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Friday Fishwrap
Hitting the Tannin Wall—And Fighting Back

By Charles Olken

Oftimes, when I am tasting Pinot Noir, I get seduced by its velvety texture and lush, layered fruit, and I forget that other varieties are not so friendly in their youth.

But this week, Connoisseurs’ Guide has been working its way through the best of the Cabernet Sauvignons. We have been retasting the top wines, a process we always do before rewarding any wine with a score of 90 and above, and, equally, before panning wines that we find wanting. And the thing that strikes us is that these tastings are far more fatiguing than tasting Pinot Noir. These are wines that are meant for the cellar. They are babies and have not begun to show their potential for the complex, supple beauty of the type that only comes with cellar aging.

A few years ago, maybe a decade at that, some wineries decided that tannin and structure were not good things, and they opted for very ripe wines, high in glycerin, low in acidity and luscious for drinking without long cellaring. And for a few years at least, this style grabbed headlines and was somewhat widely imitated. The wines were not bad, mind you, and they still had the ability to age a bit because Cabernet Sauvignon has the innate ability to hang on even when its style is opened up. Some writers, among them my buddy Dan Berger, dubbed them “parodies of themselves”, and he was not far wrong for the worst offenders.

Whether friend Berger exaggerated or not, the truth is that Cabernet Sauvignon was then and is today a fairly fierce variety in its youth. A winery can up the ripeness, can try to avoid harsh tannins through a variety of winemaking moves and can limit the underlying acidity of the wine, but no matter what they do, Cabernet is Cabernet. The assertion that the very ripe versions of the variety of the type that rose to prominence in the 1990s and stayed in frame until the mid-2000s would not hold up under cellaring are being disproved by a variety of vertical tastings that we and other writers are now undertaking. Still, overripe, or even very highly ripened, wines are just that, and for every wine that ages handsomely there is one that is coming up a bit short.

Well, if are you like us, and are willing to put a few wines by so that they can achieve the brilliance that is only gained with maturity of ten or fifteen years of patience, then you will be happy to know that the wall of tannin that can be young Cabernet Sauvignon is back—and it is back in full force. The makers of the grape, the folks who understand that this is a variety whose real value lies not in what it might show at four years but what it can show at twelve or twenty, have fought back, and their wines are now again in charge of our tastings. If a little palate fatigue, or taking a break in the middle of tasting, is the price for this return to the search for true Cabernet grandeur, then it is a small price to pay. Bring it on. We are Cabernet addicts again.


by David Rossi
Posted on:7/15/2011 11:18:15 AM

I wish there was a bit more tolerance for Pinot to have more tannin early in it's life. A Cab with strong tannins early is "meant for the cellar" and a Pinot with even modest tannin often get's knocked down for being "rustic".

I personally like some grip in Cabs, Syrah and Pinot.  Heck I even like a touch of bittnerness in a Gewurtztraminer.  I guess that is what makes the world go round.

That wall isn't all that high or hard
by Mike Dunne
Posted on:7/15/2011 1:46:28 PM

Charles, how many of these cabernet sauvignons are you facing in a sitting? At competitions, I've found that 40 to 50 cabernets built to age slowly and handsomely are about the limit because of their fierce tannins. However, a blind tasting earlier this week of 22 cabernets from Rutherford, virtually all in a style meant to be secured in the cellar for a decade or so, wasn't at all fatiguing. The number may have had something to do with that, but much improved tannin management in recent years also could account for the downright supple texture of most of the wines. The wall of tannin, at least in Rutherford of late, isn't very hard or very tall, and looks to be readily managed if you don't bite off more than your palate can tolerate.

Tannins in Cab
by Michael Donohue
Posted on:7/16/2011 12:01:02 AM

That purported wall of tannin sure wasn't hard or tall at Rubicon on Wednesday. The Union des Grands Crus tasting in SF in the spring was a real tannin fest - so much so I think I'll blend some Bordeaux with some Cal Cab to get the best of both world; either one on its own seems inadequate or excessive.

Protein Palate cleanser
by NR Carlson
Posted on:7/18/2011 9:28:23 AM

It can be helpful to have protein of some sort on hand to minimize the tannin while tasting these structured wines.  Old-timer winemakers used to use sheets of Silver-leaf gelatin for this purpose.  There is a beverage for this purpose, called 'SanTosti' that works quite well, a combination of pectin and cellulose gum in sparkling water - a bit more elegant solution.  Worth a try!

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