The Hazards of Youth
By Jeff Morgan, West Coast editor
I don't know whether an American predisposition for instant gratification or restaurant and winery cash flow and space constraints are the culprits, but wine lovers who dine out are often being served red wines that are simply not ready to drink.
Recently I sat down for dinner at a wonderful wine-country bistro. It was one of those homey places where the chef knows how to use local ingredients in a simple yet sophisticated way. Like the menu, the wine list was short, but it offered a good and varied selection of local wines to accompany the meal.
I was in the mood for red wine, so I scanned the 20 listed labels -- all from top-notch California producers. Half the wines were Cabernet Sauvignon, three were Merlot, four were Pinot Noir, and the rest were Zinfandel. All were from the 1995 or 1996 vintages, except for one Pinot that was made in 1997. I ordered a Ridge Zinfandel Sonoma Station 1995 for $29.
For my money, it was probably drinking better than any other red wine on the list. Full-bodied California Cabernet Sauvignon is still a bit rough for my taste after only a year or two in the bottle. Sure, it might be big and bold, but I believe that a few extra years can deliver vast improvement in smoothness and evolution of flavors.
Nevertheless, many California reds can be generous and fruit-driven in their youth. But I still believe that American winemakers and their public need to follow the French lead more carefully. Frenchmen have always cellared their wines, because they know that most good wines get better with age. Last month I attended a symposium of French and American winemakers at the University of California at Davis. It didn't surprise me to find that the French had brought along red wines that were 6 to 10 years old for tasting and discussion. But there wasn't an American wine to be found that was more than 3 years old. When questioned about it, the American winemakers offered lame excuses about not having enough older wine in stock.
The real problem was a cultural divide, not a shortage of wine. Americans, on the whole, just don't get it. We're in a hurry to produce, sell and enjoy -- whether it's wine or whatever. We can't wait. The aged French wines at the symposium put the youthful American wines to shame, even though the American wines were quite good. They simply had not had enough time to evolve.
Too few Americans cellar wine. Most of us buy young wines off restaurant wine lists (or wine-shop shelves) for immediate consumption. And so the question remains: Do you order your favorite 1995 Cabernet when dining out, or do you search for a better alternative?
I'll always look first among those red varietals that require less age than Cabernet Sauvignon. Zinfandel -- in its red form -- is a natural choice. Made in numerous styles ranging from light and fruity to more weighty and dense, Zinfandel can age too. But it really shines when it's young, offering vibrant flavors and soft, silky textures. Ridge Sonoma Station 1995 didn't disappoint me, serving up layers of complex fruit, plenty of body and firm, ripe tannins.
Other red varietals that mature quickly include Dolcetto, Gamay (the grape of Beaujolais), Carignane, Barbera and Grenache. Pinot Noir and Syrah may also be attractive in their youth, but the best require a bit more time to realize their potential.
What about Cabernet Franc, Petite Sirah and Petit Verdot? These varietals, when made in California, can be quite nice early on, but I'd still wait on them.
And Merlot? Good Merlot, like Cabernet Sauvignon, requires time to achieve greatness. Bad Merlot isn't worth drinking at all, at any age. All that marketing hype about Merlot's early-drinking attributes isn't worth the price of a bottle.
Is all this cause for distress? Heck no. There is a flood of great red wine to be had today. I'm buying Cabernet for my cellar. But tonight I'm drinking Zinfandel.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from West Coast editor Jeff Morgan. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives.
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