When Food Calls for a Big Red

(By Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)
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By Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg
Wednesday, May 14, 2008; Page F05

If cabernet sauvignon is the king of grapes, then cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc, its parents -- as 1990s DNA testing proved -- are royalty, too. Though its genetic and spiritual home is France's Bordeaux region and specifically the Medoc area within it, the grape cabernet sauvignon is now sanctified by winemakers in all but the chilliest regions on Earth.

In fact, California owes its global fame as a wine-growing region to this grape alone: In the historic blind tasting of 1976 (known as the Judgment of Paris), the 1973 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon from the Napa Valley was deemed superior to all other entries, including some celebrated Bordeaux. Today, you can find other excellent examples coming from Italy, Spain, Australia, Chile and closer to home, including Virginia, New York, Washington state and other parts of California.

Though cabernet sauvignon has different expressions of quality, structure and maturity, it is perhaps the easiest wine grape variety to identify in a blind tasting because it invariably leaves telltale clues for the nose and palate. An aroma of blackberries and black currants introduces this dry, full-bodied, tannic wine and is often accompanied by notes of pepper (either black or green bell), cinnamon, chocolate or even a freshly sharpened pencil.

You can almost taste its flavor profile by its price tag: Less-expensive versions aren't likely to have spent much, if any, time in expensive oak barrels, and they tend to be lighter in weight and simpler in flavor. More-expensive versions typically are greater in body, tannins and complexity, reflecting the benefits to this grape of time spent on wood. Favored by collectors, cabernet is virtually unequaled in its ability to improve with age and can do so for years, even decades, as its powerful flavors and tannins round out into velvety smoothness.

More than almost any other wine, cabernet calls for careful food pairing. A big, powerful cab can obliterate a delicate dish. Its best matches are found in well-marbled red meats, especially grilled or roasted. (See the Tips for more.)

Our cab suggestions this week span the globe and are arranged by region and price:

· Argentina: The 2006 vintage was exceptional, and this deeply flavored red with gentle tannins is an exceptional value to boot. The 2006 El Portillo Cabernet Sauvignon ($11) is earthy and full-bodied yet velvety, loaded with blackberry jam fruitiness and fresh minty notes.

· Washington state: We both loved Karen's pick, the 2005 Chateau Ste. Michelle Indian Wells Cabernet Sauvignon ($18). Its scents and flavors could be mistaken for those of a mixed-berry cobbler, with concentrated blackberry, black cherry and blueberry fruitiness mingling with cinnamon and vanilla. For a more Italian-noted pour, check out the 2005 Chateau Ste. Michelle Canoe Ridge Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($25), which we enjoyed with a pesto-rubbed filet mignon wrapped in prosciutto.

· California: Our first two recommendations, from the Alexander Valley, are lighter in body and tannins than the latter two, from the Napa Valley.

The 2005 Murphy-Goode Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($20) is a blend dominated by cabernet sauvignon (91 percent) with added petit verdot (for depth), merlot (for sweetness) and malbec (for a hint of blueberry flavor). Its deep blackberry and plum fruitiness has dried-herb notes and is well balanced by acidity and soft tannins.

The black cherry and plum flavors of the 2004 Souverain Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($22) seem to go as deep as the estate's 120-year-old roots. Winemaker Ed Killian created the 2004 from 84 percent cabernet sauvignon with added merlot, petite sirah, syrah and cabernet franc. He aged the blend for 22 months on American and European oak, a process that contributed notes of vanilla and dark chocolate.

The 2005 Hall Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($40) is a rich, ripe red with concentrated blackberry and black cherry fruitiness and hints of baking spices. Though we relished it this month, winemaker Richard Batchelor says it will continue to evolve over the next seven to 10 years.

Andrew's pick is the creation of a Napa Valley pioneer: the 2004 Trefethen Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($50). We first tasted this elegant wine at a James Beard House dinner, where it was partnered with a honey-glazed spring lamb served with mint spaetzle created by chef Bryan Moscatello of Zola restaurant. Its blackberry fruitiness was brought out by the lamb, and its herbal notes of bay leaf by the mint spaetzle. When we tasted it a second time on its own, its earthiness shone through even more, and we were able to discern black pepper notes. The wine's silkiness on the palate ends in a long, lingering cocoa powder finish.

· Italy: Cabernet sauvignon is the grape that elevated some Tuscan wines into the stratosphere of globally celebrated "Super Tuscans." At 75 percent cabernet sauvignon, 20 percent sangiovese and 5 percent cabernet franc, the 2001 Antinori Solaia ($140 to $200) is the product of what 26th-generation winemaker Piero Antinori tells us is "an excellent vintage." With a hint of mint and eucalyptus on the nose, the wine had tart cherry flavors that mingled with rich, jammy plums and a hint of rosemary. Antinori suggests giving it another four or five years to develop.

As warmer evenings get your grills fired up, you're ahead of the game if you have some of these cabs on hand to turn the occasion of a red-meat meal into a red-letter day.

Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page, authors of "What to Drink With What You Eat," can be reached through their Web site,http://www.becomingachef.com, or atfood@washpost.com.

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