Cabernet sauvignon is the progeny of two grapes—one inky black, the other white and fabulous with food. Their child became the most successful red wine grape of all time.
Cab is genetic cross between cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc. It is characterized by small berries and very thick skin, which engenders tannin and character. Cab also possess a remarkable ability to grow in almost any climate, from California’s sultry Central Valley, to Bordeaux’s storied left bank gravel, to exotic austerity of China’s Gobi Desert. Cab is world’s most-planted red wine grape.
Other grapes grow many places—chardonnay springs to mind—but typically those grapes are significantly influenced by terroir. Cabernet sauvignon, not nearly so much.
Pretty much everywhere cab grows it is complex, has a dry flavor profile, strong tannins (those thick skins and high seed-to-pulp ratios), and semi-savory flavors. It also has high alcohol, another result of thick skin that allows it to ripen late and build up sugar needed to elevate alcohol. Tannin and assertive flavors allow cab to stare down oak and give backbone and character to blends.
Cab is the most popular red grape variety in the U.S. with some 16 percent of sales, topped only by its white rival, chardonnay, with 19 percent. It is an intriguing competition.
Chardonnay is the chameleon of grapes. It will deliver almost anything you want depending on where you plant it and how your treat it in the winery. Chard is Meryl Streep.
Cabernet sauvignon swaggers into your vineyard and winery and does its thing. Its attitude is “you brought me to this party, you knew what you were getting, here it is, pilgrim.” Cab is John Wayne.
There are subtle differences between Napa and Bordeaux, South Australia and South Africa, Chile and China cabs, but operative word is “subtle.” When a winery saddles up cabernet, it pretty much agrees to just hang on for the ride.
• Louis M. Martini Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2013: Big, rich, delicious, classic Napa. $38
• Varozza Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena 2009: Gorgeous, complex, drink reverently. $65-80
• Michael Mondavi Family Animo Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2012: Superb value in its price category; serious, delicious. $85
Last round: OCD: “Obsessive Cabernet Disorder.”
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