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Friday Fishwrap
Who Says Ripe Cabernet Does Not Age

By Charles Olken

Back in the 1970s, when California Cabernet outpointed Bordeaux reds in blind tastings, folks said those wines would not age. For reasons that elude me, they are saying the same thing today.

The proof, of course, is in the pudding. And it seems that we need to revisit the pudding each and every decade in order to have the naysayers taste the new pudding. Of late, I had begun to wonder if the naysayers might actually have a point. After all, the Cabernets from the mid-90s until now have been much riper and more obvious early in the lives than those lovely Cabs of the early 1970s.

We all remember those wines, don’t we? The concentrated bottlings of 1970 that benefited from early frost that reduced the crop and somehow produced small berries with lots of character have, from the day they were issued, been winning tasting against comparable wines from Bordeaux. The wines prevailed in the 1970s and in the 2000s. Those more recent results proved the naysayers wrong about their predictions from three decades earlier. And what about those 1973s and 1974s? Has anyone tasted Heitz 1974 Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet lately? We have. It is anything but dead. We recently saw it on the wine list of a famous San Francisco restaurant at $2500 a bottle. So, to show off a bit, we brought our own bottle from our cellars where it has rested from the day we captured it at the Heitz tasting room in Rutherford. The sommelier was so impressed that he gifted us a taste of 1982 Chateau Margaux as thank you for the taste we poured for him.

But, we are in a different era now with wines that march to a different drummer. Many of them are highly concentrated, and most of the great wines of the past fifteen vintages have not stinted on ripeness. Even wines that we point to as proof that all Napa Cabs are not lacking in pseudo-European grace (which can be translated into “not over 14% alcohol), like Corison, are still riper in actual count than most of the leading Cabs of the 1970s.

Not long ago, an experienced writer commented that Napa Cabs have become “a parody of themselves”. We strenuously disagreed, and now the proofs are beginning to come in. The puddings from the 1990s are beginning to emerge in vertical tastings that will show whether Napa lost its way or the naysayers have once again stepped on their own palates.

As Steve Eliot mentioned in yesterday’s blog, he and I journeyed up to Pride Mountain Vineyards at the very top of Spring Mountain to taste a vertical flight of the winery’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon stretching back to 1994. Our basic math skills tell us that the oldest of those wines, those from the 1990s, ranged in age from twelve to seventeen. If they were going to go south in a hurry, they would have given themselves away by now. But, even with alcohols ranging into the high 14s and low 15s, there was not a dead wine in the bunch. We will have a full set of tasting notes in an upcoming issue of Connoisseurs’ Guide, but suffice it to say that even the ’96 and the ’98, wines from less than fine vintages, were drinking quite well.

Pride is, to be sure, a hillside winery with growing conditions that are different from those found on the Napa Valley floor. They typically pick into November and have been known to pick into December in the occasional year. The vines have often stopped their photosynthesizing, and the grapes have then matured through a combination of leftover energy and a bit of dehydration—and we know that conditions like that are not what the texts tell are desirable for fine wine production. Yet, the Pride wines have been stunning more often than not, and neither high ripeness nor high alcohol has harmed their aging curves one little bit. Primary fruit is being replaced by secondary and tertiary elements that show increased layering and increased textural suppleness. Every one of the wines from the 1990s is going to live twenty years. The best of the group will not only live longer than that but will also carry their grandeur with them. If this tasting is to be believed, and we think it should be, then many of the ripe California Cabs of the 1990s are going to live longer than many of the people who own them. They were delicious in their youth, and they are delicious as they grow into middle age, and they will be delicious when they are grandparents to a new set of young Cabernets years from now.

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Pride Mtn Wines
by Ken
Posted on:9/22/2011 4:46:49 PM

Pride Mtn wines have replaced the Silver Oaks and Caymus cabernets in my wine cellar for exactly the tasting you experienced.   I found that the former  wines were over the hill at 20 years including the Special Selection cabs while the mountain fruit at Pride produces wines with great ageabil



Mountain Fruit
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:9/23/2011 4:17:29 PM

You are right that mountain fruit can age well, but that does not necessarily exclude valley floor fruit from ageworthiness. Wines like Rubican, Staglin, Spottswood, Corison, Quintessa, Mondavi Reserve--just to name those that come to mind first--will also age comfortably for twenty years and more.

However, I do want to point out that twenty years is a long time for any wine. I always thank my cellar, the cork and the stars when I taste wines that old and find them in good form.

Oh, and my Heitz 74 Martha's and Beaulieu 70 Pri Res are both doing well at 40 years old--by way of comment both on CA wines and valley floor wines.

The accusation that CA Cabs will not age is a product of bias by those who have never tasted wines of that age. I continue to be surprised by the vehemence of those who feel the need to insult CA wines--when tasting experience proves them wrong.

Ageing Wines
by Steve Glass
Posted on:10/1/2011 6:00:54 PM

I think that I may have addressed myself to this topic ages ago (no pun intended), but I always enjoy discussions of what wines are best to age, for many of those discussions exhibit a degree of certitude I wish I could share.  For what it's worth, here's what I think I have learned about the matter after a half century and more of buying, storing, drinking and even teaching wines:

1.  There is no really hard data about ageing wines in general or about the ageing of any specific wine you may intend to age.  Yes, there are things you should know to improve your odds for success, but, in the long run, ageing wines is ever a crap shoot, and the edge always lies with the house, so to speak.

2, if you are in the habit of ageing wines, it is far more likely that you will keep a wine too long than that you will drink it too early.

3.  If you open a wine too early, there are things that can be done to ameliorate all of that excessive youth, but, when you open a wine that you've kept too long, all you an do is to sigh and regret your improvidence. 

Now some may say that the pleasure of successful ageing is worth the risk, and maybe so, but, for me, the sorrows have, in what is now a very long run, outweighed the pleasures.

Speaking of ageing, has anyone noticed that wine publications, while keenly aware of the age of wines, never speak of the age of those who drink those wines?  I'm now 76, and when something like the Wine Spectator writes with airy assurance, of a particular bottling: "best after 2012,"  I just smile ruefully and hope that the wine I drink nighty will act as a something of a preservative..

Napa Cabs
by Lou Kessler
Posted on:10/3/2011 12:17:31 PM

You can't paint all Napa cabs with the same brush but like a friend said to me at a cab tasting just recently, many of these wines taste alike and the common thread is the resemblance to Port. I love Napa cabs but I have to agree many have been made with grapes that IMHO are over ripe. Most winemakers have mortgages to pay, children to raise etc. and they will admit to making wines that they think will sell. The mayor of Monkton has not been a positive influence in certain areas. 

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