Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Get to Know your Grapes Series - Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon on the Vine
Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the wines you will most often hear as the perfect pairing to a beautifully prepared steak. With the right combination, both the wine and the steak can end up tasting even better - what I refer to as an epic pairing.  But who is this Cabernet Sauvignon?  Shouldn't we know a bit more about this grape that we are entrusting with our wonderful New York Strips, Ribeyes, and Skirt steaks?

This grape that can produce monstrous wine, full of fruit and tannin in some parts of the world, while also playing a role in softer and more elegant wines in France.  In fact, quality red wines from the left bank of France's Bordeaux region will almost always have Cabernet Sauvignon as the primary grape, blended with other grapes to mellow and round out the Cabernet.

Once an urban legend that led to the name of the grape,  now verified by DNA analysis,  Cabernet Sauvignon is actually a cross between Cabernet Franc (a red wine grape) and Sauvignon Blanc (a white wine grape). 

Typical Aromas of Cabernet Sauvignon.  Cabernet Sauvignon wines typically have aromas of dark fruit such as black cherry, black plum, figs, or black currants.  Beyond fruit, Cabs can show aromas that come from time spent aging in oak barrels such as tobacco, cigar box, or pencil shavings (I have tried examples that totally smell like emptying the pencil sharpener in 2nd grade!). Cabs can also have "green" aromas such as mint or eucalyptus - and even ore of a green pepper smell that my denote the grapes were picked before they were ripe enough.

Typical Styles of Cabernet Sauvignon Wine. If you were to take a Cabernet Sauvignon Grape and crush it between your fingers, you would find a very thick skin, a very large seed (pip in the wine world), and not so much pulp. Both the grape's skin and seed/pip contain tannins that are transferred to the wine during the winemaking process. With the high ratio of tannin making stuff to the pulp, it is no surprise that Cabernet Sauvignon wines are often big and tannic. (What I like to call a Christmas wine - a Tannin-bomb!).

Since Cabernet Sauvignon can produce such big wines, it is often blended with other wines in order to mellow the level of tannins, and to bring other characteristics to the finished wine.  When you hear the term "Bordeaux Blend" in relation to a red wine, it refers to the five grape varieties used in the Bordeaux region of France - Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot and Malbec.  Within Bordeaux, red wines made on the "left bank" of the Gironde river that travels through the region are made with mostly Cabernet Sauvignon.  

Bordeaux Region in France, Left Bank = Cab Based Red Wines
Wines from the Margaux region within Bordeaux are sometimes described as "elegant" or even "feminine" in contrast to some of the monster wines produced in Napa, California or in Australia.  Some of that elegance is introduced by carefully selecting the blend of the five Bordeaux varietals, and Cabernet Sauvignon may be only 60% of the finished wine.  Be careful though - many Bordeaux, Cabernet-based wines can still be very tannic, just without the super-ripe fruit flavor in a Napa Cab. These Bordeaux wines are made to age, and these tannins will begin to soften with time as these wines are cellared.  That's why you may see Bordeaux wines for really big bucks that are 20, 30, or 40 years old - the characteristics of Cabernet Sauvignon allow the wine to age and improve for many, many years.

Let's Eat! What Food Pairs with Cabernet Sauvignon Wines? Cabernet Sauvignon wines or wines with Cab as the major element will have a good amount of tannin - and tannin, fats, and proteins are a great mix. So a nicely charred steak or lamb chop is a great team-up.  Be careful though, a piece of meat that gets closer to well done loses the fat and the impacts the protein - and negatively impacts the pairing. Stick close to medium rare - and you will be a happy diner!  
Let's Eat!
Here are some other food team-ups for Cabernet Sauvignon:

  • Grilled foods. The char from grilling adds a bitter component that paris well with Cabernet's tannins.
  • Bitter foods. Greens, radicchio, and arugula, oh my! Even vegetarians can enjoy a Cab now and then!  The bitterness of these foods also pairs nicely with tannins.
  • Pass the Pepper! If you like a tannic wine, but your significant other prefers a less tannic wine? If your significant other orders a dish prepared with a generous amount of black pepper - the pepper will help tame the tannins.  Although Cabernet is too big for most fish dishes, a tuna or swordfish steak with a good amount of pepper can even bring you into the "living on the edge" world of drinking red wine with fish!

Who Makes Cabernet Sauvignon Wines? I already mentioned two big Cab makers - Napa and Bordeaux. Cabernet Sauvignon is also prevalent elsewhere - just a few examples: 
  • Other locations in California.  Sonoma and Paso Robles to name a couple.  Paso Robles is becoming quite a nice spot to visit - lots of great wineries, some excellent restaurants - check it out!
  • Washington State. A alternate USA-based source of good Cabs and good values. Home of Chateau Ste. Michelle, which is Washington's oldest winery. I visited the winery this fall - and was already familiar with some of their white wines, but was surprised at the selection and quality of the red wines. I also recently tried Col Solare wine at the Wine Spectator Grand Tour - really outstanding stuff! 
  • Italy. In the Tuscany region that brings us Chianti also produces Super Tuscans that may contain Cabernet Sauvignon. Some of these can cost big bucks, but so some researching and some searching and you can find some less expensive - but still excellent examples.
  • Chile.  South America is a great source of great value Cabernet Sauvignon wines, and some of the best are from Chile.
  • Australia. In addition to Shiraz, some very nice Cabs from down under, many made in a big style similar to Napa.
  • South Africa. Not the place that necessarily comes to mind for good wine, some great value Cabs are produced in South Africa.
  • Spain. While not a focus for Spanish wines, Bodegas El Nido produces an awesome wine that is mostly Cab.  While not a value wine at about $120 a bottle - it is a splurge wine that is worth the extra expenditure.  Unlike most Spanish wines that are released when ready to drink - El Nido will need some time to age before drinking - but well worth the wait!
Words of Advice. Some things to keep in mind to make sure you get the most out of your Cabernet Sauvignon Purchase:
  • Many Cabs need some alone time.  Some winemakers do try to make sure that the vintage you are able to purchase in your wine shop is immediately drinkable - but many big wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon will benefit from some (or a lot of) bottle aging.  The need to age is even more evident in wines you may get from your favorite winery's wine club.  An investment in a wine refrigerator where you can let the wine develop for several months or years will payback benefits in getting the most out of your wine.  If you shell out $50 for a nice Napa Cab, but open it too soon, and (gasp) - don't aerate it enough, you will end up disappointed in what could have been a great wine if drank at the right time.
  • Mmmm.... Chocolate! 
  • Cabs are made for a Meal. While there are some good everyday drinking wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon, when you get into more serious versions like those from Napa - they really need to be enjoyed with a meal to get the full experience.  I have already shared my highly unoriginal recommendation for Cabs and Steak, along with some other pairing ideas. I am personally also a fan of some "out of the box" pairing like Cabs with blue cheese (you need to be a blue cheese lover to enjoy the pairing) and even dark chocolate. Pairing Cab with chocolate is a bit controversial, many call this a definite no-no, but a dark (not milk, definitely a dark, dark) chocolate works very nicely. My all time favorite is a big Napa Cab and Ghirardelli's Intense Dark Espresso Escape. The wine accentuates the Espresso in the chocolate wonderfully, and I think it is awesome! Try it and let me know what you think.
  • Looking for some good brands to try? There are a lot, but some of my favorite Napa brands (in the splurge wine category) are Darioush, Caymus, Chateau Potelle, Far Niente, Alpha Omega, and Whitehall Lane.  Looking for a more specific recommendation? Just let me know!

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