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Tightening the Screws on Tannin

March 23, 1989|DAN BERGER | 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.

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

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.

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.

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