Cults and Icons: Cabernet versus Merlot

I’ve just started the research for a book on Cabernet Sauvignon, which I’m calling Claret & Cabs to emphasize the comparison between the classic style of Bordeaux and the New World style. A large part of the book will focus on Bordeaux and Napa Valley, but I plan to try to identify interesting Cabernet Sauvignons made elsewhere, especially from regions that aren’t well known. I suspect that this will be a more difficult task than it was for Pinot Noir in my last book, and I wonder whether that is because Cabernet is less of a terroir grape than Pinot, so style is more determined by the winemaker, giving power to the big battalions rather than to small producers exploiting unusual terroir niches. Anyway, that’s a topic for a future blog.

Another difference between Pinot and Cabernet is that cult wines are much less a feature of the world of Pinot. Are cult wines concentrated on Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah, rather than Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo, and Sangiovese because the first group can give heavily extracted, powerfully intense wines, whereas the second group is more about delicacy? (Is this a metaphor for the state of the modern world?)

Claret & Cabs will conclude with a chapter on Cults and Icons, and I’ve spent the last few days trying to decide what makes a wine qualify. The First Growths of Bordeaux clearly have iconic status, in fact they’ve had it ever since, indeed before, the 1855 classification. One question I will ask is whether that has always been justified. The other question is which other chateaux should be included – the super-seconds perhaps? One noticeable feature of the list, however it exactly comes out, is likely to be that it consists exclusively of major chateaux.

This is a big contrast with the situation in Napa Valley, where the majority of cult wines are based on the managed scarcity of tiny production runs. It’s not quite so easy to define the cult wines here. In Bordeaux, you can pretty much rely on the relative pricing, which has a structure firmed up by the last couple of centuries of distribution through the restrictive practices of the Place de Bordeaux (essentially the local market of negociants).  Consistent pricing is not so readily available for Napa Valley, but whether you define cult wines by taking a slice at the top price tier, say over $250 per bottle, or in terms of Parker points, a feature in either case is that production is often under 1000 cases, sometimes only 300-500 cases. (The correlation between pricing and critics’ scores, for which I take the Wine Advocate as definitive, is more distant for Bordeaux than it is for Napa, presumably because the 1855 classification and other historical factors have a greater influence, and indeed I shall look at this in a future blog.)

In any case, the fairest comparison for the cult wines of Napa Valley might be more with the limited production garage wines of the right bank of Bordeaux than with the great chateaux of the left bank. But the garage wines are virtually all Merlot, either monovarietal or heavily dominated by it. (Is the lack of garage wines on the left bank due to the fact that the chateaux there are so successful already they feel no need for them?) Since the book is specifically on Cabernet Sauvignon, however, I’m going to have to compare the top wines of the left bank with top wines of Napa. Should I use simple criteria of price or critical scores or should I filter the results by demanding a certain scale of production? At the height of the craze for garage wines, a producer on the right bank who was not participating, said to me, “it’s easy enough to produce high quality wine on a miniscule scale by using all the tricks of viticulture and vinification, but the real issue is to get quality wine when you have tens of hectares to cultivate.” I’m still struggling with the issue of whether wines that are only available on limited mailing lists, indeed where you can see the inheritance of a place on the list being fought over, should be regarded in the same light as wines in general distribution that anyone can buy. Some time in the next few months I have to decide on my criteria for including wines in the final chapter: all suggestions welcome.

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