If ever there was a year to ripen cabernet sauvignon grapes on the East End of Long Island, it was this past 2010 vintage. Not only did we have the heat (one of the warmest years on record) and the lack of water (one of the driest) but we had the time. Bud break came three weeks early and that kick start in early April ripened grapes in August as opposed to September or October. Those extra three weeks are crucial for a variety like cabernet sauvignon. Bordeaux generally gets those extra weeks on the front end and that is one of the factors allowing cabernet sauvignon to ripen and dominate the blends of the left bank of the Gironde.
But what is ripe cabernet? More fundamentally, what are ripe grapes or even what is ripe? Cabernet-based wines show dramatically different expressions of ripeness depending on climate (warm, dry vs. cool, wet), vintage, specific site, yield, canopy management, and one’s philosophy of ripe. The flavor spectrum of cabernet ranges from green bell pepper to red-black currant to cassis to jam. So which part of the spectrum is truly ripe?
This was on my mind at the “Judgment of Riverhead” at Roanoke Vineyards on November 20, where nine red wines were tasted blind and ranked by a panel of nine judges. There were three wines each from California, Long Island and Bordeaux. Ultimately, a Long Island wine came out on top; in fact, a cabernet-based blend tied with a California wine, and the Bordeaux close behind. To me what was so interesting wasn’t that Long Island won but the paradigm shift that has taken place since the original Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976 where California wines beat the French. Originally the controversy wasn’t so much that the California wines won, it was the fact that the tasters could not tell them apart. At the Riverhead tasting for me, and many other panelists, the California wines were evident from their higher alcohol; sweeter, darker, jammy fruit expression; fuller body; and lower acidity. This time, it was the Long Island and Bordeaux wines that showed a convergence of attributes and were harder to tell apart.
But again what is ripe? I posed the question to a recent class back at Channing Daughters winery after tasting cabernet-based wines from California, Bordeaux, Tuscany, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, Washington, Spain and others. Is it the herbaceous wines with earth and currant fruit, moderate alcohol and juicy acid? Or the black wines with cassis and jam, high alcohol, full body, an impression of sweetness and low acid? Obviously both styles are appreciated. Witness the top two wines of the Riverhead tasting—2007 Roanoke Vineyards “Blend One” and 2007 Detert Family Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon—which represent the two divergent styles that are both widely perceived as ripe.
Ripeness is a continuum. And deliciousness exists in a significant range along the ripeness scale. The class found comfort in a fruit analogy, especially the banana. We all know people who will only eat them yellow, some with green tinges, some with brown dots and some fully black, all believing their choice to be the best expression of banana ripeness.
Coming off our great 2010 vintage, the ripeness spin has already begun about who picked what, when and why it will be better. The fact is, fantastic wines will be made across the board, from the early pickers to the late pickers, from a variety of styles and a diversity of varieties, including cabernet sauvignon. It just depends on what you like and how you define ripe.
James Christopher Tracy is the winemaker and partner at Channing Daughters Winery in Bridgehampton, as well as a student candidate for the Institute of Masters of Wine.