Questioning Cabernet   •   Comments »

Stephen Tanzer has a new website called Winophilia. It is a more broadly focused sister to his International Wine Cellar publication and website. On the Winophilia site he has a section called Sommelier Roundtable in which he poses a question every few weeks to a number of sommeliers around the country. He recently sent out a question about the relevance of Bordeaux in todays wine world.  Below is a copy of the question and my response.  To check out the site, follow the link here: Winophilia.

The question:

A generation ago, cabernet-based wines were THE gold standard for red wines in most serious restaurants.  But nowadays, cabernet (whether Bordeaux or New World) has to share the stage with a growing number of other red wine categories, such as pinot noir, Piedmont wines, even syrah - to name just a few.

Do you believe there is now a generational divide in red wine preferences, with veteran winos still loyal to Bordeaux but relatively young drinkers opting for anything but cabernet?  If cabernet is of declining importance in restaurants (specifically in yours), why do you think that is?  (Are sommeliers partly responsible, for example?)

And how do you make cabernet relevant to a generation of drinkers that didn't grow up with this habit? How do you use traditional Bordeaux on the one hand and larger-scaled Napa Valley cabernets with the offerings on your restaurant's menu?  (In the back of my mind are comments I've heard from some sommeliers who believe that cabernet is not a particularly subtle or food-flexible wine.)

My response:

What happened to the prestige of Cabernet and Bordeaux in particular?  This is a question I have been asked and have spent time pondering on a few occasions.  The answer seems to be multi-layered and complex.  A combination of the changing preferences of wine drinkers and wine taste makers, marketing and pricing decisions by wine makers and/or winery owners, the sheer variety of wines available on the market today and perhaps the beating of the wings of 1000 butterflies somewhere off the coast of New Zealand.  I will attempt a few simple answers to the simplest parts of the equation.

I am 35 years old.  Even though two of my most memorable wine moments have been with Cabernet - the first a Georges de Latour from BV that shocked my young, neophyte palate back around the year 1999 and the second a 1955 Haut Brion that still resonates today - I am still not much of a Cabernet drinker.  Why is this? 

The first and most obvious answer is that I can't afford the top wines of Bordeaux.  I most likely will never make enough money in my lifetime to buy the first growths.  True, there is plenty of great Bordeaux out there that I can afford, but the fact of the matter is that the pricing of the top wines offends me.  It makes me not want to drink Bordeaux.  (I still do of course.) 

Second is that Cabernet needs age to really shine.  Aged wine is hard to come by.  It is expensive to buy wines that have been properly stored and it is expensive to store them properly yourself.  My generation does not usually have a cellar in the basement.  Many of us have wine storage units, and we do our best to age our wine properly, but it is a more difficult endeavor than in days past.  (I think. Maybe I am just being lazy.)  So again, price becomes an issue.  For those of us living in a city, space is also an issue.

Third is the style of Cabernet in the new world and increasingly in Bordeaux.  It would seem to make sense that if it is difficult for the current generation to age Cabernet wines properly, then the wineries should start making cabernet in a style that can be enjoyed upon release.  Enter the new world Cabernet with lush, super ripe fruit and ultra soft tannins.  This style of wine is simply boring to me.  It can be fun to taste just to wonder at how they can manage to fit so much fruit, alcohol and glycerin in a bottle of wine or to marvel at the weight of the bottle, but it never draws me in for a second sip - and it definitely does not make me want to drink a glass or bottle or have it with food.  This style attempts to hit pleasure points that are superficial.  It resonates with drinkers on a surface level.  The grand mistake here is that surface level bliss does not induce life long loyalty.  It is, by definition, fleeting.   (I am aware of my own preference for a leaner style wine and the way in which it influences my opinions here, but I do believe there is something inherent that goes beyond preference and speaks to the 'soul' of the drinker.)

As for Cabernet on my wine list and how I make it relevant?  As with any category of wine, I seek out the wines that I think showcase what is great about the variety and/or the place where it comes from.  I like the structure of cabernet.  It should have tannin.  Tannins are exciting and cool and impressive - they are an integral part of the Cabernet experience.  And they can go well with all sorts of food.  (I find that tannin is far more amenable to a variety of food than huge amounts of extraction and over-ripe fruit.)  So I look for young wines that have beautiful young fruit and exciting tannin and texture.  These can usually be found at a lower cost and can be a great way to bring young drinkers back into the fold of Cabernet.  As I mentioned before, I also love Cabernet with age, so I search out wines that show why I love this.  I currently have a 1989 Kathryn Kennedy Estate Cabernet from Santa Cruz that is astoundingly good and also a 2000 La Garde Bordeaux that is textbook, spot on and under 100 bucks.  And although I do not like over extraction and super ripe fruit, I do love fruit in wine, and there are a number of Napa Valley Cabernets that have extraordinary fruit without sacrificing balance.  The Vinum Hoffman Cabernet and the Corison Kronos are the two that i carry - one is extremely affordable, the other a little pricey, both are excellent.  And finally I look for Cabernet wines that come from areas other than the ones most famous for it.  Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley is an excellent way to bring people into the Cabernet realm.  Italy has some great Cabernet.  Although I find the Tuscan model a little flawed, I love the San Leonardo from Trentino.  And don't forget about Chile! 

There is definitely a generational divide.  The young wine drinker coming on to the scene now has far more options for enlightenment than the last generation did.  There are new regions and varietals popping up every day.  It is more fashionable today, and more exciting, to study all of the brand new, cutting edge stuff in wine than to break out the old text books on Bordeaux.  This is causing a decrease in the importance of Cabernet, but it is still relevant.  It is being forced to share the spotlight.  I think that as long as the classic regions stay classic, they will always have importance.  The danger for Cabernet, in my mind, is that the houses famous for it will forget what has made it great while they seek to compete with a completely different realm of wine.  It will always have a regal place in the world of wine, what remains to be seen is whether it becomes more of a figurehead, like aging royalty of a democratic country, or whether it continues to stand for Prime Minister.


Posted November 22, 2010 • Filed under Wine

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