A colleague of mine on the San Diego Union (now Union-Tribune) newspaper sports copy desk was (and probably still is) fond of saying, “Even a blind hog can uproot an acorn every once in a while.”
It’s a common saying in the South, and in 2007 in California, it also applied to the Cabernet Sauvignon vintage. It was such a glorious growing season that nearly every winemaker produced Cabernets of admirable quality. The 2007 vintage is mostly diamonds, with very few dogs -- and it would be incredibly bad luck to find the latter.
I can’t say this too emphatically: If you’re a California Cabernet Sauvignon lover (Merlot fans apply, too), purchase wines from 2007, from all regions and across all price points, because 95 percent of the winemakers hit it this vintage out of the ballpark on quality.
While my checkbook doesn’t say so, the economy is reported to be on the rebound. Still, many 2007 California Cabernet Sauvignons can be purchased for fewer bucks than the 2005 and 2006 wines, due to discounting at the wholesaler and retailer levels. Consumers likely won’t find great deals at the source -- winery tasting rooms and winery websites -- because producers hope to maintain “regular” pricing when the economy returns to normal (if it ever does). Yet in the U.S. three-tier system of wine distribution, where producer sells to wholesaler, who then sells to retailer, wineries have been forced to accept discounting at the distributor/retailer level, in order to move product.
Exclude from this scenario “cult” Cabs, such as those from Bryant Family, Colgin, Harlan Estate, Screaming Eagle and the like, which, like antiques and art, sell for however much buyers are willing to pay. These wines tend to be recession-proof, and are not available to consumers who shop in stores. Even though these hallowed producers may have seen mailing-list customers drop off their lists in the recession, their waiting lists are long enough to keep their high-end Cabs flowing to eager customers.
California rarely has a lousy vintage, thanks its abundant sunshine, warm spring through fall weather and lack of rain during the growing season. Achieving fully ripe grapes is a concern in cooler European wine regions, yet California’s issue is overly ripe grapes, with can result in soft, squishy, alcoholic, Port-like Cabernet Sauvignons. Some consumers (and critics) embrace this style of wine, yet true Cab aficionados turn against them, because the wines lack varietal character (cedar, forest floor, leafy herbs), tannic structure for long-term aging, and refreshing acidity needed for pairing with steaks, lamb and prime rib.
Yet in 2007, consistently moderate temperatures, an unusually cool September, and lack of California’s infamous heat spikes -- which can send temperatures skyrocketing to as high as 104° F for days at a time -- allowed for an almost-perfect vintage. Cabernet grapes developed intense flavors while retaining their natural acidities, and tannins matured beautifully. The result: More balanced, lower-alcohol wines than in past vintages, yet the 2007 Cabs have tremendous concentration and grip.
The trick in California is to make Cabernet Sauvignons that are deliciously drinkable upon release, yet have the stuffing to improve with cellaring. Not all 2007 Cal Cabs will do this, yet most will; they can’t help it, given the vintage conditions.
Those who set out to make super-ripe, opulent wines that have found favor with some critics were likely disappointed with their 2007s, because there simply wasn’t enough sustained heat to produce alcoholic behemoths. Instead, 2007 is for those, like me, who savor classic Cabernet Sauvignon characteristics of cedar, forest floor, herbs, tobacco and minerality, and appreciate refreshing acidity and modest alcohols, at around 14 percent or less.
There is a downside: Yields in 2007 were down by 20% across the state from the previous two vintages, meaning less wine for consumers to buy, and less revenue for growers and producers. Yet the timing was right for such a shortfall, as the recession slowed sales of high-end wines of any type; after the abundant 2006 California Cabernet Sauvignon vintage, the short 2007 crop brings balance to the market in terms of quantity.
Vintners are thrilled with 2007 quality, though they are not excited by the continuing economic crisis, which has led consumers to trade down to less pricey wines. As California’s most expensive varietal at the ultra-premium level, Cabernet Sauvignon has been a difficult sell the past two years, with buyers seeking good value for money. As a result, many producers have dropped their prices at the wholesale level, with the discounts usually passed down to retail shops.
Restaurants are getting good deals, too, on bottle prices, and the reputable ones are passing on their discounts to patrons. And never has there been a better time to drink high-end California Cabernet by the glass, as restaurateurs take advantage of insider deals to uncork bottles for single pours, in response to seeing whole bottles languish on their wine lists at exorbitant prices.
However, few wineries have lowered their suggested retail prices -- those used in tasting rooms and provided to wine writers -- for fear that consumers will get used to these reduced prices and then revolt if the economy recovers and wineries revert to their previous price levels.
Proof of the superior quality of California Cabernet Sauvignon from the 2007 vintage is evident in the high scores accorded to the wines here on WRO. Adding to the treasure trove, I recently tasted 12 Cal Cabs in a blind comparative tasting of 2007 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons, and was most impressed by the Hollywood & Vine Cellars, O’Shaughnessy Howell Mountain and Merus Napa Valley bottlings.
Blind hogs may uproot some acorns, and when it came to 2007 California Cabernet Sauvignon, some pigs wound up champions, when in other years they might have become bacon. For the steady, serious, devoted, quality-based producers, 2007 was a dream vintage for Cabernet Sauvignon. Remember this when you decide upon which wines to add to your cellar.