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Cabernet Sauvignon: It's Not A Dirty Word

02/22/2011 03:13 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

There's a perception that there are only two camps of wine enthusiasts. The first only drinks high-alcohol new oak-aged Napa Cab and Bordeaux stamped with a 90+ point seal of approval and the second only drinks biodynamically farmed Schiava, hand-picked by Jacobite monks a fortnight after the first full moon following the ascension of Venus and then aged in beeswax-lined amphorae buried in a haunted battlefield from the War of the Spanish Succession.

(When you hold the glass up to a candle at just the right angle they say you can still see the spectral visage of the Prince of Orange.)

Are there certain particular drinkers who fall into either camp? Sure. Every wine geek has a friend who only consumes the irregular and unique. And I know I'm not the only one who has quietly scoffed at the assertions of drinkers who "usually drink red wine, mostly Cabernet" and look askance at those who waste column inches debating Bordeaux futures, thinking it little different than a high-stakes version of trading Yu-Gi-Oh! cards. Both sides are guilty of painting the other with a broad brush--whether Robert Parker's now infamous bestowing of the "anti-flavor elite" sobriquet that is now worn with pride by the counterculture wine enthusiast, or my own dismissal of much of Wine Spectator's highly-rated wines as little more than immediately pleasurable oak-laden syrupy swill.

Extreme partisans aside, most of us 21st century wine enthusiasts merely have an abiding love of good unique wines of all flavors and stripes and I have no inherent bias against alcohol content, new oak or ripeness. I merely have a general preference for wines that express my own definition of balance.

Which is why I come today not to bury Cabernet Sauvignon, but to praise it. The king of the red wine grapes, it has fallen unjustly into disfavor among wine hipsters, especially its Napa Valley expressions. That disfavor is as much due to its association with the aging Old Guard of California wine making and its perceived conservatism as it is due to many producers' continued insistence on producing dense, inky 15.2% alcohol, "nuanced"-for-16-months-in-French-oak wines that have about as much place at the dinner table as a honey badger and are as nuanced as Gorbachev's birth mark compared against Marilyn Monroe's mole. With their dense, powerful aromas and readily accessible flavors, they reward a few thoughtful sips but, like the breast-augmented blonde across the room, leave you severely wanting upon a more thorough examination.

(And there I go, broad-brushing again.)

But there's a reason Cabernet Sauvignon has emerged as one of the world's top varietals. It's a powerfully expressive grape that asserts both strong fruit and structural characteristics. Unlike Chardonnay, whose chameleon-like ability to transparently express both terroir and the wine maker's hand led to its popularity, it is a well-made Cabernet Sauvignon's singular character and immediate recognizability regardless of provenance that helps fuel its appeal. Different locales impart different nuances to the grape, but it's always clearly Cabernet Sauvignon.

Thankfully, just as the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) movement that prompted many California producers to rethink the role of oak in their white wine making led to a Renaissance in moderately oaked (or even unoaked) Chardonnay--"Burgundian" in character, to use a grossly over-used although fairly accurate descriptor, so too has this burgeoning resistance to Napa-Cab-as-we-know-it begun to prompt some wine makers to take a different approach to their Cabernet Sauvignon. They're keeping the alcohol levels at around 14% or below, allowing the grape's acidity to shine through without sacrificing fruit and favoring a mix of new and older oak barrels to mellow tannins without imparting too much toasty wood notes that can overwhelm the grape's herb and spice flavors and aromas.

In actuality what they're doing is returning to how these wines were being made as recently as ten to fifteen years ago. Over the holidays my family drank through wines from my parents' cellar, which were mostly mid-priced to premium 1998-2002 Cabs from Napa, Sonoma and El Dorado counties. They were all around 12.5% to 13.5% alcohol, well-balanced with present but not intrusive oak. They had held up well in the bottle and still retained typical blackcurrant fruit, dusty tannins and acidity. Ultra-premium wines were no different in that era either: Caymus' 1996 Cabernet Sauvignon was 12.5% abv. By 2007 (I think this might prove to be the last fully Parkerized vintage) it had ballooned to 15%.

Although the Napa Valley prestige producers seem to be resistant to dialing back their intensity, some upstart producers have begun to do so. White Cottage Ranch (disclosure: I've sold this wine before) is producing an organically-grown estate Howell Moutain Cabernet Sauvignon that has excellent acidity, fresh fruit and mint, tobacco and peppery spice. At 14.1% alcohol, it's approachable but by no measure a lightweight. Perhaps in this global warming era we're no longer going to see sub 13.5% Cab from warm regions like Napa but that doesn't mean 15.2% must now be the requisite norm.

There's also literally a whole world of Cabernet Sauvignon to explore beyond the Napa Valley. Cooler climate regions of California like Mendocino County are producing Cabernet Sauvignon more like those made in Napa in the 1990s and Washington State is producing excellent Cab that tends to hover around the 14% alcohol mark. And there's a new wave of Cabernet Sauvignon being imported from Eastern Europe, with the examples I've tried from Hungary in particular being quite good. From the Old-Old World there's great Cabernet from Lebanon, though the best examples can command very high prices. I also have a soft spot for the weirdly brambly and cedary Cabs from South Africa. I've yet to be enamored with Chilean and Argentinean Cab, but there are no doubt interesting wines to be found.

And with the soft market for ultra-premium wine, shrewd negociants and custom crush wine makers in California are taking advantage of the surfeit of quality grapes and producing interesting small-production Cabs from the same juice that ends up in some of California's top cuvees, retailing for a fraction of the price.

So there is Cabernet Sauvignon beyond the Napa Valley pantheon you've grown tired of. There's no grape worth rejecting outright and it's a shame that stylistic homogeneity has driven some thoughtful drinkers away from (one of) California's flagship red wines. And despite its occasionally mislaid ambitions, Cabernet Sauvignon remains an honorable grape.