In the world of wine, there are seven grapes designated as “noble,” two of which are white and five red. They are called noble because they have spread worldwide and produce not only good wine, but, in some cases, the very best that can be found.
The five reds are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese and Syrah. These grapes have formed the idea of what we expect in wine across the globe, as well as in their homelands.
The number-one red grape in all temperate growing areas is Cabernet Sauvignon. The history of this great fruit starts in the 17th century in southwestern France, where an accidental cross of Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley with Cabernet Franc from the Bordeaux region produced a grape that was greater than the sum of its parts.
The vine is vigorous, hardy and stands up to frost, as well as some diseases. The berries are small but thick-skinned and tolerant to many different weather conditions. The grape reaches its pinnacle in the Medoc and Graves regions of France, with the wine taking on flavors of black currant, spice and cedar wood. Combined with other Bordeaux varieties, Cabernet adds depth, structure and age-worthiness to blends.
In the New World, Cabernet is the darling of Napa Valley. The grape takes on its own personality in a region referred to as its “second home.” Growing conditions are so benign that it can overproduce with very little flavor on the fruit side of the wine spectrum, where the quaff can taste tannic and vegetal.
On the bright side, growers have learned to tame these tendencies, which allows one to find excellent wine the length and breadth of the valley. The sub-regions of Stag’s Leap and Rutherford Bench are where Cabernet reaches its cult status. The wine usually needs aging and is very expensive, so don’t look for it on the Wine Train. That said, the demand is high, and there is no dearth of wine drinkers who are more than willing to take the plunge to experience some of the greatest Cabernets in the world.
If you find yourself in the position where you would like to try this kingly quaff but don’t have the deep pockets that France or California require, look to other regions. Plenty of good wine is coming from Washington state these days, as well as unique bottles from the Coonawarra area of Australia with its “terra rosa” soil.
South African Cab is light and elegant with its blend of balanced fruit and tannic structure. I am also a big fan of Chilean Cabernet, specifically from the region known as the Maipo Valley. These wines have dense, dark fruit matched with dusty tannins, don’t usually need a lot of aging and are very affordable. They are, in my opinion, the ultimate match for grilled steak. Try them.
In wine history, as in human history, we see the offspring of two divergent parents rise—and become the king.
Keep sipping, Steve