Cabernet sauvignon is the king of red wine grapes. Some may make a case for pinot noir, but the facts are that there are more great wines made from cabernet in the world than from any other grape, and that it is produced in more wine regions in both hemispheres than any other premium red grape.

Most of the great red bordeaux wines from the prestigious Medoc region are blends with cabernet responsible for 75 percent or more of the blend. Among them are Cha~teaux Lafite-Rothschild, Latour, Mouton Rothschild and the reigning king of bordeaux, Cha~teau Margaux.

Cabernet is widely planted in the United States, with some stunning examples occasionally being made in Washington state and Maryland as well as California. But year in and year out, Napa Valley demonstrates that it has the best climate and soil in the U.S. for this preeminent red wine.

Recently 223 cabernets from eight states were pitted against each other in the cabernet sauvignon category of the American Wine Competition. Sixty percent of the wines winning silver medals or better came from California's Napa Valley. Wines from Washington state won one silver and one bronze medal, Maryland wines won two bronzes, and Virginia won one bronze. Shut out of the medal winning were Oregon, New York, New Jersey and North Carolina.

Although the top wines were excellent, most of the tasters, including this one, were not as overwhelmed by the entire field of wines as a group as we have been impressed with recent tastings of French bordeaux or even American chardonnays. Most of us were bothered by the powerful tannin in most of the wines, a harsh, powdery tactile sensation that is common in great young reds. Tannin is a good sign if one plans to age the wine because this natural product of the grape skins, seeds and barrels acts as a preservative.

But tannins can obliterate the essence of grape extract in the flavor, sometimes called the "fruit" of the wine. The best young reds have sturdy tannin, and obvious fruit to stand up to it. Many of the judges felt, however, that with the exception of a few at the top, most of these American cabernets, all now available on the U.S. market, are just too young and harsh, and some even questioned if they would ever smooth out.

With five wines entered from four different vintages, Sequoia Grove Winery of Napa Valley won an unprecedented four medals: the only platinum medal awarded, and three of the 19 gold medals. This was the second time a Sequoia Grove cabernet has won top honors in the American Wine Competition. Surely Sequoia Grove Vineyards has established itself as one of America's finest wineries.

The Best American Cabernet Sauvignon award, with 96 of 100 possible points, went to Sequoia Grove's 1985 Estate Bottled, Napa Valley. It was described by the judges as "a powerhouse that still maintains an elegant balance of components. The nose is still tight but shows minty, cedary qualities and some vanilla and toast. On the palate, a marvelous rush of deep, rich, cabernet fruit is well supported with acidity and perfectly complemented with oak. Medium-high tannin calls for five or more years of aging, though the fruit flavors are tempting now." Two thousand sixty-four cases were produced, and the wine's price is $16 at the winery. It should be arriving in the East soon, and the price will probably be slightly higher.

Another Sequoia Grove wine, its 1985 Napa County, tied for second place. Its 1984 Napa Valley and 1983 Napa/Alexander Valley also won golds. This follows a series of gold medal Sequoia Grove cabernets in the 1983, 1984 and 1986 American Wine Competitions, as well as a platinum and Best American Cabernet Sauvignon award in the 1984 judging. Clearly this winery is the reigning champion of American cabernet.

Sequoia Grove's rustic, 1860 barn-cum-winery is located in the shadow of a grove of towering redwoods. Here the Allen family set up shop in 1978. James Allen is the wine maker and general manager; his brother Steven manages the 24-acre estate vineyard. Four other family members work at the winery.

The location is Napa Valley's "Rutherford Bench," long regarded as one of the best subregions for cabernet in Napa Valley. Beaulieu Vineyards, another fine cabernet producer, borders the property on the north. The Robert Mondavi Winery, home of more fine cabernets, is across the road.

A few cabernet grapes are also purchased from the Stag's Leap Vineyards, sometimes from the St. Regis Vineyards (both in Napa County) and from Redwood Ranch Vineyards in the Alexander Valley in neighboring Sonoma County.

Sequoia Grove is a small winery making about 8,500 cases a year, focusing on cabernet and chardonnay. Its cabernets are produced to be approachable and elegant when young, with the structure to gain character and complexity with age, borne out by platinum and gold medals in this judging for the 1985, '84 and '83 vintages.

Other wineries that have added another notch or two to a record of consistent top quality with this varietal in past American Wine Competitions include: Kendall-Jackson (Cardinale), Beringer (Reserve), Raymond, Newton, Buena Vista, Joseph Phelps, Estrella River, Clos du Val, Clos du Bois (Briarcrest) and The Hogue Cellars (Reserve) from Washington.

Fortunately, the average price of the wines, which ranged from $4 to $60, was lower than most bordeaux on the current market. The average price for a platinum or gold medal wine was $14.10. There were some excellent values to be found as well, most notably the J. Wile & Sons 1985 from Napa Valley for only $6.99. Among 14 tasters it scored an impressive 93 points. Judges described it as possessing "minty-eucalyptusscents and plenty of new, toasted oak {that} make a stylish package for lean, almost delicate fruit. Good acidity. Herbal and spicy qualities and lots of oak give some complexity"and "an offbeat character" one judge called "Burgundian." The blend: 77 percent cabernet, 8 percent merlot and a surprising 15 percent pinot noir (a grape that is rarely blended with cabernet). A substantial 58,323 cases were produced.

Following is a shopping list of the top wines and the best buys. Not all will be available in your neighborhood store, and because most are new releases from wineries they may still be en route to this market. If your local merchant doesn't have them in stock, he or she may be able to order them for you. The scores listed are the average scores of the judges converted to a 50-100 point scale.

Prices listed are the winery price, and are usually about 20 percent higher in the East. The complete results and analysis can be ordered by sending $2 for postage and handling to Cabernet Results, International Wine Review, P.O. Box 285, Ithaca, N.Y. 14851. Best Wines

96/Platinum Medal/Best American Cabernet Sauvignon: Sequoia Grove 1985 Cabernet Sauvignon, Estate Bottled, Napa Valley, California, $16.

95/Gold Medal: Lyeth 1983 Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley, California, $17.

95/Gold Medal: Sequoia Grove 1985 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa County, California, $16.

94/Gold Medal: Beringer 1982 Cabernet Sauvignon, Private Reserve, Napa Valley, California, $19.

94/Gold Medal: Dunn 1984 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California, $23.

94/Gold Medal: Sequoia Grove 1984 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California, $13.

93/Gold Medal: Guenoc 1983 Cabernet Sauvignon, Vintner's Selection, Guenoc Valley, California, $11.

93/Gold Medal/Best Buy: J. Wile & Sons 1985 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California, $6.99.

93/Gold Medal: Kendall-Jackson 1985 Cabernet Sauvignon, Cardinale, California, $11.99.

92/Gold Medal/Best Buy: Firestone Vineyard 1984 Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Ynez Valley, California, $9.50.

92/Gold Medal: Sequoia Grove 1983 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley 75 percent, Alexander Valley 25 percent, California, $12.

91/Gold Medal: Rutherford Hill 1983 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California, $12.

91/Gold Medal: Spottswoode 1984 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California, $24.95.

90/Gold Medal/Best Buy: Burr Vineyards 1983 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California, $10.

90/Gold Medal: Raymond 1983 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California, $12.

90/Gold Medal: Rombauer Vineyards 1984 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California, $13.50.

90/Gold Medal: Sam J. Sebastiani 1983 Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma County 33 percent, Napa County 67 percent, California, $12.50.

90/Gold Medal: Santa Barbara Winery 1984 Cabernet Sauvignon, Reserve, Santa Ynez Valley, California, $13.50.

90/Gold Medal: Sierra Vista 1982 Cabernet Sauvignon, Special Reserve/Estate Bottled, El Dorado, California, $18.

90/Gold Medal/Best Buy: Wente Brothers 1984 Cabernet Sauvignon, California, $7.99. Best Buys J. Wile & Sons 1985 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California, $6.99 (93/Gold Medal).

Firestone Vineyard 1984 Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Ynez Valley, California, $9.50 (92/Gold Medal).

Burr Vineyards 1983 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California, $10 (90/Gold Medal).

Wente Brothers 1984 Cabernet Sauvignon, California, $7.99 (90/Gold Medal).

Monterey Vineyard 1985 Cabernet Sauvignon, Limited Release, Monterey County, California, $9 (89/Silver Medal).

Estrella River Winery 1982 Cabernet Sauvignon, Estate Bottled, Paso Robles, California, $8 (88/Silver Medal).

M.G. Vallejo 1984 Cabernet Sauvignon, California, $5.99 (77/Bronze Medal).

Christian Brothers 1984 Cabernet Sauvignon, Estate Bottled, Napa Valley, California, $6.59 (73/Bronze Medal).

Corbett Canyon Vineyards 1984 Cabernet Sauvignon, Coastal Classic, Central Coast, California, $6.50/1 liter (72/Bronze Medal).

Michtom Vineyards (Jimark Winery) 1982 Cabernet Sauvignon, Vintner Grown, Alexander Valley/Sonoma County, California, $6 (70/Bronze Medal).

Stephen Zellerbach Vineyard (Estate William Baccala) 1982 Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley, California, $5.99 (70/Bronze Medal). Odd Lots Normally I don't plug commercial ventures in this space, especially wine tours, because there are so many planned and most of them never take off. But one wine tour has recently come to my attention that I felt I should bring to your attention. It is a luxury tour of Bordeaux operated by Marcy Albin, of Denver, a woman who has made a reputation for luxury travel.

The itinerary includes visits to many of the top cha~teaux (Lafite, Margaux, Mouton, Latour, Haut-Brion, Beychevelle, Cos d'Estournel, Ducru Beaucaillou, Climens, Domaines des Chevaliers, Leoville Las Cases, Pontet Canet, Ausone, Prieure-Lichine, Cheval Blanc and more), meals with notable chefs, first-class hotels and inns, and side trips to Armagnac, a duck farm and the beach. Called "Beyond the Cha~teaux Walls," the tour departs June 11 and returns June 27. Another is planned for Sept. 10-26. The price is $5,200 per person, including air fare. For more information write to Albin at 1366 South Elm St., Denver, Colo. 80222, or call (303) 758-7711.

1988, by Craig Goldwyn, International Wine Review magazine