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CABERNET SAUVIGNON, The Emperor of Red Wines

If I had to pick a favorite grape, which is like picking a favorite child, then it would have to be Cabernet Sauvignon.

In the final analysis Cabernet makes more great wines than any other variety. I can hear the mutterings of dissent. So I’ll present my case.

The argument is that Cabernet makes more great wines than any other variety. Aside from Bordeaux and Napa, it’s easy to rattle off famous names like Coonawarra and Margaret river in Australia, some of the great Super-Tuscans, the icon wines of Chile, and you could even make a case for Washington State, pockets of Spain, Hawkes Bay in New Zealand, parts of Sonoma, and, wait for it…., Lebanon. The same can’t be said for the other classic red varietals, including Pinot Noir.

Granted, many of these wines are blends of Cabernet with Merlot, and perhaps some Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, or even Shiraz and Sangiovese. But at their core, it’s Cabernet that dominates the blend.
If price is a gauge of quality, then Cabernet Sauvignon holds the world record for the most expensive bottle of wine ever sold. When the hammer came down at the Napa Valley Auction, the cult Cabernet from Screaming Eagle went for a whopping $500,000 for a single large format bottle. People will pay more for Cabernet than any other varietal, the rare Burgundy aside.

Still not convinced? The Grands Crus of the Medoc and Pessac in Bordeaux are the most classic wines in the world and dominate the fine wine market. Wine enthusiast’s line just to get their hands on a few bottles of Chateaux Latour, Mouton, Haut Brion, Margaux and many many others. You can’t say the same for any other variety, not even Burgundy to the same degree.

In terms of ageability, the prize goes to Cabernet. Wine critics devote pages of poetic prose to describing the nuances of old vintages like 1961, 1945 and 1929, or perhaps the 1900. There are not too many Pinots, Syrahs or Merlots that can age for 100 years.

So what is it about this grape that makes such outstanding quality wines? In their youth they are intensely colored, with a very deep ruby that can have shades of blue, black and purple. The nose typically shows intense aromas of fresh blackcurrant, cedar, chocolate, coffee and sometimes mint. The palate is always dry, rich and full bodied, with structured tannins providing backbone. The greatest wines show superb length, with an after-taste lingering for hours. The whole experience can be breathtaking.

But it’s with age that Cabernet really shows its breed. The bouquet develops and become more nuanced, with notes of forest floor, wet earth, and sometimes a beautiful spice. On the palate the tannins soften, becoming smoother and more velvety, yet the wines can remain powerful and concentrated for decades.

It’s a cliché, but quality does start in the vineyard. Whilst Cabernet is fairly mobile, being planted in dozens of countries and regions, it prefers warmer climates. If I owned a vineyard in England, northern France or Germany then Cabernet wouldn’t be on the list of possibilities. My Cabernet vines would opt for Napa Valley, where they could bask in the sunshine. The cool nights are important too, helping to retain acidity and freshness.

Cabernet can be planted on a variety of soil types, but for top quality wines the key is to find sites that have low fertility. The Medoc has a high proportion of gravel. Coonawarra is famous for their red clay soils, known as terra rossa. Poor soils can lead to great wines.

The berry size is small, and the skins are relatively thick. This contributes depth of color and the tannic backbone. When cropped at low levels, such as two tons per acre, there can be immense concentration of flavor. Some of the hillside vineyards in Napa, like Howell Mountain, have such poor soils that the yields are a fraction of the sites on the valley floor.

The grape also ripens late, usually a few weeks after Merlot, which can be a challenge in areas prone to rain during the harvest. But when the weather stays warm and sunny, this extra ripening time allows for additional flavor development.

In the winery, the great wines usually see extended maceration. The grape juice is pumped over the skins for 3 weeks or more, extracting all the goodies from the berries. One of the great arts of making Cabernet, and all red wines for that matter, is knowing when to stop the maceration because excessive extraction can potentially lead to harsh tannins.

And then come the French oak barrels, although wineries like Silver Oak in Napa have proven that American oak can produce top notch wines too. In Bordeaux the barrel ageing time is usually between 18 to 20 months, although it can go longer. This is a winemaker’s personal preference, and Heitz Cellars in Napa shows that spectacular wines can result from 36 months aging. Some wineries go for 100% new French oak, and others prefer far less. There’s no right or wrong here. It’s just a stylistic preference.

So what should you buy when searching for these classic Cabernets?

The so-called Left Bank of the Gironde in Bordeaux is the benchmark for collectors. In great vintages like 2000, 2005, 2009 and 2010 it’s hard to go wrong. Obviously the 1st Growths are spectacular but expect to pay over one thousand dollars per bottle. But you can buy wines that are much less expensive and arguably just as good quality. My favorites are Ducru Beaucaillou in St Julien, Pichon Lalande in Pauillac, and Smith Haut Lafitte in Pessac.

Napa Valley has stolen my heart. It’s not just the wines, but it’s also the wonderful hospitality and beautiful weather from May until September. It’s so difficult to pick out favorites without listing 50 wineries, but Heitz Cellars, Stags Leap Wine Cellars, Shafer and Chateau Montelena are on my short list. And if you go to Napa, make sure you visit Spring Mountain Vineyard. It’s like a journey into the Garden of Eden.

Wine critics love to compare Bordeaux and Napa, but frankly they are quite different in style. Napa is more about richness, ripeness, power and concentration, with softer, plushier tannins, and fresher fruit aromas. By contrast, Bordeaux is typically drier, more tannic, not quite as full bodied, and has a more earthy character.

In Coonawarra in South Australia, it’s the fun-loving Ian Hollick whose wines stand out as my own favorites. Coonawarra makes some of the finest Cabernet in the New World. The wines can have very perfumed cassis aromas and minty flavors. They are typically much less expensive than both Bordeaux and Napa, and so they score additional points for their value for money.

In Chile, it’s the classic Cabernet from Don Melchor, owned by Concha y Toro, which never fails to impress. If you think that only great Bordeaux can age for 10-20 years then think again. This wine proves that Chilean wines can have style, grace, and individuality. You just have to get over the fact that Chile is mainly in the cheap and cheerful category.

In Tuscany, Sassicaia is one of the benchmark Super-Tuscans. Sassicaia was the winery that started the whole super-Tuscan movement, along with Tignanello, when they made a wine that did not conform to Tuscan wine regulations because it was based on Cabernet Sauvignon. The Italian authorities refused to give it the more prestigious DOCG designation, and relegated it to Vino da Tavola status, making it the world’s most expensive “table wine”.
And then there’s Torres in Spain, whose Mas La Plana can give anyone’s Cabernet a run for their money. Bob Betz in Washington State makes Cabernets that will blow your socks off, and merit the very high ratings his winery consistently receives.

The list could go on. But you’ve probably got enough recommendations to keep you from becoming dehydrated anytime soon. You could call Cabernet the King of wines, and the wine of Kings. But there are others who make this claim, namely the superb sweet wines of Tokaji in Hungary. So perhaps Cabernet is more like “The Emperor” of wines, because at the very pinnacle of quality there’s nothing else like fine Cabernet.

Wine: Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou, Bordeaux

Food Suggestion: Leg of Lamb

Wine: Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte, Bordeaux

Food Suggestion: Filet Mignon with frites

Wine: Heitz Cellars, Martha’s Vineyard, Napa Valley

Food Suggestion: Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding

Wine: Hollick, Coonawarra, Australia

Food Suggestion: Aged Cheddar Cheese