Wine Diarist

Shriveling Grape: Is Cabernet Sauvignon’s Hegemony Over?

The 2010 en primeur campaign is now history, and while there is some debate as to whether it can be deemed a failure, it was clearly not a resounding success. Americans seemed completely indifferent to the vintage, which can be read as yet another sign that on these shores, at least, Bordeaux has fallen out of flavor. The declining interest in Bordeaux has generally been attributed to the stiff prices commanded by the leading growths. But I wonder if it also reflects changing tastes—specifically, a diminished enthusiasm for cabernet sauvignon.  True, not all Bordeaux wines are cabernet-based, but cabernet is king on the Left Bank. It is also king in Napa, where demand for high-end wines has likewise flagged. In that case, too, economic factors have been cited, but again, I wonder if it speaks to a shift in preferences.

Cabernet, of course, has long been considered the noblest of noble grapes and the source of the finest red wines. Jancis Robinson, in her book Vines, Grapes, & Wines, put it thusly: “To the great majority of conscious wine-drinking palates in the world today, top quality red wine is Cabernet Sauvignon.” She wrote that sentence in 1986. I’m not sure Jancis would be able to make the same claim today, or at least such an unequivocal one. Even before the global economic crisis struck, many American collectors were turning away from Bordeaux and Napa and embracing Burgundy as their touchstone, a development that was part of the broader pinot noir boom—a boom that has endured even through the downturn.

Think about it: does anyone care these days if some hot new cabernet project is launched in Napa? Not as far as I can tell. An exciting new source of pinot, on the other hand, is sure to generate buzz. Cabernet hasn’t necessarily been eclipsed by pinot (not yet, anyway!), and Burgundy would certainly never be able to assume the global benchmarking role that Bordeaux has long fulfilled, as it doesn’t produce enough wine. But for many consumers, pinot—and especially pinot in its Burgundian incarnation—is now the gold standard of red wine grapes, a title that was once pretty much reserved for cabernet. And I suspect that cabernet’s standing is only going to continue to slip.

Twenty years ago, younger drinkers typically honed their palates on Bordeaux and Napa cabs. Not now: too many of those wines are priced beyond the reach of twenty and thirtysomethings, who are finding tasting pleasures elsewhere. For oenophiles of more recent vintage, Bordeaux and Napa are merely two regions among many, and cabernet is but another grape. These days, varieties such as pinot, syrah, and nebbiolo are just as likely to serve a yardstick function. I’m not suggesting that cabernet is in danger of becoming a has-been; for many people, it will undoubtedly remain the reference-point red wine grape. However, it doesn’t own that distinction anymore, which strikes me as a significant development.