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.

 

 

Clonal Paradox

I was struck by the importance of clonal variety by an experience along the lines of Sherlock Holmes’s dog that (didn’t) bark in the night. On a trip to Washington state to visit Cabernet producers, it turned out that virtually all of the state is planted with a single Cabernet Sauvignon clone, #8 (on its own roots, since there is no phylloxera because of the sandy soils, but that’s another story). Clone 8 is essentially the same as clone #7, the Concannon clone, which is common in California.

Elsewhere there may be a focus on clones (such as in Napa) or an indifference to them (such as in Bordeaux), but in either event the vineyards have a wide diversity with regards to origins of plants. Of course, the availability of clones has led to all sorts of dire predictions about homogenization of flavors (more with the increasing dominance of the Dijon clones of Pinot Noir than with Cabernet Sauvignon), but here is an actual example.

So what are the consequences? One noticeable feature of Washington State with regards to Cabernet Sauvignon is that wines blended from different vineyards are more common than single vineyard bottlings. I wonder if this is because the homogeneity of the genetic material limits diversity in the vineyard and drives producers to find it by blending from different sites?

A tasting at Col Solare on Red Mountain, where other clones have been planted as well as the predominant #8, suggested that producers may be missing out by using a singe clone. Barrel samples showed that a blend of clone 8 with clone 21 had Red Mountain’s characteristic strong tannins, clone 6 conveyed its usual more herbal impression, but clone 2 was intense and precise, while clone 10 was delicate and fragrant. As the vines are relatively young  (planted in 2002), it may be that these differences will narrow with age, but I was left wondering whether Red Mountain’s reputation for strong, aggressive, tannins might partly be due to a specific interaction with clone #8.

On the one hand, the prevalence of a single clone allows vineyard differences to be seen directly; on the other, you wonder at the assumption that the same clone fits all sites, in spite of their different exposures, temperatures, etc. With plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon (and also Merlot) dominated by single clones, you might argue that clones play a much smaller part in Washington than elsewhere. Or perhaps considering the lack of diversity this implies, clonal selection plays a much larger role than elsewhere, since the uniformity significantly restricts the potential expression of different sites.

 

 

 

Bordeaux 1970 versus California 1974

As part of the research for my book on Cabernet Sauvignon, I wanted to determine whether the stereotypes about aging of Bordeaux versus California Cabernet are true, so  I compared wines from the classic 1970 vintage in Bordeaux with Cabernet Sauvignons from the 1974 vintage in California, really the first vintage that put California on the map as a potential competitor to Bordeaux. Is it true that California Cabernet has more limited aging potential compared with Bordeaux?

The two top wines in the tasting absolutely typify the character and quality of Bordeaux versus Napa. The Pichon Lalande had that delicious balance of fruits and herbaceousness; as it gets older it turns more savory. The Mount Eden Cabernet Sauvignon (which comes from an old plot of ungrafted wines on Santa Cruz Mountain) has that warm impression of sweet, ripe red fruits; age has brought a faint impression of piquancy that adds complexity. Ultimately it will become sweeter and simpler.

The California wines are aging well, but they are staying ripe and sweet and warm and showing impressions of ripe strawberries rather than going savory. The best are absolutely delicious, but it’s not obvious what further evolution will occur if they are kept longer. To what extent is this because most are 100% Cabernet Sauvignon or simply a consequence of the warmer climate? The California wines that made great reputations in their day remain the leaders. Heitz Martha’s vineyard has lost some of its density, and is less evidently in a European style. Ridge Montebello shows more evident savory notes. Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill is every drop a mountain Cabernet, just a touch behind the Mayacamas (from Mount Veeder).

Bordeaux was more surprising with some reversals of reputation. From Margaux, Châteaux Giscours and Brane Cantenac, generally considered to be slightly rustic and slightly overcropped in the era, showed better than more classic wines from Pauillac or St. Julien. The issue with the Bordeaux as they age is just how savory you like your wine, as ultimately they can turn herbaceous and medicinal. On this showing, typical or not, the best showed  more complexity than California, but usually were less delicious.

The difference is not so much that California Cabernet doesn’t age so well as Bordeaux, as that it ages differently.

Tasting Notes

Wine were tasted blind in one flight by a panel including Joel Butler MW, Bill Blatch (Bordeaux negociant), Peter Sichel (former château owner), and Josh Greene (Editor, Wine & Spirits magazine).

 Château Pichon Lalande, Pauillac, 1970

Slightly cedary, spicy nose, a touch of Brett lending a leathery complexity: classic Bordeaux. Sturdy on the palate, giving a rather St Estèphe-like impression.  Classic herb-driven palate with almost medicinal after finish. Absolutely classic Bordeaux in the tradition of the sixties and seventies with that delicious mingling of fruits and herbaceous influences. If there was a wine in the tasting that typifies Bordeaux of the sixties and seventies, this was it. 91 Drink to 2018.

Mount Eden, Santa Cruz Cabernet Sauvignon, 1974

Spicy with faint suggestions of cereal, then warm ripe suggestions of sweet, ripe fruits suggesting California. Still lovely and ripe on the palate, the generosity of the warm fruits is evident, but relatively slight development in the direction of savory evolution. Alcohol is a little higher than average. Complex array of flavors on the palate, albeit a touch rustic. and a faint impression of herbaceousness coming through. Delicious balance. 13.9% 91 Drink to  2018.

Heitz Martha’s Vineyard, Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, 1974

Faintly savory intimations of roasted meats, then reverting to a faint spiciness, even a hint of perfume. Sweet and ripe on the palate although there is a touch of volatile acidity. Warm impression with nice flavor variety. There’s a touch of iron that resembles Pauillac. 13.0% 90 Drink to 2017.

Freemark Abbey, Bosché Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa, 1971

Quite youthful on the nose with slightly floral perfumed mixing with impressions of spices. Palate follows the nose, nice balance, elegant and flora; a touch of that sweet strawberry impression identifies the origin with California. There seems to be very little development in a savory direction, but good acidity pushes this a little towards a Bordeaux spectrum. 12.4% 90 Drink to  2018.

Château Giscours, Margaux, 1970

Fresh, intriguing nose, hints of spices, a touch of perfume, hints of fruits, quite complex.  Elegant and ripe and the palate, refined red fruits, but lacking a touch in the complexity you expect at this age. Very good, but a little rustic. This fooled almost everyone into thinking it came from Napa; it’s definitely much fuller than you usually find from Margaux, but that’s Giscours. 89 Drink to 2017.

Mayacamas, Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, 1974

Perfumed and floral with suggestions of roses and violets on the nose. A lovely balance on the palate here, firm ripe fruits yet with an impression of delicacy, and just a faint herbal underlying hint. But oxidation is beginning to creep in. Touch of  Brett adds complexity. 89 Drink to  2018.

Ridge, Montebello Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Cruz, 1974

Some impressions of cinnamon and other spices on the nose, a surprisingly youthful impression, developing savory overtones of roasted meats in the glass. If you ignore the increasing acidity on the palate, there’s an impression of ripe, sweet, warm fruits from California, presently ripe and nutty retronasally (with a faint impression of American oak), but developing in a savory direction, even a hint of herbaceousness (more Bordelais than most California wines in this tasting). 89 Drink to 2016.

Château Mouton Rothschild, Pauillac, 1970

A very faint leathery suggestion of Brett on the nose, turning a little flat, but the palate is still lively. Solid fruits, firm, but subject to attack by the acidity. This is a very solid wine, developing some flavor complexity, with a warm impression reminiscent of California (not seen on previous bottles, which were more clearly in the herbaceous spectrum). 89 Drink to 2017.

Chateau Brane Cantenac, Margaux, 1970

Controversial between those who loved it and those who thought it had dried out. Classic Bordeaux nose of cedar, spices, and leather, identifying some Brett (more distinct than on the Pichon Lalande, which also showed a touch). Although acidity is threatening to take over the palate, there is still complexity to the savory fruits counterpoised against the leathery overtones, still delicious. 12.0%, 89 Drink to 2016.

Diamond Creek, Volcanic Hill Cabernet Sauvignon, Diamond Mountain, 1975

Amazingly dark. youthful color. Fragrant, perfumed impression on the nose, a really clean impression compared with all the other wines. The only wine not to have some Brett, said Joel Butler MW. Ripe, sweet, warm, acidity is lifting up of course, but nice fruits underneath, with a touch of tobacco. The initial soft warmth of the fruits identifies California, but in the glass they become more evidently taut, reflecting the mountain site. 12.0% 89 Drink to 2018.

Château Léoville Lascases, St. Julien, 1970

Restrained nose, in fact completely closed. Piercing acidity on the palate as the fruits dry out. May have been elegant, but too old now. Slowly picks up a bit in the glass to reveal some flavor complexity in a savory Bordelais style, and then (after a couple of hours! reverts to a warmer, softer, richer impression, although the finish remains dry and a little tart. 12.0% 87 Drink up.

Château Pontet Canet, Pauillac, 1970

Herbal and savory intimations, barely perceptible hints of raisins, a little tired on the nose, faintly musty. Tight fruits on the palate, originally elegant, but the acidity is beginning to take over, disguising its origins. Elegant fruits but tiring now. 86 Drink up.

Château Grand Puy Lacoste, Pauillac, 1970

Slightly acid nose, some herbaceous intimations, but seems old. Nice fruits on the palate, elegant style, but a touch of volatile acidity. Fruits are lightening and drying out but have not become savory. 86 Drink up

Beaulieu Private Reserve, Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, 1974

You never know what you are getting with this wine, because there were two bottlings, one of which was evidently much better than the other. In this bottle, you can see the original spices and fruits , but some oxidized notes of raisins are threatening to take over: the general warmth of the impression identifies California as the origin. Volatile acidity is taking over, turning to raisins in the glass. 13.5%  85 Drink up.

Mondavi, Napa Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve

This was a great bottle in its time, and one of the wines that put the 1974 vintage on the map, but this example did not seem to be the best condition. Mature nose with mixture of acid, fruits that aren’t quite tertiary, but giving an impression that the fruits are drying out. Palate shows better than nose although spoiled by a must, moldy impression. This was delicious before the spoilage took it over. Possibly corked at sub threshold. 13.0% 85 Drink up.

 

Retroactive Blending

You don’t often get the chance to reconsider the blend ten years on, but this is what happened when I visited Château Léoville Lascases in St. Julien. We started with a tasting of the individual varieties from 1999. That year the Grand Vin was 62% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Cabernet Franc, and 18% Merlot (there is no Petit Verdot because they believe it is too rustic.) Samples of the individual varieties were bottled separately (starting in new oak and then transferring to one year oak, to give an overall exposure close to the grand vin’s 60% new oak).

The Merlot showed surprisingly fresh red fruits, with just a touch of tertiary development. The Cabernet Franc was evidently more refined, more elegant, than the other varieties and showed a faint herbaceous touch with an impression of tobacco. It was less developed than the other two varieties.  The Cabernet Sauvignon was quite stern, and gave the most complete impression of any of the single varieties, showing as black fruits with a herbal edge and a touch of herbaceousness showing only on the aftertaste. It’s the most closely related (not surprising since it’s dominant component) to the Grand Vin.

The Grand Vin showed more development than was evident with any of the individual varieties, bringing greater complexity. This has certainly taken its superficial softness and roundness from the Merlot, but you can see the Spartan structure of the Cabernet Sauvignon coming through the fruits; in fact, in some ways it seems more evident here than it did in the sample of Cabernet Sauvignon alone (perhaps because the combination of fruits has less weight than the Cabernet Sauvignon alone), but the overall balance is rescued by the freshness of the finish. There is no doubt that the blend is more complex than its components. In terms of overall assessment, this is a fairly tight wine, with the fruits showing just enough roundness to counteract the leanness of this difficult year.

The most fascinating moment came when technical director Michael Georges made some new blends to see what the effect would be of increasing each variety by another 10%. I liked the blends with more Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc; they seemed to me to have at least as good a balance of fruit to structure as the Grand Vin. I could believe that either of them might be Léoville Lascases. But the blend with additional Merlot seemed to be unbalanced, to have a rusticity that had lost the character of St. Julien: I would not believe in this as a Léoville Lascases. The trick seems to be to add just enough Merlot to flesh out the wine, but not enough to go over the edge into rusticity. Further experimentation suggested that the ideal blend might have just 5% more of each Cabernet; it seemed to me that this showed just a touch more finesse than the Grand Vin. “Perhaps we should wait ten years to do the assemblage,” said Michael Georges, but then we agreed that this might have some adverse financial consequences.

For me this tasting also cast an interesting light on the question of whether assemblage should be done early or late. Some people believe that the sooner the cépages are blended, the better they marry together, and the better the final wine. The earliest practical moment is after malolactic fermentation is finished. Others hold the contrary position, that you are in a better position to judge the quality of each lot if you keep the individual cépages separate until the last moment. I felt that the retroactive blend with 5% more of each Cabernet had more youthful liveliness than the Grand Vin, but then it might of course have developed differently had this been the blend from the beginning. Based on this limited experience, I’m inclined to the view that it might be best to mature each lot separately, allowing for significant adjustment of oak and variety, as long as possible, and I think it would be very interesting to see what the châteaux would do if they weren’t under pressure from the en primeur system to blend before the April tastings.

Mediterranean Cabernet

My reference point for characterizing Cabernet Sauvignon has always been Bordeaux, or more specifically its Left Bank. Even though the wines are blended, and even though only a minority actually contain a majority of Cabernet Sauvignon, still the top wines–especially the Grand Cru Classés of the Médoc–track the character of Cabernet Sauvignon, from its herbaceous nature pre-1982 to its overt fruitiness today. Those wines are still my standards for comparison when assessing varietal Cabernet Sauvignon from the New World, even though acknowledging that in some regards Bordeaux now follows the imperatives of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. But the same factors are in play, most especially the balance of fruit to structure.

But this reference point has failed me in looking at Cabernet Sauvignon from the Mediterranean. It’s partially effective in considering the super-Tuscans of Bolgheri; although the tannins there are softer, the structure somehow sunnier, there remains a relationship. I had a much more difficult time applying criteria from Bordeaux to a vertical tasting of Mas de Daumas Gassac. Since 1978, Daumas Gassac has been producing a Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated blend at Aniane. It’s usually around 80% Cabernet Sauvignon (although the extremes are as low as 65% or as high as 90%), and the other varieties in the blend have changed somewhat over time. Initially they were mostly Malbec, Tannat, Merlot, and Syrah; by 1990 they were described as Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Merlot; and today the label just says “several other varieties,” which includes a real hodge podge.

I don’t think that’s the determinative issue anyway, which is more a reflection of two or perhaps three things. The Cabernet Sauvignon was planted in the  mid seventies with a selection that the nursery told them had come from Bordeaux in the first part of the twentieth century. “It looks quite different from modern Cabernet Sauvignon; in fact the Bordelais sometimes have difficulty in recognizing the variety,” Samuel Guibert told me. It forms long thin bunches with very loose grapes, and a crocodile skin, and gives low yields. The interplay of climate and terroir is also distinctive, since the vineyard is in a small valley with a pronounced microclimate that gives extreme diurnal variation. And there’s a determination to make a traditional wine. “We belong more to the Bordeaux 1961 attitude – wine with 12.5% alcohol and good acidity. Only 15% new oak is used to get finesse,” says Samuel.

Although the avowed intention is to produce a Grand Cru of the Languedoc, I was not easily able to relate the wines to traditional claret (by which I suppose I mean Médoc pre-1982). I felt that the wines fell into two series: those dominated by perfume rather than herbs, very soft and gentle on the palate; and those with a more savory bent. Aniane is right on the edge of the Languedoc, close to the point at which there are said to be Atlantic as well as Mediterranean climatic influences–indeed the small AOCs of Malepère and Cabardès not far away are allowed to plant the Atlantic grape varieties–and I’ve been wondering if what we might be seeing here are the differences between years in which Mediterranean influence or Atlantic influence dominated the weather pattern. In the Mediterranean camp come the vintages of 2001, 1990, 1985, and 1983; in the Atlantic camp come 2005, 1996, 1988, 1982. The Atlantic vintages are more obviously Cabernet-based; it can be more difficult to perceive Cabernet in some Mediterranean vintages. The extremes were 2005, which showed a pretty clear Cabernet rasp; and 1985, which I might have mistaken for Grenache. It’s especially interesting when successive years show quite opposing characters: 1983 versus 1982, and possibly 1986 versus 1985, although it was difficult to tell because the 1986 was slightly corked. The Atlantic years showed something of that lacy, delicate, structure of claret of years gone by; I would find it harder to relate them to the Médoc wines of today. The Mediterranean years seemed to have as much in common with wines of the south as with Bordeaux.

The most impressive wine, in the proper sense of the word, was the Cuvée Emile Peynaud from 2001. Every year, the wine from a plot of the oldest Cabernet Sauvignon is vinified separately. The decision is made only just prior to assemblage whether to include it in the regular bottling or to make a special cuvée. The first vintage was 2001; subsequent vintages have been 2002, 2007, and 2008. The wine was darker than any of the regular bottlings, almost inky, redolent with aromas of new oak, and intensely fruit driven on the palate. In a blind tasting it would give a top Napa Cabernet a run for the money. I’d expected a more intense version of the regular wine, but this was almost its antithesis. I feel about it somehow the same as I do about Petit Verdot; fantastic to taste, you can see at once what a few of barriques of this quality would do to lift the blend, but do you want to drink it by itself? I think if I were to split a bottle over dinner, I’d rather have the Daumas Gassac 2001.

The killer vintage of Daumas Gassac was the 1988. I was with a group of contemporaries, who remember when claret was claret, and as the 1988 was tasted, there were appreciate murmurs praising the delicious herbaceousness. This could easily have been a Grand Cru Classé in the style of a good vintage from around the seventies, with that lovely balance of fruit to savory elements, so poised you have to hesitate as to whether fruit or savory is the dominant influence, with complexity added by that very subtle suggestion of herbaceousness. No one would dare use the word herbaceous in modern Bordeaux, but in turning herbaceousness into a pejorative description of wine, we’ve definitely lost something.

Tasting notes

Wines were tasted in June 2012 except for 1983 and 1982 which were tasted in November 2011.

Vin de Pays de l’Hérault, 2005

Still youthful in appearance. A rush of perfume when the glass was filled, then some savory undertones. The sense of perfume carries over to the palate, with a faint aromaticity identifying its southern origins, but quite fresh on the palate, although different from Bordeaux’s savory tang. Then a Cabernet rasp shows itself on the finish. which shows more dryness as time passes in the glass, making the wine seem a little rustic. Tertiary development seems about to begin. Moderate alcohol emphasizes the lightness of the style – no heavy handed modern extraction here. The wine certainly rounds up in the glass, so perhaps that initial rustic impression will ameliorate with time.   12.5%  88 Drink now to 2020.

Vin de Pays de l’Hérault, 2001

Maturing now to a garnet appearance and giving an immediate impression on the nose of some development with a whiff of tertiary aromas replacing an initial, more perfumed impression. The palate makes a more savory impression, although with still with the soft edge of the south. This now presents quite an elegant balance, indeed, delicate would be a fair description. It’s certainly much lighter than Bordeaux would be from the same vintage. Character is a bit amorphous, the wine somehow fails to declare itself, although it’s very appealing for current drinking.   13.0%  89 Drink now to 2016.

Vin de Pays de l’Hérault, 1996

Restrained nose somewhere between perfumed and savory. Smooth palate, but with a faint rasp of Cabernet on the finish. At first the tannins seem just a touch rustic, but then the wine reverts to elegance as the fruits take over. That rasp disappears with time in the glass, although the fruits show a nicely rounded Cabernet character, which is to say just a suspicion of savory development. This is an Atlantic vintage.   13.0%  91 Drink now to 2020.

Vin de Pays de l’Hérault, 1990

Delicate and refined, with just a touch of structure showing on the finish, but a sense of dilution as the fruits begin to lighten, slightly nutty and delicate, with a faintly glyceriny impression on the finish. The fruits are soft and appealing, but does it have enough character? It’s superficially delicious, but without any determined structure may not improve any further, and may lose its interest as there isn’t really enough flavor variety to withstand much further lightening of the fruits.  This is clearly a Mediterranean vintage. 12.6%  88 Drink now to 2016.

Vin de Pays de l’Hérault, 1988

There’s an immediate impression of Bordeaux here with a faint but delicious herbaceous touch showing: the wine immediately produced appreciative noises all round. It’s right at the tipping point from fruity to savory with just a faint touch of perfume adding to the herbs to show that you’re in the south. There’s still enough structural support for a few years as the wine continues to develop in the savory direction. You might think here in terms of a Grand Cru Classé from Bordeaux, except that the structure is a bit softer. This takes you back to the time when you could use herbaceous as a description in the context of delicious, and when cabernet was elegant rather than powerful. This is the most classically “Atlantic” of the vintages.  12.7% 92 Drink now to 2020.

Vin de Pays de l’Hérault, 1985

Following the path of Mediterranean vintages, this is now turning somewhat nutty on the palate, and this is a bit too noticeable on the finish for comfort. Certainly it’s soft and appealing, in an overtly southern way, with nice fruits – but not a lot of structure behind. This might be difficult to place as Cabernet Sauvignon in a blind tasting; I think you’d be more inclined to think in terms of warmer climate varieties. No doubt this reflects the brutal summer with very hot conditions through September and October.  87  Drink now to 2016.

Vin de Pays d’Hérault, 1983

Still a fairly dark color. An intriguing slightly floral note on the nose, almost a whiff of violets à la Margaux, conveying a vague sense of garrigue but one that is more floral than herbal. The ripeness of the fruits is evident on the palate, giving a kick of sweetness to the finish. Black fruits on the palate show more as blackberries than blackcurrants, but with a fleshiness on the midpalate, presumably from the Merlot and Syrah. Still youthfully vibrant, and I’m struck by the warm tones of the palate with chocolaty hints on the finish. Age has brought a definite softness rather than the savory development that’s common in Bordeaux; in fact, the wine shows surprisingly little tertiary development. 13.0% 92 Drink to 2017.

Vin de Pays d’Hérault, 1982

The immediate impression on nose and palate is that this wine more shows Atlantic influence with a resemblance to the savory development of old Bordeaux. The nose is relatively savory compared to the gentle, soft, perfumed fruits of the 1983, and there’s a very slight touch of herbaceousness. This spectrum follows through to the palate, which makes a more classical food wine than the 1983. There is lovely flavor variety right across the palate. A faint impression of cedar develops on the finish, giving a Graves-like impression. There are the first signs of the fruits beginning to dry out, as the wine becomes dumb in the glass to show an austere finish of residual tannins, then reversing itself to let the fruits hang out again. At peak moments there’s a lovely balance and classic impression of Cabernet, but it is getting close to time to drink up. 13.0% 93 Drink to 2015.

Cuvee Emile Peynaud, 2001

I do wonder what Emile Peynaud would have thought of this wine, which comes at you in a full knock-your-eyes-out international style. Much darker in color than the Daumas Gassac of the vintage, with an intense nose of pure Cabernet­ – sweet, ripe, dense, rich, nutty, a touch of vanillin­­ – loaded with new oak. This is a lovely wine: no one could complain about the quality. But it’s not simply a more intense version of the Daumas Gassac bottling, it’s altogether in a different style, modern where the Gassac is traditional, oaky where the Gassac relies on fruits It doesn’t seem even to have started to age. 13.0%  91 Drink now to 2022.