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November 2005--Featured Wine Varietal

Why Cab is King —Cabernet Sauvignon is Number One for all the Right Reasons

by Thom Elkjer, Wine Editor

Wine has so much variety to it that there’s endless ground for discussion and debate. But there’s one thing no one seems to question, and that’s Cabernet Sauvignon’s position at the pinnacle among red wine grapes. Cab is King, end of story.

But why? The reason usually given by wine books is that Cabernet is planted in pretty much every wine region in every country that can get it ripe, so there’s more of it than any other noble red wine. This seems to be an effect rather than a cause, however. People everywhere wouldn’t plant Cab if it didn’t have something else going for it.

One of its advantages is obvious. Cabernet tastes like things we humans recognize: even the simplest Cab has red fruit (often described as plums), a touch of something green (often described as green bell pepper) and a hint of something earthy (often described as chalk or clay). These are aromas and flavors most of us know from experience, so our taste buds don’t have to go through gyrations to deal with them.

Another big plus for Cabernet is how well it accommodates other grapes in blends without losing these signature flavors. Most wine that we call Cabernet in the U.S., if not the world, includes other grapes in it. Most often the blend partner is Merlot, but Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petite Verdot are also high on the list. In the past decade we’ve seen blends of Cab with Syrah that also work pretty well.  It takes a regal red to hold so many aristocrats in such a warm embrace.

Then there’s the winemaker factor. I have never heard a winemaker complain about Cabernet in the cellar. Not once. But Pinot Noir? Or Zinfandel? Sangiovese? The moaning and groaning verges on poetry.

Cabernet seems to be bullet-proof in the eyes of winegrowers, too. They grow it on flat land, sloped land, nearly vertical land, and anywhere from sea level in South Africa to 5,000 feet up in the Andes. That’s boss in my book.

Even with all these attributes going for it, there’s still one more that explains why Cab rules on this planet. It became obvious after a recent Cabernet kick that took me through California and on to Europe and the southern hemisphere. No matter where I was, the Cabernet tasted like… Cabernet. Big wineries or small wineries, young wine or old, ten bucks or $200, the grape remained essentially itself.

Contrast that with, say, Sauvignon Blanc, which changes personality almost entirely from France to California to New Zealand. Plenty of reds are the same. Among whites, only Riesling has such a strong personality that location hardly changes it. (Maybe this is why wine writers are forever predicting a Riesling renaissance.)

Cabernet’s ability to taste recognizably like itself, no matter what, means that we can count on all its other good features, year in and year out, and from place to place. That in turn makes it the most reliable, satisfying, bankable and exportable wine on earth.

All hail the king!

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