Cabernet Sauvignon

The preeminent classic red grape variety, cabernet sauvignon is capable of making some of the most structured, complex, majestic, and ageworthy reds in the world. It’s astounding that a wine so often angular and powerful when young can metamorphose into a velvety, rich, elegant, and complex wine with several years’ aging. Cabernet can be like the awkward kid who grows up to be a Nobel Laureate and sexy to boot. Not all cabernet sauvignons have this ability, of course. Many modestly priced are made in an easy-drinking style that is simply simple. These wines bear little of the depth, power, and intense concentration of, say, Château Latour from Bordeaux, Sassicaia from Italy, or Harlan Estate from the Napa Valley. But there’s something else that makes great cabernets like these so compelling. Few other red wines in the world have cabernet’s counterintuitive ability to combine two of the characteristics mentioned above—power and elegance. I think it’s this capacity to embody, in one split second, two contrapuntal ideas that makes the great cabernets so intellectually fascinating, a yin-yang of taste. Cabernet sauvignon’s aromas and flavors are well known and easy to indentify: blackberry, black currant, cassis, mint, cedarwood, graphite, licorice, leather, green tobacco, cigar, black plums, dark chocolate, sandalwood, and so on. These sensations are then swirled into a delicious amalgam as the wine ages. I should add that unripe, poorly made cabernet sauvignon, like poorly made sauvignon blanc, usually tastes vegetal—a dank mixture of bell peppers, canned green beans, or cabbage water. This shared tendency toward vegetative green flavors if the grapes are not ripe comes as no surprise since cabernet sauvignon is the offspring of sauvignon blanc (which, one day, thought to be in the mid-1700s, had a nice moment in nature with cabernet franc, resulting in cabernet sauvignon). Both cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc are high in pyrazines—compounds on grape skins that give the final wine a bell pepper flavor. Because cabernet sauvignon is one of the most tannic of all the major red grapes, it has, over the last few decades, been a prime focus in the study of tannin and tannin ripeness. Twenty five years ago, for example, it was commonly thought that cabernet required decades of aging to feel soft. Today, many cabernet sauvignons packed with large amounts of tannin nonetheless possess a soft mouthfeel right off the bat. This is possible because harvest decisions are now often based on the physiologiocal maturity of the tannin in cabernet grapes, rather than sugar. So, even though it may seem like a public relations pitch: it is indeed possible for the best cabernet sauvignons today to be ready to drink now and be delicious decades in the future. Finally, historically, the world’s most prized cabernet sauvignons were cabernets blended with merlot, cabernet franc, and perhaps malbec and petite verdot. They came from the Médoc communes of Margaux, St.-Julien, Pauillac, and St.-Estèphe in Bordeaux, where the wines were (and still are) ranked into “growths,” from First Growth, the most renowned, down to Fifth Growth. However, world-class cabernets are now regularly being made in California (especially the Napa Valley), Italy, Australia, and Washington State.

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