Blind Tasting: 2009 California Cabernet

Pitting Davids against Goliaths. Who performed best in this challenging vintage?


Blind tasting is the great equalizer. When you taste wines blind, you learn what you actually think of a wine, as opposed to what you expect to think. With this in mind, I assembled a set of eight wines to taste blind with one of my regular tasting groups. Having tasted some of the wines previously, I was going in with a bit of a stacked deck. I included wines that spanned a rather broad price spectrum, from $30 to $125 knowing, or hoping at least, that some of the less-expensive wines would perform quite well in this setting. Little did I know just how well they would.

Wine Tasting image via Shutterstock
Before we get into the wine, a little background on the vintage. 2009 has been described as both challenging and very successful. The first of a series of cool vintages, producers in 2009 were faced with late season rains that caused quite a bit of consternation, coming as they did right before harvest of late-ripping varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon. The party line in the growing regions north of San Francisco was that those who harvested before the rains avoided the dilution and rot that followed. On the flip side are winemakers who harvested after the rains, claiming that the wines harvested before the rains suffered from a lack of physiological ripeness, manifesting as green tannins and herbaceousness. The truth lies somewhere in the middle of course, and the success of the Cabernet in 2009 depended heavily on both the winemaker and the viticulturist.

To be sure, the cooler temperatures did produce a crop of wines that lack the power, depth and lush personalities that Napa in particular has become famous for, but one has to ask if that, in and of itself, is necessarily a bad thing. Wines with less weight, higher natural acids, and tannins that you can feel without having to imagine them are, after all, traits of wines grown around the globe, and in Napa and Sonoma prior to 2007, to varying extents. While this set of wines didn't particularly wow me, I would say that they broke down roughly into three groups: wines I would be happy to buy, wines that I would be curious to try again, and wines that were simply not my style, though I would try them again.

That last group was, for me, the most troubling of this tasting. They were wines that felt forced, as if the winemakers felt they needed to produce the powerful wines the region is known for regardless of the quality of the fruit they were able to harvest. I'm sure they felt that they did the best they could, and have a certain obligation to their customers to deliver the house style each year, but one has to question whether that is the best strategy. These wines were in a house style, of sorts. Their structure and weight was consistent with previous efforts, but the flavor profiles were not, lacking depth and the explosive fruit that many consumers might expect. Might it not be better to focus instead on educating the consumer a bit? Getting them to know and understand what vintage variation is all about?

That, to a certain extent, is my job, and I'll do what I can when I can. This tasting was in part an effort to educate a small group of wine lovers, not so much about vintage variation, with which they are well-versed, but rather more with house styles. This group is a bit of a Euro-centric group, and as such it's not surprising that the wines that typically show more restraint, and thus needed to make up less ground in this restrained vintage, came out on top. It's also not surprising that these wines tended to be the less expensive wines of the group. I hear the responses coming my way already, that these wines need some age to show their best, and we were judging these wines on how they were showing today, not their potential.

Guilty as charged, to a degree, but that is the way people drink wine. They buy it and drink it within a few hours or days. The percentage of people who cellar wine is minuscule, and in all honesty, even when trying to divine the future of these wines, a troublesome and imprecise art, our consensus was that with two exceptions, there simply doesn't seem to be much upside here. The winners were the best wines, they will age well over the short to medium term, say three to six years, and they taste better than the losers. That's the story. That's all there is to say here before revealing the wines. My advice to you if you want to try some 2009 North Coast Cabernet? Read these notes carefully, but don't ignore the facts of the group's rankings, a cadre of sophisticated drinkers, or the correlation with my notes. Doing so risks disappointment and frankly, paying too much for a bottle of less-than-satisfying wine.

These bottles were uncorked at noon, decanted at 6pm, and tasted from 7:30 through 10:00pm

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Blind Tasting: 2009 California Cabernet

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