Napa Valley leads review of a half-case of big reds
Cabernet Sauvignon still dominates reds and red blends.
Last week I spent a few days in California to take part in Premiere Napa Valley, which featured — what else — cabernet sauvignon and cabernet blends. But even in “Cabernet Country,” most of these big reds are blends, although the lead grape remains cab.
This week, we feature three such wines from Napa along with Bordeaux varieties from Chile, Australia, and France.
Flora Springs Napa Valley “Trilogy” 2012 ($54). Very smooth, with very floral berry flavors; hints of cream cheese in the finish and just-right tannins. It needs decanting or a few more years in bottle to achieve complexity.
Mount Veeder Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon 2012 ($34). Delicious cab that tastes the way a cab, classically, is supposed to taste — dark cherry melding with almost neutral-tasting oak flavors, dried savory herbs, and integrated tannins.
Franciscan Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon 2012 ($22). Enjoyable rounded cherry flavors blended into mellow oak. Good structure and depth of flavor with mild tannins.
Concha y Toro Casillero del Diablo “Devil’s Collection” reserve Chile red wine ($12). Pleasing without being overly complex — light cherry fruit, smooth texture, and good balancing acidity.
Paul Bertrand “Crocus” Cahors malbec ($40). A delicious wine with warm but fresh cherries, integrated oak, and mild tannins — a Cahors that is capable of competing with trendier Argentina malbecs.
Tintara McLaren Vale cabernet sauvignon ($18). Good textbook cab flavors of dark cherries, blackberries, and cassis, with walnut-ty tannins and even a few green stemmy notes around the edges.
Meritage Wine: A New World Take on Bordeaux WineTasha Brandstatter on March 22, 2017 2 Comments
Meritage is one of the newest words in wine. You may have seen it while browsing through your local wine shop, especially if you favor Californian wines. But what exactly can you expect from a Meritage wine? The answer is a New World style of one the world’s oldest and most beloved styles of wine, Bordeaux. Given its popularity and relative affordability, Meritage is a blend you don’t want to miss out on. Keep reading to find out more!
- 2015 Mercer Sharp Sisters “Red Blend” Horse Heaven Hills, Columbia Valley AVA
- 2015 1849 Wine “Triumph” Sonoma County
- 2011 Cantara Cellars “Left Bank Cuvee” Lodi
- Samples provided for review consideration no other compensation provided.
Prescient Cape Bordeaux Red Blend Report 2020: Top 10
This year’s Cape Bordeaux Red Blend Report convened by Winemag.co.za and sponsored by multinational financial services company Prescient is now out. There were 61 entries from 51 producers and these were tasted blind (labels out of sight) by a three-person panel, scoring done according to the 100-point quality scale.
The 10 best wines overall are as follows:
De Grendel Rubaiyat 2016
Wine of Origin: Coastal Region
Dornier Donatus 2017
Wine of Origin: Stellenbosch
Ernie Els Signature 2015
Wine of Origin: Stellenbosch
Kaapzicht Steytler Pentagon 2017
Wine of Origin: Stellenbosch
MR de Compostella 2017
Price: R1 500
Wine of Origin: Stellenbosch
Org de Rac Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot Reserve 2017
Wine of Origin: Swartland
Quest Bordeaux Style 2017 (Du Toitskloof)
Wine of Origin: Western Cape
Tokara Director’s Reserve 2017
Wine of Origin: Stellenbosch
Warwick Trilogy 2017
Wine of Origin: Simonsberg-Stellenbosch
Zorgvliet Richelle 2017
Wine of Origin: Banghoek
About the category
The Bordeaux region in the southwest of France is famous for its red blends, the best of which can age with benefit over many years. The two grapes that feature most prominently are austere Cabernet Sauvignon and fleshy Merlot, although Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot also play a role. This style has been imitated around the world and South Africa is no exception.
What do top Cape Bordeaux Red Blends go for?
The average cellar-door price of the Top 10, meanwhile, is R534 a bottle with Org de Rac Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot Reserve 2017 the most affordable at R250 a bottle.
|To read the report in full, including key findings, tasting notes for the top wines, buyers guide and scores on the 100-point quality scale for all wines entered, download the following: Prescient Cape Bordeaux Red Blend Report 2020|
The producer of the wine judged best overall wins a new 225-litre Biodynamie barrel worth €908 (the equivalent of R17 375 at the time of writing) from Tonnellerie Sylvain. This will be announced towards the end of the year.
Johannesburg boutique wine retailer Dry Dock Liquor is offering all wines in the top 10 for sale – buy now.
The Joys of Blending
Blending different grape varieties to make a better finished wine is a bedrock practice in the commercial wine world — and one often overlooked by home winemakers. If they do it in Bordeaux and the Rhone and Chianti, why not do it in your garage?
There are good and bad reasons to try blending, and it’s important to keep them straight. The real power of blending lies in the potential for adding complexity to the resulting wine — multiple flavors and aromas, something to stimulate every part of your mouth, a wine that has plenty of fruit at the start and something left for the finish. That’s why the winemakers in Chateauneuf-du-Pape in the southern Rhone are happy to have 13 grapes to work with, permitted by the appellation rules. Blending plays a large part in how they have made wines of great distinction for hundreds of years.
The second strength of blending is the pursuit of balance — that happy marriage of fruit, acid, tannin, alcohol, color and (sometimes) oak that makes great wines sing, and not-so-great wines seem full of wrong notes and missed opportunities. That’s the reason winemakers in Bordeaux temper the aggressive sharpness of Sauvignon Blanc with the fat, oily richness of Sémillon to produce memorable white blends.
Certainly there are grapes that stand on their own as single varietals, and there is no reason to mess with a good thing. But more often than not, the key is great fruit — the right vines, in the right climate, harvested at the perfect moment. The quality of fruit is one place where home winemakers are sometimes at a disadvantage, with little control over grape sources, modest equipment, and no budget for experimenting with, say, three types of French oak barrels.
This often leaves home winemakers, even very good ones, with batches of wine that are well-made but still a little thin, or a little too acidic, or just simple and one-dimensional. (Sound familiar?) This is where blending comes into the picture, helping create a whole that can be tastier than the sum of the parts.
Before getting to the mechanics, a warning about blending for all the wrong reasons. Blending is not a way to cover up faults in wine. Combining 5 gallons of a wine that reeks of hydrogen sulfide or brettanomyces with 5 gallons of good wine just spreads the problem to an entire batch. A good rule of thumb: If you wouldn’t want to drink it, don’t blend it.
Deciding What To Blend
The possibilities for blending are endless — limited only by what grapes or wines you have. Most of the time, this means blending reds with reds and whites with whites, though even that seemingly obvious rule has its exceptions: traditional Chianti, for example, has always contained a splash of white Trebbiano. There are some classic combinations — Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot — but the fine print on labels at your local wine shop will reveal an amazing array of options.
Almost any grape wine can benefit from a pinch of something else. Some full-bodied, hearty varieties — Cabernet, Syrah — can hold their own with strong company. But others do not easily tolerate large additions, which can overwhelm that characteristics that make the varietal special. Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Sangiovese and Riesling are in the latter category.
The final arbiter is your taste buds. One year a friend of mine had a batch of Nebbiolo that had never ripened properly there was some charming cherry fruit, but it had the color of a rosé and the pucker of a lemon. We did trial blends with some Cabernet, then with some Syrah, and finally hit on a great match with 15% Syrah and 10% of an inky, low-acid Petite Sirah. It may have been a first, but it produced a fine, lively wine. There’s no penalty for creativity.
Finding Materials for Blending
If you have the space, time, equipment and confidence, you can do multiple small fermentations and then build up a blend to barrel volume. Having a half-dozen red wines to play with can be a great deal of fun, and highly educational.
But many home winemakers, especially while they’re getting the hang of it, just work with one variety of grape or a single wine kit. Which is precisely why the best source for blending material is other winemakers. If you have a Sangiovese and want to upgrade it to a “super-Tuscan,” you should be able to track down someone who works with Cabernet. If you want a new twist in this year’s barrel of Chardonnay, locate someone with a batch of Riesling.
Wine kits and concentrates are an excellent blending source you can buy virtually any varietal at any time of the year. Mail-order fruit sources, particularly those that supply sterile juice and must year-round, are another great way to obtain small lots of blending grapes. And finally, if you’re dying to know what a pinch of Syrah would do for your Zinfandel, you can always blend in a couple of bottles of store-bought Syrah — it’s perfectly legal.
The only way to know for sure if a blend makes sense is to try it — in a small, controlled blending trial. Over time you’ll devise your own protocols. But there are a few essentials:
1. Recruit several tasters multiple palates are always better than one.
2. Take the time to talk about each component and blend along the way, identifying its aromas, flavors, tannin level and acidity. Don’t just rate it “good” or “bad.”
3. Keep careful track of the proportions in trial blends, and keep notes on what the tasters find in each — there’s bound to be too much information to keep in your head.
4. Have lots of clean, matching glassware on hand, as well as calibrated beakers and pipettes for precise and reproducible measurement.
One important question to ask beforehand is whether you are working on a familiar blend — this year’s variation on something you’ve done before — or something entirely new.
TRIED AND TRUE. Let’s say you have made a Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc for three years, and the ratio has worked out to roughly 60% Cabernet Sauvignon for body and structure, 25% Merlot to smooth the blend, and 15% Cabernet Franc for fruit complexity and aromatics. This year’s wrinkle is that the Cabernet Franc is coming from a new vineyard.
Start by providing your panel with samples of each component wine and spend some time describing and evaluating the characteristics of each. You may notice the Cabernet is riper and more voluptuous, the Merlot more tannic, and that this new Cabernet Franc has an intriguing, minty note on both the nose and palate.
Then try a “ballpark” blend made on the 60/25/15 model, alongside a sample of last year’s blend (which will obviously differ because of aging). Ask your panel if the new blend captures all the good things you found in the separate components, or do some of them get lost? And consider what makes this year’s blend different from last year — not just better or worse, but how it’s distinct.
Let’s say most of you think that the 60/25/15 blend is awfully tannic — the negative effect of this year’s Merlot? — and that the Cab Franc’s mint is hard to find. For comparison, try a new blend, 60/20/20. Chances are that a small percentage change will make a striking difference. Try 55/20/25 … and possibly discover the wine loses its structure. Continue with small incremental adjustments and experiments, and maybe come back to the project again the next day for a final judgment.
INTO THE UNKNOWN. For a blend that you’ve never made before, it’s probably best to impose more structure at the start. Let’s say you’re wondering whether a pinch of Riesling could liven up a clean but uninspiring Chardonnay. But who knows how much Riesling to add?
Start by tasting the wines separately and discussing their qualities. Then create a series of blends, perhaps in 5% increments: 80% Chardonnay and 20% Riesling, 85/15, 90/10, 95/5 and a reference sample with no Riesling at all. By tasting these blends, you can get a handle on the most promising range. If your tasters seem to like the 5% and 10% Riesling blends best, do another round with 1% increments — 5% Riesling, 6%, 7%…10%.
In most cases, objectivity is increased by tasting the various samples “blind,” using some system to code the glasses and only revealing the composition to the panel afterwards. For the same reason, if your panel is trying a series of graduated additions, mix up the order (5% Riesling, 20%, 0%, 15%, 10%). If you really want to level the playing field, have panel members taste the wines in different order.
Whatever you do, make sure to spit, and never underestimate palate fatigue — even the pros succumb to the buildup of acid and tannin sooner or later. That’s why a second pass another day, limited to the most promising options, is good insurance.
When to Blend
This question has lots of “right” answers. Many wineries in the Rhone, working with vineyards and styles that have been constant for generations, start blending in the fermentation tank. Most California wineries construct blends not long before bottling.
The winemaker’s knowledge of the wines is important. If you are working with blends that are old friends, starting early — let’s say, after a first racking, or when the wine goes to barrel — hastens the process of integration. But if you are not sure of your materials, waiting until the wines evolve and mature gives a much clearer picture of the final product. If the component wines are still changing individually, chances are the blend will keep changing, too, and need adjustment. White wine blends are best constructed after the separate batches have completed any planned processing — for example, malolactic fermentation or cold stabilization — since these treatments can significantly change the taste of a wine.
Two rules of thumb here might be: Blend as early in the process as you can, so the wines can get used to each other but don’t blend unless and until you know what you’re blending.
Things To Watch Out For
Blending has its own set of traps and pitfalls. Even if a blend tastes promising, the biochemistry has suddenly changed. Blending places an extra premium on having accurate basic analysis results for your wines, whether you do them yourself or send samples out for professional testing.
A blend will have a different pH and acidity from any of the component wines, which means that the chemical makeup and stability has to be looked at again. Blending can be a great way to deal with excessively high or low pH or acidity, but a mixture of two high pH wines, however tasty, still has a problem. At a minimum, calculate the combined pH better yet, test it and adjust accordingly. When you’re blending for color and flavor, watch your numbers.
Blending wines that have and have not gone through malolactic fermentation can create stability problems, restarting the malolactic in a carboy or, worse, in the bottle. Decide whether you want to encourage the malolactic to finish, or stop it. Either way, monitoring the SO2 level is important, and bottling should be postponed until you’re sure the wine is stable. Similarly, blending wines when one or more contains residual sugar can re-ignite yeast fermentations. Residual sugar blends may require sterile filtration or treatment with sorbate to suppress yeast. Leave enough time to be sure the wine is stable before bottling.
An easy way to track the consequences of blending is to use a spreadsheet, with formulas that do the math as you enter the numbers. It’s also a good way to do “what if?” blending — to see, for example, what would be needed to correct an acid or pH balance problem.
The template I use is at left. The formulas in the cells can be employed over and over I just plug in the numbers for each potential component of any blend and let the spreadsheet run the numbers. This version was for a light, picnic-style Rhone blend that combined wines from the most recent harvest, leftovers from the previous year, and frozen grapes vinified a year after harvest.
The TA column contains total acidity in grams per liter the SO2 column shows parts per million of free SO2 the RS column shows residual sugar as a percentage of volume. The values for pH, total acidity and residual sugar came from testing done at my local wine shop. The SO2 numbers reflected additions already made at the time the blend was calculated. Brix values were reported at harvest time.
Spreadsheet formulas do the rest of the work. Cells in the % Blend column simply divide the number of gallons for that component by the total gallons. The Alc values for each grape are created by multiplying the Brix figure (essentially the percentage of sugar in the grapes) by 0.55, which provides a rough alcohol percentage. The cells in the Column Totals row show the sum of the value in each row above multiplied by the number of gallons for that wine the Blend Totals row simply divides the Column Totals values by the total number of gallons in the overall blend. If some of the values are out of date at blending time, I usually have the actual blend re-checked.
BLENDING TIPS FOR HYBRIDS
Wines made from hybrid grapes can be blended with very satisfactory results. But first you have to decide what you want to achieve. Are you trying to improve the color? Accent the fruit character? Increase the complexity? There are many reasons for blending. Some reasons are good and some are not so good.
I like to make a blended red wine from various French hybrids. A combination of Foch, DeChaunac, Chancellor and Chambourcin makes a medium-body red wine with good color and fruity characteristics. Chancellor should be used as the base wine, then blend to taste. These hybrids are compatible with one another, but some red hybrids are not. For example, you should not blend Leon Millot with Chambourcin. Taste and aroma are lost. Another problem hybrid is Baco Noir. It has deep color initially, but the color becomes unstable as it ages.
Can you blend a white hybrid with a red hybrid? Sure! Try blending DeChaunac with Vidal for a light rosé style of wine. Other white hybrid wines that are compatible are Vidal, Seyval and Cayuga. Use Vidal as the base wine with different proportions of either Seyval or Cayuga or both. Blending these three varietals in different percentages will give you complexity, taste, aroma and sometimes color (a light straw color).
Traminette, once known as the “Gewürztraminer hybrid,” blends well with Cayuga and Vidal. It should be used as the base wine. Traminette and the Gewürztraminer vinifera are also compatible blending partners. —Don Gauntner
BLENDING TIPS FOR FRUIT WINES
Blending fruit wine can be a challenge, because you want to maintain the taste and aroma of the varietal fruit. Cherry wine should taste and smell like Mom’s cherry pie! Peach wine should taste like peaches and raspberry wine should taste like raspberries. With this rule in mind, I often blend different varieties of the same fruit. For example, when making apple wine, in order to achieve a balance of sweetness, tartness and fruity aroma, I might blend high-acid apples (like Winesap) with aromatic apples (like MacIntosh) and sweeter apples (like Red Delicious).
You can blend different fruit wines for complexity, but the varietal aroma and taste may be lost. Blending nectarine wine and peach wine will add complexity without the loss of peach flavor and may improve the color toward a deeper tint of pink.
Black raspberry and red raspberry are compatible blending partners. A small percentage of black raspberry has color stability and will enhance the color of red raspberry wine. Strawberry wine tends to be yellow or orange in color and can be improved with a small-percentage blend of black raspberry. Caution: Too much will affect the strawberry flavor. Red raspberry and cherry also are compatible wines for blending.
Think carefully before you blend other berry fruit and stone fruit wines. Decide what you want in the finished wine. Is it a better fruit wine as a varietal or a blend? If the answer is the latter, don’t be afraid to experiment! —Don Gauntner
Blending can be a last resort, but also the route to more interesting wines. Either way, home winemakers can improve their skills and broaden their cellar. If that’s not enough, blended wines — especially novel or complex ones — have a good chance of catching the attention of judges. The wine in the spreadsheet, I’m happy to report, took gold at my county fair!
Greg Sherwood MW: Cape Bordeaux Blends riding high in London
Believe it or not, the wine trade genuinely has its own biorhythms, its own ebb and flow, and its own unique tide tables. Sometimes I think that it’s us, wine merchants, setting the pace, but then every now and then the mood of the market and consumers will just naturally shift along with the seasons to usher in a new predilection. From not wanting to drink anything other than red Burgundy from around October until about March, all of a sudden, in the blink of an eye, taste buds start to yearn for something more substantial, something more muscular, richer wines with more stature, structure, and power. For me, this process is exemplified by what I coined several years ago as Montalcino March. The perfect time of year unclaimed by any other major wine releases but also the perfect time for a wine style, Brunello di Montalcino, to help transition from Burgundy to the inevitable onslaught of Bordeaux En-primeur that normally commences in early April with a week of barrel tastings in France at the Chateaux followed by a long and normally laborious release process lasting several months that is often likened by merchants to a dentist pulling teeth very slowly.
Certainly, last year’s, as well as this year’s En-primeur campaign, has been shaped by the overwhelming ground fog of the coronavirus pandemic and national lockdowns with admittedly only a handful of top global journalists like Neal Martin, James Suckling, Jeb Dunnick, and Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW being sent literally pallet loads of barrel samples by everyone from Chateau Petrus to Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Chateau Le Pin to Chateau Margaux. The rest of us mere mortals, mostly hard grafting merchants, do of course get sent samples from the second tier of Chateaux by our negociant partners but admittedly, there is no Chateau Mouton-Rothschild being poured mid-week Chez Sherwood with my sausages and mash after EP tasting notes are completed!
While the En-primeur circus seems to automatically roll around every year like clockwork, so do the email tirades from some wine merchants that land in your inbox imploring the rest of us sensible people in the trade to turn our backs on this ridiculous, archaic practice of tasting and scoring young wines that have barely finished malolactic fermentation and are of course only vague indicative blends of the final bottled product. With the strangely comfortingly yet equally coercive long arm of the Bordeaux trade well out of reach of UK wine merchants, they must all be feeling rather isolated of late, with the past two seasons having been very challenging for the broader Bordeaux market. The top 50 Chateaux are of course always blessed with having the relevant uptake of “cold” allocations by their appointed negociants almost guaranteed yearly and so those owners can sleep easy at night while their negociant’s warehouse stacks of wooden Bordeaux crates grow ever more Everest-like. Let’s be honest, Bordeaux En-primeur is a broken system that is ill-suited to the modern times in which we live. But just like many other political, social, and economic systems around the world that are not functioning properly, there equally seems a total void for what should be done to improve it or even replace it with. We are stuck in the never-ending Groundhog Day of the devil we know rather than the devil we don’t know.
I too am of course not immune to the hankering for fine Bordeaux reds at this time of year when out at lunch or dinner with fellow colleagues in the trade and for the past few weeks, we have once again been permitted in the UK to dine outdoors in groups of up to six people allowing the inclement English weather to play nasty tricks on us eager diners. But two lunches of note have taken place in the past couple of weeks. The first being a collegiate catch-up with close friend and fellow South African wine enthusiast and world-famous wine journalist Neal Martin, where we were joined by head of Wines of South Africa UK, Jo Wehring, to reflect on the 300-plus wines that Neal had recently tasted with the help of WOSA and Handford Wines, for his annual Vinous Media South Africa Report.
Never one to give Neal an easy ride, I took along several bottles for lunch including a very impressive bottle of MR de Compostella 2008 that Neal famously scored 96/100, forevermore cementing this iconic wine’s place in the annals of South African wine history. This pristine bottle recently bought back from a private client was served blind and not decanted. While the wine revealed itself somewhat reluctantly over the first hour or so, I decided not to do any grand reveal until later after lunch once the wine had really started to open up and fan its peacock tail of complexity. Quite satisfyingly, just this week Neal Martin featured the MR de Compostella 2008 in his Vinous Cellar Selection, scoring the wine a matching 96/100 some 10 years after he first rated the wine. Quite interestingly, Neal ended his write-up of this stellar wine stating… “if you cannot find what you’re looking for in the forthcoming En-primeur releases, this alternative will give you just as much pleasure.” Endorsements like this are worth their weight in gold and simply cannot be bought.
Jason Leonard and Allan Lamb.
Finally, with the British and Irish Lions team announcement looming large for Brits and South Africans alike, I was kindly invited to lunch by my good friend and South African / English cricketing legend Allan Lamb, where we were joined by the great ex-England rugby international and Chairman of the British and Irish Lions Rugby for the RFU, Rugby World Cup 2003 winner Jason Leonard OBE. True to form, I took this opportunity to show Jason and the fellow guests that South Africa’s best wines are not to be underestimated, just like the current rugby world champion Bokke. Accordingly, not wanting to let the team down, I took along a Kanonkop 1994 Paul Sauer (recently rated 95/100 by Neal Martin) as well as a Kanonkop Cabernet Sauvignon 1994, which were both served blind with our main course on the table of five. Now I am fully aware of the healthy rivalry between these two wines which must surely come close to that of the British and Irish Lions and the Springboks! Poured together after an hours decant, I myself did not know the order the sommelier was pouring the two wines. The first was spicy, pitch black, opaque even, and full of iodine, graphite, cedar spice, violets and salty cassis with a pronounced oyster shell maritime note. The second wine was more harmonious, genteel, broader, and dare I say, more exotic with overt notes of red and black fruits, creamy cedary oak spice, hints of graphite and cherry tobacco, and a fabulously linear, cool, sleek stony finish. Two very, very impressive wines indeed.
As I was tasting the wines double-blind, I went around the table to gauge the preferences of the guests, asking specifically about the perception of quality, whether the wines were Old World or New World and which wine individuals preferred. By the time we established that both wines were indeed from the same vintage and one was a single variety and the other a blend, it did not take much to logically move away from Bordeaux despite many initially pointing their finger firmly in that direction. The clues started to come thick and fast… same producer, same vintage, one a blend, one a mono-varietal, both from South Africa. With the table spilt on 2 and 2 for which wine was the Cabernet Sauvignon and which was the blend, it fell on me to cast the deciding vote, which of course I called correctly, having drunk a bottle of the Paul Sauer only one week prior at another wine trade luncheon at the wonderful High Timber restaurant of Neleen Strauss. Wine one the Cab (94 points on the day) and wine two the blend (95)…
Needless to say, both occasions were greatly enjoyed by all and the winners on the day were the fabulous South African wines that we were so privileged to enjoy together. Lockdown really has been a real killjoy in the UK especially for those of us who thrive on sharing fine food and fine wine on a regular basis. Drinking such iconic South African wines with varying degrees of bottle age really goes one extra step further in placing these incredible bargains on an ever-higher pedestal of collectability both here in the UK as well as in South Africa.
- Greg Sherwood was born in Pretoria, South Africa, and as the son of a career diplomat, spent his first 21 years travelling the globe with his parents. With a Business Management and Marketing degree from Webster University, St. Louis, Missouri, USA, Sherwood began his working career as a commodity trader. In 2000, he decided to make more of a long-held interest in wine taking a position at Handford Wines in South Kensington, London and is today Senior Wine Buyer. He became a Master of Wine in 2007.
Help us out. If you’d like to show a little love for independent media, we’d greatly appreciate it. To make a financial contribution, click here. Invoice available upon request – contact firstname.lastname@example.org
5 things you need to know about cabernet sauvignon
Wine appreciation can be a snobbish hobby, but it doesn’t have to be. We can love wine without being obsessed by it, and we can be knowledgeable about it without lording our superiority over others. A basic knowledge of wine can keep us conversant in snobbish company and help us sort through the multitude of selections on the retail shelf, while still having a life. Most importantly, it can enhance our experience at the dinner table, where it matters most.
So with this column, I introduce an occasional feature on wine’s basics, with five things I think you should know about a wine grape or a region, or some aspect of wine we may take for granted (corks, or corkscrews, for example). My hope is to enhance your enjoyment of wine, which is, after all, the only wine appreciation that matters. And if this helps you score a point or two in conversation at wine tastings, so much the better.
Our first subject is cabernet sauvignon, perhaps the world’s most popular red wine grape.
1. Where it’s from: Cabernet sauvignon is the progeny of cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc, two grapes still prominent today. It originated, probably spontaneously, in Bordeaux in France, in the mid-1700s. Or thereabouts. For wine romanticists, that means the Bordeaux that Thomas Jefferson enjoyed on his visits to the region in the 1780s were probably not primarily cabernet.
2. Where it grows: To be honest, almost everywhere wine grapes are planted, because it is so popular. But that doesn’t mean it performs well everywhere. It favors a temperate “Goldilocks” climate: Not too hot, not too cold. In its homeland of Bordeaux, cabernet dominates the red wine blends in the Médoc and Graves, two areas on the Left Bank of the Gironde Estuary, closer to the maritime influence of the Atlantic. Wines labeled St. Estephe, Pauillac, St. Julien, Margaux, Graves, Médoc or Haut-Médoc are likely to be at least 50 percent cabernet sauvignon. On the warmer, inland Right Bank, merlot and cabernet franc dominate the blends.
In California, cab is king. This is especially true in Napa Valley, which has become almost synonymous with the variety. It was the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars cabernet, from Napa, that dethroned top Bordeaux at the famous Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976, proving that world-class wine could be made outside of France. Over the past two decades, Napa’s “cult cabs” have come to symbolize wine mania and helped (along with other factors) drive the price of Napa cabernet into the stratosphere. (More on that next week.)
More Cabs and Bordeaux Blends - Recipes
I'm not a huge enthusiast of the sexual stereotyping of wines but even I can see that Cabernet Franc might be described as the feminine side of Cabernet Sauvignon. It is subtly fragrant and gently flirtatious rather than massively muscular and tough in youth. Because Cabernet Sauvignon has so much more of everything – body, tannin, alcohol, colour – it is often supposed to be necessarily superior, but I have a very soft spot indeed for its more charming and more aromatic relative, Cabernet Franc.
In 1997 it was shown by pioneers of applying DNA analysis to grapevines that Cabernet Sauvignon is the progeny of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, so in fact Cabernet Franc, whose origins seem to lie in Basque country in the western Pyrenees, must predate Cabernet Sauvignon by quite a while.
As a vine and a wine, Cabernet Franc is more precocious than Cabernet Sauvignon – but then most varieties are. Cabernet Franc buds and ripens at least a week before Cabernet Sauvignon, which makes it particularly useful in Bordeaux’s cooler vintages when the more famous Cabernet may not reach full ripeness at all. In fact, underripe Cabernet Sauvignon can smell remarkably like fully ripe Cabernet Franc, both of them exhibiting a certain leafy, currant bush aroma. But fully ripe Cabernet Franc has a lovely lightness of touch, lighter and softer than Cabernet Sauvignon so that the wines can mature several years ahead of Cabernet Sauvignon grown in the same vineyard.
In practice the two varieties are typically grown together and blended in to the same wine. This is certainly true of the Médoc and Graves in Bordeaux, where Cabernet Franc, and the plumper but in many ways quite similar Merlot, are grown as a sort of insurance policy against Cabernet Sauvignon’s not ripening properly. And they can also provide usefully softening blending material in this temperate climate which rarely produces Cabernet Sauvignon so ripe that it makes a well balanced 100% varietal wine (in stark contrast to, say, northern California).
While Cabernet Franc was as widely grown in Bordeaux as Cabernet Sauvignon in the 1960s, it was considerably displaced by the more fashionable Merlot in the late 20th century but I sense a small but perceptible comeback. On the right bank, in St-Émilion and Pomerol, Cabernet Franc, or Bouchet as it has traditionally been known, is by far the most-planted Cabernet, chiefly because Cabernet Sauvignon was believed by growers to be difficult to ripen on the cool soils so far inland until the recent spate of heatwave summers. But if ever proof were needed that Cabernet Franc can produce truly majestic, ethereal wine, it is provided by Ch Cheval Blanc, two-thirds of whose vineyard is planted with Cabernet Franc, the rest being Merlot. The variety was a particular favourite of the original proprietor Jean Laussac-Fourcaud.
The other French wine region dominated by Cabernet Franc is Touraine in the Loire, especially Chinon, Bourgueil, Saint-Nicolas de Bourgueil and Saumur-Champigny, although warmer summers and improved viticultural practices have allowed Cabernet Sauvignon more of a presence in vineyards here in recent years. The Cabernet Franc-dominated reds here can be weedy and stringy in cooler vintages – or if the vine’s canopy is not carefully managed – but when the grapes ripen fully they have a beautiful silky texture, soft tannins and a characteristic aroma which has long reminded me of pencil shavings. This far north, however, the wines tend to be heavily influenced by the exact characteristics of the vintage. These wines are often drinkable after only a year or two in bottle but the best can age beautifully too. With their relatively high acidity, they are not, unfortunately, the most fashionable wines (outside the bistros of Paris) but they respond well to being lightly chilled and so are particularly useful for red wine lovers in high summer.
Cabernet Sauvignon has rarely made wines of real distinction in the Languedoc but Cabernet Franc has been making inroads there recently and several varietal versions of interest have arrived on the international marketplace in the last couple of years.
A considerable area of north-east Italy was planted with ‘Cabernet’, the majority of which is Cabernet Franc even if a certain proportion in Friuli has proved to be the old Bordeaux variety also encountered in Chile, Carmenère. As in France, yields have to be kept below a certain maximum if the wines are not to be off-puttingly herbaceous and grassy. The variety is increasingly well-regarded by the burgeoning ranks of ambitious wine producers in Tuscany, particularly in Bolgheri on the Tuscan coast – not just for blending with other Bordeaux varieties but in pure, 100% varietal form. In such a warm climate, Merlot can be almost too ripe and raisiny but Cabernet Franc can be rewardingly elegant and appetising. Cabernet Franc is also grown quite widely in Hungary, where it can make wines which combine both ripeness and refreshment – particularly round Villány.
Outside Europe, Cabernet Franc has typically been grown simply to copy faithfully the Bordeaux blending recipe for wines such as California’s Meritage blends, but there are distinct signs that it is being re-evaluated on its own merits by some producers. Viader’s almost-cult red, for example, is now an almost equal blend of the two Cabernets while Lang & Reed is a label developed by Francis Ford Coppola’s ex sales director specifically to showcase California’s particularly rich form of Cabernet Franc. Washington state Cabernet Franc has been particularly successful (even if Syrah is more popular) – and usefully withstands the freezing winter temperatures better than Merlot. The variety really comes into its own in the north east of the United States and Canada where the climate is too cool to ripen Cabernet Sauvignon. It is particularly successful on Long Island in New York, as well as in Virginia, Pennsylvania and the Finger Lakes. In Ontario, Inniskillin even make an expensive sweet, super-acid, pale pink Cabernet Franc Icewine which sells for almost as much as Cheval Blanc per spoonful.
The variety is increasingly popular in South Africa, where Bruwer Raats is the pioneer of fine varietal bottlings although he has to struggle with his vines’ tendency to ripen even individual bunches very unevenly. Cabernet Franc is slowly catching on in Australia, even if it is dwarfed in importance by Cabernet Sauvignon. It has long been relatively popular in the much cooler climate of New Zealand, notably in Hawkes Bay. It has yet to make much impact on South America although it is certainly grown there and Valdivieso have long made a relatively expensive one.
Cabernet Franc tends to be grown to a limited extent wherever Cabernet Sauvignon is grown but I for one hope we will continue to see more Cabernet Franc-dominated wines – they are just so easy to drink.
Some favourite Cab Franc-dominated wines have included Château Cheval Blanc, Saint-Émilion in the Loire Yannick Amirault, Bourgueil, Petite Cave Domaine des Roches Neuves, Saumur-Champigny, Terres Chaudes Philippe Alliet, Chinon, Vieilles Vignes and in Tuscany Paleo, Le Macchiole, Tenuta di Trinoro and ‘W’ Cabernet Franc, Poggio al Tesoro.
Although Bordeaux produces some of the most expensive wines in the world it also produces bottles that are great for everyday drinking. So what kind of food pairs best with them?
Red Bordeaux is generally blended from cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot with an occasional dash of malbec or petit verdot. Merlot usually predominates these days even on the so-called &lsquoleft bank&rsquo resulting in softer, fruitier, less tannic wines than would have been the case 20 years ago.
Inexpensive Bordeaux is actually quite light and easy drinking while some more modern styles of Saint-Emilion are quite full-bodied. So it depends on the price bracket you&rsquore talking about.
Inexpensive &lsquoeveryday drinking&rsquo red Bordeaux - what was once referred to as a &lsquolunchtime claret&rsquo
Charcuterie, especially paté and terrines. Cold roast beef. Cold game pies. Simple grilled meat like a steak frites or sausage with chips, haricot beans or lentils. Shepherd&rsquos pie and its French equivalent hachis parmentier*. Goat and sheep cheeses, mild brie and camembert
Classic &lsquoleft bank&rsquo cabernet-dominated Bordeaux such as Margaux - the sort you might take to a dinner party
Grilled and roast lamb with garlic and rosemary. Roast beef, veal and venison. Steak pies. Beef daubes, ox cheek and other stews cooked in red wine. Hard British territorial cheeses such as Cheshire and red Leicester and French Mimolette. Bacon and eggs (oddly) - see this match of the week.
Riper, full-bodied Merlot-dominated bordeaux
Steak, especially richer steak dishes such as tournedos rossini. Posh burgers. Japanese-style steak dishes. Roast duck - even Chinese-style crispy duck pancakes. Christmas turkey. Macaroni cheese and macaronnade (a pasta bake with meat). Cheddar
Older vintages of Bordeaux where the primary fruit has faded
Similar to my recommendations for 'classic' Bordeaux above. Just go easy on the gravy or jus and on the accompanying vegetables. Lighter, less intense stews such as blanquette de veau. Also good with game birds such as duck, partridge and pheasant and with dishes that include mushrooms and truffles. Hard sheep cheeses
First and second growths if you&rsquore lucky enough to get your hands on them
Simply cooked roast and grilled meat, especially lamb. Hot game pies and pithiviers. Jugged hare. Grouse. Aged parmesan.
Good general accompaniments for red bordeaux are rich potato purées (mash) and gratin dauphinoise, mushrooms and truffles and green beans with garlic.
If you found this post useful and were happy to get the advice for free perhaps you'd think about donating towards the running costs of the site? You can find out how to do it here or to subscribe to our regular newsletter click here.
9 Great Bottles of Cabernet Franc to Drink Right Now
The often underappreciated wine is more than worthy of your attention.
Cabernet Franc is one of the great secret weapons that winemakers often use to lend their reds a sense spice, herbal lift, and brambly-berry depth.
Top Napa and Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignons often contain a dollop of Franc, even when it’s not stated on the label. On Bordeaux’s Right Bank, Cab Franc is one of the two most important red varieties, alongside Merlot. Château Cheval Blanc, for example, has more Cab Franc planted than anything else.
The great appellations of the Loire Valley are where it’s most famously vinified into a single-varietal wine. The North Fork of Long Island excels with the variety. Even Ornellaia, the legendary Super Tuscan, leverages a bit of Cabernet Franc in its blend, and it’s becoming increasingly important in New Zealand and Argentina.
But for all of its importance in the world of high-end red wine—not to mention plenty of everyday reds and the occasional rosé and bubbly, too—it’s often underappreciated, overwhelmed by the fame and consumer adulation that other varieties receive.
But the variety is more than worthy of your attention. Here, then, are nine excellent Cab Francs, listed alphabetically. They’re produced in a range of styles and grown around the world. All of them are either 100% Cab Franc or in a blend that’s based on it. In addition to these, I also strongly recommend the Robert Mondavi Cabernet Franc, the Favia “La Magdalena,” and the Zuccardi “Q” Cabernet Franc, all three of which would have made this list had I not recently recommended other bottlings of theirs here.
2015 Glen Manor Cabernet Franc Virginia ($35)
Grown on the western flank of the Blue Ridge Mountains, this 100% Cab Franc shows the more brooding side of the variety, with aromas of blackberries, baker’s chocolate, and maduro cigar tobacco, and flavors of blackberries, black cherries, and spice, all of it lifted at the end with flashes of cedar and charred sage.
2017 Inniskillin Cabernet Franc Ice Wine Niagara Peninsula, Canada ($100 for 375ml)
The juxtaposition between smoky and sweet on the nose provides a fantastic sense of tension. Flavors of dried cherries, golden raisins, and honey are lifted by spice and a hint of mint on the finish.
2018 Halcyon Wines Cabernet Franc Alder Springs Vineyard Mendocino County, California ($45)
Aromas of cherries, forest floor, eucalyptus, and floral peppercorns get the mouth watering and prepared for a palate of precision, with flavors of wild berries, toasted fennel seed, high-toned spice, and a hint of savoriness, all of it lingering with coffee and cocoa powder. Halcyon’s Barsotti Vineyard bottling is also worth seeking out for its more floral expression of the variety ($35).
2016 Hard Row to Hoe &ldquoBurning Desire&rdquo Cabernet Franc, Glacial Gravels Vineyard, Lake Chelan, Washington ($55)
A nose reminiscent of Andes Mints in the best possible sense is complicated by ancillary notes of blackberries, black licorice, star anise, incense, and black peppercorn. It’s all concentrated and rich once you take a sip, with a charred tarragon and shiso edge to the blackberries, black cherries, licorice, and Aleppo pepper.
2011 Olga Raffault Chinon &ldquoLes Picasses&rdquo Loire Valley, France ($40)
Not the current release, but this beauty shows how brilliantly Cabernet Franc can age. Mature aromas of thyme, dried flowers, and dry-aged beef set the stage for a palate both anchored by savory flavors of soy sauce and cigar tobacco, and lifted by a treble note of mint-rubbed meat on the grill, black cherries and plums, and cracked peppercorns.