Reflections on the 1996 Cabernet Report

Feb 14, 2007

This is a perfect time to discuss older vintages.

In a recent blog, Chuck Wagner writes about a wine's moment—which can be fleeting. In my report on the 1996 Cabernets, I was disappointed by how many of the wines showed, for various reasons.

If you are a wine collector—someone who buys wine and cellars it for future enjoyment—nothing is more important than knowing at which stage, or which moment, you like your wines.

I retaste older vintages to see how the wines have aged, whether they’ve stayed the same or improved, and to determine the best drinking window.

You’ll notice that in my Cabernet reviews, I use very narrow drinking windows. Why? My experience has taught me that Cabernets mature by age six to 10, and there is not a huge upside to cellaring them longer. That’s my opinion. If you've learned that you like your wines with more age—and you have the proper storage for your bottles—then you can extend that window another five to 10 years.

With the 1996 retrospective, many of the wines were in poor condition, so they required multiple tastings. I’ve never had so many nutty, oxidized, tired wines in any tasting of this caliber.

As for the 1996 vintage, some winemakers have been candid about the fact that many grapes were picked during the heat wave, which accounts for the tough tannins and herbal, cedary flavors.

While winemakers want to pick grapes at optimal ripeness, that can be a challenge, especially when it’s hot and sugar levels are rising. I’m sure winemakers thought these grapes were ripe when they were harvested, and the wines certainly tasted riper when I reviewed them in 2000 and 2001. In this tasting, however, I discovered that many of the wines have enough green flavors to indicate that the grapes may have been picked too soon.

One more thought. Part of Cabernet’s varietal character is herbal, a trait that I think winemakers sometimes fight. Over the last 15 years, the push has been to harvest riper grapes and minimize, or even eliminate, those herbal notes. I’m not sure that can be done.

Your thoughts on the 1996 Cabernets?

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