PERSONS OF ALL political persuasions will concur that California has made at least one positive contribution to the country this year. While vintners in Europe (the Cotes du Rhone excepted) bemoan a cold, wet season resulting in quantities ranging from one-third to two-thirds of normal, and quality from moderately good to poor, California has experienced a superb harvest. Although it will be some months before the results can be evaluated with certainty, preliminary analyses of the freshly fermented juice indicate that 1980 will produce wines of exceptional balance and intensity.
An unusual weather pattern in California produced grapes with high levels of both sugar and acid -- the key indicators of quality for winemakers. Acid gives wine the tartness needed to keep it from being flat or dull, while sugar gives wine alcohol and body and balances the acid.
This vintage is unusual because it is not generally possible to have both high sugar and high acid. As grapes mature, the sugar content rises and the acid drops, so leaving the grapes on the vine long enough to obtain high sugar can often result in insufficient acidity, particularly if the growing season is as warm as it usually is in California. Winemakers, then, often find it necessary to correct this problem by adding acid to the grapes at the crush.
The California summer of 1980, however, was abnormally cool, and the grapes retained a high degree of their natural acidity. Toward the end of the growing season, many winemakers feared that the grapes would not ripen fully and that the wines would be too thin and acidic -- a rare worry in California. aThen, toward the end of September, fortune -- smiled the vineyards experienced a period of hot, sunny days and cool nights. The heat brought the grapes to full maturity, but was of insufficient duration to cause an excessive reduction in acidity. Also, the normal grape shrinkage associated with heat concentrated the material in the grapes. These factors resulted in the unusual combination of both high sugar and high acid.
Tim Mondavi, winemaker at the Robert Mondavi Winery in the Napa Valley, reports grapes coming in at sugar levels of 23% and acidity of between .8 and 1.2% by weight. Grape acidity in the .75 to .85% range is normally acceptable. Asked to compare 1980 to other recent California vintages, Mondavi replies that he cannot remember a year with such a long, cool growing season terminated by a hot, quick ripening period. Gary Woo at Beaulieu Vineyards is also pleased -- especially with the white wines, where acid plays a particularly important role in quality.
While visiting California to observe the 1980 vintage, I came across a development that, although receiving less attention currently than the harvest, is of considerable long-term significance. I speak of the appearance of a new style of red wine made from the Cabernet Sauvignon grape in the Alexander Valley and Dry Creek areas of northern Sonoma County. These are subtle, supply cabernets combining early drinkability with elegance and depth. They lack the huge flavors often described as mint, spice, asparagus and/or green peppers, and the high tannin, possessed by many of their California cousins -- which will mature into magnificent wines but are difficult to enjoy when young.
Perhaps the flagship of this softer style of cabernet is the highly acclaimed Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon 1976. Tom Jordan has surprised the world by producing, as his first wine, a smooth, supply cabernet with structure and elegance. I tasted the yet-to-be-released 1977 at the winery and found it to be even better. While the 1977 is somewhat rough around the edges now and will take longer to mature than the 1976, it promises to be a more complex and assertive wine.
Upon tasting the Jordan, I set out to see if there were other cabernets in northern Sonoma with similar characteristics. Happily, I found several -- the Simi 1976, the Clos du Bois 1977 Second Release and the Lambert Bridge 1978. While soft and forward, these wines do not want for structure and depth. They may indeed mark the inception of a new "style." A problem in declaring that an Alexander Valley or Northern Sonoma "style" of cabernet now exists is that vintage and winemaking techniques may have more to do with this type of cabernet than does geography.For instance, the just-released 1974 Simi Reserve is a big, tannic cabernet which resembles some of its sturdy Napa neighbors, while the 1976, from the same area, is much softer and more forward.
Zelma Long, winemaker at the Simi Winery, is able to comment on this issue from an unusual perspective. She makes wine from Alexander Valley cabernet at Simi and from Napa cabernet at her family winery in the Napa Valley. Zelma feels that Alexander Valley cabernet has a definite softness and need not be tannic and hard when young to have character.
Thus, the consumer can now enjoy a young California cabernet of considerable interest while waiting for his big "monster cabernets" to mature into the magnificent bottles many of them will be.