Whenever winemakers come to town to show off their wares to local restaurateurs, wine buyers and wine writers, the featured attraction tends to be their cabernet sauvignon. It's the wine of which they're proudest.
Well, it is called the “king of wines,” the basis of France's famous Bordeaux blends, the backbone of America's îîmeritage'' wines and the perfect complement to the red-centered, black-crusted, charcoal-grilled New York strip … the quintessential red-meat-and-red-wine dinner of the red-blooded American, fat, cholesterol and calories be hanged.
Winemakers go to lots of trouble with their cabernet sauvignons, taking decades to figure out where it grows best, sometimes plucking off individual leaves from vines to provide the perfect sun exposure, carefully working out perfect blends with other grapes,
buying $600 French oak barrels for aging.
It's surprising how much a powerful grape like cabernet can be changed by the addition of even small quantities of other grapes. B.R. Cohn Winery adds 8.5 percent merlot and 4.7 percent caberrnet franc to its cab, making it smoother and richer. St. Supery adds just 2 percent merlot and 1 percent petit verdot for a similar effect.
Recognizing that cabernet sauvignon's power needs taming, winemakers lavish care on it. Six to 28 months of aging in expensive French oak barrels soften its tannins, make it smoother, more subtle, with undertones of oak and vanilla aromas.
Over time, certain areas are identified as growing the best grapes. Napa Valley's Howell Mountain is known for rich and powerful wines, warmer areas like Paso Robles make softer cabs, as in the Hope Family's Liberty School Cabernte Sauvignon.
Even smaller areas can make a difference. Markham Vineyards single-vineyard cab from its Yountville Vineyard, dubbed “The Philanthropist,'' is called a “monster'' by its own winemaker, who says it needs 10 years of aging to be ready. Markham's single-vineyard cab from its Calistoga Ranch vineyard, on the other hand, is described as “more feminine.”
It seems to work. In the tough wine sales year of 2009, California cabs were up 7 percent.
ø 2006 Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley: powerful,full-bodied complex aromas and flavors of blackcurrants, black cherries and mocha, rich and smooth, endless finish; $115.
ø 2006 Markham Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon “The Altruist,” Calistoga Ranch Vineyard: rich, ripe and approachable, with black raspberry and licorice aromas and flavors; $53.
ø 2005 St. Supery Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley (97 percent cabernet sauvignon, 2
percent merlot, 1 percent petit verdot): black cherries, black coffee, black licorice, firm tannins; $30.
ø 2007 B.R. Cohn Winery Silver Label Cabernet Sauvignon, North Coast (86.8 percent cabernet sauvignon, 8.5 percent merlot, 4.7 percent cabernet franc): black plums and cocoa aromas and flavors, rich and ripe; $20.
ø 2007 Liberty School Cabernet Sauvignon, Paso Robles: rich, ripe red raspberry flavors, soft tannins; $12.
ø 2006 Markham Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon îîThe Philosopher,'' Yountville Vineyard: muscular black plum and bittersweet chocolate flavors, powerful tannins and acids, concentrated, ageworthy; $53.
ø 2007 Murphy-Goode Cabernet Sauvignon, Calif.: ripe and soft, with black cherry and herbal aromas and flavors; $14.
ø 2006 Ferrari-Carano Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley (85 percent cabernet sauvignon, 8 percent syrah, 7 percent petit verdot): black cherries, licorice and mocha, bright and lively; $34.