The Retarded Development of Cabernet Sauvignon

In Bordeaux it is axiomatic that Cabernet Sauvignon does not make a complete wine in itself but needs to be blended, most typically with Merlot, to fill out the mid palate. In California, opinion is quite polarized: some producers believe that Cabernet Sauvignon makes a complete wine in itself, others that full complexity requires blending. Because opinion is polarized, it’s rare to find a producer in California who makes both a monovarietal Cabernet Sauvignon and a blend, allowing the effects of blending to be seen directly. So I was delighted on a visit to Mount Eden in the Santa Cruz Mountains to discover that for some years they had produced both a monovarietal Cabernet Sauvignon and a blend. I was especially interested to see whether the relationship seemed the same in this environment as it had in Bordeaux, where I was able to compare some Cabernet Sauvignon that had been bottled alone with the final blend of the chateau (To Blend or Not to Blend).

The Mount Eden winery was originally the Martin Ray winery, and had some old plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon that originated with a selection brought from Margaux around 1900 (it is unclear whether the source was Chateau Margaux or the commune of Margaux). After Martin Ray left in 1970, this became the Mount Eden winery in 1972. There were several rapid changes in winemaker, until Jeffrey Patterson started making the wine in 1981; today he is the majority owner with his wife. The winery is a couple of miles up a dirt track up the mountain (the instructions said it was 2.2 miles, but driving up in sheeting rain earlier this week, it felt much longer), at a height of about 2000 foot, overlooking Santa Clara Valley. The elevation of the vineyards varies over about 400 feet.

We tasted a very interesting comparison between two wines of the 1994 vintage: a Bordeaux-like blend and the 100% Cabernet Old Vine Reserve, which comes from a plot of very old Cabernet that was still on its own roots (it has since been replanted). The vines for the blend were planted in 1980, a mix of 1 acre Cabernet Franc, 1.5 acres Merlot, 11.5 acres Cabernet Sauvignon. The vineyards are close by on the same mountain top, and the scion is the same. You see the same relative difference as in Bordeaux: the monovarietal is more precise, tighter, less developed; the blend has lost that precise delineation of fruits, but has gained some roundness, development, and flavor variety.

It seemed to me that the monovarietal Cabernet was more youthful relative to the blend, which was developing a delicious savory edge. This leads me to wonder whether the importance of blending is not so much for the flavor spectrum in young wines, when Cabernet Sauvignon in California (or at least in the warmer sites in Sonoma and in Napa) develops full ripeness, but for aging, when more complexity develops in the blend than in the monovarietal. Do monovarietals suffer retarded development to the point of impeding their evolution?

Tasting Notes

Santa Cruz Mountains, Cabernet Sauvignon, 1994

This wine is approximately 85% Cabernet Sauvignon. Apearance is garnet with some ruby hues still evident. Restrained black fruits on the nose. On the palate the fruits are more rounded and a little more generous than the monovarietal. There’s no trace of herbaceousness; there’s a faint chocolate edge to the tannins showing on the finish. More sense of development, with a very faint trace of sous bois, but less precision than the monovarietal. About to enter its peak phase of maturation. 91 Drink-2020

Santa Cruz Mountains, Cabernet Sauvignon Old Vine Reserve, 1994

Medium garnet color. Very faintly spicy on the nose with perhaps just a touch of cinnamon. Intense ripe black fruits on the palate with a fine grained texture of supporting tannins. There is that taut precision of the 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. A touch of black aromatics is cut by a suspicion of herbaceousness. Restrained and taut compared to the blend, which is more generous. 90 Drink-2018.

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