Can Californian Cabernet Sauvignon improve with age? At first glance, it’s a debate that seems to have been settled...

When the famous 1976 Judgement of Paris tasting was re-enacted thirty years later, it was Ridge Vineyards’ 1971 Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon that triumphed, with California wines claiming all top-five places: a conclusive victory over their Bordelais rivals. While older Californian wines were bargains not so long ago, they now command eye-popping prices and grace north America’s most glamorous wine lists. Napa Valley’s PRESS Restaurant in particular boasts an enviable selection, stretching back to the 1950s. Mature Californian Cabernet, in short, is almost painfully fashionable.

But as I tasted two Napa Cabernets last week, I found myself pondering the question of Californian wines’ aging potential afresh. One was Heitz Cellar’s 1975 Martha’s Vineyard; the other Chateau Montelana’s 1975 North Coast bottling. Both were youthful wines: rich ruby-black in hue, scarcely browning at the rim, and with no trace of oxidation. In that sense, both were aging formidably: testimony to the quality of what was arguably Napa’s vintage-of-the-decade.

But in other respects, the wines were entirely different. The Heitz was a monument, marrying profound complexity, power and poise. Rich aromas of black cherry, cigar ash and Martha’s Vineyard’s telltale mint expatiated for hours in the decanter. By comparison the Montelena, while technically sound, was unmemorable: simple and monolithic, with none of the complexity and dimension this estate can attain at its best.

When these bottles were comparatively inexpensive, ‘eighty per cent of success’, as Woody Allen once put it, was simply ‘showing up’. Merely demonstrating longevity was in itself an achievement. Now that they command higher tariffs and bigger reputations, it’s appropriate to hold these older Californian wines to higher standards. It’s time, it seems to me, to be a bit less romantic. After all, the 1975 Montelena Cabernet would set you back a cool $425 from the wine list at PRESS.

The contrast between the Heitz and the Montelena also underscored what a minefield older California wines can be. At many addresses, house styles and cellar practices have varied widely from year to year. What’s more, in the late 1980s phylloxera devastated California’s vineyards, reducing viticulture to a blank slate. New clones and rootstocks came onto the scene. And by the mid-1990s, many of California’s winemakers had also started picking later: pursuing ripeness, sometimes to extremes. With so many shifting parameters, it’s hard to know what to expect.

A 50th anniversary vertical tasting of the Robert Mondavi Winery’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon earlier this year offered a window onto how Napa as a whole has changed since the region’s pioneer days. The 1966 Mondavi Unfined Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, macerated on skins for only five days; the 1998 Reserve, its successor bottling, for a full thirty-seven. And whereas in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Napa Valley grapevines grew free-standing and unkempt, their fruit shaded by sprawling canopies, by the mid-1990s, Mondavi was pioneering low-pruned trellising systems modelled on Bordelais practice. These represent dramatic differences.

To the casual observer, however, the most obvious changes may be in ripeness and levels of new oak. Mondavi seem to have discovered high toast barrels around 1981, and some of the vintages of the ‘80s and ‘90s bear an obvious oak signature: coffee ground and vanilla. When it comes to ripeness, as winemaker Geneviève Janssens puts it, the Reserve has ‘gained a degree every decade’. Whereas the vintages of the ‘60s and ‘70s seldom weigh in above 13%, in the new millennium 15% alcohol is routine.

Such dynamism can translate to rapid progress, with quality improving leaps and bounds; on the other hand, runs of success can be short-lived, and one-hit wonders abound. What’s certain is that it makes extrapolating from one vintage to another a perilous exercise. So how to increase your chances of success when choosing an older California Cabernet?

The obvious answer is to buy by producer. A handful of California’s winemakers have been a model of consistency, and their wines are always satisfying. As Philip Togni, prominent among them, explains: ‘I’ve always felt that if one finds an approach that works, and which your customers like, then you should be very cautious about making changes’. Along with Togni, look to Ridge Vineyards, Heitz Cellar, Forman Vineyard, Dominus Estate, Diamond Creek, Corison Winery and Dunn Vineyards for producers with a proven track record and stable style. These are producers that succeed by design, not by accident.

But if you want to take a risk on an unknown name, then the decade to look to is the 1970s. A run of excellent vintages coincided with an era of simple, rough-and-ready winemaking, producing long-lived wines of authority and character. Some, like the 1975 Martha’s Vineyard I enjoyed last week, are world-class. That anything less feels like a disappointment is testament to how our expectations for California Cabernet have changed since the wines of the ‘70s were made.

Five ageing Cabernet Sauvignons to try

Heitz Cellar, Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley 1981

This underrated vintage of Martha’s Vineyard is a real classic, bursting from the decanter and glass in a blaze of black cherry, mint chocolate and cigar ash. Rich, intense and youthful, with a deep core of refined tannin and bright acidity. Worth the price of admission. 95/100.

Drink 2016-2030

Alc 13.50%

Ridge Vineyards, Monte Bello, Santa Cruz Mountains 1992

The 1992 Monte Bello is vivid and youthful, bursting from the glass with a bouquet of briary blackberry and wild plum fruit, with nuances of cedar and leather.  On the palate the wine is equally vibrant: firm at the core, with a long, persistent finish. A rather more rustic vintage than the suave 1991, but a very compelling Monte Bello. 94   

Drink: 2016-2030

Alc 13.5%

Philip Togni Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain District 2005

The Togni family’s 2005 is one of their more approachable recent vintages, with an already expressive bouquet of cassis, red berries, bay laurel, cedar and rich soil, and a supple, intense and elegantly refined palate impression. An excellent classically-styled Cabernet. 94

Drink: 2016-2035

Alc 13.9%

UK

£51 Cru

Dunn Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain 1991

The 1991 is a classic rendition of Dunn’s mighty Howell Mountain cuvée, famed for its fearsome structure and capacity to defy time. A bouquet of blackcurrant, graphite and medicinal Howell Mountain spice introduces a youthful, savoury and powerful wine which retains a serious girdle of tannin and acidity. Decanting recommended. 94

Drink: 2016-2035

Alc 13.0%

Dominus Estate, Napanook Vineyard, Napa Valley 1992

The 1992 Dominus is gorgeous, bursting from the glass in a blaze of mentholated black cherries, loamy soil and forest floor, and following through on the palate with a compelling marriage of bright fruit and a supple, expansive texture. The cooler vintage has made for a great deal of aromatic complexity and capacity to refresh, without losing any Napa generosity. Delicious wine. 93  

Drink: 2016-2025

Alc 13.5%

UK

£120 Cru