by about 20%. Following a cool spring, June, July and early August were the warmest over the last five years. This moderate mid-season weather pattern combined with early ‘veraison’ turned this year into a relatively long growing season.

Although the total tonnage of Cabernet Sauvignon harvested was large, the yields in the coastal zones ranged from average to slightly below in 2002. Between 1997 and 1999, slightly fewer than 11,000 new hectares of Cabernet Sauvignon were planted in California, and many of these new vineyards added to the overall quantity harvested in 2001 and 2002.

THE WINEMAKERS’ view

‘The only trick for this vintage of Cabernet was: patience! Good things come to those who wait.’ Winemaker Dean Sylvester of Whitehall Lane in Napa continues: ‘This year it was all about waiting. We waited even when other winemakers and growers were harvesting their fruit.’

Bill Knuttel who moved from Chalk Hill Vineyards to Dry Creek Vineyards during the year echoes the same sentiments about Sonoma County. ‘Those of us that kept our cool in early September realised the sugars were there but not the flavour or tannin development. We harvested most of the Cabernet in the first two weeks of October. By then, sugar levels actually stabilised, and a normal ripening pattern set in. The fruit had excellent colour and substantial tannins.’

Craig Williams with Joseph Phelps noted that after the September heatwave, ‘flavour development varied from vineyard to vineyard. We tried not to rush to harvest because we saw shrivelling in some blocks.’

In Paso Robles, the J Lohr Winery reports that in 2002, ‘it became a tense waiting game for us as the fruit moved towards full development.’ Neighbour Justin Vineyards adds: ‘Harvesting this year had to be selective, and so we made picking decisions based on phenolic ripeness and grape maturity.’

Even for those with patience, it was by no means an easy vintage. In the vineyards, ‘2002 will go down as a labour-intensive, low-yield year,’ notes Rosemary Cakebread at Spottswoode.

2002 character

The best 2002s have more acid balance, firmer structure, and a sense of grip that is rarely encountered in California Cabernet. They are also fragrant with floral and cedar notes accompanying the usual blackberry, cherry and berry character. The most positive news was that there are few jammy, overripe wannabe blockbusters.

The unusual side of 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon is neatly summarised by Doug Shafer: ‘The 2002s, as a group, are big, firm and delicious. Currently overshadowed by the popular 2001 vintage, we feel 2002 is every bit as good.’ Craig Williams of Joseph Phelps supports this view: ‘In fact, the 2002 vintage selectively produced wines of greater concentration than 2001. The Bordeaux varieties, in particular, are very strong with excellent tannins, colour and length. Although ripeness led to slightly higher alcohol, the wines have compelling flavour and depth. I like this vintage; in time it will perhaps rival 2001 and is certainly the best vintage for our Backus Vineyard since we began our redevelopment in 1998.’

REGIONAL TRENDS

Backus Vineyard is located in Oakville, a region turning out superbly flavoured, multi-layered Cabernets in 2002. In addition to the Phelps Backus, the superstars of 2002 from the Oakville District include Screaming Eagle, Maya, Merryvale, Plumpjack, Groth, Provenance and Robert Mondavi Winery. Given the turmoil at the Mondavi winery over the last year, the irony is that Mondavi’s 2002 Oakville Cabernet and its Private Reserve, made largely from Oakville, are superb Cabernets, the winery’s finest in several vintages.

From Rutherford, the 2002 from Pine Ridge Winery is right on the money with the beautiful ripe fruit and solid tannins that one can look forward to from this region. The perennial leaders in this area are Beaulieu Vineyard, Caymus, Niebaum-Coppola, Staglin Family and Flora Springs. Among the newcomers that bear watching are Provenance and Hewitt, both part of Chalone, as well as Sawyer and Sullivan. For the second consecutive year, the Provenance Rutherford Cabernet seems more complex and more interesting than the heavier, brooding Provenance Oakville Cabernet.

Shafer, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Hartwell and Silverado Vineyard indicate that 2002 Cabernets from the Stags Leap District will offer considerably more depth of flavour to go along with the typical supple tannins. They may demand more time to evolve but should also age extremely well. Clos du Val, Chimney Rock and newcomer Cliff Lede performed well in 2001 and their 2002 Cabernets could be exceptional.

Producers working within the Alexander Valley appellation continue to carve out a niche for their Cabernets. Simi’s 2002 Alexander Valley Cabernet is ripe and powerful but drinkable early on. Chateau Souverain, Geyser Peak, Murphy-Goode, Robert Young, Rodney Strong and Sebastiani are the other big guns here.

GOOD DEALS

Because so much Cabernet fruit was crushed in 2002 following the 2001 vintage, one can expect good values on the market. Sure enough, the delicious 2002 Cabernets from Gallo of Sonoma and Kendall-Jackson’s Vintners Reserve line have raised the standards. Plus the Ravenswood with some Lodi fruit and Estancia from Paso Robles indicate the bargains will be wonderfully competitive.

THE best of 2002

Caymus Vineyards, Napa Valley

Concentrated, ripe fruit; layered flavours with lavish spicy oak. 5–15 years. £46.20 (2001); WTr

Hartwell Vineyards, Stags Leap District, Napa Valley

Intense, ripe blackberry fruit with cedar, supple, long. 4–10 years £64.42 (1998); VCe

Pride Mountain, Napa Valley

Exotic spices, intense, ripe, mouthfilling flavours. 5–12 years. $65. N/A UK; +1 707 963 j4949

Provenance, Rutherford, Napa Valley

Dark, muscular style, minerals, spice, and cedar; solid. 3–15 years. $45. N/A UK; +1 707 968 3633

Robert Mondavi Winery, Reserve, Napa Valley

Deep blackberry, violets and cinnamon spice. Superb balance. 4–10 years. £53.50 (1999); Her

Signorello Vineyards, Padrone, Estate Bottled, Napa Valley

Awesome black fruits, cedar, tobacco and spice; rich texture. 6–20 years. $100. N/A UK; +1 707 255 5990

Silverado Vineyards, Stags Leap District, Napa Valley

Ripe currants, berries, supple, elegant. 3–8 years. N/A UK; +1 707 257 1770

Spottswoode, Napa Valley Estate

Refined blackberry, cassis with light oak spice; poised and polished. 3–10 years. £35.25 (2001); DDi

Whitehall Lane, Reserve, Napa Valley

Lovely plush fruit; oaked, but integrated and long. 5–12 years. $70. N/A UK; +1 800 963 9454

Corison Winery, Napa Valley

Cassis and blackberry, soft grained tannins, multi-layered, classic structure. 4–10 years. N/A UK; DDi

Justin Vineyard, Justification, Paso Robles

Elegant and round, blueberry, spicy flavours, big palate. 2–6 years. £18.75 (2000); C&R

Kendall-Jackson, Highland Estates, Napa Mountain

Tight cassis, earthy nose; immense and deep, layered flavours. 5–15 years. $45. N/A UK; KJa

Lail Vineyard, J Daniel Cuvée, Napa Valley

Blueberry, toast, mocha, dried herbs, elegant style, long. 2–10 years. £45.58 (2000); VCe

Pine Ridge, Rutherford, Napa Valley

Compact, rich fruit; sturdy structure, great length. 4–8 years. £40 (1998); Vet

Provenance, Oakville, Napa Valley

Deep blackcurrant, full palate; tight, briary. 3–12 years. $45. N/A UK; +1 707 968 3633

Ramey, Claret, Napa Valley

Lovely wine with gentle black fruit flavours and balance. Up to 5 years. $36. N/A UK; M&V

Robert Mondavi Winery, Oakville District, Napa Valley

Black cherry, earthy; medium, supple, layered flavours. 4–8 years. £23.40 (1998); Her

Rutherford Hill, Napa Valley

Concentrated black fruits; big and brooding flavours; tight. 5–10 years. £24.99; Cbt, Evy, FiW

Shafer Vineyards, Napa Valley

Cassis, loamy, wild berry, tight, light tannin, lovely long finish. 3–7 years. £36 (2001); N&P

Silverado Vineyards, Napa Valley

Pure black fruit, cedar, fennel. Supple, elegant, soft tannins. 3–10 years. $32. N/A UK; +1 707 257 1770

Signorello Vineyards, Napa Valley

Concentrated, firm, ripe blackberry, cedar, mocha; long. 5-10 years. $48. N/A UK; +1 707 255 5990

Simi Winery, Alexander Valley

Plush blackberry fruit, leathery and fresh herb notes 2–6 years. £11.99–12 95 (2000); For, SWS

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Artemis, Napa Valley

Earthy, black cherry and truffle; supple with light tannins. Up to 5 years. £31.70 (2001); WTr

Sullivan Vineyards, Napa Valley

Blackberries, leathery, truffle; big and round.

2–10 years. $50. N/A UK; +1 877 244 7337

Terra Valentine, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley

Ripe and sturdy, with plenty of depth and extract; big style. 4–12 years. $35. N/A UK; +1 707 967 8340

Viader Vineyard, Napa Valley

Fragrant, blueberry, anise, and leathery notes. Fabulous texture. Up to 10 years. £30 (2000); C&R

Whitehall Lane, Napa Valley

Poised, lovely charming fruit; supple, long

3–7 years. $40. N/A UK; +1 800 963 9454

10 best value

Gallo of Sonoma, Sonoma County

£9.98 (1997); HBJ

Kendall Jackson Vineyards, Vintners Reserve, California

£9.95; Msn, Som, SWS

Ravenswood, Vintners Blend, California

$10. N/A UK; +1 707 933 2332

Pedroncelli Winery, Dry Creek Valley, Three Vineyards

$17. N/A UK; +1 800 836 3894

J Lohr, Seven Oaks Vineyard, Paso Robles

£13.38 (2001); Evy

Dynamite, North Coast

$17. N/A UK; +1 707 254 4200

Estancia, Paso Robles

£11.32; Evy

Hahn Vineyards, Central Coast

£9.66; Evy

Echelon, Central Coast

$12. N/A UK; +1 707 254 4200

Liberty School, California

$10. N/A UK; +1 805 238 6979

Norm Roby is co-author of the best-selling New Connoisseur’s Handbook of Californian Wine (Knopff).

Written by Norm Roby