First the conclusion: Despite the hype that 1985 California Cabernet Sauvignons are the best ever and despite rave reviews for many 1984s, I feel that 1986 Cabernets will eventually top both vintages in terms of overall quality.
After evaluating 1986 Cabernets from California's North Coast counties for more than a year, I am struck by the fact that there is more depth, complexity and classical structure here than may be apparent on first blush.
More about the vintage after a few words about how this all came about.
In most areas of the wine world, the harvest of grapes is orderly. As grapes ripen, the wine maker takes sugar samples and tastes berries from various areas of the vineyards to determine when to pick. When maturity is believed to be optimum, picking is ordered.
Sometimes the crop is picked a few days early to beat an expected storm that could create problems if it hit while the grapes are still on the vine.
Sometimes an optimum sugar content is reached before the grapes taste mature, so they are left on the vine a little longer. By this, the grower gambles that the grapes will gain more flavor without getting an overripe character.
When it's time to begin picking, the grower usually brings in pickers (often farm workers) who are told to start picking at one end of a vineyard and pick to the other side.
The 1986 growing season in Napa and Sonoma counties was more erratic. Intermittent rains throughout the year disrupted the orderly development of the grapes; and after each rainfall, clouds and a warm humidity, more enemies of maturity, hung around to confound the grower.
But Cabernet is a hardy, rugged vine that can hold its own against the worst that nature can dish out, as evidenced by the fact that the word sauvignon can be translated to mean "savage" or "wild," indicating a stubborn independence.
Cabernet ripened slowly and when normal harvest time came, most wine makers wanted more time on the vine. Yet more rain was expected, so most wine makers decided to start picking early to assure that at least some of the crop was in just in case the worst happened.
But instead of asking pickers to pick left to right, many chose to pick only the ripe blocks of vineyards. This crazy-quilt sort of picking, confusing to some picking crews and requiring more supervision, apparently paid off.
It permitted the grower a feeling of some comfort, knowing that some grapes were being picked while others needing more maturity were still on the vine. And when no more rain came, the harvest wound up quite orderly with superb, naturally high acidity and exciting, deep flavors from full maturity.
Each time I have tried two vintages of a winery's Cabernet, 1985 and 1986, side by side, the '86 always seems to have slightly better natural acid, but slightly lower aroma. The '86s aren't as fleshy and round, certainly not as immediately appealing or instantly gratifying as the '85s. The mid-palate is leaner and the wine a little less generous.
After tasting through 86 of these 1986 Cabernets at the recently concluded San Francisco Fair wine competition at the Parc 55 Hotel, I was convinced this is an even greater vintage than '85 for one key reason: lower tannins and better overall structure.
A problem with making this statement, however, is that many of these wines are not as obviously attractive at present as the '85s because of the slightly more reticent nature of the '86s. (But the '85s were far more tannic.)
Still, after we had awarded medals to the '86 wines, there was agreement among all four panel members: myself; Alan Phillips, wine maker at Monticello Vineyards in the Napa Valley; Fred Dame, master sommelier now with Seagram Classics Wine Co., and Nick Ponomareff, editor/publisher of the California Grapevine newsletter. All of us said the major difference between this vintage and the past few was better structure, especially the lower levels of tannins that will not cause any concern as these wines age.
At the San Francisco judging, 30 of the 86 wines, 35%, received medals, a high percentage in any competition. And the breakdown was even more impressive--10 silver medals, two gold medals and five double-gold medals. Some of the wines listed here are not out yet, but will be released in a few weeks.
Best wine of the 1986 class, in the estimation of the judges, was Shafer Vineyards Cabernet ($17), which offers a deep cherry aroma and extremely long, complex flavors in the aftertaste.
Other double-gold winners were Kenwood Jack London Vineyard ($18)--great complexity, but a touch hard; Peju Province ($15)--an approachable, soft wine from a tiny Napa Valley producer; St. Francis ($20)--youthful fruit, herbal complexity and a cassis-blackberry finish, and Forman ($20)--a virtually unobtainable wine of intensely deep, spicy flavors, yet with an understated elegance in the finish.