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TUESDAY TRIBUTES
06/26/2012
Tuesday Tributes
The Nose Knows A Green Cabernet When It Smells It

By Charles Olken

You have to hand it to scientific research. We now know that underripe Cabernet Sauvignon has more vegetative characteristics than riper Cabernet. I always thought so; now independent research has proven the case.
                
It happened at UC Davis, that important center of vinous learning where research was conducted to determine if alcohol levels in wine (feel free to equate that with ripeness levels) make a difference in the way qualified tasters perceive wine. Here are the findings:

  • When a panel of tasters evaluated wines grouped from the lowest levels of alcohol to the highest, the tasters found the higher alcohol wines to be far more flavorful and interesting than the preceding wines with low-alcohol levels.
  • Conversely, when the higher alcohol wines preceded those with lower levels, the tasters found those low alcohol wines to have diminished flavor attributes and enhanced vegetative qualities.

I don’t mean to make too much of this because we have no knowledge of the wines in question and thus we have no way of judging whether the samples themselves were at fault here. Did the wines come from the same vineyards? Has anyone established that there were satisfactory levels of physiological ripeness in the less alcoholic wines? Were the wines judged for quality or only for intensity?

On the other hand, I don’t really care because my nose has known for years that underripe wines are greener in character than satisfactorily ripened wines. And I will readily agree that today’s wines are generally higher in alcohol than they used to be. I can point to all kinds of reasons from trellising systems to more efficient yeasts to global warming to advances in plant health as causes one and all. But, as I say, I don’t care.

What I do care about is that how a wine smells and tastes. Cabernet Sauvignon varietal character has not changed in the four decades of my tasting experience. The Cabs of West Rutherford still smell identifiably of West Rutherford and the Cabs of Pauillac still smell identifiably of Pauillac. And folks, when I first compared the 1970s of both places (my first comprehensive vintage), those wines were different from one another but also related to one another. Funny thing is that the same is true today. Yes, the alcohol levels in both places has risen, and Napa is still riper by alcohol measurement than Bordeaux, but both places can also produce wines with higher vegetative characteristics in the less ripe wines of their areas. That was also true forty years ago and is true today.

So, let’s toast my nose—and yours. They know the truth. Ripeness brings enhanced character and underripeness brings greenness.

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Comments

Alcohol or Ripeness
by Mark
Posted on:6/26/2012 10:47:44 AM

This is a trite study. It should have used the same wine, at different alcohols.  Instead, all it proved was that the wines made with riper grapes are preferred, not that higher alcohols are preferred.

Of course, if you dealced one wine, your trial would only reflect one method, and the quality between different methods varies greatly.

Sic et non
by Randy Caparoso
Posted on:6/26/2012 11:55:21 AM

As always, Charlie, you bring up great food for thought.  Veering somewhat off-subject, it's interesting to note that comparing California cabs with Pauillacs is just about the same today as it was 40 years ago:  lower alcohol and green characteristics tend to be more prevalent in Bordeauxs because of climatic differences, and California cabs tend taste riper (despite the fact, as you duly note, that both regions grow vegetal wines in stressful vintages).

This is why, 40 years ago and today, comparing the two regions has never been a valid exercise.  However, green notes in Bordeauxs are more acceptable to Bordeaux lovers than green notes in California wines for California wine lovers because we expect them to be there; plus, of course, pyrazines are offset by presence of aroma/flavor notes of other grapes, since blending (necessitated by terroir) is more aggressive in the Medoc than in California.

However, I think everyone agrees that there is a point of diminishing return that can be related to alcohol levels, and Bordeauxs tend to be lower in alcohol.  Anytime you compare wines from those two regions, invariably you get the strong sense that Bordeauxs are more "finesseful," finding their strength in balance and harmony as much as sheer intensity.  Whereas for California cabs, the overriding sense is exuberance of fruit enhanced by alcohol driven weight, making balance less of a strength or quality factor.  This can be directly attributed mostly to alcohol levels; although, needless to say, use of multiple grapes and terroir related differentiations are also factors.

In the end, the wine lover disposed towards finesse will rank Bordeauxs as "obviously superior" to California cabs; and those disposed towards California cabs will invariably rank the less green, weightier, more fruit focused wines of California higher.  Happens all the time.

So matter what, the premise that "higher alcohol wines tend to be better" still does not hold water.  Perception of quality is in the eye of the beholder -- always has been, always will.  The only true thing is the old saying that the best California wines are made in California, and the best French wines are made in France.

Cab Is Cab
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:6/26/2012 1:53:59 PM

Randy--

Thanks for your note. I do, however, think you overstate the differences between CA and BDX. The higher ripeness levels in BDX found in the recent decade have all but blotted out the pyrazine influence and, in some cases, the BDX alc levels have come very close to and surpassed those of balanced CA wines.

Still, even three decades ago, experienced tasters on both sides of the pond had trouble telling CA from BDX in blind tastings. Witness the Judgment of Paris. Witness the tasting in NYC of mostly Francophiles who 14 of 16 chose a Gemello from the hills of Santa Clara County as first place and as French.

In any event, I am not trying to suggest superiority in a head to head contest. My point is simply that Cab is Cab and green Cab is green Cab on both sides of the pond.

Sic et non
by Randy Caparoso
Posted on:6/26/2012 2:27:37 PM

Totally agreed, Charlie.  I was speaking in terms of generalities and tendencies:  exceptional cases where even "experts" mistake California wines for French and vice-versa perpetually pop up.  But generally speaking, I think truly experienced tasters don't make that error (a lot of "experienced" tasters, or "experts," really are not).

However, I don't think the 1976 Paris judging makes a good example since at that time those French judges had absolutely no experience with California wines.  As a burgeoning sommelier in the late seventies, even I was scratching my head over that one:  how could anyone mistake a Bordeaux crus for a Napa Valley cab? -- in those days, the differences were more graphic.  The only explanation for me, at that time, was the French judges' ignorance -- but who could blame them?  If you don't know, you don't know.

In any case, I still contend that there is more allowance for greenness when it comes to Bordeaux, as well as for several other factors (Brettanomyces being a big one).  It's almost like comparing Sauvignon Blancs:  if it's from New Zealand, the herbaceousness is delicious; but if it's from California or elsewhere, the herbaceousness is off-putting, a sign of underripeness not deliciousness.

Alcohol or Ripeness
by Tomas
Posted on:6/28/2012 11:46:26 AM

Mark, the same wine at different alcohols? How would that be possible?

No Subject
by TJ
Posted on:6/30/2012 8:45:40 AM

so does anyone have any thoughts about california cab vs the barossa?  australia definitely has greener cabs, but it definitely gets pretty warm here, and cab fruit is harvested later in the season..

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