Some of the most fashionable California Cabernets aren't called Cabernet at all. Instead, they go by names like Affinity, Rubicon and Insignia—names you'd expect to find at your local Lexus dealership, not your neighborhood wine shop.
This isn't entirely inappropriate, since these predominantly Cabernet blends are the luxury sedans of California wine. In fact, many, such as Harlan Estate and Dalla Valle's Maya, are available only to a privileged mailing-list few. And while prices may start at around $20, they are often in the $50 to $100 range.
These blends, in most cases, are a winery's flagship bottling, its ultimate statement, and the packaging of the wines is often just as important as their taste. In addition to imaginative names, they typically sport stylish labels and come packaged in chic tall-shouldered heavy glass bottles.
About 60 California wineries produce such blends, although they can't seem to agree on what to call them. Some wineries label them "proprietary reds," while others refer to them as Bordeaux-style blends or Cabernet blends. A devoted few even started their own association and devised an official name for the wines: Meritage, which rhymes with heritage. Most of these wines are as much as 75 percent Cabernet Sauvignon (sufficient to actually be labeled "Cabernet"), with the balance being varying quantities of other Bordeaux grape varieties such as Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec.
The rise of blends is a dramatic change from the emphasis in California a mere three decades ago, when 100 percent varietal wines were all the rage. As Steve Reeder, winemaker at Chateau St. Jean and the man behind its popular Cinq Cépages blend, says, "We were so caught up in varietal wines that we didn't know how to blend."
Craig Williams, winemaker at Joseph Phelps Vineyards (which produced California's first proprietary red, Insignia, in 1974), explained that Insignia was created as a means of making a consistently great wine at a time when vineyard sources were constantly changing and vintage quality varied drastically from year to year. The blend varied too in the early years—the 1975 Insignia was almost entirely Merlot—but now Cabernet consistently dominates. Says Williams, "The main goal for us is the quality of the wine rather than the varietal correctness."
California winemakers chose the five red grapes of Bordeaux in trying to replicate the Bordeaux style. Selected by the French because they ripen at different times and give growers room to maneuver, each of the grapes has a distinct personality. Cabernet Sauvignon is the backbone, lending structure plus cassis and blackberry fruit, while Merlot adds bright cherry fruit and a broad, round texture but much more jammy, chewy tannins than many people realize. Cabernet Franc lends strong aromatic qualities like blueberry, plum, violet and spice, and the flavors are long on the finish. Petit Verdot brings a rich texture, strong tannins and lots of spice. Malbec is inky-black, full-bodied and tannic, but accented with a floral incense.
Few California blends actually use all five grapes. Most use only two or three. According to Reeder, "You can't use much Petit Verdot or Malbec because they tend to overpower the wines. We start by making the best Cabernet Sauvignon that we can. We look at the other four varietals almost as spices on the rack."
Seduced by the Spices
The style of many blends has evolved over the years. Winemakers, charmed by all these new "spices," sometimes got distracted from Cabernet Sauvignon, the heart of the blend, and made wines that were too soft. Then the pendulum swung in the late '80s and early '90s, and many of the blends became too hard. Now, the best winemakers find a delicious medium, layering ripe and round tannins, a deep complexity of flavor and a rich, luxurious texture.
Niebaum-Coppola's Rubicon is one blend that went through a fairly dramatic evolution. The first Rubicons were full-bodied, tannic and built to age, although many of the early wines have yet to come around—if they ever will. The Rubicons of the mid-1990s to date are more approachable though no less complex. Says Scott McLeod, Neibaum-Coppola's winemaker since 1991, "I don't believe a great wine has to be unpleasant for 10 years to be a great wine. A balanced wine is a wonderful thing—it ages."
Can these wines age? I recently held a blind tasting of more than 50 Cabernets and Cabernet blends from the 1990 vintage. Many of the blends finished at the top, with years of life still ahead of them. The 1990 Harlan Estate—the winery's first official release, a collectible now selling for $900 a bottle—was glorious and still quite youthful. The Dominus and the Pahlmeyer were stunning. Even the Clos du Bois Marlstone—the current vintage retails for a mere $36—was soft, pretty and altogether delightful.
California winemakers use various creative names to avoid calling attention to the Cabernet in their blends, even though most blends contain enough of the varietal to legally call themselves Cabernet. Fortunately, inside the bottle, it's another matter altogether.
Tim Fish is the editor of WineToday.com and the coauthor of The Napa and Sonoma Book: A Complete Guide (Berkshire House).