Friday, May 18, 2012

Hitting the Bottle: Cabernet Sauvignon

I am once again hitting the bottle, er, books, in pursuit of higher wineducation.  My new wine class is called 'Grape Comparison', and the idea is that each week we focus on a different grape, and taste wines from different regions of the world as well as different vintages in order to gain a solid idea of the character of the grape that remains steady across time and space.  This is turning out to be *incredibly useful*.  Last night we focused on Cabernet Sauvignon, a truly international grape.  By the time we'd finished tasting the 14 wine samples (omg, so many), I had a very definite idea of what a Cab Sauv is like - whether it's from Margaux or Coonawara, solo or blended with other things, youthful or developed, I am now confident that I'll be able to figure it out.  Even on my bike ride home I could taste the lingering Cab Sauv flavours, which I hope will mean that it's even more cemented into my memory.

Cabernet Sauvignon grapes
on the vine
Because I have some big wine exams coming up this summer, I'm going to do a lot of wine writing here, and I hope that's OK with you, readers.  If it's boring, please feel free to skip (no don't, read everything, twice). To start off, I'll tell you a little bit about our friend, Cab Sauv.  Cabernet Sauvignon is a spontaneous combination of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, so it got to keep part of each name, just as it displays characteristics from both of these varietals.  Cab Sauv grapes are small with thick skins, and this means that the must is usually dark and can be very high in tannins.  The tannic and acidic structure in a Cab Sauv is one of its signature characteristics, and this is pretty much the most difficult part of the wine to learn to identify blind since it is a tactile sensation rather than a flavour or smell.  In my first classes, being instructed to 'notice the angularity of this wine on the palate' was deeply mysterious and puzzling.  In later classes I began to understand, and after 14 in a row, I really get it.  There's a pointy feeling in your mouth, the wine takes up a certain space in ways that some others do not.  Not wine snobbery, just the facts.

When it comes to characteristic flavours and smells, these can be somewhat challenging because certain of these sensations are common to a variety of grapes, or others are caused by the process of wine making (like aromas from wood barrels or age), and still others are caused or enhanced by the region the grape grows in.  In the case of Cab Sauv, a certain green bell pepper sensation is considered characteristic, but can be present in a variety of ways.  This character comes from both of Cab Sauv's parent grapes, as Cab Franc is often a 'greener' and more herbaceous tasting wine, whereas Sauvignon Blanc sometimes tastes distinctly like grass.  These green aromas and tastes are caused by the presence of methoxypyrazine in the grapes, which is processed away as the grapes ripen.  In Cab Sauv, the green flavour stays and really shows up if the grapes are grown in cool climates, whereas in warm climates there is no green pepper, but instead mintiness, or in very hot places, like parts of Australia and California, eucalyptus.  In addition, Cab Sauv's typical tastes and smells include cherries, black currant, tobacco, graphite (like pencil shavings), dark earth, and black pepper.  Sounds tasty!

Most of the wine we had last night was delicious.  The instructor included a couple of lower-quality wines for comparison and educational purposes, but overall we had an excellent flight of wine deliciousness.  My top two from the night were a wine from Pauillac, and a wine from Alexander Valley:

The 2008 Chateau Pontet-Canet from Pauillac is a predominantly Cab Sauv Bordeaux blend.  The wine is 30% Merlot with smaller percentages of other varietals, which changes the character of the wine and softens some of the angular structure of Cab Sauv by itself.  On the nose I found red berries, cherries, smoke, and a hint of minty herbs, and it was a little bit reserved - I wasn't sure what to expect on the palate and was bracing myself for possible sour cherries or bitter tea.  How pleasant to discover that the palate was bursting with mocha, toffee, sweet cherries, and dark earth with a refreshing hint of mint at the end.  The wine was mouth-filling and silky, probably from Merlot's influence, and well-balanced between juicy acidity and fine, grippy tannins from Cab Sauv's contribution.  Yum!  I scored it 94, and it retails for $129.

The 2007 Stonestreet West Ledge Cab Sauv from Alexander Valley, California, is 100% Cab Sauv and really shows it.  For me, the nose was a little bit shy at first (was it the glassware? was it because this was the 14th wine of the night?  we'll never know), but it smelled of sawdust, cherries, figs, and dark berries.  The palate was wonderfully bright, with lots of berries, herbs, cedar, tobacco and mocha, with a pleasant coconutty finish.  The tannins were super grippy and firm, but the wine had plenty of acidity, so my mouth was watering enough to counter the drying effect of the tannins.  This wine was massively full-bodied, and the instructor suggested that it could last through 50 years of cellaring.  While it might be a touch early to drink this - maybe 2017 would be a perfect time - it's very delicious and balanced; the tannins will round out with age, but they aren't overpowering now.  Num num num!  I scored this one 92, and it retails for $90.  Expensive tastes!  No big deal!

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