Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Grape varieties (2) Cabernet Sauvignon

So we have looked at the first grape variety, Sauvignon Blanc, currently the most popular white variety. Let’s move on to our first red variety. But which one should I choose?

The most popular, widely encountered red varieties are probably the following four: Cabernet Sauvignon; Shiraz/Syrah (two names used interchangeably for the same variety); Pinot Noir; and Merlot

I think I’ll begin with what I consider the easiest of these to understand: Cabernet Sauvignon. This is grown just about everywhere. It travels well, and makes dense red wines with a distinct blackcurranty character.

Its home is France; specifically the Bordeaux region, where it is the main constituent of many ‘left bank’ Clarets (refer back to our section on Bordeaux for an explanation of the left and right banks, and why they are different). As such, it is the driving force behind many of the world’s greatest red wines.

However, Cabernet Sauvignon is almost always blended in Bordeaux. This is because Bordeaux is at the climatic extreme of where it is possible to get Cabernet properly ripe, and other varieties, principally Merlot and Cabernet Franc, are also blended in to make a complete wine – Merlot is particularly popular because it is a little easier to ripen here.

A digression is needed here to make an important conceptual point about grape varieties. The grape vine has been described as the canary in the coal mine equivalent for global warming, because of all agricultural crops widely grown across the world, the vine is perhaps the most sensitive to small shifts in temperature.

Specific grape varieties only really perform well across rather narrow temperature ranges. A site that ripens Pinot Noir perfectly is often too cool for Cabernet Sauvignon. Varieties such as Mourvèdre need more warmth even than varieties such as Grenache that are already well adapted for Mediterranean climates. Champagne can grow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but only for sparkling wine production: the region is too cool for making good still wines from these grapes. I could go on.

Finding the right place to grow the right grape variety matters. But there’s another complexity here: grape varieties often excel in regions that are only just warm enough to get them properly ripe in good vintages. It’s a brinksmanship thing. You want to make fantastic wine? Then you need to take some risks, growing varieties on the margins of their comfort zone.

What this usually results in is vintage variation. For many commercial wines, made with grapes that are grown well within their comfort zone, vintages can be pretty consistent; for fine wines they tend to vary more, and so they matter more.

In Bordeaux, it means that every decade there might be two great vintages, two very good ones, three good ones, two average ones and a real stinker. Actually, there are fewer really bad vintages than there used to be, because global warming has kicked in a bit, and because top châteaux are now getting more for their wines so they can afford to be more selective with their harvests and blending. But the point still stands: grape varieties perform best near their climatic margins. This is why matching variety to region, and more specifically to vineyard site, is so important.

Back to Cabernet Sauvignon. It reaches arguably its highest expression in the top left bank wines of Bordeaux – the leading Pauillacs, St Juliens and St Estèphes. But these are very expensive, so you might want to start your journey of exploration elsewhere. Inexpensive Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon might be a good place to start. These wines are consistently tasty and approachable, and offer a big hit of sweet, pure blackcurrant fruit, which is Cabernet’s calling card. Then there’s Australian Cabernet Sauvignon, which can be a bit dodgy (sweet mint and green herbal aromas can get in the way with less expensive examples) but can also be sublime: try a good Margaret River or Coonawarra Cabernet to experience some of the best expressions of this variety full stop.

I should also mention California, and the well known appellation of the Napa Valley, where Cabernet is king. The problem here is that the prices for top Napa Cabs - which can be really exciting wines - tend to be eye-watering because of the strong local demand.

What flavours to look for? I’ve already mentioned blackcurrant fruit. I also like the structure that Cabernet has, with nice firm tannins, and often the gravelly, earthy, sometimes chalky complexity that helps add extra interest to the sweet fruit characters. It’s a bold, powerful sort of grape variety, and often makes wines that age quite well. It’s probably the polar opposite of the next red variety we’re going to look at, which will be Pinot Noir.



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