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Pucker Up, Buttercup


ST. HELENA, Calif. — If you ask most people what's the biggest problem with Cabernet, they'll say harshness, bitterness, astringency. In a word, tannin.

Tannin is that gritty stuff that leaves a puckery alum- or sand-like feel on the tongue. For a long time, California winemakers tried to make their wines as tannic as possible, believing that it was essential for red wine to have the "structure" that would allow it to age. But is that true?

Two years ago, I tasted 1955 Louis Martini Cabernet (a wine that's legendary in California) and 1953 Chateau Latour (another legendary wine) side by side. The Latour was superb, packed with flavor and complexity, but 11 of 12 people in the room said the Martini was much better. Although it had been made with the light tannins that are typical of the Martini style, it had aged beautifully.

There are dozens of other examples of light-tannin red wines that have aged well. Today wine scientists (and many winemakers) agree that loads of tannin may actually hinder a wine's ability to age.

"Where most people go wrong," says Tony Soter, one of the best winemakers at managing astringency, "is in trying to get too much from the grapes. If you want to make a robust wine, you go for maximum extraction." Often, he says, that makes a wine with too much of everything. And too much tannin can create an awkward wine that requires many years of aging before it is drinkable.

Soter was winemaker at Chappellet from 1977 to 1980, when he left to open a Napa Valley wine consulting firm. While consulting to many wineries, he also makes the wines of Francis Ford Coppola's Niebaum-Coppola Estate, in addition to superb Cabernets and Pinot Noirs under his own Etude brand. It is Pinot Noir, he says, that taught him to manage the tannins in Cabernet.

"I think of Pinot Noir as the best vehicle for teaching winemakers the aesthetics of red wine," says Soter. "Pinot Noir is transparent. It lets you see your inputs very readily, and it is unforgiving." In other words, when Pinot Noir is just slightly too tannic, the wine can taste much harsher than it should.

Since the 1989 vintage, California Cabernets have on the whole been more supple than before. There is a lightness and a brightness to the 1989 wines I have tried, and this means they needed less time in oak barrels, making for more approachable wine.

Still, in my opinion many wineries are still making tough, tannic wines that need a lot of time in the bottle to smooth out. They include Rombauer Vineyards, Freemark Abbey Winery, Sequoia Grove Vineyards, Diamond Creek Vineyards, Bellerose Vineyard, Pine Ridge Winery, Dunn Vineyards, Dominus Estate and Smith & Hook Winery.

My list of wineries that make moderately tannic Cabernets includes Duckhorn Vineyards, Burgess Cellars, Clos du Val Wine Co., Cuvaison Winery, Hess Collection, Carmenet Vineyard, Cakebread Cellars, Kenwood Vineyards, B.R. Cohn Winery, Laurel Glen Vineyard, Iron Horse Vineyards, Chimney Rock Winery and Flora Springs Wine Co.

The more gentle Cabernets, those with even less grittiness, include Arrowood Vineyards and Winery, St. Francis Vineyards and Winery, Lakespring Winery, Swanson Vineyards, Etude, Shafer Vineyards, Stags' Leap Winery, Silverado Vineyards, Jordan Vineyard and Winery, Beaulieu Vineyard, Inglenook Vineyards, Caymus Vineyards, Louis M. Martini, Raymond Vineyard and Cellar, Frog's Leap Winery, Fetzer Vineyards, Sterling Vineyards, St. Clement Vineyards, Markham Winery, Beringer Vineyards, Robert Mondavi Winery, Dry Creek Vineyards, Simi Winery, Grace Family Vineyards, Clos Pegase Winery and Ferrari-Carano Winery.

As I was writing those lists, I suddenly realized that my list of wineries that make more supple wines was larger than the other two. That surprised me--and made me wonder if I was wrong to feel that California is making wines that are too tannic.

The answer, I think, is that California is slowly getting a grip on this problem of excessive tannin. Many of the wineries in the last list are relative newcomers, run by people who realize that a gob of tannin isn't any more benefit to Cabernet Sauvignon than too much oak is to Chardonnay.

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