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When all is said and done, Cabernet Sauvignon remains the king of red wines, certainly in California.
Sure, you'll get some argument from the Pinot aficionados who search high and low for the one great bottle out of twenty or so that will deliver a sublime experience. And, undoubtedly, Zinfandel packs 'em in every year at the ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates and Producers) festival, but a trend toward outrageous alcohol levels has consumers who enjoy wine with food unsure whether Zin is always a wise choice. Merlot flies off the shelves, to be sure, thanks to "60 Minutes" and the French Paradox, but how many of these soft, fruity bottlings can be said to be truly distinctive wines?
To take a true measure of a winegrape's status, get close to the ground. Wineries and vineyard owners make a significant, long-term investment when they decide what to keep and what to add in the vineyard, and if there were any doubts about Cabernet's supreme status among red wines in the state, they were put to rest by the most recent (1998) California Grape Acreage Report published by the state Department of Food and Agriculture, which annually paints a revealing viticultural picture.
For the first time ever, cabernet sauvignon has overtaken zinfandel as the state's most widely planted red winegrape, boasting some 51,500 acres to zin's 50,200 acres. Between 1997 and 1998, cabernet acreage grew by 13.8 percent, exceeding every other red variety except syrah (up 68 percent) and sangiovese (up 16.2 percent), which combined total only a little more than 10,000 acres. New plantings of zinfandel have dwindled significantly.
Most of the new plantings during the last few years have come as the result of the phylloxera infestation, a plant louse that killed off millions of vines. Faced with both a huge, expensive task of restoring vineyards and the opportunity to start fresh in terms of what variety is best suited to a particular site, vineyard owners, particularly in the North Coast regions, have turned to cabernet as the winegrape of choice.
The results of replanting began to show in the wines from the 1994 vintage, a spectacular harvest in terms of quality, if not quantity. By 1996, things were really getting underway, although the harvest was still comparatively small. With the 1997 vintage, wineries and vineyard owners hit the motherlode, with a huge crop of excellent fruit.
Robert Brittan, winemaker at Stags' Leap Winery in Napa Valley, puts some of this in persepctive. "The vineyards that drive the 1996 Cabernet Sauvignon are my favorite blocks on our property," he explains. "We had to replant them in the early 1990s because of phylloxera, and with that opportunity I shifted some things around -- planting on the rockiest, best-drained soils closest to the palisades at the back of our property. We have three basic types of soil here, each distinguishable as the vineyards work their way down from the craggy, igneous rocks of the Stags Leap palisades to the creek on the west side of the property. Texture and depths differ widely, and we have found that the fractured, sharp-rock soils closest to the mountain on the eastern boundary of the property are an ideal place for cabernet sauvignon."
Stags' Leap Winery has long been known for its Petite Sirah, as contrasted with Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, just to the south along the Silverado Trail, which has an enviable reputation as a Cabernet Sauvignon superstar. The fact that Stags' Leap Winery is now making excellent Cabernet was demonstrated in a recent
Vintners Club panel tasting of 12 Cabs from the 1995 and 1996 vintages, in which the winery's 1996 Cab took first place honors.
1996 Stags' Leap Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($32)
Blended with 3 percent Sangiovese and 2 percent Merlot, this rich, concentrated Cab offers a complex, slightly earthy nose of cassis-cherry fruit, chocolate, mint, anise and a wisp of orange zest. Elegant, round and smooth on the palate with delicious chocolate-tinged, ripe blackberry, sweet black chery fruit framed with good acidity and ripe, medium tannins, the wine's flavors are enhanced by toasted walnut and spice notes imparted from 2 years' aging in medium-toast French oak
1996 J. Stonestreet Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley ($35)
Pleasant scents of ripe berries and crushed dry cranberry with a note of roasted coffee bean. Quite a mouthfull of Cab, exhibiting medium-full tannins matched ripe jammy berry-like fruit tinged with chocolate. Elegant and classy.
1996 Beringer Cabernet Sauvignon, Knights Valley ($25)
This wine represents the 21st vintage winemaker Ed Sbragia has made a Cab from Beringer's Knights Valley Vineyard, which is noted for alluvial soils that are exceptionally well drained and low in fertility, which cause the vines to struggle for water and nutrients, resulting in very concentrated fruit flavors. This 100-percent Cab offers enticing scents of berries and black cherries, cedar, vanilla and roasted coffee beans. On the palate there is a fine balance of generous, plummy cassis-cherry fruit and elegance, plus some notes of smoke and green olive. Very good drinking now with potential to improve over the next 3-5 years.
1996 Greenwood Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon, Mendocino Ridge ($24)
This is the first Cabernet bearing the new Mendocino Ridge appellation, a unique growing zone west of Anderson Valley consisting of the ridge-tops above the 1,200-foot elevation line. Blended with 23 percent Mendo Ridge Merlot, which shows in the black cherry fruit in the nose, the wine's aromas initially were
slightly volatile, but this "nail polish remover" smell soon blew off to allow the fruit and smoky oak to entice. On the palate, there's lots of ripe cherry-cassis-black raspberry fruit accented by a note of green herbaceousness. Delicious now, but should be aged a couple of years, at least.
1995 Steele Cabernet Sauvignon, Anderson Valley ($26)
Jed Steele got the grapes for this wine from two vineyards, one at the warmest end of the valley near Boonville and the other up on the Greenwood Ridge (see above). The vintage yielded a Cab that is all fruit and finesse, as contrasted to the weighty, more tannic version from 1994. The pleasant, slightly herbaceous
nose of cherry-berry fruit, chocolate and a touch of mintiness is replicated on the palate, where a tasty spiciness develops, along with black licorice. Moderately deep flavors; medium tannins.
1995 Clos du Bois Cabernet Sauvignon, Briarcrest Vineyard, Alexander Valley ($30)
Shy, somewhat herbaceousness scents of dried cherries, cassis and toasty oak. Round and smooth with medium tannins, the wine's flavors repeat the green herb theme, joined by black cherry-cassis fruit, anise and a hint of tar. A bit lean in the finish, but tasty nevertheless.
1996 Hanna Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley ($21)
This wine appealed to me more than it did to the panel. My second place choice, this characteristic Alexander Valley Cab (100 percent) was immediately appealing for its forward, fruity scents of black cherry, raspberry and boysenberry accented by brown spice. Moderately rich and luscious with lots of ripe black
fruits to enjoy now as its tannins are ripe and mellow.
1996 Chateau Julien Cabernet Sauvignon, Private Reserve, Monterey County ($28)
The panel liked this one more than I did, attracted by its nose of chocolate, dried cherries, cedar, cigar-box and spice. On the palate, however, several tasters were put off by the wine's astingency, with even those who found merit in the fruit noting tartness and angularity.
1996 Robert Craig Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley ($40)
This mountain Cab pushed all my buttons with its forward, intensely fragrant, berry-cassis fruit with a cranberry twist, glove leather and mild green herbaceousness, plus white pepper, spice, vanilla and a subtle note of creamy oak. Other panelists found other wines more to their liking, but had really nothing negative to say about this Cab, except for detecting a note of strawberry-like grapeness. My notes indicate that on the palate, the wine is round, smooth and supple, offering generious, concentrated berry-cassis fruit, toasty oak, white pepper and spice. Complex, with good structure and medium tannins, this intense Howell Mountain Cab needs another 2-3 years of aging.
1996 Atlas Peak Cabernet Sauvignon, Consenso Vineyard, Atlas Peak ($30)
Blended with 10 percent Sangiovese, the wine's nose entices with cassis and spicy cherry fruit, mocha, dried sage and slightly smoky oak. Round and smooth with medium tannins, offering fresh, vibrant cherry-cassis fruit and hints of green olive and anise. A tasty wine that could use perhaps just a bit more acid.
1995 Van Asperen Cabernet Sauvignon, Round Hill Vineyards, Napa Valley ($18)
Cherries, green herbs (almost bell pepper) and oak define the nose. Straightforward red berry-cassis fruit, but a bit thin and tart. Atypical of this rich vintage.
1995 Guenoc Cabernet Sauvignon, Reserve, Tephra Ridge Vineyard, Guenoc Valley ($30)
Nose of vanilla, cherry-cassis, cedar and oak, which is replicated on the palate with the addition of green olive, but the tannins and oak intrude to obscure the fruit, and the wine suffers from what one taster described as "lip-curling astringency."
Steve Pitcher is a freelance wine writer based in San Francisco. He is vice president of the Vintners Club and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the German Wine Society.
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