Considered one of the noble grape varieties due to its fame in the Bordeaux region of France,
Cabernet Sauvignon has also reached the top of the podium in Napa Valley due to the success of
Cabernet based wines from several “cult” wineries. This thick skinned grape produces wines with
ample tannins that allow wines to age gracefully for 10 to 20 years, 40 years and beyond in
great vintages. The taste sensations can range from lush, rich dark fruit and currants to tobacco,
chocolate and leather to sage, eucalyptus and mint – the best Cabernets exhibit all of these
taste sensations and can actually change as the wine is left to “breathe” after opening. It’s also a
wine that marries well with food and in the case of that perfectly aged 25 year old jewel, a
libation that rivals a great XO cognac for enjoying on its own.
Cabernet Sauvignon actually started inauspiciously as the offspring of Cabernet Franc – a red
grape varietal mainly used for blending in Bordeaux type wines – and Sauvignon Blanc – a white
grape varietal that stands on it’s own in France, California and New Zealand but hardly basks in
the glory that it’s offspring does. I guess the world also would never have known of B.J. and Bo
Wie if it weren’t for their daughter Michelle.
Not all Cabernet Is Created Equal
There are 15 different appellations (AVAs or American Viticultural Areas) just in Napa Valley
(which is situated between the Mayacamas Mountains on the west and the Vaca Mountains on
the east) alone - Atlas Peak, Chiles Valley, Diamond Mountain, Howell Mountain, Los Carneros,
Mt. Veeder, Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena, Spring Mountain, Stags Leap District, Yountville,
Wild Horse Valley, Oak Knoll and Calistoga. I’m sure the Barrett’s of Chateau Montelena in
Calistoga can argue why their Cabs are distinct from Naoko Dalla Valle’s Dalla Valle and Maya in
Oakville versus the Wagner’s Caymus in Yountville. And this doesn’t even get into the merits of
mountain versus valley grown fruit. Suffice to say that each individual appellation produces
wines with distinct qualities and that you probably will prefer one wineries Cab versus another’s
within the same appellation.
And let’s not forget about Napa’s sister region, Sonoma. Just west of the Mayacamas
Mountains, lies Sonoma, home of that famous Jack Cheese and Healdsburg Square. Jordan
Vineyards makes Cabs that don’t need to be aged for an eternity, Ferrari-Carano makes Sonoma’
s own version of a “Super Tuscan” Cab-Sangiovese blend and lest we forget, Matt and Gina Gallo
probably make the most affordable and palatable wines with their Gallo of Sonoma label.
Though Cabernet Sauvignon isn’t the top varietal planted in Sonoma, you can still find very
good examples of Cab west of Napa.
Since I’ve given you a brief description of Cabs in the greater Northern California region, I’d also
like to mention that region slightly north of Napa. No, not Mendocino (though they also make
excellent wine) but a little further north in Washington. A couple of wineries in Washington
have also hit “cult” status as those in Napa. Leonetti Cellars in Walla Walla has had their mailing
list closed for years and Quilceda Creek Winery has already reached the same price level (and may
soon close its mailing list). Because of their Northern latitude, Washington Cabs take on their
own character. I still find that the best Washington Cabs have all of the rich, concentrated fruit
as their California cousins but possess more Asian type spice qualities than those found in Napa
Valley. Instead of the sage, eucalyptus and minty qualities in Napa’s Cabs, I find more clove,
allspice and licorice. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not favoring one over the other (I would gladly
purchase any allocation of Leonetti Cabs), my preference is situation specific. What am I eating
and what setting am I consuming this in?
Cabernet from the Motherland
I don’t profess to know the actual origin of Cabernet Sauvignon though I will say that the
standard which all others are measured is in France. Specifically, the Left Bank of the Medoc
where the five first growth Bordeaux chateaus reside – Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Chateau
Margaux, Chateau Latour, Chateau Haut Brion and Chateau Mouton Rothschild. While most
American versions are readily consumable upon bottling, I find that the French counterparts
take several years before they’re even palatable. While a newly bottled Napa Cab may be perfect
with a rack of lamb with mint sauce, newly bottled Bordeaux takes at least a day or two of
“airing” before imbibing. I attended a 2000 Bordeaux tasting last year where each bottle was
decanted (uncorked, poured into a carafe for “airing” then re-poured back into the original
bottle 36 hours before the tasting. Even with this pre-treatment, only a couple of bottles were
remotely palatable and offered a glimpse of the treasure within. However, give that same bottle
another 10 years or so of quiet resting time – preferably at 55 degrees or so – and you will be
rewarded with a wine that begins to display the elegance that French Cabernet is known for.
Wait another 10 or 20 years and you’ll possess nature’s own grape based perfume.
Other Cabernet Blends
Wineries down under are also producing very good renditions of Cabernet, sometimes its pure
Cab though it’s usually blended with Australia’s noble red grape, Shiraz. The Aussie style
produces full bodied wines closer to California Cabs with the Shiraz providing extra rich fruit
that good California vineyards naturally possess. If you want a “New” Cab from the “Old” world,
look to Tuscany with their Super Tuscan wines. It does get a little more complicated as each
winery bottles their own blend of grapes from Tignanello’s Cabernet and Sangiovese (the
primary grape found in Chianti) to the traditional Bordeaux blend of Guado al Tasso’s Cab and
Merlot to Argiano Solengo’s exotic mix of Cab, Merlot, Sangiovese and Syrah. What they all
have in common is a rich, concentrated fruit found in young California Cabs along with the
supporting structure found in Old World Cabs.
Who is Cabernet’s Dancing Partner?
As I’ve mentioned before, wine should always be considered as part of a meal – not an over-the-
counter sedative. Fred always had Ginger, Gene always had…a broom or a cartoon mouse and
likewise, wine should always have food.
Since most Cabernets have their fair share of tannins or that compound in red wine that seems
to strip that thin membrane lining your mouth (or in poor wines, strip the better part of your
esophageal lining), their primary partner is usually a rich, fatty cut of beef or lamb. This does
make sense since tannins also help to cut that greasy feeling of steak fat left in your mouth by
that rib eye or strip steak. However, not all Cabernets possess the same degree of mouth striping
tannins and tannins do soften with bottle aging so a lighter version or aged Cabernet pairs
equally well with pork and even richer poultry dishes. Therefore, a pork roast with a Cabernet
and dried currant sauce au jus paired with a lighter California Cabernet or a roasted chicken with
Asian stuffing paired with a Washington Cabernet would match as nicely as any steak or lamb
dish. Cabernet also matches perfectly with most barbeque dishes – especially brisket! Experiment
on your own to find your favorite partner for Cab. The only poor choice that I’ve tried is
chocolate – years ago someone wrote about Cabernet and chocolate as the perfect partners.
Yah! Like Ginger and Travolta. Classics in their own right but not ideal dancing companions.
Chocolate’s partner is Pedro Ximenez sherry. But that’s another column.
The Gochiso’s Short List of Cabs
Less than $25 $25 to $50 More than $50
Whitehall Lane Laurel Glen Whitehall Lane Reserve
Marquis Philips Cab/Shiraz blend Pavillon Rouge du Chateau Margaux Spottswoode
Beringer Knight’s Valley Carruades de Lafite Guado al Tasso
V. Sattui Suzanne’s Vineyard Jordan Estate Jones Family
Life is a Cabernet!