I pick on cabernet sauvignon. I say it’s too powerful for many casual wine fans, with too much tannin, too much muscle, too much heft.
I pick on cab a lot, because it’s such an easy target. So big and powerful. When I’m feeling silly, I liken it to the Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder’s postulate that elephants are terrified of mice.
But it’s always in the back of my mind that I am the mouse and cabernet sauvignon still is the elephant. The lion. The king of wines. So about once a year I write a column acknowledging that fact. Here it is.
No other wine can match cabernet for powerful fruit, acids and tannins to stand up to that most daunting of food pairings — the fat-marbled, rosemary-scented, charcoal-scarred rib-eye steak.
No other wine will age better, turning mellow but still robust in its old age. No other wine is better to blend with softer ones to give backbone, heft and complexity.
The most classic use of cabernet sauvignon, of course, is in France, where it heads the list of grapes in that country’s famous red Bordeaux. Under French wine law, Bordeaux is a blend of two or more of the following: cabernet sauvignon for power, merlot for soft, sweet fruit, petit verdot for spice, cabernet franc for flowery aroma and malbec for its inky black hue.
This is particularly valuable in France, where cool weather and rainy falls mean the cabernet sauvignon doesn’t always get as ripe as they would like.
By custom, French cabernet sauvignons and Bordeaux reds are called Old World cabs. In sunnier climes in the United States, Chile, Australia, Argentina and elsewhere, cabs are part of New World wines.
In the New World, cabernet sauvignon can get riper, and it is more often used by itself — or with only a small amount of another, softer grape. And since California and Washington are not bound by France’s restrictive blending rules, winemakers feel free to blend in many other red grapes, from carménère to zinfandel to syrah.
This has made California and Washington the epicenter of American cab, producing a bottle a year for every member of our population.
Muscular at birth, cabernet sauvignon mellows over time, reaching its complex peak in seven or eight years in warmer climates, 10 to 20 in cooler areas. Unfortunately, Americans tend to drink 90 percent or more of the wines within less than a week of when they buy them.
If this describes you, save up some time and taste a 10-year-old California cab to see what you’re missing. Let me know what you think.
1. 2011 Montes Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon, AOC Colchagua Valley, Chile (90 percent cabernet sauvignon, 10 percent merlot): floral aromas, flavors of black raspberries and black pepper, soft tannins; $20.
2. 2012 Réserve Mouton Cadet, by Philippe de Rothschild, Bordeaux AOP (merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc); aromas and flavors of cassis, espresso and spice, medium body, firm but ripe tannins, smooth; $13.
3. 2011 Laurel Glen Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma Mountain (100 percent cabernet sauvignon): hint of oak, aromas and flavors of black cherries, bittersweet chocolate and minerals, smooth; $65.
4. 2010 Niner Wine Estates Cabernet Sauvignon, Paso Robles (97 percent cabernet sauvignon, 2 percent petit verdot, 1 percent carménère): aromas and flavors of black cherries, espresso and cinnamon, soft tannins, long finish; $35.
5. 2012 Kendall-Jackson Cabernet Sauvignon, Vintner’s Reserve, Sonoma County (92 percent cabernet sauvignon 4 percent cabernet franc, 3 percent petit verdot, 1 percent merlot): hint of oak, flavors of blackberries and chocolate, smooth; $24.
6. 2011 Piña Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, “Firehouse Vineyard,” Rutherford (100 percent cabernet sauvignon): hint of oak, floral aromas, flavors of sweet black cherries and brown sugar, firm tannins, long finish; $85.
7. 2013 Lindeman’s Cabernet Sauvignon, Bin Series, Australia (100 percent cabernet sauvignon): rich and ripe, with aromas and flavors of black cherries and spice; $9.
8. 2013 Rob Murray “Force of Nature” Cabernet Sauvignon, Mossfire Ranch, Paso Robles (100 percent cabernet sauvignon): hint of oak, aromas and flavors of black raspberries, mocha and earth, sturdy tannins; $22.
9. 2010 McKinley Springs Cabernet Sauvignon, Horse Heaven Hills, Washington (91 percent cabernet sauvignon, 9 percent petit verdot): hint of oak, flavor of black cherries and black coffee and cinnamon, firm tannins; $24.
10. 2013 Achaval-Ferrer Cabernet Sauvignon, Mendoza, Argentina (100 percent cabernet sauvignon): crisp and lively, aromas and flavors of cassis and espresso, soft tannins; $25.
11. 2012 Mandolin Cabernet Sauvignon, Central Coast (100 percent cabernet sauvignon): aromas and flavors of black cherries and mocha, mellow tannins, long finish; $12.
12. 2013 Casillero del Diablo Cabernet Sauvignon, by Concha y Toro, Chile (100 percent cabernet sauvignon): aromas and flavors of black plums and spice, soft tannins, smooth; $11.