As I write this, the 2010 winegrowing season in California has been one of the most bizarre on record.
The state is famous (or infamous, for those located in the United Kingdom and accustomed to cool Bordeaux vintages) for hot temperatures leading up to and including harvest time. Yet 2010 has been extraordinarily cool this spring and summer, and growers and winemakers worry that their grapes -- particularly red Bordeaux varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot -- might not get fully ripe before fall rains arrive.
This atypically chilly, moist growing season has introduced rot into the vineyards. Then a late-August heat wave saw temperatures rocket from the high 70s of previous weeks to the mid-100s for three days, frying many clusters that did not have sufficient leaf canopy for protection. The result of these two conditions: Extensive crops losses, with the burned grapes turning into unusable raisins, and the rot-affected clusters removed from the vines prior to and during harvest.
White-wine grapes and early-ripening reds, such as Pinot Noir, have survived this most unusual vintage, though with much lower yields, and reports are that quality should be excellent for these wines. Yet Cabernet Sauvignon, the conqueror grape of California, is two to three weeks behind in ripening, and vintners fret that fall weather will halt the ripening of the grapes, forcing them to possibly pick immature fruit. If they get lucky, and rainstorms keep themselves to the Pacific Ocean, some growers will harvest mountain-grown Cabernet deep into November -- so much for a relaxed Thanksgiving.
Crop losses are certainly reduced, anywhere from 20 percent to 100 percent. The silver lining -- though growers, winemakers and their accountants don’t see much shine in it -- is that many 2006 Cabernets are still in the market, due to a healthy crop and the slow-down in consumer purchases of expensive wines. If there was to be a “bad” vintage in California, the timing for it is right.
So, could 2010 be the year in which California Cabernet Sauvignon returns to the elegant, age-worthy style of yesteryear? Will Mother Nature force winemakers to reduce the ripeness of their grapes, and alcohol levels in their wines, by preventing them from letting the fruit hang on the vines too long? Will my favorite Cab producers, among them Chateau Montelena, Clos du Val, Corison, Ridge and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, finally have more company in bottling wines with true Cabernet character, with firmly tannic structure, refreshing acidity, secondary complexity notes of leafy herbs, cedar, forest floor and mint, alcohol percentages under 15, food compatibility, and capacity to develop in the cellar for a decade or more?
And will U.S. consumers embrace this more refined style, after years of drinking rich, heady, generously fruited California Cabernet Sauvignons?
The answers won’t come for some time, yet there are indications that the year 2010 could be a game-changer for California Cab. If winemakers aren’t allowed to let the grapes reach “optimal” ripeness due to the weather, and settle for a little bit less, might we see a return to more elegant, moderate wines?
There is nothing wrong with liking super-ripe red wines, and there will likely always be many of these from which to choose. Yet if one is going to spend $50, $75, $100 or more for a bottle of California Cabernet Sauvignon, wouldn’t he/she want to know that that the wine will improve with cellaring and is worth the investment, that it will likely match better with food, and that it will likely reflect the characteristics of the place in which the grapes were grown? Seventy-five dollars is a lot to spend for a richer wine best consumed as a cocktail, or with cheese after dinner, in place of Port.
This brings to mind the case of Clos Du Val winery in the Stags Leap District of Napa Valley. With its French roots, Clos du Val, founded in 1972, has always produced refined, understated wines, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon. Some influential critics have lambasted, or at best, ignored the Cabs, referring to them as green, thin, washed out, acidic, etc., when what they really meant was that the wines were not as heavy, unctuous and mouth-filling with flamboyantly ripe black fruit, as many of the wines they awarded higher scores.
Yet Clos du Val has stayed true to its Bordeaux-like house style of Cabernet Sauvignon, so firmly so that in July 2010, it declared its “Vindependence.”
“When, in the course of events, it becomes necessary to stand up for what you believe in, to bravely swim against the tide, to do what you think is right even if it is contrary to the opinions of others, to not allow yourself to be swayed, bullied or bargained with.
“At Clos Du Val, we hold these truths to be self-evident, that our commitment to such principles is at the very foundation of all we do and all we have done since our founding in 1972. That to manipulate these principles in a manner inconsistent with our dedication to balance, elegance and grace would demonstrate a lack of respect for each other, our vineyards and our consumers.
“We, therefore, as a winery and as individuals, and in recognition of these principles set forth by our founders nearly four decades ago, on this day in July in the year 2010, declare our independence which, in the spirit of individualism, shall forever more be deemed 'Vindependence.' ”
A marketing gimmick, yes, but the affirmation is one that Clos du Val has held since day one. It’s not likely to disappear. Try its 2005 Stag’s Leap District Cabernet Cabernet Sauvignon (the current release) for a real treat in true Cabernet character. Or the 2007 Corison Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, 2007 Chateau Montelena Estate, Jordan Winery’s new 2007 release from Alexander Valley in Sonoma, and Lambert Bridge’s 2006 Sonoma County. And if you can find them, the 2007 Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon from the Santa Cruz Mountains, and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ 2007 S.L.V. from the Stags Leap District, are fine examples of truly fine wine, grown and made to showcase terroir, the classic aromas and flavors of the grape, and the ability of these wines to age gracefully. Isn’t that what Cabernet Sauvignon is all about?