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Shriveling Grape: Is Cabernet Sauvignon’s Hegemony Over?

2011 July 22
by Mike

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.

24 Responses leave one →
  1. September 3, 2014

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  2. August 24, 2011

    Beyond fine wine, Cabernet is able to produce entry level and up wines because it grows well in many conditions, can ripen and, crucially, maintain acidity at the kind of yields required to meet value prices. It is Cabernet’s universiality that has given it a place among the group of classic wines grapes.

    The US is not alone in experiencing a pricing out of the fine and rare Bordeaux market, just as the region’s traditional customers in Europe did when Bordeaux began to focus on wealthy Americans in the 1980s.

    With sought-after wines representing just 5% of production in Bordeaux, however, what remains the world’s most important wine region has much to offer. Indeed, a raft of lesser-known chateaux are producing Cabernet blends that are among the best value in the fine wine world today.

  3. Engelbert permalink
    July 28, 2011

    I recently tried Dunn, Stag’s Leap, Clos du Val, and a few other semi-affordable Napa cabs, as well as some semi-affordable 2nd through 5th growth Bordeaux. They were excellent.

    Most affordable Napa cabs taste and smell like fresh oak.

    Thomas Jefferson actually preferred Burgundy. Cabs have been going out of style since the Washington administration.

    I think you’re right, though, that globalization increased the consumer’s access to a wide variety of wines.

  4. July 28, 2011

    Thanks, all, for the comments, and sorry for being slow in responding–I’m on vacation now, and the kids are keeping us busy! I will come back with some more thoughts later, but just in reply to Bill and Blake–I didn’t mean to suggest that cabernet is losing its mass-market appeal; I was really talking about its status among wine geeks, and whether it is still viewed as the gold standard of red wine grapes. Many people obviously still regard it as such, but I don’t think it is the undisputed king anymore, and that was my point.

  5. July 27, 2011

    I certainly hope that Cabernet Sauvignon dies as a varietal wine. I can’t think of a single Cab that wouldn’t have been more complex and intriguing as a blend. Let’s move away from varietally-based thinking.

  6. July 26, 2011

    Mike,

    Nice post as usual, thanks. I’m one of those thirtysomethings you mention who’s largely been priced out of good Napa cabs and Bordeaux, and I’ve never hesitated to fume about the crass commercialism of the Bordelais on this blog and elsewhere (although I’ve got plenty of good company here in that regard). But I’m with Blake Gray on this one: show me the data. I’ve seen some stats concerning the “Sideways effect” on the sales of pinot, but I haven’t seen anything to suggest that cab’s on the wane.

    Yes, there may not be any cabernet producers that are lighting up the blogosphere like the folks at Rhys, and yes, cabernet may no longer inspire the same reverence in our more diversified, democratized wine world. But I think it’s just too early to say its moment (er, century) in the sun is over. Heck, looking long-term, global warming may even favor cabernet over other varietals, on account of its hardiness and the relative ease with which it can be grown across different climates. In other words, we may not be admiring cabernet for its “nobility” but rather, for its resilience.

    Cheers,

    Bill

  7. gdfo permalink
    July 25, 2011

    I do hope that what happens to cabernet in bordeaux do not command that the same happens to cabernet elsewhere

  8. July 25, 2011

    This column could use some actual sales numbers to add perspective. It’s one thing to say that one personally has moved away from Cabernet, or that one’s circle of friends, or even all of America’s 20-somethings. It’s entirely another to say the whole nation has, without statistics.

    Example: You know how nobody drinks Chardonnay anymore? True, except it’s still America’s best-selling varietal. And Cabernet is, I believe, still comfortably No. 2.

  9. JPH permalink
    July 25, 2011

    I think you can’t look at wine in isolation, or at least less people are doing so. There is a quiet but powerful food revolution taking place, in the U.S. especially, and folks in their 20s and 30s are at the forefront of seeking sustainable agricultural practices, ethical meat production, and quality cooking and eating. With that comes the unremarkable point that wine is a beverage to be drunk with food, and Cabernet Sauvignon simply isn’t a versatile pairing partner. All the under 40s who have come up reading Schlosser and Pollan want to eat well with fresh seasonal ingredients, and what wines work with that food? Not overripe CA cab and syrah, or for that matter overripe Cali pinot. That’s why you see young people dorking out over Chinon, Beaujolais, Riesling, Chablis. And hunting like hell for affordable good red Burgundy.

  10. Jason Brumley permalink
    July 24, 2011

    I moved to Oregon 3 1/2 years ago, after having worked as a wine steward for more years than I wish to recall, to specifically make Pinot Noir. I find that the subtle nuances of Pinot Noir (when not over extracted) truly offer a glimpse into vintage and site that no other grape can show quite as expressively. People often ask me if the Willamette Valley will ever become like Napa, and my reply is always the same, “No.” I say this for one reason: The average American consumer of wine does not purchase by vintage, rather they purchase label; and Pinot Noir varies to such dramatic degrees from vintage to vintage that the consistency and homogeneous profiles which Americans seek in wine can never be duplicated vintage after vintage with Pinot Noir. This aspect will keep Pinot Noir a grape that, while producing tremendous character, will never consistently satisfy the average American consumer, which is fine with me. I’d rather have Pinot Noir be the wine for those who truly want to experience the differences and challenges from each vintage and site.

  11. wineguys permalink
    July 23, 2011

    As corporations take over the cabs are more and more similar thru out napa. However, consumers (as they get educated) will find smaller family owned wineried that produce unique wines. Cabs won’t die or go away just the generic made wineries cabs will.

  12. wineguys permalink
    July 23, 2011

    As corporations take over the cabs are more and more similar thru out napa. However, consumers (as they get educated) will find smaller family owned wineried that produce unique wines. Cabs won’t die just “coca cola” made wineries cabs.

  13. July 23, 2011

    I’m thinking it runs deeper- the entire hegemony of varietal obsessions is heading towards over. Wine culture in the USA is swinging around to place of origon, the nature and utility of the wine, and of course- price.

  14. James permalink
    July 23, 2011

    The popularity of a wine is determined by it expressiveness across price points. Bordeaux has doomed itself and it should be a warning to Cabernet producers domestically. If the wines the entry level consumers drink are under ripe and unpleasant and one must invest a large sum to experience a good example of the wine the next generation of drinker moves onto something else. Can you say Malbe?

    Bordeaux has become irrelevant, as has Burgundy, watch out Pinot noir, You could be next!

    I think Cabernet may be safe because you still find typical Cabernet fir $12, you may have to look to South America, and do some experimenting, but it exists.

  15. Jack Straw permalink
    July 22, 2011

    Wow, you guys need to turn off the xstal ball or pull your head out of the bong!
    Cab ain’t goin nowhere. here to stay and getting stronger.
    I think maybe spending more than 17.99 on cab is good first step!!

    Disclaimer: I make cab in Napa. Yeah Baby!

  16. Tone Kelly permalink
    July 22, 2011

    The King is dead. Long live the King. I think that Cabernet is going through a consolidation phase. The Beer industry in the US did this in the 70’s. Bud, Miller, Schiltz, Pabst came to dominate the American scene. Hundreds of small brands got squashed out. Funny thing happened though — the microbrew trend started. People got tired of limited choices. I think that Bordeaux is going to wake up and find a lot fewer customers and Napa could see the same thing. Only then will those wineries that experiment and go their own way will break out of the pack. Cabernet needs variety of flavors reflection their local terroir. Burgundy does this in spades.

  17. July 22, 2011

    All hail the new king, Pinot Noir!

  18. July 22, 2011

    Not only is cabernet sauvignon’s dominance waining, but the big wine regions are less popular as people are looking at drinking wine from their local wine regions and other lesser known regions that offer value, uniqueness and intrigue.

  19. Dan Berger permalink
    July 22, 2011

    When all Cabernets start to taste the same, the only ones that will sell are image brands that people collect and don’t actually consume.

  20. mauss permalink
    July 22, 2011

    Always the pendulum mouvment. Too many cabernets are too standardized worldwide and, facing a new project here in Italy where I am around, a critic told me shortly : “a new cabernet : for who ? The market is full of too much similar cabernets : people want to taste something different”.
    But, since many producers in Bordeaux area are thinking over about going back to finesse, elegance and complexity, with less power and muscles, I am sure cabernets have a future. Just an example to be followed : Château Bel Air Marquis d’Aligre.

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