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Testing El Nino's Children


There's no getting around it: The 1998 vintage in California was weird. It started out weird, got weirder and came to a decidedly weird conclusion. In other words, it was an El Nino year.

The question, posed at last week's Cabernet Society barrel tasting at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley, was just how the vineyards responded to the weirdness. What are the 1998 Cabernets really like?

About 45 wineries offered barrel samples of their '98s, alongside current and older releases. Most winemakers showed '96s. A few had the confidence to show their adolescent '97s, and some brought out older vintages for comparison.

Heavy winter rains continued through a cool spring, with flooding along every North Coast river, especially the Russian and the Napa. Unsettled weather through the flowering period produced a small, uneven crop. A series of unlikely heat waves through the early summer further inhibited grape development. By late August, when red wine grapes have normally turned from green to purple, it was hard to tell Cabernet from Sauvignon Blanc.

Grape vines need a fairly narrow temperature range to ripen. When temperatures dip into the 50s, photosynthesis slows down, and the ripening process with it. When the mercury hits the high 90s, the same thing happens. Through most of the '98 growing season, the vines were either too hot or too cold, and the Cabernet grapes stayed green and tart long after they should have been purple and sweet.

In early fall, when steady warmth is crucial to ripening, there was more unsettled weather. Anxiety mounted over the prospect of grapes without enough sugar to become wine.

And then, lo and behold, nature presented one of the most glorious Indian summers in living memory. Long, clear days in the high 80s brought the ripening process to a mostly successful, if incredibly late, conclusion--just as the first winter storms began lining up offshore.

How successful? That was the question on everybody's purple-stained lips as we tried to gauge the ripeness, structure, depth and balance of the young Cabernets.

Tasting young red wines from barrels is a little like looking at Polaroid snapshots in mid-development. You can kind of pick out the subject and the main elements of composition, but most of the details have yet to emerge.

A typically dense, tannic wine like Cabernet Sauvignon is especially difficult to read. Some of these wines were still undergoing the secondary fermentation, which rearranges the acid structure and subdues fruity aromas and flavors. Repeatedly gurgling and spitting such tannic young Cabs made for a bizarre social situation, as friends greeted one another with ghastly purple smiles.

Still, for those of us who subject ourselves to the ordeal every spring, barrel tasting is instructive. We remember, for example, what the '94s were like at this stage--unusually fat and supple, in most cases--and we've watched as they continue to soften into sleek, rounded beauty with bottle age.

Sleek, rounded beauty was in short supply this time. A lot of the wines showed the telltale green flavors and lack of palate upholstery that signal a protracted struggle for ripeness. This is highly unusual for California, where the normal challenge is to pick the grapes before they get too ripe. Over-ripe grapes produce high-alcohol monster wines. This was definitely a monster-free tasting.

Still, California winemakers go back a long way with El Nino. They know how to improve even the meanest wines with the clever use of oak and judicious blending. And after all, treacherous weather during the growing season is par for the course in Bordeaux, the ancestral home of Cabernet Sauvignon. So most of the '98s are at least credible, quite a few are lovely and some are even profound.

Sonoma County made an impressive showing. Chalk Hill's "Estate" Cabernet (Chalk Hill) was thick and rich with chewy tannin, promising to coalesce in five years or so. Alexander Valley Vineyards' "Estate" Cabernet (Alexander Valley) had bright, concentrated fruit and smooth texture that probably indicate early drinkability. Murphy-Goode (Alexander Valley) showed well, too.

"It was a low crop with low sugar, and we usually don't get that combination," mused winemaker Christina Benz. "The wines are low in alcohol, so they don't seem so rich, but they're softer."

Michel-Schlumberger's "Estate" Cabernet (Dry Creek Valley) is typically compact in structure, with deep color and juicy, lightly herbaceous flavor emerging from supple tannin. Winemaker Fred Payne marveled at how uneven the ripening was, even among contiguous blocks of vines. "There was a lot of variation between different fermenters, and I'm not used to seeing that," he said.

Predictably, some of the most impressive barrels were from Napa Valley, where Cabernet is king.

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