Can High Alcohol Wines be Balanced?

You sniff a glass of wine: it has a bouquet of aromas characteristic of its variety, promising an interesting palate. The palate is full of the anticipated flavors, rich and perhaps a touch exuberant, but not yet multi-dimensional as this is a recently released young wine. This is a beautifully crafted wine, representing its region and grape variety, but then a sense of warmth hits you on the finish, sometimes running into an impression of overt heat. The wine would be perfect if only it had a percent or so less alcohol. I have had this experience many times on this visit to Napa.

When asked about alcohol levels, a small minority of winemakers in Napa say it’s a concern, but most say this is what the climate gives you, and the wine is balanced, so there is no problem. Well, my response is yes and no. Generally the wine is balanced, and at a tasting you may not always notice the high alcohol, although it may express itself more forcefully in the course of drinking a bottle with a meal. But even when alcohol is not obvious, I believe the reason is that the balance that is necessary to hide it involves more extraction. It’s the combination of high alcohol and extract that makes the wine fatiguing rather than the alcohol alone—after all, fino Sherry is 15% alcohol and can be delicate and elegant. Indeed, some wines are getting into fortified territory. My companion, the Anima Figure, who is less tolerant of high alcohol than I am, commented on a Chardonnay at dinner, “This winemaker should be working in a distillery,” because the sense of raw spirits entirely hid the fruits.tokalon10

Napa Valley viewed from the To-Kalon vineyard.

Balance is surely a compromise, and the problem, I think, is that achieving phenolic ripeness is regarded as the ne plus ultra, so all other aspects of balance are pushed into the background. Okay, in the old days balance used to be regarded as basically getting enough sugar to achieve 12% or 12.5% alcohol; next a slightly more sophisticated approach was to look at sugar/acid ratios: it was assumed that if the ratio was about right the wine would be good. Those wines would be regarded as seriously unripe by the criterion of phenolic ripeness (although that is not so new: in ancient Rome, Pliny recommended tasting the seeds to judge when grapes were ready for harvest).

But does making phenolic ripeness the single criterion for harvest achieve balance? What if phenolic ripeness is achieved at punishing alcohol levels—Pinot Noir at 15% or more, Cabernet Sauvignon at 15.5% and up, Zinfandel well into the 16%s. Doesn’t “balance” imply making some compromise between sugar, acid, and phenolic ripeness, in which the first two count for something, if perhaps not as much as the last? Is it heretical to ask whether the wine might actually be better if the grapes were picked at slightly lower ripeness, but with better balanced sugar and acidity?

I question whether it’s a true balance if grapes are picked solely for ripeness and then acidity is added, alcohol is adjusted, or water is added to get to more acceptable parameters. (I have not found a single winemaker in Napa who denies needing to use watering back at some point: adding water when the sugar level is too high is now legal, but it seems a dubious means for achieving balance.) Part of the problem is that the current generation of winemakers is not really conscious of the great change in alcohol levels. “This vintage is quite moderate, alcohol is only 14.5%,” one winemaker said, “sometimes we have been pushed up over 15%.” Another said, “As long as I’ve been making wines, I have never seen alcohol below 14%.”

When 14.5% alcohol can be regarded as moderate, we are in big trouble. Even if I enjoy it at a tasting, it is too fatiguing to share a bottle over a meal. My own rebellion against this is not to purchase any wine for my cellar which is over 14% alcohol, and to look at the label before opening a bottle at a restaurant: if it’s over 14% I send it back and make another choice. I recognize that a one man consumer rebellion won’t get very far but you have to start somewhere.

The mantra in Napa Valley is that the Cabernets can be enjoyed more or less on release but will also age well. How soon you can drink them depends largely on your tolerance for tannin in young wine; for my palate most of these wines really need four or five years before the tannins calm down enough to let fruit flavor variety show, but more to the point is that alcohol is likely to become more evident as the tannins and fruits lighten up. With lower alcohol, many of these wines would have great potential for classic longevity; but with alcohol around 15%, I suspect they are Cheshire Cat wines: the grin of the alcohol may be all that is left.

What can be done about this? Part of the problem is that the current combinations of rootstocks and cultivars are generating higher sugar levels in the grapes. One change came when AxR1, widely planted in Napa, had to be replaced because of its sensitivity to phylloxera: the rootstocks that replaced it give higher growth rates. Another is that the ENTAV clones introduced over the past decade or so were selected thirty years ago in a cooler period specifically in order to ripen sooner to avoid past problems with insufficient accumulation of sugar. We need new clones and rootstocks designed for the era of global warming. But that takes time: right now winemakers need to start regarding balance as something where reasonable alcohol and acidity are part of the equation as well as phenolic ripeness, and not ancillary factors that you either live with or adjust artificially when they get completely out of control.

Judgment of Paris Wines: Chateau Montelena and Stag’s Leap

It seems ironic that on the day of the referendum in Britain, the Judgment of Paris tasting should be revisited in London. To celebrate the famous tasting of 1976—it doesn’t seem like 40 years ago—Chateau Montelena (which won the Chardonnay tasting with its 1973) and Stag’s Leap Winery (which won the red tasting) presented current and older vintages in London.

Today’s Chardonnay from Montelena comes from the Oak Knoll vineyard near the winery, but current winemaker, Matt Crafton revealed that the winning 1973 “was not at all a terroir wine. It came from grapes that were purchased to fit Montelena’s stylistic objectives, sources were all over the place.” Half of the grapes came from Russian River in Sonoma Valley, some came from Calistoga (the hot end of Napa valley), and a small proportion from Oak Knoll. What price terroir if this could beat Meursaults and Puligny Montrachets?

The question in my mind going through the 2001 and 2009 vintages of Montelena’s Chardonnay, three Cabernet Sauvignons from 2013 to 2005, and five vintages of Stag’s Leap SLV vineyard from 2013 to 1983, was whether their origins would be any more obvious in a blind tasting today than they were at the 1976 tasting in Paris. It has always seemed to me that the importance of the Judgment of Paris isn’t at all who “won,” but rather that the French judges were completely unable to distinguish whether the wines were Cabernet-based blends from Bordeaux compared with varietal Cabernet Sauvignon from California, or Chardonnays from Napa compared with Burgundy. That speaks to the success of the winemakers of the time in emulating French style.

SLVToday wines are richer all round, California has found its own style, and often enough the winemakers of Europe are trying to emulate New World richness. I think it’s fair to say that both Chateau Montelena and Stag’s Leap Winery have relatively restrained styles for California: there is not much New World exuberance here. The Montelena Chardonnays remind me a bit of Meursault, but show more body and alcohol. I’m not sure I really see enough interesting development with age–but then with premox cutting off the lifespan of white Burgundy, I don’t very often see it there either. The Cabernets seem to get leaner as they age.

The Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon tasted in Paris in 1976 was the forerunner of today’s single vineyard bottlings. The two famous vineyards are adjacent but different in character. “Fay’s vineyard is softer and more perfumed, more elegant,” says current winemaker Marcus Notaro, “SLV is a bigger wine.” In another era, I might have said that Fay is more feminine and SLV more masculine. Spanning thirty years, the SLV vintages at this week’s tasting showed a common stylistic thread, with slightly spicy, slightly herbal overtones to the fruits. I would say they’re as much in the European tradition as in the New World mold, except that alcohol is higher and there’s a sense of warmth, for me showing as almost exotic fruit flavors, which suggests they don’t come from France. Would I confidently distinguish Fay Vineyard and SLV in a blind tasting with, say, Margaux and Pauillac? I’m not so sure.

Have Mondavi and Opus One Lost their Way?

It may be unfair to link Mondavi and Opus One together at this point, since although Opus One started as a joint operation between Robert Mondavi and Philippe de Rothschild, they went separate ways after Constellation purchased Mondavi, but I was struck at a dinner with wines from both producers by the similarity in their development. Current vintages of Mondavi’s Fumé Blanc and Reserve Chardonnay were followed by three vintages of Opus One, and it would be fait to say that power is triumphing over elegance all along the line.

In the early years of Napa Valley’s development, Mondavi was a benchmark for Cabernet Sauvignon (the 1974 Reserve was a defining wine for the vintage), the Chardonnay was one of the more French-oriented, and the Fumé Blanc was a master stroke that tamed Sauvignon Blanc with subtle oak impressions. But today the 2012 Fumé Blanc gives an impression of sharp acidity with indistinct fruit impressions, while the 2013 Reserve Chardonnay gives an impression of raw oak in front of fruits. In fact, you might say that the Fumé Blanc is too much Sauvignon and not enough Fumé, while the Chardonnay is too much oak and not enough fruit.

I can’t trace the change in character of the whites historically, but a change in the reds goes back to the early 2000s. There was a long-running difference of opinion between Mondavi and the Wine Spectator over style. The Spectator’s lead critic on California, James Laube, commented in July 2001, “At a time when California’s best winemakers are aiming for ripe, richer, more expressive wines, Mondavi appears headed in the opposite direction… [Winemaker] Tim Mondavi and I have different taste preferences… He has never concealed his distaste for big, ultra rich plush or tannic red wines. I know he can make rich, compelling wines, yet he prefers structured wines with elegance and finesse.” Tim Mondavi replied, “I am concerned… that there appears to be a current trend toward aggressively over-ripe, high in alcohol, over oaked wines that are designed to stand out at a huge tasting rather than fulfill the more appropriate purpose of enhancing a meal.” There you have the whole debate about style in Napa in a nutshell. Yet after this was all said and done, the style at Mondavi changed in the direction of greater richness.

I’ve always found Opus One easy to underrate in the early years, when it tends to be somewhat dumb, and to retain a touch of austerity, but in vertical tastings I’ve found it to age well. Tasted at the winery five years ago, the 2005 was showing beautifully, the 1995 showed the elegance of a decade’s extra aging, and the first vintage (1979) was still vibrant. My impression at the dinner this week was different. The 2005 shows powerful primary fruits, with not much evidence of development, and a touch of oxidation, showing in the form of raisons on the finish. If it hadn’t seemed the most complete wine of that vertical at the winery, I would say that it must have been brutal when it was young. As this is an unexpected turn of events, I wondered whether perhaps the bottle might be out of condition, whether perhaps the oxidative impressions were due to poor storage, but I think this question was answered by the 2009, which showed a similar, but less evident, impression of oxidation. Again this is a turn-up for the book, as the last time I had the 2009 was at the winery just after it had been bottled: tannins were subsumed by dense, black, and aromatic fruits, and my impression was that the fruit concentration offered great potential for development. But today, aside from taming the tannins with time, I really don’t see much development in flavor variety, and I suspect this is going in the same direction as the 2005. The 2012 is certainly a very big wine, yet identifiably Cabernet-based, with that sense of restraint and hints of tobacco, but I’m concerned that the massive fruits may turn in the same oxidative direction as the earlier vintages. How long, Oh Lord, how long, will it be before the wines develop interesting flavor variety?

I wonder how much alcohol has to do with these impressions? The first vintage of Opus One had 12.9% alcohol, the level stayed under 13% through the 1980s, under 14% through the 1990s, and now alternates between 14.0 and 14.5 according to the labels. Although alcohol isn’t obtrusive on the palate–in the current parlance that winemakers use to explain or apologize for high alcohol, it is balanced—it’s the very high extract and fruit concentration that achieve the sense of equilibrium. This makes it hard for the wine not to over-power a meal. I know that there’s a school of thought that alcohol levels aren’t relevant or interesting, and that no one really cares, but I do: not just because the wine is too heady, but because I don’t like the corollary that there’s simply too much flavor . Or more precisely, too much quantity of flavor and not enough variety. There comes a point where levels of extraction are so high that varietal typicity disappears and everything is just fruit, fruit, fruit. My plea to Napa winemakers is to back off: you don’t have to extract absolutely everything you can from the grapes. It might be a better compromise to harvest under 14% alcohol than to go that last step to super-ripeness.

Is Bordeaux 1990 Finally Starting to Come Around?

My question does not reflect concern as to whether 1990 Bordeaux is ready to drink, as the vintage has been drinking well for quite some years now (and to my mind is distinctly more reliable than 1989, with which it is often compared). It addresses the deeper question of whether this vintage will end up true to the old traditions of Bordeaux or will more reflect the modern era.

The driving force for this question in my mind is the history of the 1982 vintage, which showed an unprecedented drinkability on release. For the first two decades, the wines were lovely, but with a distinctly richer and more overtly fruit-driven spectrum than previous top vintages. Then around year 2000, they began to revert to type, with the left bank wines beginning to show traces of delicious herbaceousness to offset the fruits. Since then they have developed along the lines of classic Bordeaux.

My question is whether vintages that have been successively richer than 1982, such as 1990, 2000, 2005, and others, will show that same quality of reversion to type or whether they are so much richer, with higher tannins, greater dry extract, and greater alcohol, that they will follow a different path, more New World-ish you might say. Until now I have been concerned that they might fail to develop that delicious savory counterpart to the fruits that to me is the quintessence of Bordeaux as it ages. At a splendid gala dinner held by the Commanderie de Bordeaux of New York, which focused on the 1990 vintage, I got my first sense that these wines may now be moving in a savory direction.

Chateau  Figeac now shows its structural bones more clearly than a few years back. Herbaceousness is evident to the point at which it seems much more dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon than its actual one third, and I might well have placed it on the left bank in a blind tasting. This now seems classic to the point at which I am worried whether herbaceousness will overtake the fruits as they decline.

Lynch Bages is at its peak, and little altered from two or three years ago. Here Cabernet Sauvignon shows more as a subtle touch of cigar box than herbaceousness; this is completely classic in offering a faint counterpoise to the black fruit spectrum of the palate. That refreshing uplift is what I love about Bordeaux. (I see a direct line from the 1985, where cigar box dominates the fruits, delicious but not as subtle as the perfection of the 1990.)

Chateaux Palmer and Latour are still dominated by the richness of the vintage; in fact they seem to have put on weight and to be richer than they were three or four years ago. Palmer has gone from the traditional delicacy of Margaux with violets on the palate three years ago to a palate that is now dominated by rich, round black fruits. This is rather plump for a traditional Margaux, although as refined as always, but the signs of potential reversion to type were there in the past, and I expect them to return .

It’s not exactly vinicide to drink the Latour now, but it would be missing the point. The wine shows impressive richness and power, with deep black fruits where the first faint signs of development are beginning to show. There are plenty of precedents for Latour requiring decades to come around—the 1928 wasn’t drinkable until the late 1970s—but this wine is certainly enjoyable now. It’s not unready because of a tannic presence, but because the fruits have yet to develop the flavor variety and complexity that will come over the next decade. In the context of my basic question, this is classic.

So there is good news and bad news. The good news is that the 1990 Bordeaux is now beginning to develop in a way that I think of as reverting to type. The bad news is that it has taken 25 years. The 1982s took 18 years to reach a comparable point. If we fast forward and try to predict the path for the 2005s or 2009s, we may be looking at 30 years.

 

 

Chateau Musar: Simply Sui Generis

I have tasted Château Musar in depth only twice. Once in New York, in 2009 at a tasting with Serge Hochar, when we had white vintages from 1999 to 1959 and reds from 2000 to 1966, and last week in Miami at Wine by the Bay’s commemoration of Serge, with an excellent range of wines, including whites back to 1998 and reds back to 1989. At both tastings, the wines impressed me as brilliantly different from anything else.

Production at Château Musar has now extended to include the Jeune line (red, rosé, and white) from young vines, and the Hochar Père et Fils line (lighter wines for immediate drinking, in the modern fashion), but although all these are well-made examples of their genres, for me the real interest came with the Musar white and red.

The white is much less well known than the red, but every bit as distinctive. It comes from the indigenous varieties Obaideh and Merwah; they are said to be related to Chasselas, Chardonnay, and Sémillon, but if they are, terroir is clearly trumping variety. Fermentation is unusual as it lasts for nine months in barriques, then the wine is bottled conventionally enough after a year. It’s held until it is seven years old for release, so you never really get the chance to see what a young wine tastes like.

The long fermentation gives an oxidative character: for me the nearest resemblance to other wines might be to the whites of the Jura, with an intensely savory quality approaching a touch of fenugreek. My favorite of vintages from the 2000s at last week’s tasting was the 2000: light, subtle, and developed, but it paled besides the densely savory 1998. What I love about these wines is the way they start out herbal and become increasingly savory with age. Normal experience would suggest they should hold for a few years, but this is no doubt an under-estimate; at the tasting in 2009, the 1959 was developed but fresh; in fact Serge said at the time that the wine was showing the youth it did not have when it was younger.

Fermentation for the reds is also very slow: six months in cement, followed by a year to mature in barriques. Then the Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault and Grenache are blended, and spend another year in cement cuve before bottling. The wine is not released until seven years after the vintage, but there is certainly no need to taste it sooner. The current release, the 2007, still has to come together, although the mix of blackberry fruits, high toned aromatics, and sweet tannins is promising.

The 1996 vintage puts Bordeaux or Burgundy to shame, with a lovely balance between delicate fruits and tertiary notes, with a drying touch of cinnamon at the end. It reminded me a bit of some of the old Daumas Gassac Cabernets from the eighties, with that Mediterranean twist on Cabernet. I was astonished by the sheer precision and depth of the flavor of the rather washed-out looking 1989. At the New York tasting in 2009, we started with the red 1981, as Serge said that this age—about twenty five years—is the average age at which his wines are ready to drink, but I would beg to differ and suggest you don’t have to wait quite that long, as the 1996 was perfection this month. But I am sure it will improve until it reaches the ethereal quality of the 1989.

Southwest Diary part 5 – The Mavens of Madiran

Monday morning: We start with Vignobles Brumont, where Alain Brumont really revitalized the appellation with his wines at Chateaus Montus and Bouscassé. We are supposed to meet at Chateau Montus, but all signposts lead to Bouscassé-Montus so we find ourselves at Chateau Bouscassé, where it turns out we are expected anyway. From there we go to Chateau Montus, about 10 km away (but impossible to find without a guide), where an old property that Alain purchased from the monks has been restored, and a splendid new vinification facility has been built, all gleaming stainless steel, thousands of oak barrels, and granite floors. It looks rather like a cathedral inside, and they call it the Church of Tannat. On the route back to Chateau Bouscassé we make a detour to see Alain’s top vineyard, La Tyre, on a steep, stony slope. At Bouscassé, Alain gestures upstairs and says, “I was born here. I’ve accomplished in thirty years what it took the grand chateaus 200 years to do.” Now he makes wine from 125 ha at Chateau Montus, which with its prestige cuvées is undoubtedly top of the game in Madiran, and from 120 ha at Chateau Bouscassé. In addition there’s the Torus line from Madiran and a range of wines from IGP Côtes de Gascogne. Vignobles Brumont dwarfs everything else in Madiran.

Madiran is famous, of course, for the Tannat grape, whose aggressive tannins used to make the wine undrinkable for years if not decades. It’s a measure of the situation, that at most producers, the entry level wines come from assemblage of Tannat with Cabernet (either Sauvignon or Franc), because this makes them more approachable; monocépage Tannat is usually reserved for the top wines. It’s a fine thing when Cabernet has a calming effect! Tannat was tamed by the invention of micro-oxygenation by Patrick Ducournau, but when I ask Alain about this, he says that he doesn’t use it, that his success with Chateau Montus is due entirely to his introduction of barrique aging (which was revolutionary when he started it in 1980). “The barriques give quite enough oxygen to the wine,” he says. Certainly whenever I am able to compare a wine matured solely in cuve with one aged in barriques, irrespective of the producer, it is clear that wood-aging is to the way take off those sharp edges.

Lunchtime: We are running a bit late after a chat with Alain about his history, but arrive just in time for a delicious lunch at Chateau Barréjat with Denis Capmartin and his wife, and export manager Robert Tiessen. We start in traditional manner with foie gras accompanied by sweet wine, in this case from Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh, which geographically overlaps with Madiran but is the appellation for white wine, either dry or sweet. Mostly from Petit Manseng, the wines are a direct comparison with Jurançon but have a different flavor spectrum, more peaches and cream than apricots, sometimes slightly herbal, and if they turn savory, showing white truffles rather than black. We go on to compare the Tradition and Seduction reds from Madiran, the first matured in cuve and the second in wood, and then wind up with the prestige cuvées, Vieux Ceps and l’Extreme.

These special cuvées come from very old vines, some perhaps as old as 200 years, but certainly preceding phylloxera. When phylloxera arrived, Denis’s great grandfather replanted most of the vineyards, but two small plots—about 4 ha in all—survived. About three quarters of the vines in these plots are still growing on their own roots; when a vine dies, it’s replaced by selection massale from an existing vine, but of course is planted on rootstock. The wines certainly have an extra level of concentration and intensity, but more than that, what makes them special is the broader flavor spectrum compared with production from younger vines. Denis has truly mastered the tannins of Tannat; the special cuvées are well worth trying.

PhylloxeraTW2A prephylloxera vine at Chateau Barréjat

Afternoon: We wind up at Chateau d’Aydie, which is the headquarters of Vignobles Laplace. The chateau appears to be under reconstruction, but next door are the chais, much vaster than you might expect, as Laplace use the facility to produce red, white, and rosé from the Côtes de Gascogne. From Chateau d’Aydie itself we taste a dry white (Pacherenc Sec), the range of reds from Madiran, and then the sweet whites from Pacherenc. We wind up with a really unusual wine, a VDN (sweet fortified wine) made from Tannat. “It’s intended to show the versatility of Tannat,” says François Laplace. Perhaps not surprisingly given Tannat’s character, it’s distinctly more like Port than any VDN I have had from anywhere else in France. Chateau d’Aydie has vineyards in three separate locations in Madiran, and each of the three red cuvées comes from assemblage from lots from all three locations. “We believe it’s always more interesting to make an assemblage,” François says.

Conclusions: Tannat is not an easy grape. Vinification veers between the Scylla of softening it so much that varietal typicity is lost, and the Charybdis of keeping its character, but showing so much tannin that it can’t be drunk for years. I can see why they add Cabernet, because 100% Tannat can easily slip over into a fruit profile that’s flattened by the tannins: the Cabernet gives aromatic lift as well as freshness. Yet the top wines at Chateau d’Aydie show a taut quality that will mature to elegance when the tannins resolve, but I think that really needs most of a decade: the 2006 (a very good result for a difficult year) is just coming round. The oldest wine I tasted, the Chateau Montus Cuvée Prestige 2002, is just beginning to get flavor variety, but you still have to get past the tannins. Mastering the tannins is really the first step: I suspect you have to get Tannat pretty ripe for it show interesting aromatic complexity.

Stick to Tradition in Spain

There are some famous exceptions that prove the rule – such as the inclusion of Cabernet Sauvignon in Vega Sicilia – but for the most part Spain’s top wines are based on indigenous varieties: primarily Tempranillo, with Grenache, Monastrell (Mourvèdre), and Graciano. A tasting from the Grandes Pagos d’Espana, covering single vineyard wines from all over Spain, suggested that the trend may be changing: a third of the producers (especially those outside of the classic regions of Rioja and Ribera del Duero) showed wines including “international” varieties, typically Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon.

Few of the wines here could really be called “traditional,” but there was a real contrast between those from traditional varieties (most often 100% Tempranillo, sometimes with some Grenache included) to international varieties. I formed a strong impression that there’s a reason why Tempranillo has succeeded in Spain: it produces interesting wines from many places.

It was often hard to see the advantage in blends with Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon, where I could see neither the typicity of the Tempranillo nor a clear contribution from the blending components, and the wines to my mind had less character than those from traditional varieties. It was difficult to relate wines that were exclusively new varieties (100% Syrah or a Bordeaux Blend) to those from their more customary habitats.

Geographically, interest was spread all around, with the rising regions just as interesting as the old traditions of Rioja or Ribera del Duero. In fact, grape variety and winemaking style seemed to have more effect than region of origin.

Wines from traditional varieties extended from those with lashings of new oak (most often French but sometimes including American oak), where often the sweet vanillin of the oak simply obscured the fruits, to wines with a lighter, more elegant balance. There were wines from Toro or Priorat conforming to the stereotype of raw fruit power (Termanthia from Toro), but there were also wines with more pleasing restraint and even subtlety (Mas Doix from Priorat).

Whenever a producer had a wine that was 100% Tempranillo to compare with a wine blended with the new varieties, I preferred the former (Abadia Retuerta’s Pagos Negralada, which is 100% Tempranillo, for example, versus Seleccion Especiale, which includes Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon).

I don’t think the flirtation with Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon is improving the top wines of Spain (maybe there’s a case for it at lower levels).  The sum is not greater than the whole of parts when Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon is blended with Tempranillo, and I appeal to the producers: go back to Tempranillo, at least for  the single vineyard wines, it makes more interesting wine, better balanced, with more flavor variety, better expression of the terroir, and greater potential for interesting aging.

When did you last confuse Cabernet Sauvignon with Cabernet Franc?

Confusing things in wine is common. There’s an old story about André Simon—I think it’s been attributed to other famous wine connoisseurs also—that he was once asked: when did you last confuse Burgundy and Bordeaux? He thought for a bit, scratched his head, and said, “Well, not since lunch, anyway.” But surely everyone can tell the difference between Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc? Well maybe not.

I bumped into a curious situation when I was researching Cabernet Sauvignon on the right bank of Bordeaux for my book Claret & Cabs. There’s really not very much at noted châteaux because it’s so difficult to ripen. Merlot of course is the predominant variety, and if there’s Cabernet, it’s usually Cabernet Franc. On the graves of St. Emilion, Château Figeac is the standout example, with 33% each of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot, and there are also a couple of other châteaux with significant amounts. The area of the plateau where these châteaux are located extends into Pomerol, so I took a look there, and discovered to my surprise that Château Petit Village was reported to have 17% Cabernet Sauvignon. I had not realized anyone in Pomerol had that much.

Then I discovered that in 2010 the reported proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon at Petit Village had dropped to 7%. Ahah, I thought, they must have discovered that it doesn’t work well enough, and pulled it out, it would be interesting to discuss this. So I made an appointment to visit the château. When word of the visit reached AXA (who own Château Petit Village), it was cancelled. “We do have some Cabernet Sauvignon on the estate, however not much (less than 7%), and our main concern there is Merlot, the main grape variety on the estate. We do not feel that speaking about Cabernet Sauvignon here is relevant to the style and personality of the wines from Petit Village,” said Marie-Louise Schÿler of AXA.

This seemed a bit over-sensitive, but I then discovered that in fact there had never been that much Cabernet Sauvignon anyway. A review of current wines mentioned that a plot of old vines that had survived the frost of 1956, and which had been thought for fifty years to be Cabernet Sauvignon, had been discovered really to be Cabernet Franc. My efforts to discuss this with René Matignon from Château Pichon Baron (also owned by AXA), to whom the report about the discovery was attributed, were rebuffed. “I prefer you address your requests to Marie-Louise Schÿler,” he responded.

So I cannot report any details about the character of this Cabernet Franc, but I do think that a plot of Cabernet Franc that could masquerade as Cabernet Sauvignon for over half a century might have something rather interesting to contribute to the future of the right bank, especially given the difficulties created by the warming climate trend. Perhaps AXA will relent and allow me to taste some barrel samples in the future.

The Fruit, The Whole Fruit, and Nothing But The Fruit.

Unless you are a winemaker, you don’t usually get to see wines immediately after they have finished fermentation, but in many ways this is the most revealing stage, before any oak or other influences have changed them. This is a real WYSIWYG situation—what you see is what you get. I had an unusual experience of comparing the products of four vineyards on a recent visit to David Abreu in Napa in tasting through a range of tank samples as the wines waited to be transferred to barriques.

David Abreu is probably the most famous vineyard manager in Napa and is responsible for establishing many of the top vineyards. He still functions as a grower with his own vineyards, making wine from only some of the production. Winemaking here follows a somewhat unusal approach, and the emphasis is decidely on the vineyard as opposed to the individual variety.

Every one of Abreu’s four vineyards—Madrona Ranch (in St. Helena at the base of Spring Mountain), Capella (just south of Madrona Ranch), Thorevilos (east of St. Helena just below Howell Mountain), and Howell Mountain (in Angwin) is planted with a mix of Bordeaux varieties. Usually Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc are predominant. There are several harvesting picks in each vineyard–there were 6 in Madrona this year, and 3-4 in the other vineyards–and the grapes that are considered ripe on each pass are harvested and then cofermented, irrespective of variety. Abreu’s winemaker, Brad Grimes, says, “People tend to think that separating into lots and fermenting as such is more precise, but one of the advantages of taking fruits that are ready together and cofermenting is that you can usually balance out acid and alcohol.”

Certainly these samples gave more complete impressions than you usually see from barrel samples. The special quality of Madrona came through clearly; it was always the most profound, irrespective of the date of picking or the exact mix of varieties. Capella seemed to be the most refined and elegant, Thorevilos more masculine. The big surprise was Howell Mountain, where the interplay of fruit and tannins practiced an unusual deception. At first taste, the wine was surprisingly soft, round, and chocolaty: where were the famous mountain tannins, I wondered? Then 30 seconds later, the finish closed up completely with a massive dose of tannins.

All these wines will mature in 100% new French oak, so there’s a great deal of change yet to come, but it was fascinating to see the essential character of each vineyard come out so directly from the fermentation tank.

A Ripe Vintage in Margaret River

At the end of a week visiting producers of Cabernet Sauvignon in Margaret River, I wound up with a horizontal tasting of the 2007 vintage with producers of fourteen wines.

The 2007 vintage was warmer than usual and Cabernet got ripe everywhere. Given the general reputation of the vintage, I was expecting a fair number of over-ripe wines, but in fact they are rather rare.

Margaret River is a large region, with the heart of Cabernet production focused in the (unofficial) Willyabrup subregion, with wines that tend to be more robust made in Yallingup to the north, and wines that are tighter coming from Wallcliffe farther south. The vintage showed a very wide range of styles, from wines with black fruits classically cut by a herbaceous touch of pyrazines, to lighter wines dominated by red fruits, and in one case with the warm, earthy impression more usually associated with Pinot Noir. Some wines are sourced from more than one subregion, so it’s not always obvious how to relate wines to individual origins (which are not often stated on the label).

Acidity was usually in balance, and in spite of the hot year does not appear to have been over compensated (one of the problems with Cabernet generally in Australia being that winemakers are so fanatically determined to avoid contamination with Brettanomyces that they acidify to a higher level than might be strictly justified by the demands of taste).

This is certainly a very good vintage, but the succeeding vintage in 2008 was more “classical,” and I found I generally gave those wines higher scores in vertical tastings. But 2007 is delicious to drink in the next few years.

Tasting Notes

Fraser Gallop Estate, Cabernet Sauvignon

Slightly piquant black fruit nose changing in the glass to more herbal overtones. Fine, elegant black fruits, real finesse here, black cherries and plums with subtle aromatic overtones, silky tannins giving a fine-grained texture. This gives a classical impression of pure Cabernet fruits poised on the perfection of ripeness. The very faint herbal overtones on the finish should develop in the next few years to bring complexity to the finish. 14.5% 91 Drink to 2022.

Juniper Estate, Cabernet Sauvigno

Slightly austere black fruit nose tending to savory herbal impressions of sage. Precisely delineated black cherry fruits dominate palate, round and elegant, very much the pure varietal character of Cabernet Sauvignon. Firm tannins dry the finish where there is a very faint sensation of herbaceousness. A classic example of the firm style of Willyabrup. More approachable than usual from this estate. Still needs another year, but should age well for a decade. 14.0% 90 Drink 2013-2022.

Voyager Estate, Cabernet-Merlot
Herbaceous opening to the nose with black fruits hiding behind, giving a cool climate impression. Classic impression on palate of black fruits, softer than the nose would suggest, with soft, ripe chocolaty tannins, those notes of pyrazines coming back on the finish, which shows a touch of heat, but overall a fine elegant impression. 14.2%  90 Drink to 2020.

Cullen, Diana Madeline Cabernet Sauvignon

Nose of fresh red and black berries, opening out into fragrant, perfumed nose with hints of roses and violets. Sweet, ripe, elegant, well rounded fruits of black cherries and black plums, with reserved tannins holding back the fruits on the finish. Flavor variety is developing in an elegant style reminiscent of Margaux, but another year is required to let the tannins resolve. There’s some heat on the finish. 14.0% 89 Drink 2013-2020.

Leeuwin Estate, Cabernet Sauvignon

Warm nose with vanillin and nuts hiding black fruit character and giving an impression of new oak, and then some herbaceous notes of pyrazines developing and strengthening in glass. Sweet, ripe, rounded, firm style on palate, with ripeness of fruits evident but cut by herbaceous touch coming back on finish accompanied by nutty notes from new oak. Impression at this point is a little rustic from the new oak. 14.0% 89 Drink 2013-2021.

Woodlands Wines, Nicolas Cabernet Sauvignon

Slightly austere nose with impressions of cherry fruits. Fine, elegant palate of red and black cherry fruits with refined impression from silky, fine-grained tannins. Just a touch of nuts on finish. Nice balance, needs another year to let the tannins resolve and fruit flavor emerge to show a wine some real finesse in a lighter style. 13.5% 89 Drink 2013-2020.

Cape Mentelle, Cabernet Sauvignon

Fresh nose holding back red fruits, with some sweet herbal elements including thyme  developing in glass, making a cool climate impression. Showing nice flavor variety on palate with strawberry and cherry fruits coming out, against a light tannic support. Give this another year to let the dryness of the tannins on the finish resolve, and it should begin to develop a nice savory balance to the red and black fruits. Some heat on finish. 14.0% 89 Drink to 2020.

Moss Wood, Cabernet Sauvignon

Light elegant fresh nose of red fruits, opening out into a spicy and floral nose showing cinnamon and nutmeg. The height of elegance on the palate, but with a flavor profile more like Pinot Noir than Cabernet Sauvignon, with fragrant red fruits pointing towards raspberries and strawberries. The elegance and warmth remind me of Sassicaia in a lighter vintage. This is ready to drink but I suspect that may be deceptive and it will last longer than might be evident at first blush. 14.5% 89 Drink to 2020.

Lenton Brae, Wilyabrup Cabernet Sauvignon

Slightly piquant red fruit impression on nose, leading into soft palate of ripe red fruits of raspberries and cherries. Tannins are fine and silky bringing an elegant impression of fine texture to the finish. As the tannins resolve this will become soft and elegant in a style driven by red fruits. 14.5% 89 Drink to 2019.

Stella Bella, Serie Luminosa Cabernet Sauvignon

Stewed fruit character on nose suggests ripeness, and then pyrazines develop in the glass. More classical on palate than might be suggested by nose, with smooth, ripe, elegant black fruits cut by that touch of herbaceousness that is typical of Wallcliffe (which accounts for a major part of the wine).  Light tannins dry the finish, which shows some heat. This is a light, elegant style, but does it have the stuffing for longevity? 14.0% 88 Drink to 2018.

Ashbrook Estate, Cabernet Merlot

Fresh nose with black fruits behind and slightly nutty cereal overtones (reflecting new oak). Sturdy, ripe, well rounded impression of Willyabrup, blackberry fruits cut on finish by drying effect of tannins, with some faintly herbal impressions on finish. Not a wine for instant gratification but should develop in elegant style over next five years, although there is a slight impression of hollowness on mid palate. 14.0% 88 Drink 2013-2020.

Vasse Felix, Cabernet Sauvignon

Ripe vegetal impression, with mix of ripe, stewed, fruits and green overtones, leading into a palate that mixes ripe and green impressions. Fruits tend to blackberries and blackcurrants, tannins are firm, there is a fairly robust impression on the palate, but some flavor variety is developing. 14.5% 88 Drink to 2019.

Xanadu, Cabernet Sauvignon

Black fruit nose with some faintly over ripe impressions clearing to a faintly herbal impression.Elegant balance on the palate, with blackberry fruits showing a touch of reserve as the tight tannins of the finish cut in. Overall the impression is tight rather than generous and there’s a risk the favor profile will narrow down with age. 14.0% 88 Drink 2013-2020.

Thompson Estate, Cabernet Sauvignon

Soft black fruit nose, with some cereal impressions, turning to riper stewed fruits in the glass giving a warmer climate impression. Warm, sweet, ripe red cherry and strawberry impression on palate, with a lingering sweetness on the finish, and slightly nutty notes coming back. Some heat on the finish. A warm, forward, delicious style – already approachable – but does it have Cabernet typicity? 14.5% 87 Drink to 2018.