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California Cabernet Sauvignon: Wines in “crisis”, or just best enjoyed young?



I’ve wondered for many years if the big, oaky, ripely sweet Napa Cabernets I’ve given high scores to will age or not. In most cases, my suspicion had been “only moderately,” but it was awfully hard to tell, since not even I, as a wine critic, could frequently get my hands on older bottlings—and besides, many of the famous “cult” Cabs weren’t old enough to be considered “old,” by the time I stopped reviewing California wine, last March.

Still, my reviews over the years show my increasing skepticism about these wines’ longterm performance. Where once I might have suggested 15 or 20 years for my top-rated California Cabs and Bordeaux blends, by 2005 or so I was lowering my estimates, and advising readers to drink their wines immediately, or over the ensuing six years.

Much of this was based on my own experience. I would routinely pull older (ten-plus years) bottles from my cellar, only to find them prematurely old and tired. The superripe fruit had turned raisiny; the alcohol had turned hot as the fruit dropped out, and the oak, which seemed like a pleasant skein of toasty richness in youth, now appeared merely clumsy.

This is why I increasingly raised an eyebrow at some critics’ prognostications about the ageability of Napa Valley and other Cabernet Sauvignons. It did not seem likely to me that many would survive twenty years, or even fifteen, or even a dozen, for that matter. But one of the glaring deficiencies of our system of critical writing is that journalists never investigate ageability recommendations of famous critics ten of fifteen years after they’ve been issued. The reasons why not are obvious: Nobody’s got the time, nobody’s got access to the wines, and ten or fifteen years after a review has been published, nobody knows or cares about it anymore. Thus, the question of the ageability of these Big Cabs has never been adequately answered, which is really a shame.

Now, in a very important article, Decanter has addressed the situation, calling into question the ability of certain Barolos, Napa Cabs, Bordeaux, Rhones and Burgundies to age before they start exhibiting exotic scents of prunes and figs, the burnt toast undertones of barrel ageing, the silky mouthfeel and unmistakable heat of high alcohol.” The article adds, “Before you decide whether this sounds appealing or not, consider that these signs of a sunshine-filled wine from a hot vintage might just also be indications of a wine crisis hiding in plain sight.”

It seems that more and more people who do have access to older bottles of these big wines are discovering “premox,” or premature oxidation, in them. After premox issues with certain white wines, a professor of enology in Bordeaux told Decanter, “I believe there is a similar scandal with red wine, and that in 10 years’ time it will be just as explosive as the one affecting white Burgundy has been. And it’s not limited to one region; all red wines that are expected to be aged for long periods of time – so Barolo, Napa, Bordeaux, the Rhône, Burgundy and others – are in danger of ignoring this threat.”

The article’s author, Jane Anson, pulls no punches. “I first wrote about the subject [of premox] for last year and quickly realised that the findings throw into doubt not only the leading viticultural practices of the past decade, but also the work of several leading critics who have amply rewarded low acidity and super-ripe fruit; two of the leading offenders for rapid ageing.” We can debate just who those “leading critics” are. The point I would like to contribute is this: I too gave very high scores to these types of wines. But I did so based on their sheer impressiveness at the time I reviewed them, which was almost always just as they were being released. I stood by my scores then, and I stand by them today, because these wines are magnificent creatures, as rich and delicious as any wines produced in human history. Thus they fully merited their high scores.

But, like I said, I increasingly warned that these wines are not long agers. I did not bemoan this fact: most people nowadays don’t care about aging wine for a long time, anyway, even if they have a decent storage area to do it.

Can the problem be reversed? The Decanter article quotes another French researcher as claiming it can be, if “two principal risk factors” are avoided: leaving the grapes on the vine to get overripe, and then using too much oxygen during the winemaking process.

But these are difficult practices to get away from. Winemakers can pick their fruit a little earlier than they used to, but not too much: if the grapes haven’t lost their green tastes and high acids then the wine won’t be any good. And exposing Cabernet to oxygen, however it’s done, is almost de rigeur these days (through pumping over, racking and various micro-ox techniques), in order to tame the troubling tannins that can be so fierce in Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

It’s worth noting, too, that Michael Rolland’s wife was interviewed for the Decanter article, and she believes that the problem of premox in red wines is overstated. “We simply protect the fruit and ensure stable conditions throughout the winemaking process,” she said.

The Decanter article certainly doesn’t resolve the issue; nothing will, at this point. But it’s an important article because it raises a profoundly important question. What’s been your experience with older (say, ten-plus years) Napa Valley Cabernet and Bordeaux blends, particularly from the 21st century?

  1. Bob Henry says:


    I follow no strict dogma when it comes to age-ability.

    And this “outlier” wine (which I aspire to taste some day) underscores that sentiment: 1947 Cheval Blanc.

    (I love the 1990 Cheval Blanc bottling. Likewise the 1985 — which Michael Broadbent in his anthology review book titled “Vintage Wine” describes as “perfect,” giving it a five star rating.)


    From Slate
    (posted February 13, 2008):

    “The Greatest Wine on the Planet:
    How the 1947 Cheval Blanc, a defective wine from an aberrant year, got so good.”


    By Mike Steinberger
    “Drink: Wine, Beer and Other Potent Potables” Column

  2. Bob Henry says:

    An update of the premox article . . .

    Excerpt from Decanter Magazine
    (November 2014, Page 64ff):

    “Premox: Has the Crisis Moved to Red Wine?;
    Are the premature oxidation woes that beset white Burgundies from the mid-1990s now threatening red wines? A study now casts doubt on the longevity of super-ripe, oaky, low-acid reds.”

    By Jane Anson

    . . .

    ‘The causes are in most cases entirely avoidable,’ says . . .
    [Institute of Oenology] researcher Valérie Lavigne. ‘There are two principal risk factors: firstly, leaving the grapes on the vines until they are overripe; and secondly allowing too much oxygen during the winemaking process. Using low doses of sulphur dioxide (SO2), particularly when coupled with a high pH (pH is connected to acidity levels in wine, which drop as fruit ripens, and beyond a pH of 4, SO2 loses almost all of its protective effect), is another danger, as is excessive use of new oak, which is highly oxygen-hungry’.


    The push towards riper fruit began in earnest in the 1990s –- and by and large has brought about hugely positive results. Before then, green harvesting was rare, yields were higher, alcohol lower and picking earlier. Unripe flavours in the resulting wines were fairly common. But slowly, as winemakers began to look for extraction and concentration, the viticultural and vinification techniques changed – more vigorous extraction on higher-sugar grapes, leading to higher-alcohol, lower-acid wines. Similar trends were seen both in Napa Cabernets and the garagiste movement in Bordeaux, particularly with the Merlot grape, with similar results; namely high alcohol, high oak, high tannins, and a pH straying dangerously close to 4.

    . . .

  3. Bob Henry, your earlier comment of being disappointed by a recent vintage of Château Gruaud-Larose jogs my memory of an entirely different experience, one of my all time favorite wine memories. In the mid 1980’s I was in Bordeaux, and accepted an invitation for Easter Sunday dinner at Chateau Olivier in Graves. The host, Jean-Jacques de Bethman, brought out successively older vintages as the meal progressed. The final wine was served blind, and I was asked to comment on how old I thought it was. We had been drinking vintages from the 50’s, and I recognized this was quite a bit older–but was not at all familiar with the older vintages of the region. I said rather tentatively it might be from the 20’s. It turned out to be 1874 Gruaud-Larose. I am sure the setting (the 13th century Chateau, complete with witch’s hat towers, a moat, big baronial rooms with fire places, the company of three generations of the host’s family) influenced my experience of this wine. But it was wonderful, and drinking it felt like time traveling.

  4. Bob Henry says:

    Bill, given your experience with the 1874 Gruaud-Larose, you must have K&L Wines on your speed dial in hot pursuit of those available 1986 bottles!

    I have friends who attend Dr. Bipin Desai’s three-day weekend winetasting lunches and dinners here in Los Angeles. Events that lend themselves to tasting red Bordeaux and Sauternes and Maderas dating back to the 1800s.

    (An experience I cannot boast.)

    I have one wine anecdote to recite regarding a wine cellar “audit” client.

    The collector here in town purchased Alfred Hitchcock’s wine collection upon his demise (circa early 1980s). The wine treasures in Sir Alfred’s collection are breathtaking!

    My client has been drinking through them over the past 30 years.

    I counseled him to embrace the late Len Evans’s “Theory of Capacity.”

    [Frank Prial’s New York Times profile:

    My client resolved to do just that (as his collection was equal to multiple lifetimes’ worth of consumption). He invited his son to join him for dinner at a leading restaurant in town.

    (Lamentably, I wasn’t the “third wheel.”)

    He brought with him two red Bordeaux.

    The restaurant’s jaded sommelier was suitably impressed when my client pulled a 1945 Latour out of his chill bag — a so-called “wine of the century.” My client characterized the drinking experience as sublime.

    Still thirsty, he then pulled a 1929 Margaux from his chill bag. The sommelier was slack-jawed: He had never seen a bottle that old before — and was delighted at the prospect of opening it.

    My client remarked that the 1929 blew away the 1945 that night. Said the Margaux was one of the five best wines he had ever tasted in his life.

    (This high praise coming from a collector who owned and drank magnums of 1947 Cheval Blanc!)

    Intrigued by his experience, I accessed my wine reference books to learn more about the 1929 red Bordeaux vintage.

    Peerless perfection, according to Michael Broadbent, M.W.

    (I had no idea. No one ever talks about the 1929 vintage. In serious and deep-pocketed wine drinking circles, the 1945 vintage receives the fawning and breathless praise.)

    Recall this maxim: “There are no great wines — just great bottles.”

    (Wonder what the pH and TA and ABV were for those Bordeaux treasures?)

  5. Bob Henry says:


    Check out Bill and Dawnine Dyer’s website wine data sheets:

    Admirable that they list pH and TA as well as ABV.

    ~~ Bob

  6. Postscript comment.

    Discovered today in my hoary archive of newsclippings . . .

    Excerpt from the San Francisco Chronicle “Wine” Section
    (June 1, 2007, Page F1ff):

    “Turning Water Into Wine;
    To water grapevines or not — the roots of the wine industry’s next great controversy”

    Alternate link:

    By Alice Feiring
    Special to The Chronicle

    For years, I took the New World’s thirst for vineyard irrigation for granted. I believed what I was told: Napa Valley was a desert and needed its 100 to 200 gallons of water per vine per season.

    I never realized how complex an issue water was until I visited northern Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where I noticed black irrigation pipes snaking through the vineyards. The region gets 40 inches of rain annually, double the oft-quoted number necessary to grow wine grapes without delivering any extra water to the vineyard. I accepted the need for water in California and even more so in desert-like eastern Washington. But the Willamette Valley?

    In the best vineyards of Europe, the practice of dry farming — relying solely on natural precipitation to water grapevines — is almost universally accepted. Yet in the New World, irrigation is now viewed as essential to the wine industry’s survival. And what began as a novel innovation — drip irrigation — has become standard practice, such that throwing dry farming into a viticulture conversation is like pitching a lit match into a brittle summer forest. Who knew that something as simple as watering plants could be so, well, hot?

    Here’s one reason why: California is anticipating drought conditions this year. Most vintners who dry-farm aren’t worried; they’ve seen it before and have gotten through just fine. But some, like Kunde’s Steve Thomas, acknowledge that the future of viticulture will have to be sensitive to water shortages. With global warming, drought-tolerant practices are likely to become a way of life.

    “We’re going to have to start to think of it. It’s got to be coming down the road,” Thomas says.

    . . .

  7. Bob Henry says:

    Consider this a coda to Michael DeLoach’s comment on “late 80’s and early 90’s [Napa Valley Cabernets] . . . [whose] hedonistic, ripe and fruity style that did not stand the test of time.”

    “How Wines Change”
    Napa Valley Register – Dan Berger’s On Wine column – Jan 25, 2018


  8. Bob Henry says:

    Still waiting to see this documentary:

    “André [Tchelistcheff]: The Voice of Wine”


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