Not-So-Fab-Cab


Published:

It’s hardly news that cabernet sauvignon, the most prominent red-wine grape in this country, has been losing respect — particularly if it’s from California.

What’s new, however, is an assessment from one of the most astute observers of trends in wine, wine styles, and winemaking, on how far it has tumbled and why.

Longtime California wine journalist Dan Berger said in a recent column in his “Dan Berger’s Vintage Experiences” that he believes the quality of cabernet sauvignon has declined so much in this country that it’s now disappearing as a fine wine and fading from even being taken seriously.

What a tragedy. Yet many in the industry and many consumers feel the same way. “I got more reaction (all positive) from that column than anything I have ever written,” he said via e-mail. “I really didn’t think I was breaking new ground with that column, since I’ve heard the topic discussed so often by the trade people.”

He surmises that the strong reaction came because nobody had been willing to say as much in print until he did.

Berger uses the word “dreary,” to describe most of the cabernet sauvignons he has tasted for several years now.

It’s not that they’re undrinkable; it’s that they have uniformity and a tired, uninspired quality.

His opinion carries weight. Berger is a highly respected writer who, for four decades, has produced books as well as columns for the Los Angeles Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Wine Enthusiast, and other publications. In addition, he has run and judged competitions in which thousands of cabernet sauvignons have been entered each year.

The problem, as Berger sees it, is that California, whose reputation was built largely on great cabernet and great winemakers, has moved under a huge corporate structure in which marketing executives and focus groups with missions to value sales above quality, now dictate how wine will be made. That’s even so in the $50-and-up categories, which now feel obliged to follow a trend of full-bodied, overly ripe, high-alcohol wines.

Add to Berger’s assessment the miserable recent performance of Bordeaux wines (see “Wine,” February 2010 Hour Detroit), also primarily cabernet sauvignon, and the picture of the cabernet tumble widens considerably.

About a week before reading Berger’s column, I had opened a California cabernet sauvignon that I had received as a gift. It was from a hugely popular and expensive boutique winery that bears the owner’s name. The bottle sells for $110. It was thick, dense, and prune-like, a mushy, flabby wine that could have been mistaken for syrah or zinfandel due to the sweetness. The alcohol was an outrageous 15.5 percent. I couldn’t get by the first glass. Since my wife happened to be cooking short ribs that called for braising in red wine — guess what? It worked well.

2006 Cuvée des Trois Messes Basses, Côte de Ventoux ($15)

A stylish blend of four Rhone grapes. Elegant and supple, vibrant, and great value.

2005 Dievole Novecento Chianti Classico Riserva ($47)

Highly concentrated, stone fruit and plum notes in the mouth, full bodied.

Brutell Franciacorta Brut (non-vintage, $27)

Marvelously different Italian sparkler. Yeasty chardonnay, green-gold hue, minerally, apple and pear character. Great!

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