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Tightening the Screws on Tannin

Times Wine Writer

The tannin found in most red wines has been the bugaboo of wine evaluators for decades. Many wine evaluators ignore it. They make believe it’s not there, or they alibi for the wine by saying the wine has “ample tannin to age well.”

When a wine has good fruit but a slug of astringent, bitter tannins, a lot of people say: “Give the wine time; it’ll improve.” A decade later, someone opens the wine to find the tannin still having a party. Actually, it’s a wake for the fruit.

I evaluate a lot of young wine and I find a lot of tannin. Yet for years I too have ignored the obvious. I have kept silent. But I can keep still no longer:

California Cabernet Sauvignon is simply too tannic. There, I’ve said it. I feel better already.

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Cabernet is California’s greatest achievement with wine. At its best it holds its own against the best of Bordeaux. And some of them age beautifully.

But often Cabernet is made rough and astringent by wine makers who worry not about tannin. There is much mass blindness on this subject.

Many of these tannic wines show opulent fruit early. Wine makers assume that tannin--which is an anti-oxidant--will help preserve the wine. Frequently such wine is marked “unfined and unfiltered,” which is vinspeak that wine makers use as a sort of quality statement.

Overrated Protector

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Yet wine scientists say tannin is overrated as a protector, and that what’s truly necessary for a wine to age well is good balance of all elements, including the acid and pH.

When gonzo Cabernets get some bottle age, they begin to lose their fruit. But the tannin drops out of the wine far more slowly than the fruit. The result is often a wine that is lifeless; in vinspeak, it is “dried out.”

Chewy, unctuous, tannic wines are not the best wines for long-term aging. Those that age best have fruit, lower tannins and a silky quality. These are wines that some tasters (especially those with short-term tasting experience) rate as wines to drink young because of their balance. And they rate the tannic wines as those worth holding onto.

This, I contend, is the reverse of what it should be. Balance pays dividends; bigness rarely does. (As proof, I challenge any of those who still revere the overblown 1980 and 1982 Cabernets to taste them side-by-side with the elegant 1981s. Simpler proof: Taste any 20-year-old Louis Martini red wine.)

Yet I see a ray of hope, and it is in wine that is not all--or not even mostly--Cabernet Sauvignon. It is in the premium blended red wines that have boomed in the market in the last few years.

A More Complete Cabernet

The blended premium wine came about not because of concerns about tannin. It came about because wine makers realized that by blending in some of the cousin grape varieties that also come from Bordeaux, such as Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petite Verdot, they could make a more complete Cabernet, a wine with more depth of flavor and complexity.

As a result, they spent more time worrying about whether that complexity would show, and to make sure it did, they began fining and filtering the wine to make it more silky. This stripped away the rough tannins, leaving behind only the softer tannins that help the wine age.

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The first such silky blended wine was the 1979 Opus One, the first vintage of the joint venture between the Robert Mondavi Winery and France’s Chateau Mouton-Rothschild. It was the first super-premium blended red wine to accent lower tannins, a bold stroke, not to mention a great wine.

Each succeeding Opus One has been lean and delicate, more refined than Mondavi’s own Cabernet Reserve.

And Opus One is more expensive.

Before long, Lyeth in Geyserville began making a red wine, blended from the classic Bordeaux varieties, that was relatively less tannic than it could have been. And others began to hone their blended wines. Then two months ago, an association of these wineries, called the Meritage Assn., was formed to give a name to this type of blended wine.

The one wine that seems not to fit the pattern is Dominus, a joint venture of the John Daniel Society in the Napa Valley and Christian Moeuix of Chateau Petrus fame. The first release of Dominus, from the 1984 vintage, was fairly tannic. It’s a wine I don’t expect to age gracefully. The soon-to-be-released 1985 is a bit better, but still pretty tannic. (It does have better fruit than the ’84, a big plus.)

I suspect that the regime used to make Dominus is similar in some ways to the methods used to make Chateau Petrus. The wines appear to have similar structure when young.

Two more super-premium blended wines are soon to hit the market, and both are structured with less tannin. In fact, one of the best Meritage wines I have ever tasted is the 1985 Cain Five from Cain Cellars, high atop the Napa Valley.

The wine is spectacular, combining marvelous blackberry and violet flavors with notes of toasty oak and a long, pleasing finish. What’s most noticeable about this wine is that the aftertaste isn’t terribly tannic. Higher acidity and perfect balance should help it age a long time.

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The blend is mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, with small amounts of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petite Verdot blended in. (The “Five” in the title refers to the number of varieties used in the blend, and to keep the theme going, Cain will release this wine only in five-bottle wooden cases on the fifth day of the fifth month of the year.)

A second new Meritage wine, from Hacienda in Sonoma Valley, is called Antares. Named after the red star that is the brightest in the Southern Hemisphere, Antares is composed of 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Cabernet Franc and 15% Merlot. It has a cherry and cedar aroma and deep, rich, fairly dry flavors. Again, the tannins are not excessive.

Cain Five is a marvel of fining skill. I tasted the wine 18 months ago when it was still in barrels, and its tannin level was so high I didn’t give it much hope. But wine maker Lester Hardy said he worked hard to not only trim the tannins out but to find the best blend of lots.

He said that occasionally, two lots of wine that are fairly tannic on their own can actually make a smoother wine when they are blended, sort of like matching up the two rough edges of a jigsaw puzzle.

As for Antares, Hacienda didn’t intend to make it. Winery owner Crawford Cooley said it was a product of wine maker Eric Lauman’s imagination.

Over a Barrel

“One day, Eric came up to the office and said: ‘We’ve got some barrels that are very interesting, and I think if we handled them separately, we could make a very fine wine.’ But we also knew it was going to be an expensive wine, because we had to buy new French oak barrels, and we’re using a high-shouldered bottle, and each bottle will be tissue-paper-wrapped.” It will be released in six-bottle boxes, mainly in California.

The new 1985 Flora Springs Trilogy is another superb wine. Trilogy is a one-third blend of each of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot.

The ’85 Trilogy is an amazingly complex wine with a cherry-like tone, a hint of dusty/toasty elements from oak aging, and extremely refined, in the manner of a classic Bordeaux. It is smoother than the ’84 Trilogy, a tribute to wine maker Ken Deis’ fining ability.

The 1985 Opus One, to finish the analogy, is the best Opus One to date. It is loaded with fruit, but as is the house style, the wine is restrained and has a finely honed tannin structure for long aging.

Meritage wines are not cheap. Opus One is $50, for example (though it hasn’t increased in price since the first vintage, 1979). Trilogy is $35.

The good news is that Cain Five is $26, one of the lowest-priced Meritage wines; Antares is only $28, even though only 181 cases were produced.

From this discussion, one might guess there’s something wrong with varietal wines on their own. Of course, this isn’t true.

Jordan Winery in Alexander Valley proved that with a string of successful Cabernet Sauvignons that rarely are very tannic, yet appear to have a wide following, especially in restaurants. The reason is obvious: You can drink Jordan Cabernets younger than many other wines, but they appear to age as well as their more-tannic brethren.

Recently I tasted the 1986 Arrowood Cabernet Sauvignon and the 1986 Ferrari Carano Merlot. Both are sensational varietal wines that offer less tannin than I might have seen in past years.

The Arrowood ($19) has a huge amount of fruit (more cassis and black cherry than anything) and amazing length in the finish, a wine that has some noticeable tannin but is held well in check by the balance.

The Ferrari Carano ($14.50) offers an intriguing fresh tarragon, spice and cedar aroma and classic silkiness in the finish; it’s a marvel of balance.

Wine of the Week: 1987 Franciscan Oakville Chardonnay ($11): Slight tropical fruit and citrus tones are filled out with toasty, oaky notes and a creaminess rarely found in wines of this price.


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