I Wish They All Could Be Californian

California Cabernets Cal Cabs ageing People & Places Articles
  • Friday 16 February 2007

It was always assumed that Bordeaux aged better than California – until the 30-years-on Paris tasting this May, when old Californians outshone ageing Bordelais. So will today’s concentrated, alcoholic Californian Cabs go the distance, asks Beverley Blanning MW

It was always assumed that Bordeaux aged better than California – until the 30-years-on Paris tasting this May, when old Californians outshone ageing Bordelais. So will today’s concentrated, alcoholic Californian Cabs go the distance, asks Beverley Blanning MW

A new Decanter poll. Who will age more gracefully, Californian sunshine girls, or chic filles bordelaises? Ah, those lucky French women… with their haute couture, and general je ne sais quoi only bestowed on those born French. Of course they will age better. Those poor American girls have to rely on make-up, surgery and some book called Why French Women Don’t Get Fat. Forgive the analogy; I’m talking, of course, about wine, not women (I fear I’ve been brainwashed by too many French winemakers telling me their wine is like a beautiful woman).

Few would have predicted that 30-year-old Californian wines could beat the best of Bordeaux in May’s re-run of the Paris tasting, first organised by Steven Spurrier in 1976. Against this backdrop, and with excitement running high in the US, there has never been a better time to taste old California Cabernet. So I did.

The results of the May tasting came as a shock to many a proud Frenchman, but forward-thinking Christian Moueix was not one of them. The owner of Château Pétrus had long since considered the question of how California’s Cabernets might age when, back in the early 1980s, he was trying to decide whether or not to invest in a new estate in Napa. He says: ‘My teacher at Davis [the winemaking school of the University of California] gave me a blind tasting to compare Inglenook Estate and Château Pétrus, from the 1952, 1953 and 1959 vintages. I preferred the Inglenook 1952, the Pétrus 1953, and ranked the two 1959s equally.’ The following day, he bought Dominus Estate, ‘completely reassured’.

That Left Bank style

In the 1980s, Bordeaux was the model for Cabernet in California. Moueix comments: ‘People had high expectations of me – but they were disappointed. I had no experience of making Cabernet in California. I only knew how to make Merlot in Bordeaux.’ He soon discovered for himself that Bordeaux methods don’t necessarily work in California. He explains: ‘We started out reducing yields. But low yields give excessive concentration here. Our early vintages were too tannic.’ It didn’t take too many years before the wines were back on track, however. Dominus 1989 today shows a perfumed, cedary complexity not dissimilar to a claret of the same age. It has lovely weight of fruit and is developing nicely. The 1991 (according to Moueix, ‘a great vintage for Dominus’) is likewise a lovely, ripe, rich and textured wine, ageing beautifully.

The wines of old California often bear little resemblance to the wines being produced today. They were made to be lighter in body, to have leaner flavours and firmer structure – just like the wines of Bordeaux. Some of these old wines have aged very well, as the Paris tasting demonstrated. At a recent tasting, hosted by two of California’s most esteemed producers, Beaulieu Vineyard and Rubicon Estate, the old wines were impressive and showed fascinating diversity over the years. We tasted a range of wines, from 1947 onwards. One of the tasters was moved to tears simply from the aroma of the 1947 BV Napa Valley Cabernet. It was, indeed, amazing (my tasting notes indicate I was lost for words). But it was the 1968 BV, ‘a classical BV Cab,’ according to winemaker Joel Aiken, that wowed me. It looked a little weary in the glass, but was increasingly enticing in its aromas, and positively vibrant in the mouth. Not a wine to keep for years, but enormously enjoyable now.

The favourite of this tasting for me, though, was the 1985 Rubicon Estate. This was an outstanding wine. Still bursting with life (it should last easily another decade), it had fully evolved into a wonderfully balanced and complex wine, with a roasted meat, savoury, spicy character and a lingering, velvety finish. Winemaker Scott McLeod said: ‘We’ve never made a wine like that since.’ More’s the pity. He was referring to the unusually high proportion (26%) of Cabernet Franc in the blend, but also, perhaps, to the exceptional 1985 vintage.

Tasting old wine is always a special thing, but in the case of these Californian wines, there is more than just the story of the vintage in the glass; wines from the 1970s, 80s, and even early 90s were made in a style that has now all but disappeared. Even a producer like Robert Mondavi, which, in the words of winemaker Geneviève Janssens, is aiming for ‘classic, European-style Cabernet Sauvignon’ in the high-end Reserve wine, is making increasingly ripe, big wines in line with the current fashion.

In the last decade, there has been a strong trend towards greater ripeness in wines. This is a worldwide phenomenon, but it has been especially marked in California. Perhaps because the growing conditions allow it so easily, producers now pick grapes later than ever before (Bordeaux, in contrast, lives with the constant threat of rain during harvest, and its Cabernet rarely achieves the levels of ripeness attained in California). This added ripeness has resulted in wholesale changes in the flavour profile and structure of Californian Cabernet. Austerity has been replaced by lush, sweet fruit; chewy, dry tannins have melted almost to invisibility. The trend has been fuelled by the popularity among both critics and consumers of these big, soft, easy-to-drink wines.

There’s little doubt that the new styles of wine are more appealing when young. January’s Decanter panel tasting of 2002 California Cabernets was one of the most enjoyable I’ve attended in a long while, although I was happy not to have to drive home afterwards. The big uncertainty, though, is how they will age. The wines are high in alcohol (anything under 14% is a rarity) and low in acidity, and are so easy to drink now it’s hard to believe they will last. But according to McLeod, the ease of tasting these young wines belies their ageability: ‘We’re making bigger, richer, more tannic wines than ever before. They are more ageworthy than they’ve ever been, but they seem the opposite.’ Aiken agrees: ‘Wines have more tannins now, but everything is gentler. The wines are more intense.’

It’s reassuring that the winemakers have confidence in the future of these wines, but only time will tell if they are right. As Aiken admits ‘We don’t know how the wines will age; we’re working with different chemistry now.’ Whereas the wines from the past relied, at least in part, on their acidity to keep them fresh, today’s wines will need the padding of their ample, soft tannins to carry them into middle age.

Another big change in today’s wines is the high alcohol levels. It’s an issue everyone is aware of, but few people talk about. Tolerance of alcohol among producers appears to be rising pretty much in line with the figure on the label. The 2002 Rubicon Estate Red weighs in at 14.6%. It is a delicious wine now – but I wonder if, in 20 years’ time, it will have the beguiling elegance of its predecessor, the 1985, at 13.5%. Aiken says: ‘We’re aiming for concentration, and if we can get it at 14–15% alcohol, that would be great.’

Vintage value

As well as providing a taste of its vinous past, old California Cabernet can also be good value, particularly if you move away from the most highly rated vintages. If the older wines are hard to come by, there are also plenty of ‘lesser’ recent vintages that have produced some lovely wines. These are less strikingly brilliant than the likes

of 2001 and 1997, but are often more reminiscent of older-style wines and are usually eminently drinkable.

Good values can be found from the 1998 vintage (which was slammed by the US critics), or more recently, the 2000 vintage. These were both cooler years that produced lighter wines. Beau Barrett, owner of historic winery Chateau Montelena, says of his 2000: ‘We like it –

it’s not all jam’. He also points out that in cooler vintages, it is easier to taste the differences in soil types in the wine. I liked his 2000, too. It is a more structured style

of wine, with a certain smoky austerity

and slightly bitter, peppery, savoury profile – perhaps especially appealing to a

European palate. When choosing a recent vintage to put into the Paris re-run tasting in May, Paul Draper chose his 2000 Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet, on the grounds that its lighter style would be more easily confused with the French wines. At that time, he had thought they would be tasted side by side. In the event, his 2000 was tasted only against his Californian peers - but it still came out top.

For the results of Decanter’s 2003 California Cabernet tasting, look out for our January issue. Paul Draper and Christian Moueix will present a tutored tasting of their wines, Ridge Monte Bello and Dominus Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (including the 2000 Monte Bello), on 20 November in London. For booking details of this and other events organised by The Institute of Masters of Wine, contact:

Tel: +44 (0) 20 7621 2830

or mkelly@mastersofwine.org.

Ageing Gracefully: Blanning's Five Star Cal Cabs

Beaulieu Vineyards, Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1991

Mushroomy, smoky, complex. Palate fresh and vibrant, with meaty, earthy flavours. Long, silky finish. UK agent: J&B

Beaulieu Vineyards, Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1997

Dried meat, smoky aromas. Smooth, integrated, seamless style. Quite high alcohol and sweet fruit. Lovely. J&B

Chateau Montelena Estate, Cabernet Sauvignon 1992

Intense, liquorice, perfumed and floral aromas. Very fresh and alive, with lovely balance. Surprisingly youthful. Beautiful. VCl

Ridge Vineyards, Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon 1996

Fragrant, intense and complex, with some toasty, smoky evolution. Lovely freshness and length. Wonderful stuff. Adn, FMV, Han, Nsn

Robert Mondavi, Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 1997

Youthful, with lots of oak. Rich and ripe, with lovely depth and great complexity of flavour. Long, fine, very classy. Cln

Robert Mondavi, Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 1994

Aromatic and complex, with earthy sweetness. Firm, with more depth of fruit than suggested by the nose. Lovely length. Very together, still vigorous, with excellent balance. Cln

Rubicon Estate, Red 1985

Evolved, rich, roasted meat, peppery nose. Crisp, savoury palate. Very complex and long. Spicy, rich and velvety finish. Ivi

Shafer, Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon,

Napa Valley 1996

Youthful, oaky nose. Too young to drink. Long, juicy, masses of dense black fruit. Very good, plenty of substance. Nsn, ThH

Shafer, Stags Leap

District Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley 1991

Earthy and spicy, starting to evolve. Leathery, with some menthol/eucalyptus notes. Vibrant, ripe, but still fresh. Powerful but elegant, layers of flavour here. Nsn, ThH

For UK stockists, see p130.

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