The Cabernet Crown

Why Cabernet is the King of the Valley

by Robert Farmer

And now, if you'll indulge me, a word about cabernet. If there is hierarchy among wines—and there is—Cabernet wears the crown. Here's why.

The reasons for its monarchy are myriad, and as with kingdoms, not always clear or universally accepted. But what is clear is that the Cabernet supremacy is seldom disputed. So how did Cabernet achieve its eminence? For starters, popularity. It continues to be, in spite of the trendiness of other grapes, my favorite varietal. As it was for me, Cabernet is often the wine drinker's initiation varietal. Its name recognition, availability and approachability make it a secure jumping-off spot for the beginner. Cabernet's muscle reminds you that you're drinking something. Good Cabernet provides bold flavor and straight-ahead definition that can be reassuring to an uncertain palate. Mention Cabernet Sauvignon to any wine-drinking novice and you'll get a nod of recognition. Say "primativo," you might get a blank stare. From here, the drinker can begin to discern the subtleties that accompany the countless other grapes of emerging popularity—even primativo.

This isn't to suggest that Cabernet lacks subtlety. On the contrary, it possesses a kaleidoscope of character, ranging from big and tannic to smooth and fruity. It can be lumbering and brutish or rangy and nimble. There are as many Cabernet styles as there are taste buds. It all depends on who's making it, which brings us to the next reason for Cabernet's preeminence: versatility.

In the Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon rules the roost. The climate is so well suited to growing the grape that virtually every winery here either produces a version of Cabernet Sauvignon currently, or has produced one at some time in its history. The grapes bathe in the warm afternoon summer sunshine. But just before they get too hot and shrivel, a bracing afternoon breeze cools their jets. The result is fruit with remarkable balance and structure; an ideal canvas for the adventurous winemaker—whose numbers are strong in these parts.

The fruit gives itself to the winemaking shaper. The grapes can lend themselves to phenomenal balance, no matter how big you're making it. It's not just about high tannins. It's also about balance. Cabernet grapes can handle more tannins and still remain balanced. They can also produce many complex flavors.

Originating in the Medoc region of France, Cabernet was introduced in California in the late 1880's. It has proven a durable fruit, adapting well to various climates. But it does particularly well in the Napa Valley. This region has been likened to Bordeaux, France, where for centuries red wines have been created with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. These are the same grapes used in America's Cabs, which has become the default answer to Bordeaux. Cabernet of course is also grown the world over. Fine cabs have come from the reaches of South America, Australia, and Lebanon. They also come from as close as Oregon and Virginia.

But in Napa, the king reigns. Cabernet grapes interpret the Napa climate very well, concentrating its flavor in small berries with thick skin. And although winemakers interpret it in many variations, Cabernet is typically a medium to full-bodied wine. It is densely colored and full with rich berry flavors—often cherry, plum, black currant. Pure cabs tend to have larger tannins. Traditionally aged in oak, the barrels often impart their presence on the wine and Cabernets are typically the oakiest varietal. However, these days winemakers are aging wines in stainless steel as often as wood.

Whatever the aging process, age is a friend to Cabernet. Its quality goes up as it lies down. Especially with higher-end cabs, which tend to have high fruit concentration—they age well because they will hold their fruit longer. And while top-end cabs tend to be 100 percent fruit, Cabernet's supremacy also comes from its ability to blend well with other grapes. Many great cabs are mixed partially with Merlot, for instance, resulting in a softer, subtler wines but wines that do not surrender their quintessential cabernet character.

There are many widely available full cabernets from the Napa Valley. But more recently when people talk about 100-percent cabs they are talking about the phenomenon of cult wines—extremely high-end wines, hand-crafted in small lots, often in a facility no more glamorous than the winemaker's garage. The wines sell for astronomical prices and are coveted, auctioned, and gossiped about around the globe. Bearing names like Harlan, Screaming Eagle, Bryant Family Vineyard, Colgin Cellars and Grace Family Vineyard, cult wines have taken cabernet making to gorgeous extremes. As testament to the power and ascendancy of the varietal, these wines are almost always cabs. Thankfully, Cabernet fans needn't feel compelled to sell the house to buy a bottle or wait ten years to open one. Napa Valley wineries have been creating impressive cabernets and selling them at reasonable prices for decades—many immediately drinkable.

My recommendation? Drink it now.