Your browser (Internet Explorer 7 or lower) is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites. Learn how to update your browser.
X

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

THE MAGIC OF VALPOLICELLA

THE MAGIC OF VALPOLICELLA

Trust the Italians to use the same grapes to make four completely different styles of wine under the Valpolicella banner. First you have the mainstream Valpolicella, which is light and fruity. Second, you have a fuller bodied and richer version called a Ripasso. Then you have a monstrously dense blockbuster called an Amarone, and finally a relatively rare sweet red desert wine called a Recioto.

Maybe the Italians got bored. Maybe they wanted to broaden their portfolio for commercial purposes. Or maybe they got tired of wine snobs criticizing simple Valpolicella and decided to come out with a massive, full bodied, high alcohol Amarone. You almost need a knife and fork when you crack open an Amarone, which is surely amongst Italy’s great wines.
Unlike in most of the New World, there is a real history to production here in north-eastern Italy. Grapes were grown by the ancient Greeks who cultivated the hillsides. The wines were enjoyed by the Courts in the 6th century, and noted for their special powers.

Over the years, Valpolicella became so successful that producers sold everything they could make. Inevitably, growers increased the yields on their vineyards so they could produce more, but the quality of the wines began to slip because the grapes lacked concentration. The local authorities also granted permission for growers to cultivate new areas, which were generally on the fertile plains. These areas were not well suited for high quality vineyards.

So in some respects, Valpolicella became a victim of its own success. The large volumes of simple wine masked the exceptional quality of the best producers. But on the other hand, the reasonable pricing of the wines (usually sub $20) was a bonus for consumers, and the light bodied fruity style made straight Valpolicella the perfect pizza wine. You can chill it, you can drink it within hours of release, and it’s often the house wine at the millions of Italian restaurants that have helped showcase the country’s wines at export.

At the opposite end of the spectrum to straight Valpolicella you have Amarone, which is a stunning wine, revered amongst wine lovers, and made in the most bizarre and unique way. The growers harvest the ripest and healthiest looking bunches from their vineyards, the rest being for regular Valpolicella production. They then take these perfect bunches and spread them out on straw mats, and sometimes they even tie a piece of string to the stems and hang them from the ceiling in a warehouse, or their kitchen, as the case may be. There are not many other winemakers doing this elsewhere in the world…

Over the next five months the grapes then shrivel into raisins, which means the water content evaporates and you are left with a sweet concentrated flavor of dried fruits. The grapes are then fermented, and because they are so rich in sugar the alcohol degree ends up being around 15% and the wines still taste very slightly sweet. After long ageing, they are released onto the market and can be enjoyed for a few decades thereafter.

Amarone is a thrill. The color is almost black, the viscosity coats the glass, the bouquet is heady with notes of dark chocolate, prune, raisin and stewed fruit. The palate is explosive, rich and full, with the high tannins masked by the massive concentration. On the finish the warmth of the alcohol screams for a log cabin, a roaring fireplace, and an iPhone that’s out of range. Many of them cost around $60+ dollars. Of all the more premium wines I’ve shared with people, I’ve never seen someone turn their nose up at an Amarone.

But if you want something a bit more moderate, both in terms of price and quality, then buy a Ripasso. In terms of style, this is halfway between a straight Valpolicella and an Amarone. A Ripasso is a Valpolicella that has been refermented on the skins of the Amarone. This gives it more weight and extract, boosts the alcohol, and makes for a much richer style of wine. Many of them cost between $20-$30 and so they are good value, and make for a perfect match with lasagna.

The last style of Valpolicella is called a Recioto. This is basically a sweeter Amarone, where the ferment has been stopped in order to leave more residual sugar. This is a perfect match with Christmas cake or blue cheese.

Recioto is a unique red wine with an exciting taste. When you drink it you get a burst of energy, and it sends tingling sensations across your taste buds. The combination of sweet dried fruit flavors and black forest cake are to die for, and typically at less than $50 for a bottle it’s one of the world’s buried treasures.

So there are plenty of styles to choose from when it comes to wines from Valpolicella. But what they all have in common is the use of the Corvina grape and it’s cousins, usually complemented by Molinara, Rondinella and others.
Masi is probably the most famous producer, but there are dozens of others to look out for including Bertani, Tommasi, and Allegrini. I always look for the words “Classico” on the label, indicating that the wine was produced from vineyards in the original planted area, which is considered to be the best. And if you’re going to crack a bottle of Amarone, then be sure to decant it for an hour or so, to let the genie out of the bottle.