Is Ripeness All in Cabernet Sauvignon

I’ve been mulling over the issue of ripeness as I begin the research for Claret & Cabs, because the issue seems to be exaggerated with Cabernet Sauvignon, and also with its parent Sauvignon Blanc, relative to other varieties. I think this is because they share the property that varietal character depends on production of pyrazines, in particular IBMP (3-isobutyl-2-methoxy-pyrazine for those technically inclined). Pyrazines form during vegetative growth, essentially during the period before veraison, and then are gradually destroyed by exposure to sunlight. People are very sensitive to them, which would have been an evolutionary advantage, as they are an indication of unripe fruit. IBMP gives Bordeaux its classic notes of bell peppers. This dramatic transition in flavor spectrum is not something I associate with most other varieties. With Pinot Noir, for example, there is certainly a change as the grapes pass from unripe, through ripe, to super ripe, and you see a transition from light, red acidic fruits to darker, riper, black fruits, but you don’t really see a whole flavor component completely disappearing. Is this why the “international style” has made more impact with Cabernet Sauvignon than with other varieties?

As the climate has got warmer, and as criteria for harvesting have moved to greater degrees of ripeness, the concentration of IBMP has fallen in Cabernet Sauvignon, and these days it’s quite rare to detect it in young Bordeaux. Indeed, if you mention the word “herbaceous” to a Bordeaux proprietor today, he is likely to take it as a personal insult. Herbaceousness has never been much of a character in Napa Valley Cabernet, which has always achieved a greater degree of ripeness, and I suspect that most Napa producers would actually regard it as flaw.

But have we lost something here? No one wants to go back to the days of vegetative wines – remember when they couldn’t ripen Cabernet in Monterey and the wines became known as Monterey veggies – but are the wines as interesting when they present simply a monotonic array of fruit flavors. “We need grapes that are cooked, roasted, and green; even this last is necessary; it improves in the cuve by fermenting with the others; it is this that brings liveliness to the wine,” said the Abbé Tainturier at Clos Vougeot almost three hundred years ago; I think he may have had a point. Isn’t there a key point in complexity in which the faintest, barely detectable, touch of herbaceousness brings a crucial element? Does pursuing maximum ripeness lead to optimum complexity?

Something that has been puzzling me lately is the apparent reversion to type of the 1982 Bordeaux vintage. When the wines were first bottled, they were full of lush fruits: you would have been hard put to detect herbaceousness. This is still true of the Chateau Latour, so fruit-bound, and with such with intense aromatics, that it just seems infanticide even to think of drinking of it. It won’t take fifty years to come around like the 1928, but it certainly isn’t ready yet (tasting note in Chateau Latour: Wines for the Ages). On the other hand, the Margaux has reverted to type, and I think the Lafite is about to do so. By reversion, I mean that some herbaceous notes are poking through the fruits, not at all obvious, indeed very subtle against the background of the fruit intensity, but bringing additional complexity. But where did they come from?

Pyrazines come from the grape (mostly from the skin, also from the stems if the grapes weren’t destemmed), and the concentration cannot have changed in the wine since bottling. It must be that as the tannins resolve, and the fruit concentration lightens, you begin to see pyrazines that were there all along but hidden by the fruit intensity. (So the supposed threshold for detection isn’t everything.) I must say that I did not see this coming until I detected faint herbaceous around year 2000 in the 1982 second growths. For me it’s an important contribution to complexity, so I’m puzzling over how to spot the potential in young vintages, which since 1982 have of course become even more intense in overt fruit concentration. Indeed, I wonder if and when they will go the same route as the 1982s.

 Château Margaux 1982

Has now reached a stage of perfection not to mention classicism. Developed black fruit nose has herbaceous overtones turning more distinctly to bell peppers in the glass. There’s a delicious balance of savory black fruits with a herbaceous catch on the finish. There has been a complete reversion to classical type from the lushness of the first decade, with a perfect offset between the black fruits of the palate and the herbaceous overtones of the finish.   96 Drink till 2022

Chateau Lafite Rothschild 1982

Still a dark color, although now garnet rather than purple. Black fruits are just beginning to show some development on the nose, with a hint of menthol, and a touch of austerity cutting the fruits. Typically very smooth on the palate with those layers of flavor typical of Lafite, in fact still quite youthful and fruit-driven. Tannins are now resolving but are very fine grained and ripe, the structure will keep this going for years. Smooth and elegant rather than voluptuous. 93 Drink till 2023

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