David Rosengarten’s recent article in Saveur, ‘The Evolution of Cabernet’ explores the changes in style that accompanied the spread of Cabernet Sauvignon in the Napa Valley and beyond. One word struck a chord; refinement.
That the style of wines produced in Napa has transformed over the years is clear. Those lucky enough to taste the great wines of the post prohibition years from Beaulieu and Ingelnook marveled at their balance and finesse (and those lucky enough to taste the wines now, 50-60 years on, still marvel at the same thing). Some of this elegance can be attributed to a more intuitive process of production; when the grapes tasted good you harvested, there was no triple sorting, de-stemming, multilevel toast barrel aging. Perhaps it was a more honest approach, devoid of scientific introspection and the debates and pressures of scores and global palates.
Several years ago I was at a lunch with a longtime Napa Valley winemaker who explained the trajectory of his own winery. He recounted that in the 1970’s the harvest included everything in the vineyard – green berries, sunburned berries, ALL berries – followed not by destemming and cold soak but with whole cluster fermentation followed by barrel aging. And we wonder why the wines of the 70’s seemed impenetrable until the late 90’s (some seems so even today). In the 1980’s advancements in vineyard management and research in ripeness led to some dramatic changes in the vineyard with green harvesting becoming the norm and destemming a part of the production process. The wines, though still structured, were rounded out along the edges, more supple and approachable. Phyloxera in the late 80’s provided the opportunity to look closely at the clones and rootstocks in the vineyard. Like many in the valley, he chose some of the new clones coming out of UC Davis, with a focus on ripe fruit character, smaller berries and intense fruit. The regimen of new wood used in the production was increased and the wines became fleshy and ripe, fruit driven in style.
All of this was presented as a logical process of evolution and at the time, many wine producers in Napa Valley could not see beyond the “valley palate” where this move towards ripeness was intricately tied to trying to create the types of wines that critics were writing about and recommending. The early wines of Bryant Family, Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate came to exemplify this style and their tremendous success ushered in a decade of copycat wines that searched out a formula to replicate the style. This is not solely a Napa reality – a tasting of recent Bordeaux
What was lost in the process, at least in my opinion is the elegance, the balance, the refinement.
As Rosengarten notes, these wines of refinement still exist. Meteor Vineyard, Corison, Dyer, VonStrasser. I anticipate seeing more wines produced in the style in the very near future (and NOT just due to the cooler weather in 2010).