Cabernet hat-trick

Cabernet hat-trick People & Places Articles
  • Monday 1 September 2003

The start of the new millennium marked a golden era for California Cabernet Sauvignon. gerald d boyd assesses the quality of three great vintages – 2000, 2001 and 2002

The start of the new millennium marked a golden era for California Cabernet Sauvignon. gerald d boyd assesses the quality of three great vintages – 2000, 2001 and 2002

In the early 1970s, at the dawn of the wine revolution in California, its advocates were uniformly bullish. 'Every year is a great vintage in California!' was the understated boast. Time and the vagaries of weather constantly disproved the claim, until along came the year 2000, swiftly followed by 2001 and 2002.

Sports fans call it a hat trick. Horse racing aficionados refer to a trifecta. In California, winemakers – especially those dealing in reds – call three consecutive great vintages just plain luck. Across the globe, weather patterns may be wholly unpredictable, but Mother Nature has been kind to Californian Cabernet Sauvignon growers for three years in a row.

GLORIOUS YEARS

In its annual harvest report, the Napa Valley Vintners Association described the 2000 vintage as a classic for red wines. 'This is the kind of growing season that has made the Napa Valley famous,' says Cathy Corison, winemaker at Corison Winery.

The following year, a hot May and June, and a cooler July and August prompted Napa winemakers to trot out the superlatives for a second year running. '[2001 was] another glorious year in Napa,' says Chris Madrigal of Madrigal Vineyard Management.

By 2002, winemakers were pinching themselves. Scott McLeod, at Niebaum-Coppola, describes the reds as 'big monsters, wines you have to wait for. They're similar to the big reds from 1992, but I believe the 2002s are the wines to watch.'

While the Napa community is unanimous in lauding all three years, opinion is split when it comes to ranking the three. Though McLeod tentatively opts for 2002 as the potential stand-out, he is fulsome in his praise for its immediate predecessors. He describes the 2001 wines as showing a sweet spot 'as elegant and gorgeous as the 1997s, though I don't think they will be as long-lived'. By comparison, the 2000s are 'big and tannic and very deeply coloured – similar to the reds from 1993.'

Corison backs up the verdict, recalling the 2000 grapes coming into the winery with 'excellent colour, fully developed flavours and great acidity'. Gary B. Brookman, the winemaker at Miner Family Vineyards in Oakville, adds that the 2000 Cabernets are more 'Bordeaux-like,' with big, chewy flavours and full, ripe tannins.

2001 edges ahead

But in general, it's the 2001s that leave Napa's finest drooling. Whether the litany of praise comes from a large or a small winery, the enthusiasm doesn't vary. 'The wines are thick, concentrated and very fruit forward with a sweet impression from the grape tannins,' says Brookman. 'The quality is awesome,' adds Madrigal. Beringer's Ed Sbragia rates the 2001 Cabernets as 'stellar – the best since 1991 and 1987.' He ranks 2002 as a very good vintage, 'but not on the level of quality of 2001'.

Taking a slightly different tack is Sbragia's counterpart at another of Napa's oldest wineries. Joel Aiken, of Beaulieu Vineyard, reckons the 2001 reds are 'huge, [but] without the big tannins'. 2002, for Cabernet Sauvignon, will be even bigger he reckons, with their deep colours and great tannic backbones. Another advocate of the juicy 2002 Cabernets is Genevieve Janssens, director of winemaking for Robert Mondavi. '2002 was a difficult harvest for us and I was a little concerned about the wines, but now they taste gorgeous,' she says. But for Janssens, who is constantly striving to make red wines that complement food, the 2001 Cabernets are closest to hitting that mark.

'2001 was a beautiful vintage and the wines are very big, with strong tannins.' As for 2000, she says the wines are 'very fruity and approachable and by no means a light vintage.' But she adds, '2000 was followed by two stronger vintages for Cabernet Sauvignon, so the wines are sometimes over-shadowed.'

Across the Mayacamas Mountains, in Sonoma County, vintage assessments for Cabernet Sauvignon are pretty similar. Rick Sayre, winemaker for Rodney Strong Vineyards in the Alexander Valley, says the 2000 vintage was more challenging than 2001 or 2002. 'Up-and-down temperatures caused rapid sugar accumulation without proper tannin maturity and the better wines were made from fruit left a little longer on the vine,' Sayre says. 'Although the 2001 crop was down a little in Sonoma County, after September the harvest was slow and steady, producing fully mature Cabernets with ripe tannins and concentrated flavours.' As for 2002, Sayre reckons the growing season was not much different to 2001. The wines have very good maturity and flavours, he says 'but [are] maybe not as concentrated as the Cabernets from 2001.'

Show me the money

2001's class is backed up by commercial evidence. According to Nick Frey of Sonoma County Grape Growers, grape prices fell slightly in 2002, with the average price for Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon at $2,689 a tonne. Further, yields were slightly below the 2001 county average. Meanwhile, the Mendocino Winegrowers Alliance's assessments of 2000 and 2001 – the only two available – are equally encouraging: 'Vintage 2000 is one of the best in the past decade, with fully ripened Cabernet Sauvignon, while the 2001 wines are rich in colour, flavour, body and alcohol; very impressive.'

With three highly-regarded and mostly bountiful harvests either on the market or awaiting release, the question is one of impact on the considerable surplus of wine, a problem which many say is compounded by a weak economy. If these three vintages don't help to improve the outlook, nothing will. Gerald D Boyd is a wine writer for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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