Cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir duke it out among wine connoisseurs as the pre-eminent red wine grape. As wine aficionados age, pinot seems to hit the front burner. Maybe it's that soft, pillowy bouquet and those tender, well-rounded flavors. As the senses deaden, and hair and teeth begin their vanishing act, perhaps pinot simply fits our dotage more perfectly. Until those golden years arrive, moms and dads find that cabernet outweighs all comers with it's "nerve" and power, which, with time, yields great complexity and mouth caressing flavors. December is a perfect month to do a "monster" cabernet tasting. The best will grace your table throughout the holidays, and a fine bottle of cab will make any wine lover on your gift list drool with anticipation.
I recently tasted 47 cabernets from around the world. Unfortunately, one flight of 11 cabs were misordered on my table--an error that was fortunately discovered--but not until three days later! So, those 11 wines had to be eliminated. (I hope to retaste them in the near future) As is my habit, I tasted these wines blindly, even though I had seen the bottles sporadically over the previous months. Here are the best (and the worst) results. The first paragraph is the "blind" note, the second, a conclusion after the wine was revealed.
2000 Chateau St. Jean, Sonoma County $27
A pure, muted strain of goodness. Gorgeous ripe raspberries: heavenly, penetrating and memorable. A perfect melding of fruit and oak. Tantalizing flavors with exemplary balance and harmony. The finish is a bit off stride, but one senses a wine that's as good as it possibly could be. Grade: A- (A)
2000 Louis M. Martini Alexander Reserve $35
Fresh berry scents; depth with fruit dominated Sonoma richness. A handsome beverage with excellent balance and a delicious, lingering fruitful finish. Will improve further. Well done.
The "return" of Louis Martini to the top ranks is exemplified by this delicious wine from a good, not great vintage. Grade: B+ (A-)
1999 St. Francis Nun's Canyon Reserve, Sonoma County $45
Different. Shy, interesting and engaging with a solid core of tightly wound, dark, ripe, cherry-berry fruit. A solid foundation of flavors, well built and ready to burst out. Needs cellaring.
This is an impressive wine that needs 3 years to unwind and explode its beautiful contents. Grade: B (B+)
2001 Asti Winery, Cellar #8, North Coast $14
Dark cherry and velvet; alive yet its muted fruit needs coaxing. This one grows on you. Dark, satisfying yet tannic (needs 2 years). Makes you do a Humphrey Bogart upper lip smile! Beguiling stuff.
This new operation pays homage to the old Italian Swiss Colony vineyards. They're making great stuff at a fair price. Grade: B (B+) (BEST BUY)
2000 Gallo Of Sonoma, Sonoma County $13
Cherry, dark berries, backward but good inside. Very shy with a light herbal touch. Excellently packed, intense fruit on the palate but woefully tight, tannic and blunt. Everything's in place but I can't imagine drinking this wine before 1998.
Always a value, and at this price I'd lay some away. Remarkable concentration. Grade: B (B+)
2000 Chateau Souverain, Alexander Valley $20
Dark, "hedonistic," lush, heady and round. Medium bodied with a bit of a hole in the middle. Flavors are excellent, but some difficulties show.
I enjoyed this a lot. Souverain excels year in and out. Grade: B
2000 Sebastiani, Sonoma County $17
Pure, "sweet" fruit; attractive ripeness and balance. Nice flavors on a non luscious frame. Lean, but not thin. Good carry through with a splendid, flavorful finish. A sturdy, straightforward style.
A very good wine that wins you over with each sip. Grade: B
2000 Frei Brothers, Alexander Valley Reserve $24
Nice, even, soft unaggressive nose. Deep, "charcoal like" and attractive. Well wrought flavors are satisfying and not overly aggressive. Slightly short and bitter on the finish, but these are picky complaints. Will improve over the next 2 years.
A good effort from a winery known for its robust reds. Grade: B
2001 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, Artemis, Napa Valley $45
Airy, "the incredible lightness of being." Persistent, simple, oak imbued berries. A bit blunt and heavy on the wood. It drinks very nicely if a bit tangy and firm. Needs a little more time.
A new venture from S.L.W.C. A blend of their Fay vineyard grapes plus grapes from their own replanted property. It's good, but lacks glamour and persona. Grade: B/B-
2001 Louis M. Martini, Sonoma County $17
Fresh berries, tar, plums and enticing aromas. Flavors are balanced, ultra-ripe raspberries with excellent smooth texture and a lovely finish. Very appealing.
Another Martini winner. This may be an early indication of a terrific 2001 vintage Grade: B/B-
1999 Clos Du Bois, Briarcrest, Alexander Valley $36
Wild with dense fruit; earthy, gamey and "nose awakening." A somewhat tart, mouth-cleansing style, with good balance and lingering, attractive flavors. Not for everyone.
Well done for those who like a walk on the wild side. Grade: B-
2001 Wolf Blass Yellow Label, South Australia $14
Herbs, very deep fruit, substantial and rich. Brambly chunky flavors. Satisfying. A classy style, but good, not great.
A nice surprise. This well-priced wine showed nicely among some expensive competition. Grade: B- (BEST BUY)
2000 Dallas Conte, Rapel Valley $11
Deep, alluring and direct. "Fat" fruit, attractive and enticing. Some vegetal notes that do not detract overall. A tight, tannic, slightly acidic drink that is still pleasant now, but will surely improve by 2005.
I've often found this Chilean wine a bargain and a mouthful. Grade: B-/ C+ (GOOD BUY)
2000 St. Francis, Sonoma County $17
Discreet, decent, well rounded and subtle. Grapey, hard, but a nice rough and tumble style. A little too "spready", lacking focus. Best with grilled food.
A cab for zinfandel lovers. Good hearty stuff. Grade: B-/C+
2002 McWilliams, Hanwood Station, S.E. Australia $12
Fruit forward, fresh, inviting berries and plums. Attractive ripe flavors in an obvious format. No subtlety or finesse; a slab of cab.
A nice, hearty drink. Grade: B-/C+
2000 Niebaum Coppola Cask Cabernet $65
Dar, minerally, plummy but not overt. Sweet American oak. Nice, calm flavors with a bit too much acidity and a warm, but tough, woody aftertaste. A good wine in a direct, uncomplex style.
This normally a favorite of mine. The 2000 seems to have been troublesome for this fine estate. (C+)
2001 Turning Leaf, Coastal Reserve $12 (C+)
2000 Beringer Founder's Estate, California $12 (C+)
2002 McManis, California $11 (C+/C)
2000 Redwood Creek, (C, GOOD BUY)
2000 Chateau St. Jean, "Cinq Cepages," Napa Valley $70 (C)
2000 Louis M. Martini, Napa Valley $24 (C-)
1999 Clos Du Bois Marlstone $39 (C-)
2000 William Hill, Napa Valley $22 (C-)
2000 Black Opal, S.E. Australia $10 (C-)
2000 EOS, Paso Robles $18 (C-)
2001 McWilliams, Hanwood Estate, S.E. Australia $12 (C-)
2000 Clos Du Bois, Sonoma County $ 17 (C-/ D+)
1999 William Hill Reserve, Napa Valley $38 (D)
2000 Tapestry, McClaren Vale $19 (D)
2000 Buena Vista, California (D)
2000 Hogue, Genesis $17 (D)
2000 Hawk Crest, California $15 (D-)
2001 McManis, California $11 (D-)
2000 Bishop's Peak, Paso Robles $15 ( F)
The most consistent problem encountered in this tasting was an annoying recurrence of weedy, vegetal smells that often carried over into flabby, rotting vegetable-like flavors. This is characteristic of cabernet when grown on improper soil or with uncareful propagation. Over half the samples had this quality to some degree. Remember that failures abound and that price is not always a guarantee of better things.
Most cabernets can improve with extra time in the bottle. In many cases these wines are in no hurry to be drunk, but a great deal of pleasure will be derived now if you'll open the bottles a few hours before you plan to consume them.
Arturo's wish list
I'd love to get these. Consider them for a special gift this year.
Whites and Ports