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.

 

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The Oakiness of It All

We’ve come a long way since oak was merely a storage and maturation medium for wine. Judging from an all day seminar that Taransaud organized in London for the Institute of Masters of Wine, its role today is second only to the grapes themselves. The seminar was divided into two parts: a morning that considered individually many of the parameters that determine the effects of oak; and an afternoon looking at innovations to respond to changes in modern winemaking. Here’s a report on the morning; the afternoon will follow.

The background according to Henri de Pracomtal, Chairman of Taransaud, is that use of new oak is declining, down to 85% instead of a mandatory 100% when the vintage isn’t up to it in Bordeaux, although typically staying more or less around a third new, a third one year, and a third two year in Burgundy. The use of 200% oak (successive use of new barrels) is “dead.” There’s been significant backing off from new oak in the New World. The focus here was all on oak barrels,  although Taransaud also own Canton in Kentucky, where other formats are used. When they bought Canton, Henri was horrified to see oak chips, and wanted to stop their production, but “look at the profit margin” they told him. “Oak chips are for short term aromatics rather than long term élevage,” he says. The seminar was entirely about the effects of different barrel regimes on wine quality and style.

A long list of aroma and flavor compounds that are extracted from oak made it clear in a talk from Taransaud’s oenologist, Nicolas Tiquet-Lavandier, that the effects are profound. Considering how long oak has been used, it seems surprising that new compounds are still being discovered. I was also surprised that the role of oxygen loomed so large, with discussion about the porosity of the oak, entry between the staves, and through the bung. I thought it had now been established that basically all oxygen enters through the bung (which should mean there’s much less since the change to the new silicon bungs).

The heart of the seminar was a series of comparative tastings with wines that had been specially vinified under different conditions. The results of comparing French, Hungarian and American oak were fairly predictable, with a strong contrast between the toasty vanillin of Château Puygueraud (Côtes de Francs) 2011 in French oak and the stronger aromas of coconut from American oak. Since French and American oak are different species of trees this was not surprising, but the difference between French and Hungarian, which are the same species, was pronounced: the French oak gave a refined impression to the wine, the Hungarian was somewhat coarse. This emphasizes the effect of growth conditions on the oak: it’s colder in the Hungarian forests and the trees tend to be smaller. This links in to a change in the way tonneliers in France handle their sources – there is much less emphasis on individual forests, and more on the grain of the individual wood. “Within a forest is not a unique location. This is why we at Taransaud have gone our of the forest, we blend forests, the grain is very important, the tighter the grain, the more slowly the wine matures,” says Henri.

I was quite fooled by the blind tasting to test the effects of duration of seasoning. The wood at Taransaud is air dried by exposing staves in the open. A critical element is the need for rain and humidity in the first six months, which is becoming a concern in view of reduced rainfall in some years. The seasoning at first extracts compounds from the oak – this is crucial for reducing bitterness – and then adds other compounds as fungal infections occur; Henri likened this to maturation of cheese. I placed the three samples of Château Phélan Ségur 2010 in order on the assumption that more seasoning gives more subtle results, but this turned out to be too simple. Certainly the sample from 12 month seasoned French oak seemed a bit harsh compared to the others, but the 30 month seasoning seemed to produce a better balanced and more subtle wine than the 55 month seasoning, which had stronger wood spices. A similar test of American oak with the Swanson Vineyards 2010 from Napa Valley gave an overwhelming impression of coconut and dill on the 24 month seasoned sample, still pretty powerful and pungent with 36 months, but finally damped down a little with 48 months. Here longer is better. I was reminded that Paul Draper at Ridge, who uses American oak for the Montebello Cabernet, told me that American oak has a bad reputation not because of its intrinsic properties but because it’s not treated in the same way as French oak (it’s usually sawn instead of split and not air dried).

Blind tasting to test the effects of time spent in barrels also fooled me, as I was working on the assumption that impression of oakiness would be in direct proportion to time in oak (especially allowing for the fact that shorter time in oak would be followed by time in bottle). But Phélan Ségur 2010 showed the most vanillin, and even a touch of coconut, after 8 months in oak, still a touch of vanillin after 16 months in oak, but the cleanest and purest expression of fruits after an intermediate 12 months. However, the 16  months showed overall the most classic and best balance. Clearly this is not a simple matter of absorption into the wine with time, but of more complex interactions. For example, ellagitannins increase with up to 250 days in barrels and then decline.

The percentage of new oak at least was predictable: new oak was quite evident on the nose and palate of a Château Branaire-Ducru example from 2010, with an example that had been matured in second year oak showing more direct and purer fruits; but the blend had more weight, and was softer, rounder, and more complex. An interesting demonstration of classic balance obtained by not going to extremes.

Along the way, a panel of four winemakers commented on their impressions. With a range of different backgrounds (Sandrine Garbay from Yquem, Edouard Labruyère from Jacques Prieur, Peter Sisseck from Dominio de Pingus, and Stephan von Neipperg from Château Canon-la-Gaffelière), it was not surprising that their opinions differed. In a demonstration of how individual palates can agree or disagree, I was interested to see that there was one winemaker with whom I agreed on everything, one with whom I disagreed on everything, and two who were in between. I know whose wine I’m buying in the future.