1991 California Cabernet Retrosepctive tasting

Have they stood the test of time?


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 Sauvignon

California'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.

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  • Snooth User: Daniel Petroski
    Hand of Snooth
    30091 715

    Great retrospective tasting (notes), Greg. Much appreciated.

    Feb 01, 2010 at 12:28 PM

  • Snooth User: zinfandel1
    Hand of Snooth
    154660 1,085

    Excellent article on the '91 cabernets. I can only wish that I was present at the tasting.

    Feb 01, 2010 at 12:58 PM

  • Snooth User: taylorsenatore
    Hand of Snooth
    189298 22

    Ahh... the allure of '91. Great notes and article, Greg. I've had the 1991 La Jota and have to agree with your note. It's hands down awesome. In contrast to your article (somewhat) I believe the '91 La Jota was consulted on by well known "big wine" producer Helen Turley-- I'm sure that Howell Mountain fruit helped it keep up! Also with the exception of maybe one or two outliers I would have to agree on whole with how the other wines fared based on what I've tasted. Cheers & Kudos!

    Feb 01, 2010 at 1:37 PM

  • Snooth User: Justin Christoph
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    99281 290

    great article, i've had better luck with the 91 monte bello than you did in this instance, one of my favorite wines that isnt riesling.

    Feb 01, 2010 at 2:12 PM

  • Snooth User: Lodi Brad
    176242 201

    In 1991 the average alcohol was 13.0% to 14%, with a corresponding higher acid. Not many wines today would age 20 years and have as much interest due to the trend of picking over ripe fruit with high pH and low acid. I am tired of 15+ alcohols.

    Let me add a note on 1991 Opus One (13.5%) which I served several bottles at Christmas, it showed with fruit, style and elegance I expected but really surprised/delighted my guests as they learned what excellent wines can be like when aged.

    Feb 01, 2010 at 2:18 PM

  • Snooth User: dmcker
    Hand of Snooth
    125836 4,997

    An excellent, timely piece on a good vintage that captures Napa during a phase of change. So what was your conclusion about how much of the good, old California Cab was still left by then?

    Looks like the La Jota, Dunn Howell, and then Montelena, were the bottles of the night. I've had similar experiences to what you describe for Dominus, and not just with that vintage. Spottswoode has come through a bit better in my experience, though with bottles the provenance of which I know clearly. And Montebello should be doing better much, so it likely (hopefully!) was a bad bottle.

    Thanks for your notes on this tasting, and I'll be looking forward to any more such closeups in the future....

    Feb 01, 2010 at 2:26 PM

  • Snooth User: Petervine
    365501 1

    I love Californian cabernet wines but are there any reasonably good wines that wont break the bank for us pensioners?

    Feb 01, 2010 at 2:27 PM

  • Snooth User: dmcker
    Hand of Snooth
    125836 4,997

    Petervine, check out this thread in the Snooth forum:

    Feb 01, 2010 at 2:54 PM

  • Snooth User: MelissaN
    359816 2

    Can someone please explain to me what "wet horse" smells and tastes like? Would it be similar to "barnyard"? Maybe there is a specific wine you can suggest that holds this characteristic (not necessarily a '91 vintage)

    Feb 01, 2010 at 2:56 PM

  • Snooth User: colginman
    315747 3

    Outstanding article ! Thank you very much. Fortunately or unfortunately regarding the La Jota, Dunn and Montelena I had the majority of these wines in my cellar and enjoyed them years ago. In my humble opinion, I found throughout the last 29 years of drinking and collecting that older wines (20 yrs+) tend to be less enjoyable and there are only great bottles as opposed to great wines and vintages. While I had a utopian experience with a 1906 Margaux Ive been let down time and again with old vintages. Drink and enjoy!!! Cheers to all.

    Feb 01, 2010 at 3:00 PM

  • Snooth User: davidboyer
    208575 26

    Greg - I just had an '86 Dunn, Howell Mountain, on Saturday and although the color was starting to brick just a little around the edges, it was drinking beautifully.

    Although not many winemakers will admit it, there is much more intervention in CA wines than we think. Reverse osmosis, micro-oxygenation, spinning cones combined with other technology and chemical alterations make these wines drinkable upon release for the most part.

    Sadly it is market driven and we're teaching the millennials that this is how wine should taste, which may further eradicate honest winemaking. Some CA winemakers though are expressing interest in getting back to some traditional values, which is a very positive note for me and glint of hope for us all.

    Nice post - thanks.

    Feb 01, 2010 at 3:04 PM

  • Snooth User: dmcker
    Hand of Snooth
    125836 4,997

    Davidboyer, would be interesting to hear your thoughts on the subjects in this thread in the Snooth forum:

    Feb 01, 2010 at 3:11 PM

  • I just picked up some 1991 Bernard Pradel Cellars Howell Mountain Ranch Cabernet from auction last week. Hopefully it's as good as the Howell Mpuntain Cabs that were tasted in this retrospective. Got to love that Howell Mountain fruit!

    Feb 01, 2010 at 3:47 PM

  • Snooth User: jdoug
    349232 1

    ouch. ouch. ouch. It's actually 1970s not 1970's, 1980s not 1980's and so on. The apostrophe shows possession when used correctly. Example from this article: "California's Napa Valley".

    Feb 01, 2010 at 5:13 PM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 238,748

    Hi Jdoug. Ok, I think i fixed it. Thanks for pointing that out. I still prefer the aesthetics of using the apostrophe, but I will strive to use the correct forms in the future.

    Feb 01, 2010 at 5:33 PM

  • Snooth User: Scoop
    371481 1

    Extremely interesting article - thank you for sharing that Paul!

    Feb 01, 2010 at 5:41 PM

  • Snooth User: arnieswine
    212254 29

    This article excites me! I have a small collection of wines from 1990-1996 mostly cabernets and now all I want to do it open them and drink.

    Feb 02, 2010 at 12:49 PM

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