Dan Berger

Has American Cabernet Sauvignon reached its peak?

In spite of national sales increases, Cabernet Sauvignon’s place in the American wine spotlight my have peaked.

Is the game over for this iconic American wine, at least for more pricey versions? Isn’t it time for us to develop a new view of what Cabernet has become – and perhaps mourn the death of what brought so much angst to Bordeaux producers and pushed the stock of Napa Valley to the moon?

Cabernet sales may be at an all-time high, but how much of that volume is with very young and non-vintage Tuesday night wine? Is any of it made to be aged?

Over the last year, my wife and I have taken to pulling corks on numerous older red wines from our cellar. The majority of them were 1970s Cabernet. Almost all were exemplary. A few were great!

For the most part, all had moderate alcohol levels (12% to 13.5%), low pH levels (3.4 to 3.6), and good acids (.6% to .7%.)

I cannot say the same for the Cabs made since the mid-1990s. Since then, everything got more drinkable earlier. And less ageworthy. The template changed partly as a result phylloxera impacting California vineyards, forcing replanting, changing trellis systems, and altering just about everything associated with the grape.

For the last two decades, Cabernet’s production techniques have changed radically because of many additional factors (such as the impact of scores and the demand that wines taste good sooner). Those being produced for the last several years have led us to a wine that is different from what it once was.

Today’s CS slogan could be, “Drink ’em now, cellaring be damned.” We’re now releasing Cabernets earlier than ever. Some don’t even taste like wine yet.

For the most part, the current generation of wine buyers has been brainwashed to appreciate higher alcohol, sweetness, and plushness. At the same time, consumers have learned nothing about the importance of varietal character. In fact, some people today see varietal character as a flaw!

Most Cabernets are a parody of what it can be, and ought to be, if the name on the label is to carry any meaning at all.

I have been judging wine since 1981. Today’s gold medals and 100-point scores all seem to be granted to unbalanced wines with lots of oak and alcohol, and acids so low the wines don’t really work with food. Aromas generally have nothing to do with the Cabernet family.

I’m rarely thrilled to judge Cabs these days.

It’s been disappointing (if not hilarious!) to see descriptions that are un-wine-like, such as bacon, chocolate, roasted nuts, mocha, vanilla, caramel, smoke, and other extraneous smells, associated with quality Cabs. To paraphrase a 1984 Wendy’s TV ad, “Where’s the fruit?”

What we now face is the prospect at least another generation of Cabernets that won’t age with the grace that they once did.

The main problem is in dealing with a public accepting without complaint Cabernets that are generic in aroma and taste. That’s fine for $5 or $10 wines. The fact that they don’t smell or taste like Cabernet has no impact on my job.

The industry is thrilled to use MegaPurple or other concentrates and artificial oak flavors to sell what they say is Cabernet at $10. Varietal character? Forget it.

But when a wine is $50 per bottle, or more, I care. So should you. At that price there is the implication that the wine will improve with time in a cellar, to emulate the best of Bordeaux, which are meant to be aged. For the most part, the more you pay today for a Cabernet, the less likely it is to age well. Most of today’s $150 Cabs do not age well beyond about 6 to 10 years. If that.

Result: Wineries are releasing Cabs far sooner than they ever did. In the 1970s, we’d all wait four years orf more before a Cabernet was released and it was said to be young. Today almost all 2015s Cabs are now out. Wineries are asking us to buy 3-year-old Cabs that may or may not be Cablike.

The Pacific Northwest can take solace in the fact that the other Bordeaux varieties grow here with a bit more distinction than they do in most of California. This gives PNW producers a chance to structure their wines with a little more distinctiveness.

Warm climate Merlot isn’t much of an addition to Cabernet, but cooler-climate Merlot, not to mention Cabernet Franc, can add a fascinating complexity to CS, making the blends more complex when they are young.

Also, cooler climes here let winemakers pick with slightly less alcohol, a big benefit when the wines are intended to go with food.

So although this is a downer of an article for those who love mature Cabernet, the good news is that the Pacific Northwest has natural benefits to making balanced wines like those that once (1976?) made headlines in Paris and still have a following among wine collectors.

Better handing at the winery has led to better and more mature tannins, more careful use of oak barrels for aging, and better balance than two decades ago. It all gives consumers hope that Cabernet Sauvignon is not yet a lost cause.

This story was originally published September 13, 2018 12:00 AM.

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