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Wine Tasting Conducted on a Cache of 24 California
 Cabernet Sauvignons Vintage 1980

By Mike Dunne, The Sacramento Bee, Calif.McClatchy-Tribune Business News

Apr. 4, 2007 - Though most wine made today is to be consumed relatively young, say within a few years of its release, virtually every wine enthusiast squirrels away at least a dozen or so bottles for long-term aging.

Perhaps the wines are being saved to commemorate a special occasion, perhaps to relive an especially fond memory, perhaps just to see how they develop. Did they evolve into a truly profound statement of personality, grape or place, or did they die quietly and unheralded a few years earlier?

About 100 people gathered at the department of viticulture and enology at UC Davis recently to see just how 24 California cabernet sauvignons had matured over the past quarter century.

All the wines were from the 1980 vintage, and all had been made commercially; no student experiments this night. The wines had been stored under uniformly ideal conditions, in the department's large and historic cellar. They came from several regions, Napa Valley to Calaveras County, Alexander Valley to Paso Robles.

They were the remains of a cache of cabernets that wineries had donated to the department for activities surrounding its 75th anniversary in 1984. The university ended up with so many of the wines it gave several bottles to President Reagan to present to chairman Deng Xiaoping of the People's Republic of China when Reagan called upon him in the spring of 1984.

The last of the bottles had been sealed off behind a panel in the university cellar and virtually forgotten until Chik Brenneman, the department's winemaker and cellarmaster, came upon them while compiling a catalog of the cellar's contents in preparation for a move to new quarters.

The discovery inspired department officials to stage the tasting, for which most participants paid $125 each, the funds earmarked for student activities, including a field trip to South American vineyards and wineries this summer. Students participated in the tasting by decanting and serving the wines, and setting up and cleaning up.

"There aren't many foods you can look forward to enjoying at this age," said department chairman Andrew Waterhouse at the outset of the tasting.

And frankly, not all the wines were enjoyable. That's the risk in hanging onto a wine for a quarter century. It could have been at its prime a decade ago. On the other hand, older bottles of the same wine are notorious for their variability, and one that was thin and dull in my glass could have been bright and frisky in someone else's glass if it was poured from another bottle.

For the most part, cabernet sauvignons tend to change similarly as they age. Their color lightens from dense and bright purple/red to red brick, orange and tawny. Smell and flavor moves from fruit and oak to suggestions along the lines of cedar, seaweed and earth. Tannins soften but acidity stays relatively constant, though a wine is apt to taste sharper than it did in its youth because other traits recede compared with the acids. A subtle complexity is apt to evolve, far different but no less intriguing than the lush fruit of a young cabernet.

"They offer a lot of different flavors," says Sacramento wine merchant Darrell Corti, the moderator of the UC Davis tasting. "You can't tell people what to expect with old wines. They could be terrific, or they could prompt people to ask, 'Why doesn't it taste like what I'm used to?' "

The California vintage of 1980 wasn't particularly auspicious. The trade magazine Wines & Vines reported that the weather throughout much of the state was relatively cool, but not without several heat waves, yielding "very ripe and earthy flavors," "modest concentration" and a crop much larger than anticipated. Overall, quality was just average. In 1986, the esteemed wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. gave the vintage a modest 86 points and said it was "ready to drink," a comment that suggested he didn't expect the wines to develop much more.

Yet, at the UC Davis tasting several wines remained vibrant, alluring in their delicately layered smells and flavors, and with refreshing acidity. My favorites were the lean, silken and persistent Joseph Phelps Vineyards, the complex and biting Mount Veeder Winery, the elegant Stonegate Winery, the youthful and juicy Jordan Vineyard & Winery, and the bright and classic Devlin Cellars.

Three of them -- Mount Veeder, Devlin and Phelps -- shared a characteristic which I'm a sucker for in cabernet sauvignon, and that's the herbal notes of eucalyptus, green olives and mint. Winemakers today try to downplay those attributes in cabernet in favor of fruit associations such as cherries and plums.

Why? "Monterey," says Chuck Devlin, one of several winemakers to join the UC Davis tasting. In 1980 he had Devlin Cellars in Santa Cruz, and today makes wine at Ste. Chapelle Winery in Idaho.

Early on in its development as a wine region, Monterey County produced cabernets that took the vegetal component inherent in the grape to extremes, producing wines that tasted too strongly of bell peppers and asparagus.

"Monterey pushed the vegetal component over the edge," Devlin says. "It was more than what the public would tolerate."

As a consequence, even carefully modulated expressions of the vegetal side of cabernet virtually have disappeared today.

Today's California cabernet sauvignons differ from the 1980s in a couple of other respects, broadly speaking. Winemakers today often want their cabernet fruit super ripe, so they can make wines with more massive flavors, perhaps a trace of residual sugar, and alcohol levels dramatically high, all contrary to the style of 1980. Today, it's not uncommon to find California cabernets with alcohol levels around 14.5 percent. Most of the wines in the UC Davis tasting ranged from 12.5 percent alcohol to around 13.5 percent, and only one hit 14.5 percent. It wasn't bad, certainly rich and chewy, but it lacked the grace of several of the other, more gentle wines. This might not be an encouraging sign for wine enthusiasts who think today's denser and hotter cabernets will show well a quarter century from now.

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Copyright (c) 2007, The Sacramento Bee, Calif.

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