A Look At The 2005 Cabernets

May 14, 2006

This week is my first comprehensive look at the 2005 vintage of California Cabernet Sauvignon, which according to winemakers, should be a dandy.

This year, I'll be doing a blind tasting of barrel samples from more than 60 producers, mostly from Napa Valley. Each year, this is one tasting I really look forward to, as it gives me a sneak preview of California’s most prestigious wine.

I’ve formally tasted barrel samples of Cabernet since the 1984 vintage, when many Cabernet producers sold wines as futures, à la Bordeaux. While only a few wineries still sell futures (Ridge Monte Bello being the best known), I still like to taste the young wines, and many of you like to read about what lies ahead.

Winemakers have been touting the 2005 vintage as extraordinary, so I’m anxious to taste what they’re talking about.

The year brought a record-size crop that was saved by what winemakers hailed as a miracle fall. A damp, wet spring and unusually cool summer, coupled with huge yields, had winemakers worried that the grapes wouldn’t ripen, even with repeated efforts to thin and reduce the crop size. When September and October rolled around, the weather warmed up, and the harvest went smoothly, without any interruptions of rain or cold spells. About the only hassle, winemakers said, was that many wineries ran out of space to store their new wines; a few vineyards simply weren’t picked.

Mark Neal, of Neal Family Vineyards, who is both a winemaker and vineyard manager, explained that the size of the crop was due in great part to the large size of the berries. That may mean that some wines are not as concentrated as they might be in a year with smaller berries.

But the large crop also means that winemakers will have plenty of leeway to choose the best wines for their primary labels. In addition, there should be a large amount of bulk wine on the market, which typically leads to some good buys. In theory, a record-size crop should stabilize prices. But let’s face it: Demand is high for the best Napa Valley Cabernets--and will be even higher if quality meets the hype--so don’t expect any significant price declines.

I’ve already tasted a few 2005 Cabernets, but most of what I know about this vintage comes from interviews with winemakers and grapegrowers. While some tend to exaggerate and overstate quality, many others are candid, describing what went right and what didn’t.

There are some perils involved in reviewing futures. Sometimes barrel samples aren’t representative of a winery’s entire production. A winery that makes 5,000 cases of Cabernet could have 400 barrels to choose from, and it can be challenging to create a true sample of the master blend and reduce it to the single bottle or half-bottle sent in for review. And there’s a lot that can happen in the time from barrel to bottling to a formal review of a finished wine. (For more detail, read my column on this subject.)

Still, the winemakers like to participate, and it’s fun to taste the young wines. I’ll let you know how it goes in my tasting report later this week.

United States California Red Wines Cabernet Sauvignon
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