Wine, Food & Drink Articles

Submit Your Article View More Articles

King Cab

by Jennifer Rosen

Who died and made cabernet king? Considered the noblest grape of all, cabernet sauvignon gets a higher price tag and more respect than anything else in the winery. It’s poured last in tastings, and you’re meant to ooh and aah, as though the winemaker had produced his kid’s law school diploma. It’s so well enthroned on top of the heap that we almost forget to ask why.

Reviewers, loath to give zinfandel 93 points, award 100s to cabernets as though its zenith were somehow more perfectly vinous than any heights some frivolous grape with a whacked-out initial like Z could ever reach.

Cab inherits sheen from its key role in Bordeaux, where a yearly futures market infuses it with the gravitas of a Wall Street commodity. Stratospheric auction prices reinforce its rep as a blue chip wine you can trust.

Focus groups link cabernet with words like “important,” “prized” and “serious.” They’d pair the square-shouldered, buttoned-down bottle with steak, never silly food like Sloppy Joes or bouillabaisse. But certain as consumers are about cab’s personality; they’re shaky when you ask them what it tastes like.

Cabernet sauvignon, offspring of a spontaneous mating of cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc, drifted from Central Asia into France around 1600, gaining its foothold in Bordeaux in the late 1700s with the appearance of the first great wine estates.

A century later, pioneers brought cuttings to California which spread, by 1996, to over 40,000 acres. It’s moving in on quirky local grapes worldwide, spreading the gospel of International Style from South America to Australia to Eastern Europe. Goosing garnacha in Spain, plumping pinotage in South Africa and supering-up Tuscans in Italy, it now covers more than 400,000 acres around the globe.

Besides being a status and quality-enhancer, cabernet is also an easy keeper. It doesn’t bloom until after spring frost and its loose clusters can be left hanging while tighter-bunched grapes are rescued from fall rain and rot. Appealing for growers. But what’s so royal for drinkers?

Cab’s small berries are light on juice and heavy on skin, where most of the flavor and color resides. The best cabernets offer a supermarket of complex flavors ranging from black cherry, chocolate and cassis to cedar, green olives, pencil lead and tobacco. Oak aging adds smoke, toast, violet, spices and sawdust.

Grape skin also supplies tannin. A little tannin gives wine structure but too much has all the charm of a mouth full of steel wool. Undrinkably tough young cabs are often softened up with other grapes. In Bordeaux, the sultan’s harem consists of merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot and malbec; in Australia, shiraz and in Italy, sangiovese.

Tannin, however, is a fabulous preservative, giving cab the potential for great aging. And here’s where it stands head and shoulders above the riff-raff. Just as French Champagne is less about fruit and more about the remarkable alchemy of yeast and base wine, the miracle of cabernet is the gorgeous way it evolves in the bottle from fruit into that mysterious thing we call wine.

Back when the occasional ripe harvest was a gift from heaven and enological science consisted of “that’s how Grandpa did it,” aging was essential because wine was pretty god-awful without it. Aging is also dandy for the few who can afford to collect or buy older wine.

But how many of us have wine cellars? And if not, why pay a premium for cab? Traditionally, we’ve been willing, just as we inexplicably shell out more for chardonnay than for pinot grigio or sauvignon blanc. True, there’s the extra cost of oak barrels and time spent in them, longer than, say, a merlot. But why pick a wine that needs time in oak to be drinkable? With so much great wine sold ready-to-drink, does cab still deserve the crown? Perhaps it’s time for a coup d’état, a dethroning or at least a gentle defenestration.

Of course, in the end it comes down to taste: if you love cabernet, by all means drink it. But you might leave the red carpet at home.

© Copyright 2005. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Jennifer Rosen - Jennifer Rosen, award-winning wine writer, educator and author of Waiter, There’s a Horse in My Wine, and The Cork Jester’s Guide to Wine, writes the weekly wine column for the Rocky Mountain News and articles for magazines around the world. Jennifer speaks French and Italian, mangles German, Spanish and Arabic, and works off the job perks with belly dance, tightrope and trapeze. Read her columns and sign up for her weekly newsletter at:

Visit Jennifer Rosen's Website