Wine appreciation can be a snobbish hobby, but it doesn’t have to be. We can love wine without being obsessed by it, and we can be knowledgeable about it without lording our superiority over others. A basic knowledge of wine can keep us conversant in snobbish company and help us sort through the multitude of selections on the retail shelf, while still having a life. Most importantly, it can enhance our experience at the dinner table, where it matters most.
So with this column, I introduce an occasional feature on wine’s basics, with five things I think you should know about a wine grape or a region, or some aspect of wine we may take for granted (corks, or corkscrews, for example). My hope is to enhance your enjoyment of wine, which is, after all, the only wine appreciation that matters. And if this helps you score a point or two in conversation at wine tastings, so much the better.
Our first subject is cabernet sauvignon, perhaps the world’s most popular red wine grape.
1. Where it’s from: Cabernet sauvignon is the progeny of cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc, two grapes still prominent today. It originated, probably spontaneously, in Bordeaux in France, in the mid-1700s. Or thereabouts. For wine romanticists, that means the Bordeaux that Thomas Jefferson enjoyed on his visits to the region in the 1780s were probably not primarily cabernet.
2. Where it grows: To be honest, almost everywhere wine grapes are planted, because it is so popular. But that doesn’t mean it performs well everywhere. It favors a temperate “Goldilocks” climate: Not too hot, not too cold. In its homeland of Bordeaux, cabernet dominates the red wine blends in the Médoc and Graves, two areas on the Left Bank of the Gironde Estuary, closer to the maritime influence of the Atlantic. Wines labeled St. Estephe, Pauillac, St. Julien, Margaux, Graves, Médoc or Haut-Médoc are likely to be at least 50 percent cabernet sauvignon. On the warmer, inland Right Bank, merlot and cabernet franc dominate the blends.
In California, cab is king. This is especially true in Napa Valley, which has become almost synonymous with the variety. It was the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars cabernet, from Napa, that dethroned top Bordeaux at the famous Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976, proving that world-class wine could be made outside of France. Over the past two decades, Napa’s “cult cabs” have come to symbolize wine mania and helped (along with other factors) drive the price of Napa cabernet into the stratosphere. (More on that next week.)
Other regions produce cabernets that are downright cheap compared with Napa Valley. Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley and Sonoma Valley are prime examples, and farther south, Paso Robles grows some top-notch cabernet. So does Washington state’s Columbia Valley.
Other regions: Chile makes noteworthy cabs, from $ to $$$ (Colchagua, Aconcagua, Apalta), as does Argentina (Mendoza) and Australia (Coonawarra, Barossa).
3. What it tastes like: Cab sauv is known for dark fruit flavors: black cherry, blackberry, black currant (cassis). There may also be baking spice — anise, clove, nutmeg. Graphite is a common descriptor, especially in Bordeaux; think of those No. 2 pencils you used to sharpen as a kid.
When underripe or overcropped (too much fruit on the vine, diluting flavor), cab can taste green and vegetal. Herbal flavors, such as mint or sage, can be good, and a hint of bell pepper is fine. Same with black tea or olive. Any flavor that just says “vegetables,” not so much. If it tastes like dried fruit — prunes, raisins — the grapes were overripe, and the alcohol is probably higher (15 percent or up). This is usually a stylistic choice by the winemaker; it’s up to you to decide whether you like it.
4. What to eat with it: Cabernet sauvignon is high in tannins, which make your teeth itch after you swallow the wine. Tannins are a status symbol for red wine, because they give it longevity in the cellar for long aging. For food pairing, just remember three words: fat cuts tannin. That’s why cab sauv is your ideal partner for grilled steaks, hamburgers, braised short ribs or any Flintstonian slabs of beef.
5. Cabernet doesn’t match our lifestyle anymore: See No. 4. As we move away from our “meat and three” menu toward a lower-fat diet, do we need such big wines? Yes, there are lighter expressions of cabernet, but there are also other grapes that are more versatile with the wide range of cuisines we enjoy today, and more appropriate with a less meat-centric diet. I am not predicting the end of cabernet, by any means, but perhaps other wines, such as cabernet franc, malbec, gamay, barbera and pinot noir, with their softer tannins and palate-friendly fruit, are more appropriate for today.