Californian Cabernet

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  • Friday 1 April 2011

The rise of the Californian Cabernet

Californian Cabernet

The comments of Decanter’s panellists after their tasting of California’s 2007 Cabernet Sauvignons (February 2011 issue), and the wines themselves, raise some obvious questions.

Firstly, is the elegant style of the 2007s an indication of a trend away from the overripe, heavily oaked, solidly tannic Cabernets we’ve seen only too often from California in the past two or three decades, or just a vintage aberration?

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, what defines the character and style of a typical Californian Cabernet anyway, given that some of the tasters found the 2007s ‘untypical’ of the state’s wines?

Californian Cabernet will always be richer than a Cabernet Sauvignon-based wine from Bordeaux, but its style has been evolving for as long as I can recall.

Certainly since an extended surge of planting of the grape in the 1970s, prompted not only by the success of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973 at the Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976, but also by the commercial and critical success of other Cabernets of that decade.

Robert Mondavi’s Reserve 1974 (for years a benchmark for other producers), Joseph Phelps ’75, Caymus ’76, and Shafer ’78 immediately come to mind – they have all aged beautifully too.

These are superb wines, with finesse and balance in a tradition going back to the pre-Prohibition era. (And let us not forget that tiny Liparita winery on Howell Mountain in Napa took a gold medal for its Cabernet in Paris in 1900 – then, too, in competition with Bordeaux.)

The dramatic success of these and other Cabernet Sauvignons led to a rapid extension of vineyards in Napa Valley and elsewhere. As newly planted Cabernet vineyards spread into areas with the kind of marginal conditions that produce fine wines the world over, the word ‘vintage’ acquired a new resonance, forcing growers to pay more attention to the circumstances of their location and to the conditions of each year rather than allow routine to guide them.

In 1983, for example, low acids and low sugars presented many growers with a totally unfamiliar problem. In California, growers are allowed to adjust acidity, but are forbidden to add sugar – the opposite of the practice in France.

That’s partly why grape sugar levels loom large for many of them: they have to live with what they pick. But it was also a legacy of the long years of recovery from Prohibition in which grape growing and winemaking followed separate tracks.

The grape grower was paid on tonnage and the degree of sugar in the grapes – there was no other measure of quality.

John Trefethen, of Trefethen Vineyards in Napa, told me in 1983 that sugar was not his chief concern when deciding to pick. He picked according to flavour and acidity. He said he found that sugar, and the consequent alcohol level, fell into a natural balance if the acidity was right.

Napa’s Cathy Corison has also always picked on her assessment of the fruit’s acidity. Ed Killian, of Souverain in Sonoma County, says everyone wants maturity and good flavour, but serious producers have always paid closer attention to balance among the elements of a wine rather than simply the measure of one or the other.

In fact, the best Californian producers have been saying the same thing for more than 40 years: balance is everything. And the most obvious quality of the 2007 Californian Cabernets is their balance.

Changes in the vineyards accelerated after Phylloxera struck in 1980. The vigorous AxR rootstocks that had allowed the heavy cropping of vines planted 3.5m apart were not resistant enough.

Growers who had used them lost their vines and were forced to replant. They did so circumspectly and with regard for quality. ‘If it [Phylloxera] had to come,’ said Andy Beckstoffer, a key independent Napa grower, ‘it came at the right time.’

The biggest change was that the preoccupation with balance was passing from winery to vineyard, and those who really wanted it could at last find it there.

Yet although some impressive, balanced wines were made, finesse did not make the impact that neophytes needed to jolt their attention.

Instead, there was a wave of praise for anything excessive. And as Bill Knuttel, winemaker at Dry Creek Vineyards in Sonoma, told me, the same changes that made higher quality possible – less vigorous rootstocks, low-bearing clones planted more densely, controlled canopy so that every leaf was a sun-panel – in turn made it easier for those who wanted to make wines in this high-rating style.

‘For them,’ he said, ‘the vines were just very effective sugar making machines. The problem,’ he went on, ‘is that the huge wines that result do not age and they don’t go well with food.

One has to ask if they have any purpose at all other than to score points and give all concerned bragging rights.’

Even before ratings became a problem, panels of judges and publishers of newsletters (no bloggers yet) – many of whom, though eager to share their enthusiasm, often had a narrower experience of wine’s place in the world than those who rushed to accept their judgments – were encouraging the massive over the graceful, the one-dimensional over the multilayered, and preaching the superiority of bold, primary fruit over the subtlety that promises the development of bouquet.

As a result, commercial pressure was put on Californian producers, particularly those of Cabernet Sauvignon, to make ‘bigger’ wines.

To them, oak – the heavier the better – gave any wine a premium. Their greatest sin, without doubt, was to foster the illusion that overripe fruit and heavy tannin were a guarantee that a wine would age, never explaining what the passing years should (and would) bring to either the tannin or the wine.

They gave licence for the production of wines by manipulation and high extraction that they then praised and promoted.

Most winemakers recognised all this for what it was. They understood that the pleasure of a balanced wine was at the bottom of the glass (to enjoy it, you had to let it unfold as you drank it).

But because such wines were not made to overwhelm, the medals and high scores went to wines they themselves might have been embarrassed to produce.

The 100-point ratings, arriving in the mid to late ’80s, increased the pressure to satisfy the new tastemakers.

‘I remember attending meetings of the local winemakers’ tech group in the 1990s,’ says Ted Edwards of Napa’s Freemark Abbey (another success at the 1976 Paris Tasting).

‘The subject of dealing with the ratings frequently came up. There was pressure on all of us to raise our wines’ ratings. It had nothing to do with our professional judgment or competence.’ And, alas, to keep their jobs, or, as small producers, to survive economically, many of them were obliged to swallow their qualms.

Increasingly though, producers have worked towards emphasising the distinction of their wines, focusing on the unique qualities of their vineyards.

They can’t do that and simultaneously impose on them the straitjacket of ‘international style’. And consumers are tired of drinking what is virtually the same wine all the time.

‘In California’s climate,’ says Ray Signorello, of Signorello Estate in Napa, ‘our wines will always be more opulent than those of Bordeaux.
That’s who we are. But those qualities should be restrained, not exaggerated, to better allow the essence of the wine – of the vineyard – to shine.’

‘Tannin serves a purpose,’ Napa’s Mike Benziger adds. ‘It gives a wine verticality and structure when allied to correct acidity. It’s the interplay between the two that creates interest in a wine. Consumers see that in wines they drink from other countries and they look for it in Californian wines, too.”

John Priest, of Etude in Napa, goes further. ‘Restaurants and stores stock the highly rated wines because they still have to. But the restaurateurs themselves and the store owners have gained in experience along with their clientele. They recommend what they know will give most pleasure. Consumers are receptive to what they say. They have discovered the same thing for themselves.’

Many producers have always ignored the ratings, sometimes at considerable cost. Consumers who appreciate their wines found them anyway, and they developed their own loyal following.

But now most producers are aware of this growing trend and its effect on the significance of ratings. They know that a high rating can send more than one message.

Mark Lyon, winemaker at Sebastiani in Sonoma’s Alexander Valley, and responsible for the top-scoring (19.17pts/20) Cabernet in Decanter’s 2007 panel tasting, reminded me that had he even tried to make wines to suit the tastes of those who hand out the school prizes, he would have ended up with a wine that was not only unrepresentative of Sonoma’s inherent character, but unbalanced and difficult to enjoy.

‘Sonoma is cooler than Napa,’ he said. ‘Our wines have a natural delicacy and we have to protect that quality and enhance it.’
All will not change overnight, but the direction is clear.

The circumstances of the 2007 vintage gave Californian winemakers every encouragement (were any needed) to produce wines that reflect truly the state’s inherent style – there was no quirky or problem weather for which they had to compensate.

The pressure to conform to someone else’s idea of what their wines should be is easing. Decanter’s panel can be assured, as can Decanter’s readers, that the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignons, far from being atypical, are excellent examples of what Californian Cabernet should be, and give a clear signal that the state’s winemakers are reasserting themselves.

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