Don't Forget Cabernet Sauvignon

By MacNeil, Karen | Sunset, October 1997 | Go to article overview

Don't Forget Cabernet Sauvignon


MacNeil, Karen, Sunset


I once asked a well-known chef why she didn't serve roast chicken. Her roast chicken, it should be added, was extraordinary. She had, in fact, spent more than a decade perfecting it.

But just at her moment of mastery, diners in the restaurant decided that chicken was, well, uninteresting. Didn't she make quail or something?

Cabernet Sauvignon has suffered a similar paradoxical fate. The grape variety that put American wine on the international map has come of age. But now that there are dozens upon dozens of delicious Cabs out there, the stylish thing to sip is Syrah (more glamorous), Zinfandel (more homey), Sangiovese (more Euro chic), or Merlot (more Gen X).

What's fascinating about top Cabernets, however, is their seemingly oxymoronic ability to taste both powerful and elegant at the same time. In the 1970s, Warren Winiarski, owner-winemaker of Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, gave Cabernet Sauvignon the ultimate description: "an iron fist in a velvet glove."

Cabernet is produced everywhere from Texas to the Golan Heights, but its historic home is Bordeaux, a large wine region on France's Atlantic coast. In Bordeaux, however, Cabernet is almost always blended with up to four other red varieties: Merlot, Malbec, Petite Verdot, and Cabernet Franc.

Here in the West, the top Cabernets come from California and Washington. These are the James Bonds of red wine-sophisticated, worldly, highly focused, sexy but driven. In both states, a wine labeled Cabernet can be either 100 percent Cabernet or blended with other Bordeaux varieties (these latter wines are sometimes called Bordeaux blends or meritage wines).

There are also a slew of tasty Cabernets on the market from numerous other countries, including Australia (big, teddy bear-esque Cabernets) and Chile (leaner, but good and juicy and bargain-priced) .

If a dozen of the top makers were asked why Cabernet is so good these days, one answer would keep cropping up: ripeness. Cabernet is rather like a melon. If it's even slightly underripe, it tastes green and one-dimensional. If it's overripe, it tastes flat and onedimensional.

But at perfect ripeness, the flavor of a melon is rich and nuanced. And so it is with Cabernet.

Only in the last 10 years or so have winemakers truly understood Cabernet ripeness. For decades Cabernet was harvested when the sugars in the grapes reached a certain numerical point on a small instrument not unlike a thermometer. What winemakers now know, however, is that the sugar in wine grapes can be ripe even though other components in the grape are still immature. …

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