For decades, I've heard it: Give cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel of the same vintage a decade or so of bottle age and in a blind tasting you can't tell one from the other. On the face of it, this seems preposterous. Cabernet sauvignon is the noblest of California wines, characterized by telltale fruit, complexity, solid structure and potential longevity; it commands the highest prices and the most prestige, and the more of it you have in your cellar the more highly regarded you must be as a connoisseur. Zinfandel, on the other hand, is your everyday blue-collar wine, inexpensive, rustic and best consumed in its youth; only the most enthusiastic fans give much precious cellar space to the longterm aging of zinfandel, so goes the conventional thinking.
A few months ago, I jumped at a chance to put this belief to a test. Sacramento Home Winemakers asked if I'd donate a lot to its annual auction. Coincidentally, I'd been rearranging and sorting the contents of my small wine collection. In doing so, I was surprised by the number of cabernet sauvignons and zinfandels I'd gathered from the 1997 vintage. Why I had so many was a mystery to me, but there they were. (The 1997 harvest in California, incidentally, was huge, 2.7 million tons, a record at the time. Yields were up in virtually every region, from 5 percent to 40 percent. Despite the jump, growers and vintners were ecstatic about the quality of the fruit, which they credited to a "very wet winter, an early spring and a long growing season of ideally dry and mild weather," the Wine Institute reported at the time.)
At any rate, when the request from the home winemakers came in I remembered that oft-repeated claim about how the aging of wine can obscure varietal characteristics, thereby either reducing or elevating cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel to something else on the wine spectrum, perhaps something grand, perhaps something not so distinguished, perhaps something equally rewarding, despite the varied expressions of the two varietals in their youth.
Scientific? No way. This was purely casual, a fun exercise more than definitive study, though it was structured to be fair and, hopefully, enlightening. I knew the identities of the wine, and the order in which they would be tasted, so my vote didn't count. The three other participants didn't know which wine was which.
So, could the tasters, all of whom are experienced, enthusiastic and inquisitive, tell the difference between cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel after the wines have been aged for 14 years? For the most part, yes, but the margin was so thin that the results bordered on verifying rather than contradicting the belief that the two varietals are virtually indistinguishable after prolonged time in bottle.
On only one of the six bottles did three tasters concur it was a zinfandel. It's distinctive black-pepper spice, characteristic of zinfandel but not cabernet sauvignon, seemed to be what persuaded the three to dub it a zinfandel. The wine was the Sobon Estate 1997 Shenandoah Valley Rocky Top Zinfandel.
The votes on all the other wines were split 2-1, generally in favor of the correct varietal. The only exception was the second wine in the lineup. Two tasters were sure it was zinfandel. "Totally Amador," said one. "It's got the spice of zinfandel," said another. The wine, on the other hand, was the Chateau Potelle 1997 Napa Valley Mt. Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon.
To me, the most gratifying aspect of the tasting was how well the wines had stood up. An aged wine is rewarding in ways difficult to convey. The expression of fruit for which California wines are recognized isn't very pronounced in an older wine. It slinks offstage, letting other elements command the spotlight. Those elements fall under the broad and loose umbrella of "bottle bouquet," scents that don't convey so much the sunshine of fresh fruit as the filtered and somewhat hazy sunlight coming through a small window in a quiet attic, settling on trunks and crates packed with surprises and memories. By and large, the '97s had tension, balance, surprising acidity and smells and flavors in which a fleeting dustiness virtually eclipsed the remaining fruit, herbs and spices. The overall favorite was the elegant, complex and long Chateau Potelle 1997 Napa Valley Mt. Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon, its traces of eucalyptus, bay leaf, olives and cherries supported by a fine superstructure, gentle tannins and refreshing acidity. I also liked very much the Shenandoah Vineyards 1997 Amador County Vintners Selection Zinfandel, which while ripe and thick also was refreshingly refined and lasting.
The tasting may not have answered whether older cabernet sauvignons and zinfandels can be easily confused, but beyond that it provoked a few other thoughts. For one, the two wines with the highest alcohol also by far tasted the sweetest. The were the Sobon Estate 1997 Shenandoah Valley Rocky Top Zinfandel (14.6 percent alcohol) and the Forchini Vineyards & Winery 1997 Dry Creek Valley Old Vine Clone Papa Nonno Zinfandel (15.3 percent alcohol). They didn't taste so much of the jammy fruit for which zinfandel is celebrated as they did of just plain sweetness, which left me wondering about the possible correlation between the high alcohols and that sweet impression.
Secondly, I was left pondering about whether the vineyards responsible for the wines had yielded substantially more fruit than usual. Again, the crop in 1997 was larger than ever. Some of this had to do with newer vineyards coming online, but growers also reported that long-established vineyards gave more fruit than usual. A prevailing belief in California vineyards is that if they are limited to producing just a couple of tons of fruit per acre at harvest the wines will be superior. For a wine to be vivacious and graceful in later years, so goes the argument, it has to come from a relatively stingy vineyard. But what if the vineyards behind these wines gave up crops significantly more ample than that? In time, perhaps the yields of the contributing vineyards will become known. For now, we found that as a group these wines were glorious, their concentration vivid and persistent. Regardless of whether cabernet sauvignon or zinfandel, or the size of the crop, their energy and equilibrium made a pretty persuasive case for the aging of fine wine.