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Early Line on 2006 Cabernets: Mixed Quality, Hard Tannins

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Jun 24, 2009 1:22pm ET

We’re shifting our tasting focus in California from Pinot Noir to Cabernet Sauvignon and I’m tasting some of the same difficulties with the 2006 Cabernet vintage that existed with the 2006 Pinot Noirs.

The issue with both grapes was uneven quality, which is more evident in the wines than may have been apparent when the grapes were being picked, crushed and fermented.

While I’ve tried some sensational 2006 Cabernets (the various Schrader bottlings come to mind), some of the wines I’ve tried in the past two days show modest to marginally ripe fruit flavors and in many instances the wines were marked by very hard, dry tannins. The 2006 Joseph Phelps Insignia ($200) is a prime example of a tightly wound, deeply concentrated young wine with potent tannins. Yet underlying the structure and density is a measure of finesse and harmony not found in other 2006s. It should age quite well.

The 2006 Pinots were also a mixed bag. There were some terrific, ageworthy wines made that year. But battles in the vineyard with mold and rot led to some sites not being picked and, considering what ended up in bottle, many wines lack the delicacy, finesse and purity of flavor that makes Pinot so exciting. Too many 2006s are dry, herbal and tannic. The 2005 and 2007 vintages are far superior, with 2007 among the best California Pinots I’ve tasted. 2008 Pinots will be highly variable, since a severe spring frost damaged many vineyards and cut the crop by 30 to 50 percent.

Cabernet lovers will face the same challenges sorting through the 2006 vintage. In the past four vintages, 2004 produced ripe, fleshy, complex fruit-forward wines with supple tannins; 2005 produced a huge crop, yet the wines are well-balanced, with lower alcohols, more structure than opulence, yet with deep complexity; and 2007 may end up being the best, as the growing season was long and even and the wines ripened to ideal levels. 2008, by comparison, was far more challenging and a much smaller crop.

That leaves 2006 in a tough spot, sandwiched between two superior years. There will be some great wines. But many will leave much to be desired in terms of complexity and drinking allure. The wildcard, or course, will be prices. It appears that a few top-end wineries have raised prices for their 2006s (Opus One increased its price by $5 to $195, Harlan from $450 to $500 and Phelps Backus from $225 to $250), a few have lowered theirs, yet it appears that most wines being released are at about the same price as they’ve been in the past two vintages. And I’ve seen several new labels priced above $100. More to come on the wines’ quality and prices as they’re reviewed.

Brian Peters
Broomfield, CO —  June 24, 2009 3:25pm ET
I am passing on most of the 2006s and waiting for the 2007s.
Jamie Sherman
Sacramento —  June 24, 2009 4:26pm ET
I agree that many 06's have had overwhelming tannins and more muted fruit. Even some of your higher ranked wines of the vintage have been marked with some edgy tannins which I hope will soften with age.James, do you think wineries are holding steady or even increasing prices due to the promise of a strong vintage in 2007? Given the variability of 06's along with the poor economy, dropping wait lists/club members, and decreased travel there doesn't seem to be a good reason to do so. Is a magical "price point" for high end wines that important? Bordeaux has finally faced that facts and maybe Napa should too. Of course, in wanting good wines for cheaper, I am a bit biased.
Tracy Hall
June 24, 2009 5:25pm ET
I have participated in two blind tastings of 2006 Napa Valley Cabs, and I was impressed with how ALL the wines showed. In my opinion, I thought the 2005's (in general speaking about the vintage) were more stylistic.So far, of the 2006's I've tasted, it's a 'go to' vintage where there isn't one I wouldn't enjoy.What about the rain in 2007?
James Laube
Napa, CA —  June 24, 2009 5:28pm ET
Jamie, wineries that can hold or raise prices will, but the market will dictate whether they can. Tracy, not enough rain in 2007 to matter.
Merrill Lindquist
Calistoga, CA —  June 24, 2009 5:39pm ET
James- I like and agree with your assessment of the vintages 2004-2008. I would like to add, however, that even though the 2008 growing season was the most difficult one in memory, I am finding the barrel samples to be of excellent quality at this juncture, showing a richness of fruit that makes that growing season seem a bit more tolerable.--EMH Vineyards, Calistoga.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  June 24, 2009 5:46pm ET
Agree, Merrill. Those who farmed well and made tight selections will have some extraordinary wines...it might be one of those vintages like 1976, where the drought made it difficult, but some concentrated wines were made. As a vintage, though, mixed; I doubt we'll hear anyone say, "I hope we have another 2008..." The small crop may be a blessing as it should shore up supply for wineries.
Mark Nickerson
Vallejo, CA —  June 24, 2009 7:29pm ET
With respect to pinots, '07 seems like a vintage-of-the-decade wine. Uniformly, they have been juicy, balanced and ready-to-drink. Some of my favorites have come from Sojourn, MacPhail, Black Kite and DuMol. Increasingly, I find the Anderson Valley pinots (not to mention the great reislings & gewurtz's) to be improving dramatically in quality. But I'd be very leery of the '08's when they hit the market given the fire smoke that hung over that valley for over a month during growing season.
A Graham Bailey
June 25, 2009 7:12am ET
James - separate topic ... saw your recent reviews of Foxen and other Cali pinots. Have you had a chance to taste the 07 Sea Smoke lineup? Seems to be a great vintage for 07 overall so am hopeful.thanks
H Hansen Vn Dlktssr
June 25, 2009 9:48am ET
Dear James First of all thank you for your kind and always thoughtful articles in WS. I am about to buy a birthday present for one of my close friends which is very much in to French wine, and i order to open a more less new an unknown world for him have I planned to buy a book about the wines from the US. I would like to give him a book which covers the subject as wide and as deep as possible. Do you have any books which you could recommend ?All the best.
David Barksdale
Henderson, NV —  June 25, 2009 3:08pm ET
James - Just read about the $200 JP Insignia with your notes on Voodoo Economics still fresh in my mind. The 2007 is surely a great wine and arguably is fairly priced. However, a quick look at online prices show the 2004 JPI (WS 94 - $225) going for less than $180/bottle, w/ case discounts available. Am thus left wondering how long you figure it will be before The WS begins publishing reviews in the same manner that The Blue Book rates New Cars? Alongside of the discussion of finesse, structure and a comparison to wild cherries, you can list the MSRP Price, the Invoice Price, the Market Price and for current subscribers, the Distributor Price. Vaya con Dios.DHB
William Landreth
Irving, TX —  June 26, 2009 12:22pm ET
Been more than satisfied with a handful of higher tiered Napa Cabs...Maybach & Corra are at the top of the list.
Jeff Fontanella
July 10, 2009 3:06am ET
Although a bit ironic, the trials and tribulations of the 2008 vintage have left me cautiously wanting more. It seemed to me that many of the vineyards that survived the bitter start to the vintage were spot on in quality, berry sizing, and were close to normal in yield. Those vineyards that got hit were hit very severely. There is quite a large discrepancy between the good and bad, however, what is good is very good at this early stage. I might half wish for another 2008¿maybe.

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