While I remain enamored with the great wines of California’s past, I am on the fence in regards to what can be called their more modern style first embraced in the very early 1980s. The wines from the 1960s and 1970s were often made by winemakers operating in the field, basing their actions on the accumulated wisdom of the generations that had come before them.
In one fell swoop, the University of California at Davis changed almost all of that. In the late 1970s there was a backlash against wines that were perceived as too tannic, alcoholic, and over-ripe. Boy how things have changed! In an effort to tame these brutes, and bring elegance to the wines of California the concept of “food wines” was born. A marketing major could not have come up with a better idea!
Food wines, simply put, were wines that were to be lighter, more elegant and less aggressive in their youth. What the winemakers actually achieved was to strip the glory that is California from the wines and make them resemble cheap, almost innocuous table wines. Guess what happened next.
What to expect: Napa Cabernet SauvignonCalifornia's Napa Valley has been a source of world-class Cabernet Sauvignon for well over a century. It's warm climate, and varied terrain, allows for many styles of wine. One thread that runs through almost all the Cabernet based wines from Napa is their lush, ripe full-bodied feel and rich flavors of currant and berry. Wines from the valley floor, particularly around Rutherford, are famed for a dusty quality, while those coming from the hillsides surrounding the valley, Mt. Veeder, Diamond Mountain and Howell Mountain for example, tend to be a little leaner with more obvious structural elements.
There was another backlash but now the winemakers in California were equipped to properly deal with whatever might come. I won’t go so far as to call the techniques used trickery, in fact they are more akin to make-up, but their effect on California’s wines has been dramatic and very wide spread.
The goal of the winemakers during this backlash to the “food wine” movement was admirable. They simply wanted to find a way to put that Californianess back in the bottle while making the wines softer and more accessible in their youth. While some regions produce fruit that is ideal for this style, many simply do not. The only way to get to there, rich fruit and soft tannins, especially with Cabernet Sauvignon, which is not exactly famous for its soft tannins was to get them ripe.
Now there is ripeness, and then there is RIPENESS. Unfortunately some very influential people in the world of wine seem to have a distinct fondness for RIPENESS so those wines garnered many, many points. Points, being the harbinger of a wine’s retail success, are pretty highly valued in the wine world. It’s no surprise that winemakers, and more importantly winery owners, figured out that really ripe wines got, in general, higher scores than less ripe wines.
So what’s a winemaker to do? Harvest riper and get those tannins soft and supple, or even non-existent. But of course as grapes ripen they lose balancing acidity. Not a problem, they can acidify. And as grapes get really ripe they accumulate tremendous amounts of alcohol producing sugar. Not a problem. Produce a wine with 16% alcohol, or add some water to the must, or extract some alcohol with new machines. It’s not a problem.
Well you know what was a problem. The wines that were produced. I hate to generalize, and I really am a fan of very many California wines, but the truth is that many wines produced in California today, and expensive wines at that, are produced in a style that makes them sweet, fat and easy to drink on release yet obscures most of the character of the grape and virtually all of the terroir.
Another issue I have with these wines is that they just don’t age well. Allow me to be more precise. These wines simply do not have the balance to age into a wine that is elegant, velvety and full of complex flavors and aromas. All too frequently these wines are attractive in their youth, full of super fruity flavors and creamy choco-mocha oak but with a few years the fruit drops out, the wood tannins and acid remain and you get one painful surprise in the mouth; nastiness.
I’ve been drinking California cabernet long enough to see follow the wines through these cycles and to my mind 1991 had remained one of the benchmark vintages of the past two decades. The vintage produced wines with exceptional balance and lovely, ripe fruit that retained freshness and purity. Even after quite a few years the wines gave all indications of evolving well and seemed to promise great things in the future.
Well, the future has arrived and I was looking forward to a long planned retrospective tasting of this fine vintage. So it was that I joined 10 of my fellow wine geek friends to sample 20 wines from this outstanding vintage. We tasted the wines single blind, in that we knew what wines we were supposed to have but not the order. I remembered a few of the wines but I did not keep the list handy. The wines were served with dinner, roasted marrow and bone-in sirloin steak, medium rare, for those interested.
Would the wines vindicate the winemakers who choose to follow the recipes of UC Davis, or would they show the error of those ways and serve as a warning for the vintages that followed. That's the signpost up ahead - your next stop, the Violate Zone.