Written by John Kerr of Metro Wines (July 2017)
Do you really know the King? A look at Cabernet Sauvignon from around the world.
There’s a reason they call it the king of grapes. Almost everyone who has had even the most fleeting brush with wine knows it by name. With the exception of tomato Italian fare, Cabernet Sauvignon pairs with nearly every dish loved by Americans—from burgers to haute cuisine. It is overwhelmingly represented on wine lists from steakhouses to French restaurants.
And you’ll always find it among the assortment of bottles crowded on the kitchen countertop at every neighborhood party. It’s pretty much every red wine lover’s go-to grape.
So you think you know Cabernet Sauvignon. When people ask me to recommend a Cab, they often look at me askance when I ask if they’d like to try one from Italy. People know the Cabs from Bordeaux and Napa, as well as the California value brands. But even with a grape this popular, surprisingly few venture beyond the well-known regions. This reticence allows you to take advantage of wine’s golden rule: Unpopular wines, no matter how good, are linked to popular prices.
Before we go much further, I think it’s important you realize that you live in the best of times. Cabernet Sauvignon has not always been on this planet, and wine lovers went without for thousands of years. King Charlemagne never tasted anything so grand, and the eight popes of medieval times had to settle for the Grenache based blends from France’s southern Rhone valley.
Cabernet Sauvignon is a recent invention, only four centuries old. It’s the hybrid offspring of two ancient grapes, Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. Both make respectable wines in their own right but achieve synergistic bliss as a combination. The next time you take a sip of Cabernet, think about the flavors of the two ancestor grapes. I’ll bet you can discern the characteristics of both in the glass.
The good news is that Cabernet Sauvignon grows so well in so many different terroirs that you’ll find it in nearly every wine region. This versatility delivers the familiar taste you love so much, but lets you enjoy a wine with its own terroir-driven twist.
For the rest of this column, I’ll introduce some less known places where Cab strives to be king and try to coax you into giving an off-beat Cab a chance at your table.
The world’s styles of Cabernet range from fruity to savory, tannic to smooth. But they all share the foundational flavors that make Cabernet Sauvignon the world’s favorite red.
Our first step off the beaten path won’t venture too far from California. If you want to drink the best on a budget, you should know that Washington state has the lowest average cost for Cabs rated “outstanding” (90 points or higher out of 100) than any other world class wine region.
Washington Cabs share many of the characteristics of those from Napa and Sonoma, except that they tend to be smoother and less tannic. Less tannin really makes the fruit stand out.
There is a blending trick used by some Washington vintners that has been long prohibited throughout France. When a Bordeaux vintage produced a wine that was a bit thin, vintners would bolster it by adding Syrah from the Rhone valley. Syrah adds depth to both color and flavor, mimicking the richness found in better Bordeaux vintages. The practice ceased when the purists stepped in and restricted Bordeaux to the indigenous grapes of the region.
The flavors of Syrah can be surprising in a Cabernet blend. But it didn’t take me long to appreciate it. Not all Washington state Cabs have Syrah. And Syrah is now used as a booster in so many different wines (How do you think Meiomi Pinot Noir got that rich?) that you’ve probably been enjoying it for years.
If you’d like to try a couple of Cabs from Washington State, consider Hedges CMS at about $16. CMS stands for Cab, Merlot, and Syrah. Or try Hedges’ higher end Red Mountain blend, a premium Cab around $30. The mountain’s unusually large range of temperatures from warm sunny days to quite cool nights produces depth and complexity. Among the very best is Leonetti Cabernet, which is well priced for ultra premium at about $120.
Next, we’ll head towards the southern hemisphere to South Africa. This country is better known for Shiraz and Chenin Blanc, but South Africa’s Cabernets are beginning to be recognized in major cities. These Cabernets have a distinct style with fruit similar to California, but then change the game with a European finish.
They also tend to have a hint of smokiness. The smoke is added to the wine by toasting / charring the inside of the casks. Traditional cask makers use the time-honored practice of turning the cask upright and placing it over a small fire. Much like a twist on your toaster’s dial, vintners can buy casks burnt to a level of charcoal made to order: light, medium, or dark toast.
One of the best value Cabs is Faithful Hound, which has appeared in the New York Times’ “Top 20 Wines for Under $20” series for the past several years. And on the back label is the sad but true story that inspired the wine’s name. For ultra premium, try Mvemve Raats de Compostella at about $90, which has earned its place in several critics’ top 100 wines.
Next, we’re off to Italy. Cabernet is the grape that helped save Italy’s wine industry. Through the 1960s Italy was known for cheap red wine often sold in bottles ensconced in a basket. Antinori thought that he could only get the world’s attention by adding Cabernet Sauvignon to the Tuscan grape Sangiovese. And he was right. His Cab blend, Tignanello, at about $120, put Italy back on the map, and it resides among the very small club of iconic brands like Opus One. Because this blend has become Tuscany’s as well as Italy’s bestselling wine, it has earned the nickname Super Tuscan.
There are Super Tuscans with prices not as flighty. Consider Perazzeta, produced by a small, family-owned winery, which will set you back about $20. Personally, I think there is nothing better than the taste of French grapes grown in Italy.
It’s now time to head west across the Atlantic. South America has made Malbec so famous that many people believe the grape originated in Argentina rather than France. Malbec overshadows the five other reds of South America, but Cabernet is quietly working its way into the spotlight. Argentine Cabs are a similar style to California, but at a fraction of the price. Among my favorites is Decero, a rich and highly rated Cab for about $17.
You’ve got to be a little careful with Cabs from Chile. Cabernet is one of the slower maturing grapes and Chile is known for short growing seasons. If planted in the wrong place, vintners must harvest the grapes before they are ripe, or risk losing them to the cold. Premature picking gives Chilean Cabernet its herbaceous, green pepper character. I love their Cabs when the green pepper is in the background, but a few can be over the top. Don Melchor is another revered, world-class Cab that sells for at about $100, far less than its Napa or Bordeaux peers. But great Chilean Cabs can be purchased for as little as $14.
Our last stop is the Middle East, a truly unlikely place for Cabernets. It may sound like a back handed compliment, but Chateau Musar is the best winery in Lebanon. Gaston Hochar, who founded the winery in 1930, is quite proud of the fact that he has missed only one vintage due to war. This achievement is partly due to the flak jackets worn by those tending the grapes.
Chateau Musar’s Cab tastes quite French because the founder was trained in Bordeaux. If you’ve always wanted to try a back vintage, but don’t want to wait a decade or two for the privilege, you’ll be glad to know that you can purchase Musar’s vintages going back up to 20 years. The price of the 2008 at $65 is not inexpensive, but a steal when compared to its peer wines from Bordeaux.
This should get you off to a good start. Once you’ve explored these regions, you can continue your journey by trying Cabernet Sauvignon from India or Eastern Europe. The world’s styles of Cabernet range from fruity to savory, tannic to smooth. But they all share the foundational flavors that make Cabernet Sauvignon the world’s favorite red.
is the co-owner of Metro Wines located on Charlotte Street in downtown Asheville.
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