Let’s give a shout-out for Eric Asimov, whose column in yesterday’s New York Times (and the post on his blog “The Pour”) are among the most important commentaries he has done.

The point is that on a recent trip to the Napa Valley, Asimov discovered or became reacquainted with a number of wineries that still make cabernet sauvignon wines in the “old-fashioned” style of balance and restraint, subtlety and nuance. These qualities napa_valley.jpg stand in contrast to the current fashion of super-ripe, jammy wines with lots of toasty new oak and high alcohol levels, qualities beloved by the reviewers at the Wine Spectator. Asimov’s recommendations of Napa Valley wineries that produce cabernets of balance and restraint are:

Chateau Montelena, Clark-Claudon Vineyards. Clos du Val, Continuum, Corison Winery, Dominus Estate, Dyer, Forman Vineyard, Frog’s Leap, Grgich Hills, HdV Vineyards, Heitz Cellars, J. Davies, Joseph Carr, Kongsgaard, Mayacamas Vineyards, M by Michael Mondavi, Rubicon Estate, Seps Estate, Smith-Madrone, Spottswoode Estate, Tom Eddy Wines, Trefethen Family Vineyard, Truchard Vineyards, White Rock Vineyards.

Some of my favorite cabernet-based wines are on this roster — Clos du Val, Corison, Dominus, Frog’s Leap, Mayacamas,
Rubicon, Smith-Madrone, Trefethen and Truchard. The Wine Spectator often dismisses the cabernets of some of these producers with the epithets “harmonious” and “elegant,” rendering each adjective into a condescending synonym for “damning with faint praise.” When did harmony and elegance become such pejorative terms? Why did the reviewers for the Spectator start favoring big, jammy toasty fruit-bomb cabernets over the classically proportioned models? Especially since those reviewers learned to love California cabernet with the great old classic examples? Perhaps it’s simply about having the power to shape an industry or a “lifestyle” in its readers.

Anyway, I would add Mount Veeder and Oakville Ranch Estate to Asimov’s line-up. And I have a bottle of Tom Eddy’s 2002 in my rack; I’d better unlimber that little number. On the other hand, I have to say that to this palate, the red wines of Grgich Hills have displayed, for the last several vintages, unusually powerful and obtrusive earthy elements. I’m worried about what’s going on inside this venerable winery. The Grgich Hills whites, however, keep a firm grip on greatness.

The response to Asimov’s celebration of lean, supple, balanced cabernets has been interesting and polarizing. The first post after the column went up on the Times’ website came from Tom Lino:

I love young California Cabernet. I don’t usually drink them with food. I enjoy the full bodied flavors and embrace this as America’s style of wine making and consuming.

An example of the opposing view came from James Ricci:

I used to be mad for California cabs, now I’m astonished at how rarely I buy or order them. I miss them at the dinner table. Nowadays most of them might as well be port — or filler for fountain pens.

I agree with Ricci (not a surprise), but Lino has a point; why should cabernet wines made in the Napa Valley, derived from different soil and climate and sensibility, have to conform to the model of Bordeaux? They don’t, of course. They should, however, be made with a few iota of common sense and with an eye to the proper cousinage with their origins. It’s not the fruit that bothers me so much in fruity Napa Valley cabernets; it’s the over-ripe jamminess. I am more bothered by the high alcohol levels, which contribute to the wines “hotness” and cloying qualities and to the use of highly toasted French oak. Both of these elements mask the character of the grapes from which the wine was made, turning the product into just another big expensive red wine rather than something distinctive.

Let’s go back to the source, Michael Broadbent’s Pocket Guide to Wine Tasting. As always, I am quoting from the little edition of 1982 published in the United States by Simon & Schuster. I recently bought at a yard sale, for fifty cents, an older edition, the one of 1973, when the pamphlet was still a “Christie’s Wine Publication.”

Anyway, it’s salutary to read what Broadbent, a great taster brought up on the wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy, has to say about the cabernet sauvignon grape:

Without hesitation, I put cabernet-sauvignon at the head of the great red wine grapes of the world, not because I am dogmatic enough to place the finest claret, which it produces, above the finest burgundy, but because it maintains a recognizable style and character even when transplanted out of its classic home region, Bordeaux. For example, a well made ‘cabernet’ from Australia, California or Chile will have a basic family resemblance despite overtones produced by differences of soil and climate.

The cabernet-sauvignon gives red Bordeaux (claret) its quality; its depth and richness of colour, aroma and wealth of bouquet; the firm, hard, keeping qualities and length of flavour. The three keys to its recognition are its deep colour, its characteristic aroma of fresh black currants or cedar, and its particular concentrated fruity flavor combined with tannin and acidity.

Broadbent clearly appreciates the grape’s ability to remain true to itself in different environments (expressed as “overtones”), but some qualities must remain constant. Look again at the last phrase: “its particular concentrated fruity flavor combined with tannin and acidity.” There you have it, the three elements that are essential to any wine worthy of our high regard: fruit, tannin and acidity: the flavor, the structure, the aliveness.

Napa Valley vineyard image from z.about.com.