Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Wine School! (Class #5 -- cabernet sauvignon)

Cabernet Sauvignon -- the "classic" red.

Under this wine's influence, great writing, art, romance, and history have all sprung. Grown just about everywhere, cabernet sauvignon is the world's most popular red. Known also as "claret," learning cabernet is an absolute must for a would-be wine enthusiast. So read on -- you'll find something workable.

The Sweet Partner in Crime and I decided to make an evening of our Cabernet Sauvignon tasting. Our three samples for the evening:

Beaulieu Vineyards (BV) 2004 Coastal Estates Cabernet Sauvignon -- USA -- $8-10
Chateau Gauthier 2003 Médoc Bordeaux -- France -- $12-14
Cousiño-Macul 2004 Antiguas Reservas Cabernet Sauvignon -- Chile -- $11-13

A quick note about the wines. As I've mentioned, French wine is named by the location in which it's made, not the grape from which it's made. Red Bordeaux tends to be made largely from cabernet sauvignon and merlot (which is why the grapes were initially grouped together). This particular wine is 55% cabernet and 45% merlot. In general, cabernets tend to be blends predominantly made from cabernet sauvignon, although some (like the Chilean above) are 100% cabernet.

We pulled corks, poured, and tasted. Initially, the Chilean and French wines seemed too alcoholic and without any good flavor. The BV tasted like spiked grape juice. Then we remembered an important fact about cabernets and other tannic wines.

Tannic wines like cabernets, especially when young (and anything less than five years old is considered young for a cab), almost always need to be decanted before drinking. Decanting is WineSpeak for getting some oxygen into the wine -- even before swirling. One of those pretty glass decanters is helpful but not necessary. For most cabs, just open the bottle 20-30 minutes before you drink it. That will allow the wine to "breathe," which markedly improves the flavor and aroma.

We poured a little more of each and then let the bottles rest for a bit while we made dinner. We did this tasting on the first nice night of spring, so we grilled filets and topped them with blue cheese (Try it. Trust me.), made some garlicky new potatoes, fixed a little salad and while the steaks were "resting," and tried the wines again.

What a difference! Now we could properly judge them. At first taste:

If you want the flavors of a classic French red, this Bordeaux has them. Even an inexpensive Bordeaux like the Chateau Gauthier has the complexity for which this region is known. The nose has "The Old World Funk." It's best described as an "earthy" scent (the SP in Crime called it "agricultural") -- like the scent of earth when you've been working in the garden. Without a little decanting, that scent also includes the gardening sweat smell which overpowers the scent of berries.

After decanting, you can almost taste the two grapes working together. The initial taste is "wet" like a merlot, but the tannins of the cabernet quickly catch up. There's some more of that "earthy" taste. The finish is very interesting. If you read enough wine reviews, you'll see mentions of "leather" and "cigar box." I finally understood what they meant after tasting this wine, which finishes a bit dry.

The BV was a huge contrast. The nose is very clean and extremely fruity. The flavor was much fruitier, with a lot more body. (Some would call this "jammy.") The finish was barely dry at all. The tannins were almost completely covered by the fruit.

The Cousiño-Macul was, again, very different. Before I let it breathe, the nose almost smelled like asphalt. But after a bit, that morphed into fruit and tobacco scents. There's also little of that "Old World" scent. The body of the wine was in-between the others and the finish was the driest. The flavors weren't overpowering -- some fruit, some tannin, and a little chocolate. (More on that later.)

(Warning -- the following is not vegetarian friendly…)

Big ol' reds like cabernet sauvignon go hand in hoof with steak. Steak and potatoes is a classic pairing with cabernet, which is precisely why we chose this menu. With the three wines before us, we tried them with the steak.

The Bordeaux immediately jumped to the forefront once we started eating. The earthiness of the wine was a perfect complement to the beef, potato, and garlic flavor. The fruit of the wine came out as we ate. I could see this with any kind of game or anything earthy like mushrooms.

The Chilean wine also paired nicely. The tannin in this wine, more so than the earthy flavor, cut through the fat in the beef and made a pleasant combination. However, I think this wine really would stand out in a meat dish that has a little bit of spice, like a chimichurri sauce.

The BV didn't fare quite as well. The best thing about this wine -- the fruitiness -- was lost against the flavors of beef and cheese. This wine wouldn't be a bad pairing with something a little sweet and spicy, like barbecue sauce or a dry rub of some kind. But with straight steak and potatoes, it was a surprisingly poor match.

We also tried some of the cheese alone on crackers. Again, the Chilean and French wines (especially the French) stood apart.

At the end of the evening, we sat on the front porch to enjoy the gorgeous weather. And, as we usually do, we brought out the dark chocolate. The BV didn't go well. The French wine was good. However, the Chilean and chocolate married into a wonderful creamy flavor.

When you're thinking about pairing food and wine -- consider the cuisine of the area. Historically, people make wine to go with whatever they're eating. Some wines are best as food wines. The Chilean and French cabernets are perfect examples. French diets are heavy in meat, cheese, game, and earthy vegetables. Chilean cuisine tends to be earthy and meat-heavy as well, but with more spice -- as found in a lot of Spanish-themed cuisine. Keep that in mind as you plan your next menu.

As for the BV? Cabernets aren't known for going with lighter food, but this one would be better if you want to go that route. BV needs light meats, rich pastas, or something along the lines of chicken teriyaki. Honestly, I think that I could find better pairings for all of those entrees than a cab. However, all is not lost. The BV is certainly the best "end of day glass" of wine -- easily the most drinkable on its own.

Next, over to chardonnay to see what we can discover. Class dismissed…


winedeb said...

Hi Mike, my name is winedeb and I have just started doing posts for Wine Sediments. I was going thru everyone's bio to learn a little bit about everyone who also contributes and I came across you who live in Newport, Ky. I was born and raised in Bellevue, married another Mike from Newport, 35 years ago. We have lived numerous places in the Cincy area but now make our home in Key West. I still have family and friends in the Cincy area and come up a couple of times a year to visit. Since I have not really lived in the area for 8 years, where is the best place to buy wine with the best variety offered? Party Source and a few small shops around Cincy is where I used to get my wines, but I am sure the area has lots more to offer now.
You have a nice informative site and it is nice to meet a "local" in wine blog land!

CSnodgrass said...

hey man, it's been a while since i've dropped by, but i love what you're doing with the place, so thanks for schoolin' me.

i laud the thoroughness of your insights, like the 5-year rule here. like many, i suspect, i've typically been weened on cali and french cabs, but upon your recommendation i'm headed out to uncork a Cousiño-Macul and give chile its right due with this grape.

a de facto member of fish's interpretive communities