Are Clones Important for Cabernet Sauvignon?

Seems like a silly question, but I’ve been struck by a great difference when talking with producers of Cabernet about clones compared to my experience with Pinot Noir. It’s a really hot button issue for Pinot, with all extremes of opinion from those who think that the Dijon clones have basically rescued Pinot Noir from failure, to those who believe that their widespread adoption is leading to a homogenization of Pinot typicity that will all but destroy the variety. Opinions are much calmer with Cabernet. Many Bordeaux producers say that they use clones when replanting, but when asked which clones, shrug and say that they can’t remember the numbers. The general impression you get in both Bordeaux and Napa is that clones affect yield more than character. But on my recent visit to Napa, I was able to taste wines specifically vinified from individual clones, and the results were revealing.

The choice of clones in Napa today may be as wide as anywhere in the world. In addition to the new ENTAV clones from France, there is a series of heritage clones. The workhorse clones of Cabernet Sauvignon in California in the 1970s and 1980s were clones 7 (also known as the Concannon or Wente clone) and clone 8, both of which were taken as cuttings from the same vine at the Concannon Vineyard in St. Helena. Clone 6 originated with nineteenth century imports into California from Bordeaux (the Jackson clone, rescued from an abandoned vineyard). Clone 4, the Mendoza clone, which was imported from Argentina. (It was incorrectly labeled as Merlot clone 11 when it arrived!) And there are many others. The best known of the new clones from France is 337, which I rapidly discovered is basically Cabernet’s equivalent to the Dijon clones: it’s reliable, gives reasonable yields of smallish berries, and has fruit-forward flavors.

One of the most knowledgeable people about clones is Anthony Bell, who was in charge of an extensive clonal trial at Beaulieu in the eighties. He told me that out of 14 clones that were tested, those with the greatest Cabernet typicity were #4 and #6. This can be a mixed bag, since not everyone likes the classic typicity, which implies a touch of herbal character. This may be responsible for the recent success of clone 337. “I think it lacks varietal typicity in California – it allows winemakers to create the fruit-driven style of Cabernet that tends to be a favorite of the media,” explained Anthony. “If you want to pick late and make very extracted wines, 337 allows you to do this in spades.” By contrast, clone 6 gives very small straggly bunches, and tends to show more herbal character: Bell picks this last, not so much to increase sugar, as to get to phenolic ripeness. Yields with clone 6 are so pitiful compared to the others that most producers won’t grow it, and certainly it does not seem to be economically advisable.

Bell Wine Cellars makes wine from clones 6, 4, 7, and 337, and a tasting of the separate bottlings gave a fascinating insight. Clone 7 and clone 4 have similar profiles, but on clone 7 you see the fruits first, and this reverses on clone 4 where you see the herbal influence first. The most striking difference is between clone 337, which shows the most lush profile and clone 6, which has the most traditional austerity.

The style at Bell tends to European restraint, so I wondered whether this tends to bring out the differences between the clones more than would be the case of ripeness were pushed to greater extremes. But my next tasting was with Fred Schrader, who produces a series of single vineyard Cabernets from within Beckstoffer’s To Kalon vineyard, three representing individual clones, and one a blend. These are wines made in a rich and powerful style, but the character of vineyard and clone shines clearly through. Clone 337 is the most open and obviously fruit-driven, and clone 4 has more structure. I do not think you could use the phrase “herbal” in conjunction with Schrader wines, but let’s say that the clone 6 had more reserve, more evident structure and longevity, than the others. What about the blend? According to conventional wisdom, it should be more complex than any of the parts. Certainly it was impressive, but it did not strike me as more interesting than clone 6 or clone 4 alone. But it’s early to tell.

There seemed no doubt that, in these two comparisons of wines in very different styles, the clones have different characters. Some of the difference may come from the yields, especially that increase in austerity of clone 6. It would be fascinating to measure levels of pyrazine production by the different clones, since that is the main factor determining perception of herbal character, and see whether that correlates directly with their styles, or perhaps whether it forces different decisions about ripeness that affect perception of style. Of course, it’s entirely another issue whether yet greater complexity would be obtained by sticking to selection massale to propagate a greater variety of vines from the vineyard instead of the restricted selection of one or a few clones.

Bell Wine Cellars Tastings

Clone 7, Napa 2008, 13.9%

Medium to deep purple color. The first expression on the nose shows as black fruits, followed by a subtle touch of herbs and cereal. The palate shows black fruits of damsons and bitter cherries, with tight, elegant lines. Some fine tannins are present on the finish with a faint touch of heat, 90 Drink 2013-2023

Clone 4, Napa, 2008, 14.0%

Medium to deep, ruby to purple color. A herbal touch of tarragon shows on the nose, just ahead of the black fruits of plums and cherries. This has similar components on the nose to clone 7, but they appear in reverse order. The black fruit palate shows more cherries than plums, with very fine grained tannins, and more chocolaty than clone 7. Just a touch more flavor interest and length on the finish here. 91 Drink 2013-2024.

Clone 337, Napa, 2008, 13.8%

Medium to deep, ruby to purple color. Slightly austere, cedary impression to black fruit nose, leading int a touch of chocolate. The fruits are softer and more rounded on the palate, a touch more aromatic, showing more as plums than cherries. Smooth, fine grained tannins coat the palate, where the more opulent character of this clone really comes out, reducing the impression of Cabernet typicity. 90 Drink 2013-2020.

Clone 6, Rutherford, 2008, 13.2%

Herbal impression on the nose is more evident here, just short of showing as bell peppers, with black cherries underneath. Black fruits on the palate are more cherries than plums, a little more loose knit on the palate, with quite soft, ripe, tannins. The impression of Cabernet typicity in the form of those herbal notes is really clear on the nose, but a bit more subdued on the palate, which hasn’t yet really opened out. 91 Drink 2013-2022.

Schrader Cellars Tastings

Napa,  RBS To Kalon Beckstoffer, 2009, 14.5%

This is 100% clone 337, at yields of 3.5 tons/acre.

Perfumed black fruit nose with the perfume intensifying in the glass. You can see the dense black cherry fruits holding back on the palate. Ripe rounded tannins with more than a touch of chocolate on the finish. Yet this is the most open on the palate of the Beckstoffer bottlings. Powerful, with an overall chocolaty impression. 94 Drink 2014-2031.

Napa T6, To Kalon Beckstoffer, 2009, 14.6%

This is 100% clone 6 at yields of only 2 tons/acre.

A touch of perfume on the nose is just a bit less intense than the RBS. Restrained black fruits dominate the palate, showing as chocolate-coated cherries. Ripe tannins are subsumed by the fruits, and are evident only by dryness on the finish. This brooding monster will open slowly and live for ever. It’s nowhere near releasing its full potential yet. 95 Drink 2016-2033

Napa, CCS, To Kalon Beckstoffer, 2009, 14.4%

This comes from clone 4 at 3-4 tons/acre.

There’s an impression of nuts and cereals as well as black fruits on the nose. The black fruits of the palate are quite restrained, held back by the firm, fine-grained tannins. Very long term aging potential. 95 Drink 2015-2033.

Napa, Schrader, To Kalon Beckstoffer, 2009, 14.6%

This is a blend of clones 337 and 4 and 6, at 3-4 tons/acre, but not from the same blocks as the others.

Initial impression on the nose is a chocolate coating to black cherries, and then a faint herbal note develops in the glass. This is more open than CCS but less than 337, chocolaty on the palate with firm tannins drying the finish. Clearly needs a lot more time. 93 Drink 2015-2031.

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When Should You Send Wine Back at a Restaurant?

I hate sending wine back at a restaurant. Of course I will do this when a bottle is flawed, but there’s always the potential for some disagreement or unpleasantness. My working rule is that this is appropriate only when the wine is clearly flawed, not merely because I don’t like it. Usually this is because the bottle is corked, and in the vast majority of cases the sommelier accepts immediately that the bottle is defective, but occasionally there is a sommelier who doesn’t recognize the taint and is awkward about it. But I was brought to a new question this week by a wine that was so poor – although technically it was not flawed by being corked or oxidized or having any other single identifiable defect – that I wondered whether being completely atypical should count as a reason for rejection.

Increasing problems with premature oxidation of white Burgundy have made this, my staple when I want a white wine in a restaurant, more of a risky venture when the wine is more than a year or so old. Once again, most sommeliers will recognize madeirization as a flaw, but from time to time I’ve had difficulties with this, especially in France. “These are the typical aromas of the vintage,” a sommelier explained patronizingly to me at a grand restaurant in Provence when a white Burgundy was madeirized. As politely as I could, I said that I had a cellar full of that vintage and none had this problem. With very bad grace, he agreed to take the bottle back, but warned me to order a different vintage, because all his wines of that vintage had the same problem. The storage conditions must have been terrible. These days I have taken whenever ordering a white Burgundy to asking at the outset whether it has any problem with oxidation. Often enough a sommelier will say there have been problems, and advises me to choose something else. But having asked the question, at least I then feel free to send the bottle back if there is any taint by oxidation.

Given the erratic nature of cork taint, there would not be much point in asking whether a wine is likely to be corked, but even with this most easily recognizable flaw, there can be doubt. When a bottle is well and truly tainted, it’s a fairly easy decision to reject, but this can be more difficult when there’s a subthreshhold level of taint, enough to suppress the fruits but not enough to show any clear evidence of TCA on the nose. Actually, I think this is a killer for the producer: if you don’t know this particular producer, you can easily conclude that he’s no good rather than that the wine is flawed. In such cases I have usually felt obliged to stay with the bottle. When you have a clear expectation for the wine, you may be able to say fairly that it is flawed. But given people’s widely varying sensitivities to cork taint, there can be problems in marginal cases. My most amusing incident was at the restaurant Les Bacchanales in Vence, where a bottle of a recent vintage white Burgundy was suspiciously lacking in fruits. When I expressed concern, the waiter took it over to the diner at the next table, who was a local dignitary on the wine and food scene. We could hear him saying, “no, I do not see any problem here,” which the waiter duly came back to report. As the taint was slowly becoming more evident, I stood my ground, and indeed a substitute bottle was vastly better, A few minutes later the chef came out. “I do apologize,” he said, that bottle is terribly tainted. “I would not even cook with it.” So here we had a living demonstration of variation in sensitivity, increasing from the food writer to the chef, where I was uncomfortably the piggy in the middle. That’s why it can be so difficult.

This week I am visiting producers of Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley as part of the research for my next book, Claret & Cabs. My usual habit is to try to perform a reality check at dinner by having a wine that we have tasted at a producer, to see whether experiencing a whole bottle with food gives me the same impression as a tasting. However, having dinner at the Auberge du Soleil, I was so offended by the markups on the Napa Cabernets that I decided to try something else. My usual experience in wine regions is that restaurants showcase the local producers, and while it would be naive to expect to find bargains on the wine list, often there is some wine, perhaps an older vintage that hasn’t been terribly marked up, that offers an interesting experience without completely breaking the bank. Slowly I have become adjusted to markups moving from two fold to more than three fold, but at over four times retail prices, I draw the line. One example makes the point. The Spottswoode Napa Cabernet 2000 is $360 on the list at Auberge – but the restaurant at Domaine Chandon has it at $160. Now I’m prepared to believe that expenses are higher at Auberge, but not that they justify a price of more than double compared to another good local restaurant. The wine averages around $80 at retail, so the markup at Auberge is well over my line.

So I did something I have not done before and ordered a wine from another region altogether, in fact from Burgundy, as  I thought a lighter style anyway would fit better with our particular meal. This was the Nuits St. Georges 2005 from Confuron-Cotetidot. I think it’s a reasonable expectation that in 2005 any decent producer should have been able to make an acceptable wine at communal level. But this was a throwback to the old days of Nuits St. Georges, and I do not mean that as a compliment. It had no nose at all and no fruit could be detected on the palate. If this had been a Bourgogne AOC, I would have shrugged and said that I expected a better result in this vintage. But this tasted (if the word taste can be used at all in conjunction with this wine) as though it had been overcropped to hell. I hesitated, but decided that as it had no detectable flaw, it would be unfair to send it back. However, when the wine deteriorated in the glass to the point that all you could taste was a medicinal acidity, I called over the sommelier and asked her to taste it. “Ah it has racy acidity, a bit surprising for 2005,” she said. I explained that my problem was more with the lack of fruit, and she wondered whether decanting would help. I did not feel that decanting could bring out nonexistent fruit, however. She offered to bring another wine, but I did not feel like starting another bottle at this point (and I had somewhat lost confidence in the selection of Burgundy), but we ended up with a couple of glasses of the Beaux Frères Willamette Pinot Noir from 2008 (surprisingly taut for this producer and vintage), but definitely wine as opposed to the previous mix of acid and water.

I still hold to the position that you can’t send a wine back just because you don’t quite like it, and  I cringe at the thought of imagining flaws because a wine fails to come up to expectation. But in retrospect, I think perhaps I should have rejected this wine at the outset, without crossing the line, on the grounds that it was so far from the typicity of Nuits St. Georges that it was unreasonable for it to be presented on the wine list. Here is the tasting note

J.Confuron-Cotetidot, Nuits St. Georges, 2005

No nose at all. Rather characterless and lacking fruit on the palate, seems dilute and overcropped. No obvious flaws, but only a thin somewhat medicinal, slightly acid, quality to the palate. Only fruit character is an amorphous somewhat flat medicinal note. Would not be a credit to the Bourgogne AOC. 75 points.

Phelps Insignia Tasting

Insignia is one of California’s most genuine cult wines, by which I mean that it is produced in appreciable quantities (up to 20,000 cases), roughly comparable to a Bordeaux chateau, as opposed to the tiny production in just a few hundred cases of many cults or garage wines. As a selection of the best cuvées, one expects it to represent the best of the vintage, but at these quantities still to reflect general vintage character. It has been a Cabernet-dominated blend since the 1980s, averaging around 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, with the remainder coming from all the other Bordeaux varieties in varying proportions. It comes from about six vineyard plots, in various parts of Napa Valley. Vintage 2003 was the last year in which any grapes came from growers: today the wine is entirely an estate production. The wine is not easy to judge when young, given the powerful fruits, which take ten years or more, depending on vintage, to resolve enough to allow complexity to show. A recent tasting featured vintages from 2008 to 1997.

There were some especially interesting comparisons between pairs of successive vintages. The 1997 was Bordelais in style, just turning from fruity to savory, whereas the 99 was more New World, driven by the plump up front fruits. The 2001 was restrained, still showing a touch of New World aromatics, but mingling with savory elements, whereas the 2002 was all upfront California fruits. The 2001 was the far more interesting wine, showing some subtlety and complexity, and it’s an interesting comment on different palates that it was the 2002 the Wine Spectator picked out as its wine of the year: forceful and aromatic, interesting to taste, but less sophisticated and less of a food wine than the 2001. There’s no accounting for taste (well, there is, but that’s another story). (The Wine Advocate gave 99 points to the 2001 and have 95 points to the 2002, which is enthusiastic, but places the wines in a more appropriate order.) There was a comparable difference between the most recent vintages, with 2007 showing restraint, and 2008 showing more overt power.

I am inclined to divide the Insignias into two series. There’s a lineage from 1997 to 2001 to 2007 which seems more European in its balance and restraint; there’s an alternative lineage from 1999 to 2002 to 2008 which shows more overt fruit and aromatics in the New World style. As Insignia is a blend with varietal composition changing each year to maintain house style, I wondered whether these series might relate to the proportions of Cabernet Sauvignon, but not at all. Cabernet Sauvignon varied from 77% to 89% in these vintages; as a general trend, I found  I preferred the wines where the percentage was higher, but not in every case. There’s been a trend in the past decade to increase the proportion of Petit Verdot, which you might expect to bring more evident aromatics to the blend, but I can’t honestly say I could see a direct influence here either.  I am happy to conclude that the differences reflect vintage character, which is exactly as it should be.

Wines were tasted November 2011 except where otherwise noted.

Phelps Insignia

2008

A relatively stern nose for California, faintly nutty, and generally restrained. On the palate the fruits are more powerful and the aromatics more evident than 2007, with some noticeable vanillin. This is a little too powerful to enjoy right now, but should calm down over the next couple of years.  92 Drink 2014-2023

2007

Warm nose shows cereal notes of semolina. Full fruits of youth on the palate, but aromatics are pleasingly restrained. Blackcurrants and black plums show on the palate, with nicely restrained tannins. This shows better balance that the 2008, where the aromatics are still more evidently powerful. Good balance of fruits, acidity, tannins, promises interesting future development.  93 Drink 2013-2020

2006

Restrained black fruit nose with some influence of butter and vanillin. Smooth full black fruits on palate, some vanillin on the finish showing retronasally. Powerful wine in the Napa cult tradition.  (January 2011) 91 Drink-2020.

2003

Black to purple color, no development apparent. Deep black fruit aromatics dominate nose and palate, with blackcurrants and plums to the fore. Very primary and intense on the palate, but aromatics are not oppressive. Tannic support is evident with a touch bitterness on finish, which is a fraction hot.  91 Drink-2019

2002

Still a dark ruby color, with some purple hues. Lots of primary fruits remain on the nose, with aromatics of black plums and hints of blackcurrants. It’s all upfront California. Forceful primary fruits of blackcurrants supported by vanillin dominate the youthful palate. The vanillin carries  right through to the finish. Tannic structure should support this for years to come, but at present it’s really still too powerful to enjoy except in small tastes.  90 Drink-2022

2001

Dark ruby color still with purple hues. Black primary fruits on the nose are cut by a herbal touch of tarragon. The palate shows less complexity than might be expected from the variety of aromas on the nose. Fruity aromatics come out on the palate, but better balanced than in the rather simple style of the 2000. Overall the impression is that this wine is still too young for its full measure to be taken, but the savory notes intensify slowly on the palate, suggesting that it will mature to an interesting complexity along the lines of 1997.  92 Drink-2021

2000

Deep color just beginning to lighten to show some garnet. It’s more restrained on the nose than the vintages immediately before or after it, but with hints of savory development cutting the fruits. Some vanillin shows and the wine seems about ready to start development. At the moment the fruit and aromatic notes seem a bit obvious; slowly more herbal and savory notes should begin to take over. This was a lighter year in California, and some tasters felt that the wine was too soft to show Cabernet typicity.  90 Drink-2018

1999

Dark color with some garnet hues. The nose is driven by black fruit aromatics although there are hints of savory notes beginning to develop. Dense black fruits on the palate are accompanied by strong aromatics and a touch of  vanillin. This is a fruit-driven palate in the New World style. It’s impressive that the fruits are still primary, but with acidity just a touch on the low side, it’s not evident that the wine will develop as well as the 1997 before it.  88 Drink-2019

1997

Dark color with garnet hues, showing just a touch more development in its appearance than the 99. A faint touch of gunflint on the nose leads into a palate that is more savory than fruit-driven. The overall impression is that the wine is at that delicious point where it is just beginning to turn from fruity to savory. Tannic support is in the background. The general style is Bordelais, although there is just a touch of vanillin on the finish.  92 drink-2021

Wine additives and manipulation

“Chaptalization” and “watering back” come close to words that cannot speak their name: at the very least, they are extremely sensitive subjects that you bring up at your peril with producers in France on the one hand, and in California on the other. Each is a miracle of transmogrification. Chaptalization consists of turning sugar into wine; well, technically the sugar is converted into alcohol, but the bulk of the sugar increases the bulk of the wine – in fact you can calculate that it’s a lot cheaper to increase the volume of your wine by chaptalization than by growing more grapes. Watering back is the practice of diluting the must before fermentation; this is pretty much a direct conversion of water into wine. Attitudes to the processes are mirror images: chaptalization is illegal in California, and watering back is regarded as a fraud in Europe. In the course of thinking about what determines the typicity (or typicities) of Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux and Napa, I have been trying to get some information about the extent of the two processes. As I am off to Bordeaux for my first research visit, I’ve been concentrating on chaptalization for now, but I’ll return to watering back later when I go to Napa.

Chaptalization is legal in the northern parts of Europe, and consists of adding sugar, up to a limit that is usually below 2%, to the must, either before or during fermentation. Introduced as the result of Chaptal’s advocacy in the early nineteenth century, it compensates for lack of sugar when the grapes don’t reach sufficient  ripeness to have an adequate level of alcohol. Some producers believe that best results are obtained by adding sugar before fermentation, effectively creating the level that would have been reached if the grapes had been riper. Others believe that gradually timed additions are better, or a small addition at the very end, which stresses the yeast – DRC are great believers in this last option, and no one could quarrel with the quality of their wines!

It seems to me that it’s a reasonable question of public interest as to how much chaptalization is used, but whenever I’ve attempted to find out, I’ve been given a royal runaround. Producers who use chaptalization in France have to make a declaration to the tax authorities in order to pay tax on their usage. When I wrote my first book on Bordeaux, I asked the Customs authorities in Bordeaux for information, but they said the local office of INAO would have it. So I enquired in Bordeaux, but was told INAO in Paris would have it. Of course, INAO in Paris then told me that the Customs in Bordeaux would have it!

Spurred by the fact that the famous ampelographer Pierre Galet quotes the Service de Douanes as his source for figures on the use of sugar in Bordeaux between 1996 and 2000, I made a renewed effort last month. “Producers who wish to enrich their wines by sucrage, by adding concentrated must, or by concentration by cold treatment (congélation) must deposit a declaration of enrichment at the local office of the Customs,” Patrick Leduc of the Douanes informed me. “But the service cannot divulge any statistics on the use of sugar,” he added. So I asked him how M. Galet had obtained the figures that feature in his book (Cépages et vignobles de France : Tome 3, Les vignobles de France), which show that Bordeaux was the second highest user of sugar after Champagne (which of course uses it for dosage). Why cannot I have similar information for the years from 2001-2010, I asked. “Because our service does not possess the requested information,” M. Leduc replied.  When I pointed out that there’s a small inconsistency here, that first it’s claimed Customs can’t divulge the information, then when it’s demonstrated they have in fact previously divulged the number, they claim they don’t have the information, I received no reply. (You have to wonder what’s the point of paying taxes if the authorities don’t even know they’ve got the money.)

I do not think this obsession for secrecy serves the interests of the producers well. When I’ve asked in Bordeaux about the use of chaptalization, the usual answer is that it’s been much rarer since 1997. That’s pretty much what you would expect from the run of warmer vintages. The fact alone that alcohol levels are now pushing 14% in Bordeaux, whereas previously it was a struggle to get to 12.5%, suggests that chaptalization often may be unnecessary. What I expected the figures to do was to confirm the anecdotal impression that chaptalization is less frequent (although I don’t expect it to have disappeared completely, and it might well have needed to come back for the 2011 vintage). But before I conclude that Bordeaux is generally free of added sugar, I’d like to see some confirmation in the form of real numbers. Producers are fairly transparent about which varieties go into the assemblage each year, what proportion of production is diverted to a second wine, how much new oak they use – so if chaptalization is a respectable process, why should there be such secrecy about it, especially if it’s in decline?

I still have not succeeded in obtaining any information about the extent of chaptalization in Bordeaux since 2000, but the sugar manufacturers are quite proud of the varied usages of sugar in France. Their annual report gives the tonnage used for the 15 most important sectors. Chaptalization just creeps into the bottom of this list (just below Glaces, sorbets et crèmes glacées). Assuming that wine is treated at 1.75 kg/hl (just below the limit), it’s possible to calculate what volume of wine has been chaptalized, and what proportion this is of the total harvest in France. It comes to between a quarter and a third in cool years (such as 2007) but drops to around 17% in warmer years (such as 2005). The rock bottom level was 13% in the record hot year of 2003. (The percentages would be higher if the average level of chaptalization was lower.)

We are pitifully under informed about wine compared to the information that is mandatory for foods. I’m not advocating that the label should have a detailed list of every ingredient that was used to treat a wine, but I do wonder whether it’s naive simply to assume that wine is a natural product made from grapes, and to allow labels to state features such as the percentage of each variety but not other ingredients. Of course, it would be a lot less glamorous to say “this wine was made from 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 28% Merlot, and 2% sugar.”

The High Life: Wine at 37,000 feet

Flying transatlantic isn’t a great opportunity for fine wine and dining, but there really isn’t much else to do on the flight besides eat, drink, and sleep, so I thought I’d make an assessment of the present state of the high life. Flying American Airlines from New York to London, en route to start research in Bordeaux for my book on Cabernet Sauvignon, my assessment got off to a poor start in the lounge before takeoff, when the sparkling wine was Gloria Ferrer Brut from Sonoma. Judged by the taste, Brut is clearly a misnomer. Sweet to the point of being sickly, the monotonic palate had a strong taste of green apples (although without the matching acidity you might expect), and if you had told me it was a sparkling apple cider, I would have been hard put to argue. There are some fine sparkling wines made in northern California, but this is not one of them, and proved to be a sad harbinger for what was to follow.

Things improved briefly after takeoff when the Champagne was Pommery. Now this has never been one of my favorites – it always used to strike me as too thin and lacking in fruit – but it has definitely improved since Vranken acquired the brand name in 1990. I don’t know whether taste is affected by the low pressure at altitude, but this now seems to be a respectable, if rather ordinary sparkling wine. There’s not much character to it, and the dosage is just a touch too high for my taste – I wonder whether my impression that dosage has been increasing is right or whether my palate has changed – giving an impression that sugar is being used to compensate for lack of flavor interest. The wine seems essentially uninteresting and its flat flavor profile gave me some trouble in trying to find descriptors for a tasting note. You don’t expect originality from Grand Marque Champagnes, but I still think Pommery could do a better job to disguise its mass produced origins.

The white wines offered a choice between L’Ecole No. 41 Chardonnay from Washington State and Thilion Torbato Sauvignon Blanc from Sardinia. I had some trouble distinguishing them. If I were to be unkind I would say that the Chardonnay was a forlorn attempt to achieve the New World style. The palate has been loaded with oak to disguise the lack of ripeness in the fruit. The oak flavors stand aside from the fruits, and if I didn’t know that the wine had been aged in barriques I would have wondered about the use of oak chips The oak gives a hard, disjointed, phenolic note to the finish. This is one of those rare wines that would have been improved by a shorter finish, as what mostly lingers on are those disjointed oak phenolics.

Despairing of the Chardonnay, I turned to my wife’s Sauvignon Blanc (actually a blend of Sauvignon Blanc with the indigenous grape Torbata), although its relatively deep golden color made me feel suspicious even before I tasted it. A sniff made things worse. Instead of the expected grassiness or herbaceousness came a sort of slightly astringent citrus note. Maybe this is due to the Torbata, which is supposed to have a smoky aroma. Again the palate was loaded with harsh phenolics. I would have placed this as an aromatic variety in a blind tasting, but I think I would have had some trouble recognizing Sauvignon Blanc in it. I wonder whether I would have been able to identify the wines, if I’d been given them blind and told that one was Chardonnay and one was a Sauvignon blend. It wouldn’t be easy to find varietal typicity in this pair, but perhaps the greater acidity and aromaticity would identify the Sauvignon.

On to the reds, where we tried the Villa Mount Eden Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa and the Tres Picos Garnacha. Now I remember a period in the late 1970s when Villa Mt. Eden had a great reputation. In fact, based on Robert Parker’s recommendation, I bought a case of the 1978 vintage and drank it for several years. It never achieved greatness, but was still holding up quite well in 1993 when I had the last bottle. Sic transit gloria mundi. I do not think the old style is remotely recognizable in the current wine. When I swirled and smelled the wine, I wondered if there had been a mistake as the aromas of black cherry fruits with some piquancy came up at me. No, I decided on smelling my wife’s wine, which was even more aromatic and piquant. Following to the palate, the Cabernet showed no more typicity of Cabernet than the Chardonnay had of Chardonnay. The only note of relief was an oaky vanillin that seemed artificial. I’ve never really thought of Cabernet Sauvignon as an intensely aromatic variety, but after this wine I might have to change my opinion. (To be fair, you can find some high-end Napa or Barossa Cabernets with fairly distinct aromatics, but although I don’t usually like the wines, at least I can recognize a matching concentration and fruit intensity that hangs together.)

After this, I approached the Grenache with trepidation. The only information American Airlines provided about its origins is that it is produced in Spain. It turns out to come from the Campo de Borja DO, just to the south of Navarra, where Grenache is the principal grape. I have to disagree with Robert Parker’s high ratings for this wine. Aromatic and piquant on the nose, it followed through to the palate with bright red cherry fruits and a piquancy that made me wonder about acidification, with a slightly sickly nutty end to the finish.  But I have an idea. Add a little sugar and the profile would be perfect for a dessert wine. (After this, I decided not to sample the dessert wine, which however seemed to be a perfectly respectable vintage port.)

I can’t completely exclude the possibility that my palate was out of whack at 35,000 feet, but at all events the common feature of these wines seemed to be excessive striving for intensity. Subtle they ain’t. Even at the crunched price point – I calculate that if every passenger had a glass of wine American would be spending about $2.00 per passenger – there could at least be more variety of choice.

The food was better than the wine but not by a large margin. In all the years I have been on American Airlines, the food has never been up to much. Ranging from barely edible to inedible, sometimes it strikes me as unfit for human consumption (well, consumption by this human, anyway). In the past year or two there’s been some slight improvement. There was always a tendency on American to make the food highly spiced – just what you want at 35,000 feet where you tend to get dehydrated anyway – I assume to disguise the poor quality of the ingredients, but fortunately that phase seems to have passed. Of course, the days of  Krug and caviar on transatlantic flights are long since gone, but surely they could do better than to serve dried out hot meals. I’d settle for cold salads made from better ingredients any time (but I guess the bean counters won’t wear it). In any case, I’ll leave the last word to an American flight attendant, who some years ago said to me, “We’re not fine dining, we’re transportation.”

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

Cabernet Sauvignon: To Blend or Not to Blend

One of the questions I’ve begun to think about as I start the research for my book on Cabernet Sauvignon is whether the traditional difference between blended wines in Bordeaux but varietal wines in Napa is still justified.

Blending in Bordeaux originated as a protection against failure of any one variety in a climate that was marginal (at least for the varieties being grown). Cabernet Sauvignon did not ripen reliably every year on the left bank, so blending with varieties that ripened more easily (originally with Malbec, later with Merlot) offered two advantages: adding riper flavors to the wine than would be obtained with Cabernet Sauvignon alone; and being able to vary the composition of the blend to respond to failures and successes each year. It also allowed more vineyard area to be cultivated, since Merlot will ripen in spots where Cabernet is not successful. (On the right bank, of course, Cabernet Sauvignon is even harder to ripen and so is generally replaced by Cabernet Franc, but the same principle applies). Even today, with warmer vintages and better viticulture, there is still significant variation in annual usage of each variety; Chateau Palmer, for example, has varied from 40% Cabernet Sauvignon to 68% in the first decade of this century.

The contrasting focus on monovarietal wine in Napa Valley comes partly from the move to varietal labeling that was stimulated by Frank Schoonmaker after the second world war, and which became standard in the New World. (Before then, most wines were labeled by reference to Europe with generic names such as Claret or Burgundy.) Of course, at first the situation in California was not in fact too different from that in Europe, because the rules were so lax that a wine could be labeled with a varietal name so long as it had more than 50% of the variety. Slowly the rules became tightened until reaching today’s minimum limit of 75%. The rationale for making monovarietal Cabernet Sauvignon is that the grapes ripen more reliably in Napa than they did in Bordeaux, the result being that the mid palate is full of fruit, and does not need to be filled in by Merlot or other varieties. Proponents of monovarietals would argue that Cabernet Sauvignon achieves a full flavor spectrum in Napa without needing assistance from other varieties, in fact, I suppose they might take this argument to the logical conclusion of saying that you can only really appreciate the full varietal force of Cabernet Sauvignon if you don’t weaken it with other varieties.

But do these arguments for a fundamental difference in approach still hold up? In the past two decades, climate change has seen temperatures in Bordeaux warm to basically those that Napa showed in the 1970s. Napa has also warmed up a bit, but the gap has narrowed. Climate change has caused somewhat of a change in attitude to winemaking. One of the themes of my book is that prior to 1982, the issue in Bordeaux was trying to get Cabernet to ripeness; the issue in Napa was taming the ripeness to achieve a Bordeaux-like elegancy. Post 1982, a change in consumer attitudes meant that riper, fuller wines were desirable – no more of that touch of herbaceousness that characterized traditional Bordeaux. Coupled with the move to picking on “phenolic ripeness” rather than sugar levels, this led to increasing alcohol levels in the wines. Now the problem everywhere is to control the ripeness. It’s still true that Napa reaches greater ripeness than Bordeaux, typically resulting in an extra per cent of alcohol.

Is it the case that this extra ripeness means that Cabernet Sauvignon is complete in itself or is it true rather that blending even with small amounts of other varieties increases complexity? Should the Bordelais reconsider their view that monovarietal Cabernet Sauvignon is uncouth; or should the Napa producers move to blending in at least a little Merlot to add variety? Before trying to answer this question, it seems to me that the basic facts need to be established. After all, wines labeled as Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa can have up to 25% of other varieties, and even small amounts of secondary varieties can have a significant effect on taste. I remember a blending exercise we did on a Master of Wine trip to Bordeaux where it was surprising what a difference it made to the feeling of completeness in the overall blend when just a tiny percentage of Petit Verdot was included. The question is whether in comparing Bordeaux and Napa we are comparing blended wine with monovarietal wine, or whether we are comparing wines blended with a smaller overall proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon with wines blended with a greater proportion.  So I propose to begin by trying to establish the constitution of wines that are varietal-labeled by determining just how many are really 100% Cabernet and how many have a minor component of another variety. That should be the starting point for an investigation of whether the best wines will be made by blending in Bordeaux but not in Napa. Of course, the answer might depend to some extent on the criteria: mine will be for complexity and elegance in the wine.

In the Médoc, there is a de facto association between quality and Cabernet Sauvignon. The first growths have higher average levels of Cabernet Sauvignon than the second growths, the other grand cru classés are lower, and cru bourgeois are lower yet. (Some of the top wines have more than the 75% Cabernet Sauvignon that would be required for them to be labeled as varietals in Napa!) Whether this is due to the fact that the first growths have better terroir (that is, more reliably capable of ripening Cabernet Sauvignon) or is due to more commercial factors is hard to say, but the fact is that there’s a correlation (albeit rather a loose one) between proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon and position in the marketplace. What does this tell us about Napa, where the majority of wines have more than 75% Cabernet Sauvignon (that is, are varietal-labeled), although they do not necessarily show a price advantage over other Cabernet-based wines. Some of the most expensive cult wines are labeled as Cabernet Sauvignon, others as Proprietary Red. (Of course, whether the varietal-labeled wines are monovarietal remains to be seen.) Cabernet-based wines are certainly at the top of Napa’s hierarchy, but they don’t have to be varietal-labeled.

Which leads me to another thought. The difference between wines of the Médoc and Napa Valley has narrowed since the turning point of 1982. There is a convergence on what is sometimes called the “international” style, focusing on fruits. Partly this is due to Bordeaux closing the temperature gap with Napa, partly it is due to adoption of shared attitudes on viticulture and vinification. (Also notable is the fact that Bordeaux has increasingly moved in the direction of Merlot to obtain those richer flavors: plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux peaked at 32% in 1990 but today are only 24%, although the Médoc remains around 60%.) It is definitely more difficult to be confident of distinguishing the wines in blind tastings. So to what extent are the differences due to the focus on blending in Bordeaux as opposed to varietal focus in Napa? Would the answer become clear from a comparative tasting of Meritage wines (Bordeaux-like blends from Napa) against Napa or Bordeaux? And of course back to the basic question: what makes the best wine?