If Shiraz is the young whippersnapper of the red wine world, then Cabernet Sauvignon is definitely the gray-haired granddaddy. Idolized for hundreds of years, Cab, its affectionate nickname, plays the role of the venerated sage that produces wines worthy of aging. The high acidity and tannins in the Cabernet grape skins allow the wine to withstand years of sleeping, and the results are a smooth, rich, aromatic wine with a taste and smell profile all its own. Once you’ve tried a well-aged Cabernet, you’ll know why people craft expensive wine cellars and patiently wait for the mellowing process to commence.
In the church of wine worshipping, aged Cab is definitely the epitome of saintliness — for some people.
But what if you want to drink a Cab that’s only as old as a frozen dinner? A fruity Cab for the masses — those with little patience or space to host a huge, tannic wine until it’s tame enough to enjoy. Well, times they are a changin’. Across the globe, winemakers are waking up to the fact that most wine drinkers don’t have several years to wait for a bottle of Cab to mellow out. Basically, we want it NOW.
To “fruitify” the traditional aggressive, astringent style, the winemaker alters the vinification process. Since the skins provide the tannins, exposing the skins to the juice for shorter periods of time will reduce tannin levels, and fermenting the juice at a lower temperature keeps the grapey flavors intact, rather than stripping them away.
Soil differences also affect the wine’s character. Cabernet is pretty easy to grow, but it prefers warmer climates. Each region where the grapes grow, whether it’s southern Australia, Chile, Washington State or Napa Valley, will have different types of soil. Any grape acts like a sponge to the soil’s flavors, and every piece of land — even two hundred yards apart — can have different soil characteristics that affect the end product. This partly explains why an Australian Cab can taste so unlike a French Cab.
The Cabernet Sauvignon grape originally came from France’s Médoc region in Bordeaux, where earthy, astringent flavors — characteristics of young wines made to age — are favored over the new world’s fruit-forward experience. Bordeaux Cabs are normally blended with milder, softer wines made from Merlot or Cabernet Franc to smooth out the tannins. California’s Napa Valley, on the other hand, normally bottles with higher percentages of Cab to demonstrate the true characteristics of the grape. But in the end, it’s the winemaker’s taste that ends up in the bottle, and it’s up to you to discover what you like.
Perhaps the main difference lies in the French willingness to wait for a Cab to soften. But it’s nice to know there are options out there for the impatient wine drinkers. Come on out; it’s a fine time to see what’s pourin’.