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Thoughts on the 2009 Cabernet vintage

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Even before the grapes were picked in 2010, there was widespread speculation that the cool vintage would result in the sorts of Cabernet Sauvignons not much seen in the previous 20 years: wines of moderate alcohol (perhaps even below 14%, in the hopes of ardent anti-alcoholists), dryness, complexity and ageability.

That may well turn out to be the case, but it’s still too early to tell, at least for me: the vast majority of high-end 2010 Cabernets have yet to be released, and barrel sampling can only tell you so much. I’ve formally reviewed only one 2010 Cabernet that cost more than $30 (Robert Mondavi’s Reserve, $135), meaning that hundreds more are waiting in the pipeline, and I can assure you I’m eagerly looking forward to tasting them.

However indeterminate the 2010s are at this point, we do have a kind of canary in the coal mine, an early detection system for cool Cabernet vintages: 2009. It wasn’t quite as cool as 2010 (which in turn wasn’t as cool as 2011), but it was cool enough. Here are some random notes from my 2009 Vintage Diary:

- June 11: “weatherman says coolest June in 25 years”
June 22 – “Spring was absent; it was cold, with lots of wind” [quoting Eric Baugher, from Ridge]
July 6 – “another protracted cooling period”
- August 9 – “coolness of the overall vintage is remarked on by everyone”
- August 12 – “2009 cooler than average” [from the Santa Rosa Press Democrat]
- Aug. 23 – “It turned radically colder today, in fact the coldest temperature in months”
Oct. 26 – - “cool harvest season with no extreme heat events”
mid-October: – “the vintage was too cool overall” [quoting Nick Goldschmidt]

Rain in mid-October didn’t help the Cabernet crop, but inbetween the chills and sprinkles, harvest time saw enough sunny warmth for Scott McLeod, then at Rubicon, to say (Sept. 10), “things taste good at lower brix. So I’m bullish!”

So how did things turn out? Based on my reviews of the 2009s, pretty good! I’ve now rated about 425 Cabernets, including many priced well over $100, and have given about 150 a score of 90 points or higher. That’s a very high average. You can interpret it one of two ways: 2009 really did result in superior Cabernets, or I just happen to have a Cabernet-centric palate that forgives the variety for a multiplicity of sins (the way a loving parent does with a child).

I suppose it’s a bit of both. I can’t say my top-scoring 2009 Cabernets are particularly low in alcohol. Most range from the mid-14s to the low 15s, which puts them right there in the sweet spot. (There are obvious exceptions: Diamond Creek, Von Strasser, Ridge, Summers, Au Sommet: look to the mountains for lower alcohol!) So it’s a bit of a myth that these cooler vintages are resulting in lower alcohol Cabernets. (This myth is easy for harried wine writers to repeat, like birds on a wire. It sounds good, it makes sense, it’s compelling. It just happens not to be true!)

But what I can say is that the better 2009 Cabernets (mostly from Napa Valley) display a balance that’s delightful, despite alcohol levels that some will consider too high. Obviously, I don’t, but this gets back to the fact that the Cabernet-phile in me not only forgives them this “sin,” but actually welcomes it. Alcohol in a great Napa Cab gives it a warmth and mellowness that Bordeaux, for example, often lacks.

I think we can safely say that the greatest threat to Cabernet (aside from freakish weather, like heavy and continuous rain during harvest) is heat, not cold. Hot years, like 2004 and to some extent 2008, saw too many Cabernets that were baked and pruny. Heat is the thing that even the best growers find challenging to deal with. “Cold,” in California, has to be taken with a grain of salt. When we say a vintage was “cool” or “cold,” we mean relative to the norm, which is quite warm to hot. “Cold” in California doesn’t mean the same as “cold” in Bordeaux. “Cold” in Bordeaux can be a catastrophe. “Cold” in California just means “not hot.” A cool California vintage can be a miserable summer for humans in San Francisco if the temperature almost never gets out of the 60s. But that means it’s in the 70s and 80s in Napa Valley, pretty ideal for Cabernet grapes.

So 2009 is looking like a very fine year! [By the way, 2012 so far is boringly normal, the first uneventful year in quite a while. No news is good news.]

  1. great review. it’s really nice to hear somebody explain the details of a vintage, instead of just declaring it “good” or “bad”. well written, makes me curious to check out the 09 vintage. Thanks Steve!

  2. Nice recap. I have been encouraged by the few 2009′s I have tasted. Rain in October on Cabernet is not such a bad thing on well drained soils. I am in a minority, but I really am still enjoying a select group of ’98′s so grown. Often what tastes good at 2 years, disappoints at 10. McLeod’s comment is interesting. If I recall correctly, the ’41 vintage from Inglenook’s deep gravely soils experienced quite a bit of rain during harvest, yet they’re still talking about the wine.

  3. Steve, I’m not sure 2009’s weather in Napa is a good proxy for 2010.
    In fact, statistically, 2009 seems pretty normal. Oakville accumulated 2,991 degree days (Winkler scale) compared to a long term average of 3,019; and despite a precipitation volume of 5.5 inches in October, our Vintage Evaluator Index (VEI), that computes temperature and precipitation, reached a modest 97.2%.
    2010’s growing season was much colder than that. Oakville had 2,631 degree days; it rained 3.8 inches in October; and the Vintage Evaluator Index stayed at 85.6%: more than 2 standard deviations below the normal mean.
    BTW, although 2011 was possibly the coldest growing season on record in Sonoma, it was warmer than 2010 in Napa (i.e., Oakville, Saint Helena, Calistoga and Angwin).

  4. george kaplan says:

    Morton and TWIMC,
    I had a chance to taste about half a bottle of the 1941 Inglenook at a Heublein tasting in 1983( those were the days). One of the top 1-3 CaliCabs i’ve tasted, a sort of Napa Palmer. 12% alc I believe, not lacking warmth and mellowness, but excelling in breed.

  5. Dear George Kaplan, next time you have a bottle of ’41 Inglenook, call me!

  6. George, I last tasted the ’41 in the late ’70′s and by the standard of the day it was an exceptional wine. That left me with one bottle which I hope my son opens up on its 100th birthday. Not great odds I will be there.

    Your estimate of 12% sounds about right considering the vintage. In the first two decades of my career I made a habit of saving the dregs of a lot of wines I opened at home and the next day running them in the lab. Unfortunately, someone (moi) drank the dregs of the ’41 so I have no idea. But the ’58, a warm year of ripe fruit was 13.0%, the ’59 and ’60 both ripe years, early harvest, were both 13.05%. The ’65 and ’66 were 11.5% and 12.25% respectively. I don’t know if it means anything to you, it does to me, the total phenolics on the wines mentioned were, oldest first, 1753,2376,2215,2072 and 1482. On the whole pretty soft style compared to today. Probably no extended masceration, three years or more in old wood, egg white on fining most likely.

    If I happen to be around in 2041 I will run the alcohol and let you know.

  7. I didn’t see your comment, Steve. If your still doing this blog, I’ll ask my kid to give you an invite. ;)

  8. george kaplan says:

    Morton, Do what do you attribute the staying power of wines like the ’41 Inglenook?

  9. george kaplan says:

    Steve, Those Heublein pre-auction tastings were crazy good.I was in Chicago, where there were long lines to taste thimblefuls of 1869 Mouton( lousy) or Clos Vougeot( excellent), while I and my crew were left more or less alone with 10 vintages of BVPR, Inglenook, 1st Growths from 1961 and 1966, Eisweins. You had to pace yourself, and consume mass quantities of bread and water, but it was worth it. One day 3 of us finished up by sharing a whole bottle of 1962 Lafite. It was good. Thanks to the legendary El, we all survived.

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