Article By: Harvey Finkel
Weighing quality, global distribution, economic impact, and prestige, there can be no argument but that cabernet sauvignon is the world’s most important red-wine grape. Its wines age gracefully and develop elegance and complexity, while expressing their terroir and vintage conditions and the hand of the winemaker. Many issues, however, remain unresolved about the cultivation and vinification of this noble variety.
Cabernet sauvignon’s parentage, shown by DNA mapping to have been cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc, the chance miscegenation of which is likely to have occurred some time between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, probably in Bordeaux’s left bank. Thus, not an ancient variety, its vinous impact had to wait until the eighteenth century, also in Graves and the Médoc, still the cynosure. Only in the latter half of the twentieth century did other wines of cabernet sauvignon achieve a share of the status accorded Bordeaux.
Cabernet sauvignon has been a most successful immigrant, unlike, infamously, pinot noir. It produces good wine wherever the temperature is warm enough to permit adequate ripening, ideally in locations with adequate drainage, and has been most successful in gravelly soil. Its wines span a range from herbaceousness to ripe black fruit. It is clear that either extreme should be avoided. With progressive global warming, desirable planting sites are changing. (One hears mordant jokes about investing in Siberian vineyards.) The value of blending, à la Bordeaux, and with what, may depend on site. The relative importance of clones is in dispute. Vinification issues, including ideal degree of extraction and alcohol concentration, and the best oak treatment, will continue to be debated. Surreal price and vanishing availability of top wines have rendered some of them just theoretical constructs. Chinese consumers and collectors now play a role.
Now comes a book that tells cabernet sauvignon’s story, in Bordeaux and elsewhere, and discusses issues that are unresolved, some unresolvable: Claret & Cabs: The Story of Cabernet Sauvignon, by Benjamin Lewin, MW. While brimming with information, in Lewin’s usual socratic style the questions he poses provoke the most thought. Some probably seem impertinent to some producers, all the better for us. There certainly are more questions than answers. His method was likewise successful in his three preceding books: What Price Bordeaux?, 2OO9; Wine Myths and Reality, 2O1O; and In Search of Pinot Noir, 2O11. Lewin was the founding editor of the elite scientific journal CELL, and the author of standard works on genetics before his mutation to a wine savant. He writes clearly, with ample documentation and clarifying graphics. The endnotes are quite informative. The book contains a 186 page section of producer profiles and tasting notes from all over the Cabernet Sauvignon world. The main text covers the issues noted above in Bordeaux, the Languedoc, California, Washington, Tuscany, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, but not in the rest of southwest France, Spain, elsewhere in Italy, southeastern Europe, Cyprus, Lebanon, or Israel.
As with any book of this size and complexity, however, I have a few quibbles. On page 117, the “1986” given as the year of planting of Diamond Creek Vineyards is surely a transposition from the correct 1968. The Margaret River region occupies the western half of its promontory, not the “eastern half” stated on page 256. The last sentence in endnote 22 for chapter 8 on page 511 implies to my reading that the perception of acidity directly correlates with titratable acidity rather than with pH, a measure of dissociated hydrogen ions. The relationship is more complex than that, and certainly involves pH and other factors. Here are just two of the many cogent published papers on the subject: The Chemistry and Physiology of Sour Taste – A Review, by Ramos da Conceicao Neta ER, Johanningsmeier SD, McFeeters RF, JOURNAL OF FOOD SCIENCE 2OO7;72:R33-R38; Comparison of the Effects of Concentration, pH and Anion Species on Astringency and Sourness of Organic Acids, by Sowalsky RA, Noble AC. CHEMICAL SENSES 1998;23:343-349. The print on a few maps is difficult to make out.
I am disappointed that Lewin has not given more of a nod to Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour Private Reserve, a certified Napa icon from its birth in 1936, and an almost lonely standard bearer for California for several decades. The 1936, 1947, 1949, one of the two 1951s, the 1958, 196O, 1966, 1968, 197O, and 1979, at least, were very great wines. They aged with aplomb, up to 54 years in my experience. They would grow and glow in the glass after pouring. Even the less favored vintages showed quality.
The book on the whole is a keeper, both to read and for reference. I would judge it medal worthy.
Claret & Cabs: The Story of Cabernet Sauvignon by Benjamin Lewin, MW
Vendange Press, 2O13
518 pp large format. $55