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2009 Cabernets could miss the boat

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With so many important Cabernet Sauvignons and Bordeaux blends yet to be released from the 2009 vintage, it may be premature to make pronouncements about it. Still, I’m beginning to have my doubts.

As early as December 1, 2009, I wrote (in my vintage assessment for Wine Enthusiast), “The fuller-bodied reds from the North Coast, especially Cabernet Sauvignon, could be problematic.” The main problem was a major rainstorm on Oct. 12-13 that soaked Napa. That led to the classic question, “Did you pick before or after the rains?” As one Diamond Mountain winemaker put it, in an official press release, “The rain will define the harvest depending on which side of it you were on.” She warned that fruit picked after the rain would have “slightly lower sugars,” but don’t be misled by that word “slightly.” We’re talking about the difference between perfectly ripened grapes and less [or more] than perfectly ripened grapes, which really is the key for Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

My hunch, given how cool 2009 was–and it was a very cool season, the start of our notorious trio of “little ice age” vintages of 2009, 2010 and 2011–is that most Cabernet was not picked before the rains came, because it wasn’t ripe.

It is true that the rain was followed by a period of warm, sunny weather, the kind that, in theory, can dry out the vines and canopies and restore the grapes to health. But having rain followed by sun at that precarious time of the harvest is never as good as having no rain at all, which is why I used the word “problematic.” The problems include having grapes swollen with water, which would reduce their power and make them thin. This problem would be compounded by the size of the 2009 harvest, which was a large one, the biggest since 2005, and the second biggest of the decade.

And mold is also a very serious threat, especially for wineries that lack the professional staff to hand-sort out bad berries before they reach the fermentation tanks. Almost all wineries go through the motions of sorting, but few are wealthy enough to have the deep bench necessary to deal with a vintage like 2009. This is another reason why the top houses (which is to say, the most expensive wines) will have a leg up in 2009.

Still, as one North Coast vintner told me, “Big harvest + rain soaked quality isn’t a good combination.” Another winemaker, whom I respect a great deal, told me, “I just think 2009 was too cool over all. When you look at the great vintages in CA they tend to be the warmer ones.” This vintner allowed as to how 2009 might be good for coastal Pinot Noir (although he noted, and so did I, the early hype that accompanied it). But we’re not talking about Pinot Noir here.

I have now reviewed about 125 2009 Cabernet Sauvignons and, sad to say, my scores have not been impressive. Only a handful of 90-plusses. Thankfully, most of these wines aren’t terribly expensive, ranging from $18-$30. A typical one, which I won’t identify because my review has not yet been published, read: “A little sharp and aggressive in texture, giving it a rustic feel, but pretty rich in blackberries, currants and cedar, making it an easy Cab to drink now.” It is that aggressiveness that worries me. You want a nice Cabernet to feel smooth in the mouth, with gentle, warming tannins that glide like velvet across the palate. The slightest hint of coarseness can be jarring. Given how strong Cabernet’s tannins are, if the fruit doesn’t match it, the wines will taste and feel astringent. That’s my fear for 2009.

  1. Steve:

    The waterlogging issues that may have caused problems for North Coast producers in 2009 did not affect us in the Livermore Valley. After having blind-tasted our 2009 Lineage (albeit, still in barrel until December) against a number of Napa’s premier producers, I am confident that this will be our finest release to date. That’s only one of the nice things about being in a Region 3, coastal appellation that averages 14-17 inches of rain a year…especially in a potentially problematic vintage.

    -Steven Kent Mirassou

  2. jon campbell says:

    my 09 el dorado cab lots were fantastic….wish I had more, they were gone in a matter of months due to the bulk markets insatiable desire for cab….

  3. Why must Cabernet drink like blackberry extract and half and half every vintage? I like a velvety Cabernet from time to time, but the lack of astringency makes them often feel less than vinous. Maybe this is a disaster for the grocery store wines because vinosity is not the goal, but for more expensive wines perhaps critics and collectors can interpret them in context.

  4. Steve Hare says:

    Like it or not, the general public rates the overall California vintage based on the quality of Napa Valley Cabernet. Also, the general public views the vintage quality as a lightswitch…it’s either on or off. If the vintage is not [perceived] as a good one, it’s a bad one.

    As we all know, vintages are more like dimmer switches…various shades of brightness. And, yes, 2009 will be a challanging one for Napa Cabs. as your story correctly pointed out. But, if we follow history, the wine buying public will hear of the inconsistances and avoid the overall vintage (think of 1989, 1998, 2000 as other “challanging” vintages to sell).

    There are some fabulous 2009 Napa Cabs waiting in the queue but they will probably be hard to sell as they will be lumped by the public with the weaker offerings.

  5. Steve
    If all we appreciate is power, maybe we should focus on Port, or Bourbon. “Thin”. Like being thick is all that matters. If so, count me out. I’m not gonna pick raisins and add a buncha crap to my wine to make it appeal to that mentality. The past couple vintages have been problematic, but not because the wines are too thin. Thick as a brick, that’s what I say. Ask an Englishman what that means. This vintage is fabulous. Tough for the mountain vineyards, true. But no sunburn, unlike last year. Yes, we’ll lose a part of the Zin crop, and others, to rot, but if that rotten garbage goes on the ground, the clean stuff will ROCK. And if you overcropped, you are screwed, but you deserve it. We’re getting the sunshine that will make a lousy inch of rain almost inconsequential. Try making wine back east this year- now, THAT’S a jacked-up rainy vintage. Californians have no idea how good they got it. My CF, PV, and CS are still out there, and I may lose some, but I’m optimistic that with a few weeks of the forecast sunshine we’ll all be whistling Dixie. The CH and PN are awesome. Also SY- I’ve picked some and have some out, but that looks like it will be mostly OK. You are right that sorting thin-skinned and late-ripening varieties will be critical. But that’s normal. Grapes that ripen before fall and the threat of rain seldom make really fabulous wines, although they are less problematic. If you think about it, hot dry vintages are not the norm, and I remember some really tough wines from back in the 80s when we had a string of them. Of course, winemaking has changed, for the worse, since then. Now many winemakers treat even perfect fruit to a cocktail of additives, seeking the holy grail- black wine that’s too thick to pour- and flammable. With a good enough pump, though, you can get it through a membrane, distill the permeate to lower the flammability, and VOILA! 2010- worst vintage of the modern era, worse than 98 in some respects; 2011- possibly the greatest. 94 95 99 01 05 and 07 were pretty good. 07 is famous, of course- the kind of vintage you idealize, hotter than hell. But then, you are a Cab fan. We seldom get it perfect- a great vintage for CH, PN/ZN, and CS. I like PN and CH, so I like this year. This year I’m also making Cab, though, so check back with me in Nov and see if I’m still so sanguine. Mark

  6. Steve
    Typo. I meant 97 was famous, obviously.

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