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The end of Cabernet Sauvignon.

The debate about over-ripe flavors in red wine has reached fever pitch. There was recently a major online debate about how it affects Syrah; months ago, the debate swirled around Pinot Noir.

This is ancient history for me. I believe California's greatest contribution to the world wine scene, Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley, is collapsing in a sea of 90s numbers, and no longer is very exciting wine.

Instead, we now have a dull, pancake-flat red wine that has none of the vibrancy of past efforts. The game is fast ending, and the score is not in the favor of those of us who prefer classic wines. The winners: wine buyers who love confection.

Debate all you like, but the fact is, the classicists are losing the game and are forced to look elsewhere for their pleasures. Some are simply opting out, letting their precious e-allocations lapse, abandoning mailing list heaven, even trying wines from other nations.

The latest evidence came in the form of a press kit from Quintessa. The winery was proud to reveal release of its 2001 red, by all rights a big deal since the winery was thrilled to move on from 2000, a vintage many said was dull. And 2001 was rated as tops, with good acidity, perfect balance, and, as Gov. Schwarzenegger would say, a lot of other things.

Included in the offering was a postcard asking if I'd like a sample bottle. There was also a detailed look at clones, sites and rootstocks from which this wine emanated. It also had what I was looking for: an analysis of the wine. Once I saw it, I returned the card saying, "No, thank you" to the offer. The reason: I have already tasted this kind of wine. Not this exact wine, but many like it. The key numbers on the stat sheet were saddening: a pH of 3.82, total acid of .59 grams per liter, an alcohol level of 14.7%, and aging in 60% new French oak.

Wines like this are guaranteed to score points with hedonists. I am not one of them. Besides eschewing a numbering "system," I am unalterably opposed to wine that is soft, juicy, fat, oaky and oafish with food--which is exactly what these numbers indicate. This wine was made to be impressive to those who have forgotten (or never knew) what it was like to taste a wine that had balance and the acidity needed for aging.

These over-ripe, unbalanced brutes have all the delicacy of a Hummer. Italian winemaker Marco Caprai, who has visited Napa Valley and loves the people, said of these wines recently, "They have no agility."

Not all, mind you, but so many that it's devastating to those of us who remember the balanced wines from the 1970s, 1980s, up through about 1993.

Since about 1994, I reckon, this trend toward hugeness and softness has been a key ingredient in Cabernet from "top" producers. These are wines aimed squarely at scoring points, and have nothing to do with a meal. Not with 14.5% and 15.5% alcohol, they don't.

There are many reasons winemakers have been led into this trap. I contend a key issue has to do more with attempting to distance the wine from the dreaded methoxy-pyrazine than anything else.

This is the green-herbal element that's an essential component of fine Cabernet. It is an aroma some reviewers dislike. And they have voiced their displeasure at any wine that has even a faint trace of the stuff.

Winemakers have become so fearful of getting even a tiny whiff of pyrazine they have been called "pyranoid" by one industry observer. And they have done dramatic things to rid any trace of Cabernet character in their Cabernets. For example:

* They have gone almost exclusively to vertical shoot positioning (so widespread it's abbreviated VSP), which at least one visiting Australian wine maker called ludicrous. "They like sunburn?" he asked, incredulously.

* They have shrunk their demand from the vines below what would make for a balanced vine. If a vine is balanced and yields a lovely wine at 3 tons per acre of fruit, the pyranoics have made sure it yields only 2 tons of fruit, thus guaranteeing that sugars will rise more rapidly than will physiological maturity.

* They adhere to a regimen calling for long hang time, a term previously applied to football punts. It encourages growers to leave their fruit on the vine until sugars reach at least 25 Brix; 27 is even better. Some harvest at 29 Brix and simply add water back to the desiccated grapes.

* They listen to and heed consultants who tell them not how to make a great, balanced wine, but how to achieve a review that refers to hedonistic fruit bombs, complete with words like "massive," "powerful," "concentrated" and other superlatives. Such reviews almost never refer to "varietal character," since most reviewers have forgotten (or never knew) what such a thing is.

I wrote a column recently decrying this new style of Cabernet and referred to the port-y smell I got from many wines. A careful, intelligent reader called me to task. He said I demeaned port, "which, when it is well made, at least has lovely fruit. These (Cabernets) do not."

A point well taken. Further proof comes from how some of the older wines are doing. The 1994s are now a decade old, and many are already clumsy, over-ripe, plum-scented klutzes, lacking the finesse to work with dinner. They're still tannic, but the fruit seems to have fled.

Many 1995s are still OK, because the vintage was a little more generous in terms of balance, but from there forward we see a string of wines that cannot be termed balanced. Was this simply a quest by winemakers to offer more to consumers who were being asked to pay a lot more? Or was it an effort to grab the attention of a number-monger? Or was it a simple effort to evade pyrazine?

Outside of a small handful of winemakers who still get it, Napa Cabernet has become a parody of itself, and the losers are those who bought some of this stuff hoping for a happy meal in 20 years. All they're going to get is big, formless red wine, still alcoholic, still tannic, and not very graceful at all, a linebacker in a moth-eaten tutu.

The golden goose isn't dead yet, but it is in the intensive care ward.

(Dan Berger has been a wine columnist since 1976. Currently he issues weekly wine commentary, Dan Berger's Vintage Experiences, and a nationally syndicated wine column. His books include Beyond the Grapes: An Inside Look at Napa Valley and Beyond the Grapes: An Inside Look at Sonoma Valley. To comment on this article, contact him through
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Title Annotation:red wines, wine makers
Author:Berger, Dan
Publication:Wines & Vines
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2004
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