Illustration by Mathilde Crétier
The Big Idea: Fresh Restraint
Twenty years ago, the job of a good Napa Cabernet was to be big—brimming with lush, ripe fruit, soft tannins and the rich mouthfeel that comes from loads of alcohol (north of 15 to even 17 percent). Critics rewarded these wines; consumers demanded them. Winemakers responded by picking grapes at ever higher sugar levels (losing acidity in the process), extracting ripe flavors to an extreme degree and aging always in new French oak.
There’s no denying the generous yum factor of the first sip of a wine styled this way. But something had gone missing from those California reds: all trace of locale. In broad strokes, the higher the sugar levels—and therefore alcohol—in the fruit, the more generic the wine.
Trevor Durling, chief winemaker since 2017 for Beaulieu Vineyard, offers an insider’s view. He is the newest shepherd of BV’s flagship Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, one of the most collected American wines. Balanced and showing the nuances of terroir, it was first made 80 years ago and has stayed the course—one Durling intends to maintain.
He says technology also had a role in that über-ripe style. “Advancements in viticulture allowed for longer hang time on the vine,” he explains. But for every extreme, there is a boomerang. Restraint has finally re-emerged in California reds, and producers are rediscovering European traditions, such as fermentation in oak tanks—with native yeasts—and aging in a mix of new and older oak barrels.
The new buzzwords are “freshness,” “brightness” and “tension.” Durling’s goal sums it up: natural acidity married with ripe flavors and low sugar levels. The resulting wines—fresh and concentrated at once, with round, broad tannins—will lie down well for years in your cellar. Plus, says Durling, with lower alcohol levels, “you can enjoy more glasses in one sitting!”