Fans of cabernet sauvignon call it “the king of wines, the wine of kings.” For good reason. It makes some of the finest, richest, most powerful, age-worthy wines in the world.
It’s the most popular grape, with 741,000 acres of vines in 44 countries – which, if put together, would create a vineyard the size of Rhode Island.
The two most expensive bottles of wine on the planet – a six-liter bottle of 1992 Screaming Eagle auctioned for $500,000 and a 12-liter bottle of Chateau Margaux on sale for $195,000 – were based on cabernet sauvignon.
In more human terms, it’s the very best thing to drink with a big, charcoal-grilled New York strip steak.
And you’ll see below that a backyard grill jockey looking to wash down his pet cheeseburger can get a softer, simpler cab with the same basic flavors for $13.
By itself, a good cab is potent and full-bodied, hearty and rich, with concentrated flavors of black cherries, cassis and licorice, hints of espresso or mocha, often-muscular tannins and acids. It can easily age for 20 years, or be drinkable in six or seven.
Cabernet is a complete enough grape that wonderful wines can be made with it alone. Still, winemakers are tinkerers. They often blend in other grapes to get softer, more complex flavors.
In the Bordeaux region, considered the epicenter of cabernet sauvignon, French law says it can be blended with four other red grapes. Merlot adds smoothness, gentle tannins and black plum flavors.
Cabernet franc adds crisp acids, earthiness and raspberries. Petit verdot adds dark color, spice and blackberries. And malbec contributes deep, dark color, concentrated fruit and chocolate.
In California, another major homeland for cabernet sauvignon, winemakers seeking to create their own version of Bordeaux’s fabled wines have set up a Meritage (rhymes with “heritage”) Association, whose members use the same grapes, seeking the same effects.
Other cabernet growers ignore the Meritage rules and blend in still other red grapes – petite sirah for structure, zinfandel for hearty raspberry flavors, syrah for smoky black plums and so on.
It must be great fun to be a winemaker – deep in a dank cellar, surrounded by wine-stained oak barrels, fiddling with various blends, always seeking that elusive perfect nectar.
In the tasting notes below, you’ll see that the amount of cabernet sauvignon in various blends varies greatly – from 100 percent to as little as 4 percent.
Four percent may not seem like much – but I’ve seen it demonstrated that just that little dollop of, say, malbec, can make a wine darker and fruitier.
You can try it yourself. Get a bottle of 100 percent cabernet sauvignon and a bottle of 100 percent merlot or malbec and do your own blending.
Then name the resulting blend after yourself. You never know. “Chateau Charlie” or “Clos Claudine” could go viral. At least among your pals.
• 2011 Smith & Hook Cabernet Sauvignon, Central Coast (94 percent cabernet sauvignon 6 percent malbec): deep purple, bold and hearty, full-bodied, aromas and flavors of black cherries and espresso; $30.
• 2010 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville District, Napa Valley (88 percent cabernet sauvignon, 7 percent cabernet franc, 4 percent merlot, 1 percent malbec): hint of oak, aromas and flavors of cassis and black cherries, crisp acids, firm tannins; $45.
• 2011 Clos Beauregard, Pomerol AOP (93 percent merlot, 4 percent cabernet sauvignon, 3 percent cabernet franc): deep purple color, aromas and flavors of black cherries, dark chocolate and herbs, rich and hearty; $50.
• 2010 Nickel & Nickel Cabernet Sauvignon, “Branding Iron” Vineyard, Oakville, Napa Valley (100 percent cabernet sauvignon): deep dark color, aromas and flavors of black raspberries and chocolate, subtle, ripe tannins, long finish; $100.
Fred Tasker has retired from the Miami Herald but still writes about wine. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.