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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.

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.

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. In B.C. wine enthusiast’s line up all night outside Liquor Stores just to get their hands on a few bottles of Chateaux Latour, Mouton, Haut Brion, Margaux and others. You can’t say the same for any other variety, not even Burgundy.

In terms of ageability, the prize goes to Cabernet. Wine critics devote pages of poetic prose to describing the nuances of the 1947 vintage, comparing it to the 1929, or perhaps the 1900. There are not too many Pinots, Syrahs or Merlots that can age for 100 years.

But 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.

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.

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. And you can even see good results on the sandy soil of the Black Sage Bench in the Okanagan.

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 and 2009 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 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. These are wines that contain a blend of varieties, typically including Sangiovese to one degree or another. Sassicaia was the winery that started the whole super-Tuscan movement, 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 & FOOD SUGGESTION

Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou, Bordeaux
Leg of Lamb

Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte, Bordeaux
Filet Mignon with frites

Heitz Cellars, Martha’s Vineyard, Napa Valley
Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding

Hollick, Coonawarra, Australia
Aged Cheddar Cheese

To be a Mediterranean Vine…

If I was a vine I would want to be planted along the Mediterranean coastline. My ideal vineyard would be perched on a hillside, where I could bask in the sunshine whilst looking out to sea.

After all, the Mediterranean is a more inviting climate compared to being planted in the frigid parts of northern Europe. In cold climates vines can struggle to ripen the grapes and sometimes people would criticize me for producing acidic and astringent wines. And the blistering heat of fiercely hot climates isn’t that appealing either. The grapes might get over-ripe, resulting in raisin and cooked flavors. What’s worse, the French would tease me about making confiture (jam) rather than wine.

But in a pleasant Mediterranean climate, where the winters are mild and the summers are long, I would thrive. Plus I’d get to take 2 hour lunches and have a siesta in the afternoons.

And so it is. The wine regions that sit along the Mediterranean coastline are responsible for a huge percentage of the world’s wine production. In short, the climate is well suited to viticulture and can produce very good quality wines that are well balanced.

A huge reason for the way a wine tastes relates to the composition of the grape at harvest, namely, the balance between sugar and acidity. If the climate is too hot then wines can sometimes lack acidity and taste soupy. If the climate is too cold then the grapes can lack sugar and flavor, and taste thin and astringent. It’s rare that you see these excesses or deficiencies in wines from around the Mediterranean.

What I like the most about wines from this area is that they are usually made from indigenous grape varieties. This means that they deliver flavors that differ from the usual repertoire of international grape varieties, such as Chardonnay and Shiraz. There is also an abundance of choice. The wine regions of the Mediterranean produce a prolific number of different wines.

Let’s start with sparkling wine. Spanish sparkling wines, known as Cava, come from an area called Catalunya. Barcelona is the major city here, and responsible for guzzling huge volumes of the local bubbly. The main grapes are indigenous Spanish varieties such as Macabeo, Parellada, and Xarel-lo. Try letting those roll off the tongue at your next dinner party. Intriguingly, Spanish Cava is made in the same method as Champagne, with the second fermentation taking place in bottle. They are excellent value for money and the perfect way to kick off a party.

But Spain is not the only country producing sparkling wine. In north western Italy, within striking distance of the Mediterranean, is the small DOCG of Franciacorta. This region lays claim to making the finest dry sparkling wines in Italy. The varietal mix and the methods are closely modeled on Champagne, with excellent results. I recently tasted the range from Ca’ del Bosco, arguably the leader in the region, whose wines are considered amongst the best sparkling wines in the world. Sublime.

In dry white wine, the Mediterranean also produces a plethora of choices. The most unique has got to be Retsina from Greece. This white wine is flavored with pine resin. Yes, that’s right, pine resin. The reasons for this date back centuries to a time when resin was used to help preserve wines. Over time people became accustomed to the taste of resinated wines and so it became its own style of wine. Retsina certainly has its followers. Be aware that the wines can actually smell of pinesol cleaner so shall we say “it’s an acquired taste”.

More my bag would be a Viognier from the south of France. This varietal has beautiful aromatics of honeysuckle, peaches and floral notes. If you like Gewürztraminer then Viognier might hit the mark. The wines are dry, usually with a touch of residual sugar, quite full in body, with a pleasant richness in the best ones. Try a Vin de Pays D’Oc Viognier with roast chicken or a white fish.

In Rose, the beautiful wines from Provence rank amongst the very best roses in the world. They typically show vibrant pink colors, aromas of spice mingled with fresh strawberries, dry and crisp, and bang-on in the rose stakes. These are perfect for sipping on the deck; they pair well with a fresh seafood salad, and are liquid romance whilst watching the sunset. Take me to Saint Tropez.

In red wines, there is such a huge choice that making a handful of recommendations is no easy task. If you are looking for a classic wine, something big and burly but with depth and concentration, then look no further than Priorat in Spain. Many of the very best are made from Garnacha and Carinena (Grenache and Carignan in France). This is classic stuff, and 100 points from Robert Parker is not unusual.

Then you have a huge number of high quality wines from appellations in southern France like Corbieres and Minervois. Here, you can expect Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre to feature in the lead roles. These are the best value red wines in France and would go well with a steak frites.

It would be unfair not to make mention of the wines from Corsica, Sardinia, and Sicily. Now we start getting into the really unusual grape varieties. How about a glass of red from the Nielluccio grape in Corsica? Grapes such as Nero D’Avola from Italy are gaining a following as some wine lovers tire of the world of Chardonnay and Shiraz. Most are such good value that it’s not a fatal experiment if you don’t like the flavors.

Lastly, fortified wines are also alive and well in the Mediterranean wine regions. My favorite is Banyuls. This exceptional wine comes from the steep terraced vineyards in the foothills of the Pyrenees, where France meets Spain. Grenache is king in this fortified wine, known as a vins doux naturel. The winemakers suggest that these Port-like wines are paired with chocolate. A bottle of Banyuls, a chocolate mousse, and you’ll ascend into heaven.

So the wine regions bordering the Mediterranean offer an abundance of unique and exciting wines. The indigenous grape varieties offer the wine lover new flavors to discover. So give them a try. Besides, as you sip your way through the bottle you can dream of those gorgeous vineyards perched on a hillside, overlooking the Med.