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The Wine Whisperer: Cabernet Confusion

There seems to be some confusion about the noble Cabernet Sauvignon grape. I've been getting some folks in the cellar asking me to recommend to them Cabernet to "put down" in their basements and cellars for some pretty long term aging. The impression is that all Cabernet Sauvignon is suppose to sit in the cellar before it is opened and that Cabernet Sauvignon is considered to be one of the only red wines to age well.

Let's look at the facts. Cabernet Sauvignon comes originally from Bordeaux, France and can be the backbone for many fine chateaux, which have been producing exquisite red wine for hundreds of years. Most of these fine houses not only produce lovely Cabernet Sauvignon, but are also the growers as well. This is an important stage in making really nice Cabernet Sauvignon, owning the vines where the grapes come from. This might sound obvious to some but owning the vines, especially established vines, can give a producer a wonderful edge in the market because these vines can be cultivated in the manner and desire of the folks making the wine. Such things as pruning and cropping back or dropping fruit can result in a very good margin of quality throughout the winemaking process. All of the great estates throughout the world covet their vineyards and have the best vineyard management teams in the business. This sort of high end, expensive cultivation process, can tell us whether or not a Cabernet is destined for the winemaker with aging as the end product of the vintage, or immediate release as the end product. In other words, most of the decision process as to the age worthiness of our finished bottle of wine happens in the vineyard. We know that in Bordeaux, for example, the better Cabernet's are sent to the cellar to age for a few years before release to the market. There are less esteemed "cru" which can be released much sooner but these wines usually come from immature vines, inferior vines, cash flow problems with the wineries themselves or a tradition of earlier drinking Cabernet Sauvignon.

It is best also to understand that not all Cabernet in the New World is destined for deep aging in the cellar. Many easy drinking Cabernets such as Louis Martini and Charles Krug in the Napa Valley are drunk fairly young, within five years of the vintage. Just down the road, Heitz Cellars Martha's Vineyard and B.V. Georges de Latour require quite a bit longer to show their finer qualities. We are also seeing some very power driven Cabernet coming from the Walla Walla appelation in Washington state with broodingly dark fruit and heavy tannins which are also requiring some length in the cellar.

Let's look at the taste qualities of mature Cabernet. Cabernets that have aged to perfection display some of the most enchanting flavors in winedom. Let me give you an example of the flavor sensations I experienced in a twenty year old Bordeaux I had the other night. The first thing we noticed was a slight tawny in the glass. This is not "brown" but tawny, an off red hue. Secondly, the nose was filled with a scent of old violets and spicy oak with just a snip of mint. These older wines can change within minutes from these sensations to sensations of earth and cassis, which this wine did. Every Cabernet can and does display its own fingerprints in the glass. But older Cabernets, as a general rule, leave any angles or sharpness behind. This, I think, is the true beauty of older Cabernet; the edginess simply disappears, and what is left are succulent, soft and silky tones which seemingly go on forever. This is a true measure of finely aged Cabernet Sauvignon which was designed by the grower and winemaker to hit the cellar.

How do we know if a certain Cabernet Sauvignon is supposed to go into a cellar or is designed for immediate consumption? One can either go to the winery or fine wine shop and ask for whatever Cabernet one wishes. There are bargains in both styles of Cabernet and from all over the world where great Cabernet is grown. The choices for superb Cabernet Sauvignon of either style are, quite truly, endless.