A steamy love affair once fogged up the vineyards in 17th century France. The austere Renaissance man of a grape, Cabernet Franc, courted the vibrant free-spirited Sauvignon Blanc until she finally gave into his charming full body. Way ahead of the of curve, Cab Franc and Sauv Blanc were inter-ethnic dating long before it became cool.
The result: a wild child was born, the French coined it sauvage or savage. Today we call it Cabernet Sauvignon.
Despite its young age, Cabernet Sauvignon has grown up very quickly.
By the mid-19th century its homeland on the Atlantic coast of France, Bordeaux, had ranked its vineyards according to their track records and prices they captured with Napoleon’s famous Classification of 1855. The top estates or Châteaus were ranked one through five, starting with “Premier Cru” or First Growth, then Second Growth, etc.
Bound to prestige and perhaps the ruling elite, all but one of these rankings have remained to modern day, representing but not guaranteeing the highest quality, most sought after wine in the world.
A Bordeaux red wine though is not all about Cabernet Sauvignon, rather it’s usually a blend of two to five of the primary red grapes of Bordeaux. Cabernet Sauvignon is still the most popular kid in school but with Bordeaux blends, he has to share the limelight with Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. However, worldwide Cabernet Sauvignon is king of the hill, now the most widely planted wine grape in the world.
So why all the fuss over Cabernet Sauvignon? Rich, dark luscious fruits—black currant, ripe cherry, and/or plum flirt with your palate.
Firm tannic structure flowing from thick skins and pips (seeds) hold you at attention. And then subtle notes of cedar and minerality combine with oak aging effects—vanilla, mocha, baking spices, cigar box—to add a complex yet inviting personality. And just when you think you have Cabernet Sauvignon figured out, it completely gives itself to the terroir. The microclimate, soil, and topography of its origin reflects a spectrum of styles, from the cool climate earthy, more fruit restrained Bordeaux style to the warmer climate big bold fruit forward California style. It’s this pure depth of flavor, tannins, and acids that have made it both a perfect stand alone and blending grape. Not to mention, it’s ageability is timeless, usually
15 years plus. It’s dynamic, it’s sexy, and you can call it daddy.
Napa Valley got into the Cab game only about 150 years ago, but in a very short time began creeping up on France’s stronghold. In 1976, the Judgment of Paris turned into the shot heard around the world.
George Spurrier, an English wine shop owner in Paris organized a blind tasting competition featuring Napa and a few other California wines against some formidable French wines. The blind tasters, French wine critics, chose Napa’s own Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, as the winner of the Cabernet Sauvignon category. TheFrench were shocked, maybe appalled, but shortly thereafter, Napa began to boom. Today, 40% of all wine grapes harvested in Napa are Cabernet Sauvignon, constituting an astonishing 55% of grape revenue in the valley.
Although only an eighth of the size of Bordeaux, Napa is divided into sixteen American Viticulture Areas (AVAs), each representing a specific microclimate or terroir. Cab grows abundantly in all but one of the AVAs, the cool Carneros AVA being the only exception. Thus, if you take 15 terroir-driven Cabernet Sauvignon AVAs, combined with about 500 wineries and varying winemakers, you’ve got the perfect
formula for Cab Country. The common thread in Cab Country is heat.
Being thick skinned, Cab thrives in the warmer climates, where plenty of heat and sunlight are needed to penetrate and ripen the flesh. The greatest diversity lies in the soil composition, from Oakville’s alluvial soil bench at the base of the mountain run-off to the rocky volcanic slopes of Howell Mountain, half of the world’s soil order exists in this microcosm. The only problem, so many wineries, so little time.
Unlike the larger Sonoma Valley, there’s no need to try and just stay in one region in Napa for the day. Napa is small enough in the sense that in one day you can experience a large spectrum of its Cabernet Sauvignon, amongst other wine. And although located in a specific region like Silver Oak Winery in Oakville, most wineries feature additional wines from regions other than just their own. A tasting at Silver Oak, for example, also features Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon from Sonoma’s only Cab-heavy AVA.
The key is to visit the right balance of iconic and small family owned boutique wineries throughout the valley. Where’s the best Cab?
Depends on your palate; a consultation with Bin 415 prior to going out can help point you in the right direction. Sticking to the center of Napa--Oakville, Rutherford, and St. Helena AVAs offer the highest concentration of iconic Cab heavy wineries--Opus One, Nickel and Nickel, Far Niente, Caymus, Quintessa, and Beaulieu—to name a few.
Venturing outside of the box though, you can find comparable, even superior Cab at a more reasonable price with uncompromised hospitality. Amizetta at the base of Howell Mountain hits this mark.
James Cole in Oak Knoll does too. As does Cliff Lede in Yountville and Gargiulo in Oakville.
Bottom line, when in Napa…no matter what your wine preference, there is a Cab for everyone. Some have to sip more to find it. Just don’t stop sipping until you do.