Cabernet, the Elvis of Wines

Wine Press NorthwestMarch 7, 2013 

Oh, sure… I’ve craved and consumed Syrah. I’ve extolled the virtues of Cabernet Franc or Pinot Noir. And fleeting fashion has drawn me to Grenache, Tempranillo and Malbec. But if there was just one wine available,

I’ve got to buckle and tell you that, for me, it would be the king of reds, Cabernet Sauvignon. I have no preconceived notions that any Cabernet Sauvignon I drink is 100% Cab. I doubt most any bottle contains all of the variety stated on the bottle. Winemakers wrestle with the conflict of making the best wine they can, or making the varietal from just one variety. Frankly, I take no exception to a winemaker spicing up my Cabernet Sauvignon with a little something else hanging around the winery.

Augmenting Cab with 3% Syrah and 2% Petit Verdot is not exactly like inducing a performance – enhancing drug. Long ago, most of the American populace would’ve said that French Bordeaux was Cabernet Sauvignon, only to find out some Bordeaux may have no Cabernet Sauvignon in them. In fact, if you are searching for a Cabernet Sauvignon from Bordeaux, your best bet is to buy wines from the left side of the Gironde estuary; the Medoc and its sub-appellations. The right-bank Cheval Blanc “Miles” drank from a soft drink cup in the movie Sideways was made from Cabernet Franc and Merlot… with maybe a dash of Cab...

Cabernet Sauvignon will often leave a forensic trail. Cooler climate Cab typically shows both black and red fruit flavor profiles with herbal or vegetal markers, with some taking exception to bell pepper, green olive or crushed leaf fragrances. However, cooler climate wines generally have a little lower resultant alcohol and higher acid, so their appeal comes from those desirable attributes. At the other end of the spectrum, Cabernet grown in warmer climates may be extracted, jammy and irresistibly hedonistic, however, relatively high in alcohol with lower acid. Cabernet Sauvignon from the Northwest's varied microclimates produce this full spectrum of enjoyment, and DANG, I like them all!

I personally enjoy the leaner, lower alcohol, cherry/raspberry/ herbal types with food. At the other end of the spectrum, opulent, high alcohol/oak-extracted/massively fruity Cabernet is most enjoyable for just drinking. In fact, I’ve been known to rearrange the sequence of an evening by firing up a cigar before dinner when one of those bad boys comes along… what the hay, eat at 10 p.m. My guess is, given the talents of the vineyard and winery folks nowadays, Cabernet offers the best of both extremes and is about 60% of what you find out there. And I’ll be darned if I can find an occasion when I don't like that group either. Friends, food, mood and occasion often time dictate the type of Cabernet Sauvignon I enjoy.

Almost regardless of where it is grown, farming advancements in the last 40 years have resulted in Northwest Cabernet Sauvignon hitting the wine chemistry sweet spot, allowing winemakers to produce Cabs rich in fruit, moderate in alcohol and with appealing herbal notes. Adjustments to crop levels, watering regime and the development of customized cultural practices can overcome the negative effects of Mother Nature. In addition, winemakers can oftentimes transform vegetal fruit into a masterpiece product with vinification techniques and products… and blending.

The first few Northwest Cabs that I consumed came from Associated Vintners, the daddy of Columbia Winery, and Château Ste. Michelle, made in the late 1960s and early 1970s … acidic, tannic, horribly vegetative. It was not until 1974 when Cabernet Sauvignon actually became drinkable out of the Northwest after Château Ste. Michelle hired Joel Klein fresh out of the University of California/Davis, as their winemaker. Joel had a specialty; Malolactic bacteria. Most people don’t brag about being best pals with bacteria… Joel did. One reason the wines had such blistering acidity before Joel came to town was because their chemistry did not allow for the softening effects of a secondary acid-reducing fermentation. Joel proudly told me the story about starting the Malolactic culture in a bottle, gently pouring it into a warmed 5 gallon carboy, then a week later lowering the fizzing carboy into a large tank of Cabernet where the miracle occurred, yielding the Château Ste. Michelle 1974 Cabernet Sauvignon. Thanks, Joel. Concurrently, significant changes to grape growing and fruit treatment reduced the other negatives.

Cabernet Sauvignon has a wide price spectrum counterpoint to the broad style profile, with both value and disappointing wines within them. Perception and status have their place along with economy and indifference. The late comedian and practical joker, Ernie Kovacs, threw a party at his Beverly Hills home, having the special effects crew from MGM re-label - California Cabernet to Château FooFoo, spray some dust all over his cellar and make it look as if it were abandoned for decades. Those at the party were beckoned to the cellar, fighting through the manufactured cobwebs, tasting wines they thought were ancient and rare. As the pinkie fingers extended, the noses cycled in and out of glasses and eyebrows lifted, unconfirmed legend records that no one identified that they were tossing back $3 California Cabernet from 1954. And often times in our Wine Press judgings we find great cheap wines, like Ernie did. By sheer coincidence, you can read about them in this edition!

Cabernet Sauvignon, the Elvis of wines, is for occasions with and without food, to be enjoyed with friends in moderation, frequently.

Coke Roth is an attorney who lives in Richland, Wash. He is an original member of Wine Press Northwest's tasting panel. Learn more about him at cokerothlaw.com.

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