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A Look At The 2005 Cabernets

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: May 14, 2006 5:39pm ET

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.

David Nelson
CA —  May 15, 2006 3:11pm ET
Jim, sounds like a tough assignment, but someone has got to do it! Please let me know if you need a hand. Thanks
Arshavir Kouladjian
Los Angeles, California —  May 15, 2006 7:31pm ET
Sounds interesting. Mark Neal is an exceptional wine manager and these days, a great wine owner. I would like to see more Reds that are not Cabernet from Neal. The guy loves wine. NOW , onto 2005 -> I heard 2005 is going to be a good year for everything not CABERNET in recent Wine Specator's issue of 2005 around the globe review. So, as always prices in CA will never DROP and we have to wait and see what 2005 has in store for us.
Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  May 16, 2006 9:27am ET

I will be interested in your take on 2005 Cabs at this point. I am incredibly enthusiastic about our 2005 Pinots (greatr flavors, better natural acids, at lower alcohol levels). The Syrahs, however, which ripen later than Pinot Noir (and at the same time as the Cabs) remain big and very tight. The potential may be great but I would think it would be very difficult to evaluate Cabs (or Syrahs) at this point without doing a lot of speculating. Of course, that is why you get paid the big bucks!

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines
Rob Lang
PA —  May 16, 2006 2:38pm ET
Jim,I hope that you taste -- and review more boutique wineries. Finding the gems before anyone else does has really helped my wine cellar. Last year you commented on 10 new wineries. I hope this grows each year!
Eric Hall
Healdsburg, CA —  May 18, 2006 9:36pm ET
I have been tasting thru quite a number of 2005 Sonoma County Pinots (still in barrel) for the upcoming Russian River Pinot Festival and I believe that it is the finest pinot vintage of this century (so far). I'm quite amazed by the deep and mature flavors they are already showing. Thankfully there seems to be a good supply as well, which is especially helpful given the issues surrounding the 2006 growing season.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  May 19, 2006 2:05pm ET
Eric,Great to hear that about 2005. Had lunch with the Kosta Browne team yesterday and both Dan and Mike were similarly enthusiastic about their 2005s. They're adding a couple new Pinots from Santa Lucia Highlands to their mix, too. Seems like Gary Pisoni made them an offer they couldn't refuse.
J Kraus
Los Angeles, CA —  May 23, 2006 3:50pm ET
I toured Spring and Howell Mountains last week was impressed by almost everything I tasted...the '04 Ladera wines were particularly expressive. I find myself gravitating to the mountain fruit. I guess for the vibrance and extraction. Do you think the top mountain vineyards will tend to surpass other APA's in '05 due to their naturally smaller berries/yields? Mark Neal is a great guy whom I respect....but I think his comments were made with his vineyard management hat on ...not speaking for NFV or Gove.

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