Friday, May 11, 2007

BNO: I Want My Cabernet!

In Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire, he investigates how certain plants have successfully seduced and tricked humans into propagating them and spreading their species. Cabernet Sauvignon could easily be one of Pollan’s subjects. Cabernet’s seductive dark berry, chocolatey flavors, made even more devastating by the addition of vanilla from oak aging, have proven irresistible to its fans. Today, Cabernet Sauvignon is planted in almost every wine region of the world, and is the status grape in the vineyards of northern California, Chile, and even China.

Bordeaux, of course, is the home base of Cabernet Sauvignon and is the chief inspiration for the proliferation of Cabernet. But Cabernet has traveled far and wide since the late 19th century, when phylloxera ravaged the vineyards of Bordeaux and forced the Bordelais to find a haven for their vines in far-flung places like South America, Australia, and the United States.

After Bordeaux made a huge comeback in the 20th century winegrowers across the world wanted to copy its wines. Fortunately for winegrowers in Spain, California, Australia, Chile, and Argentina, Cabernet Sauvignon vines have been left behind by the French. Growers discovered that it is a hardy and adaptable vine that can also thrive in a hot climate region like California. And another attractive quality of Cabernet is that it blends well with other grapes, hence it’s easily localized. The Spaniards blend it with Tempranillo, the Australians with Shiraz, the Italians with Sangiovese and Barbera, and the Californians with Zinfandel. Notwithstanding thoroughbred Cabernets like Caymus “Special Select” or Silver Oak, I believe that it’s the blending with other grape varietals that makes Cabernet-based wines sublime.

In a recent dinner, our BNO (boys’ night out) group decided to do a “Cabernet Sauvignons of the world” theme. The venue was the posh, exclusive, Art Deco-designed The City Club of San Francisco. As I’m perennially late for these dinners I was anxious to join the group. But after getting off the elevator to search for the dining room I can’t resist taking a moment to gaze up at the grandeur of Diego Rivera’s 30-foot mural “Riches of California” (1931) occupying the entire staircase wall that rose from the 10th to 11th floor. “Wow!” I said to myself.

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"Riches of California" Diego Rivera (1931)

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(note: Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera's wife and who was played by Salma Hayek in the movie, was the model for the nude)

When I walked in the appropriately named Wine Cellar room there was a lot of activity—bottles being lined up and uncorked… and a few bottles already looking empty! Christ, these guys are quick on the draw! Then I remembered there’s a limo waiting downstairs. I better start tasting. Everyone’s on the reds already, but I need to have some of that magnum of NV Egly-Ouriet Brut Grand Cru still sitting in the bucket. Mostly Pinot Noir from 100% Grand Cru vineyards in Ambonnay, this is “big, bready, and yeasty” said Steve, with “tight bubbles”. What great Champagne! Bone dry, but not severe, with a nose of warm brioche and flavors rich in fruit and minerals. Delicious intensity and elegance. I kept a flute of this Champagne by my side throughout the evening to refresh my palate in between wines. 3 ½ puffs.

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Our dinner menu was fabulous. The thick cut of veal chop was perfectly cooked and its heady truffle dressing wafted over the entire room. I couldn't imagine a better dish to pair with the variety of Cabernet-based wines we opened. And the selecton of artisanal cheeses was brilliant. The City Club is an oasis in the bustling financial district of San Francisco!

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To start off the reds, a “glasscoater” of 1975 Pauillac, Château Lynch-Bages was passed around. This one charmed the group, perhaps, partly because expectations were low, but mostly because it was really good. Full of energy, the nose was redolent of cedar, tobacco, and plums, and it was sweet with fresh, ample fruit. Yet, after being opened for a while it became too rustic and a bit rough, with the cedary nose dominating. Nevertheless, it was a charmer and one can’t deny its overall pleasing personality. 3 puffs.

We decided to present the wines in flights of three, so the first main flight featured three heavyweights, one a Napa and the other two both Pauillacs. The 1994 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon “Special Select”, Caymus was outstanding. Endowed with a perfume of cassis, mint, dried earth, and sweet oak that immediately filled the nose—a ringer for a top Pauillac, I thought. On the palate its dense blackberry fruit, dark chocolate flavors, and sweet tannins are beguiling, but it betrays its hotter origins with the alcohol’s heat in the finish. This heat became more noticeable as the wine opened up in the glass. 3 ¼ puffs.

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First growth 1990 Pauillac, Château Latour was the overwhelming favorite wine of the night. A hands-down 4 puffer. Velvety, suave, and with a palate presence that clearly showed its class. “Laser-like intensity”, noted Steve. It also feels very fleshy which I attribute to its softness. I’ve had this wine a few times since release and it is interesting to observe its progress. In 1993, when it was released I found it muscular and tannic which, combined with its massive fruit, was an impressive display of Latour power. A bottle that I opened around its tenth year in 2000 showed the same powerful quality on the attack, but it started to soften on the finish causing its length to be slightly curtailed. Today, close to being two-decades-old, it has clearly softened and is drinking very, very beautifully. Its low acidity and soft tannins make it sweet and seductive on the palate. Someone in the group mentioned that it tastes like a “Lifesavers Blueberry candy”! This is a great Latour, but not as immortal as I thought it was. I noticed that Parker recently downscaled his rating of this wine from 100 points to 95 points. For someone who preaches low-acid constantly, as if it should be the main virtue of a wine, Parker’s own latest notes (published 2006) on 1990 Latour include: “There is a roasted, earthy, hot-year character with extremely low acidity”. To age well, it can’t just be all ripe fruit, wine needs good acidity, baby.

The third wine was the 1989 Pauillac, Château Lynch-Bages. A superstar of that great vintage, this is a landmark vintage for Lynch-Bages as it catapulted the reputation of the estate from respectable classed growth to one of Bordeaux’s elites, allowing it to overtake many rivals (particularly in price) and making its proprietor, Jean-Michel Cazes, hugely popular. But how good really is this 1989? On release, this was undoubtedly gorgeous and a sure winner among Cab fans as few have tasted anything quite like it before then. It was a pivotal wine. Historically speaking, it was the prototype of the modern-style Cabernet-based wine. Opaque, deeply concentrated, massive blackberry, chocolate fruit flavors that adequately masked the tannins thereby resulting in a velvety mouthfeel. Cazes was a hero and everyone wanted to emulate the style he helped pioneer in the Lynch-Bages and the Pichon-Baron which he also produced. These wines tasted so good young they got high scores and sold fast. Almost 18 years on, the 1989 Lynch-Bages remains darkly colored and its gorgeous bouquet of sweet black fruits, cigar box, and leather are seductive as ever. Powerful, ripe, fleshy fruit that’s intense and initially fresh turned to hot, spicy licorice. Towards the end the wine started to lose elegance, tasting harsh from the alcoholic finish. The wine’s limitations are becoming evident at this stage. Perhaps there was just too much ripeness and extraction to begin with. An outstanding wine, with several more years of aging potential, but its once unassailable reputation is now questionable. Group score was 3 ¼ puffs.

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The next flight led with the more relaxed 1981 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon “Special Select”, Caymus. Definitely mature and a bit oxidative on the nose, its tannins are fully resolved, hence it lacks some grip, but its good acidity continued to breathe life in this wine. Beautiful ample fruit that boasts sweet, earthy red berry/licorice flavors with youthful signs of freshness in its brightness and energy. This has aged elegantly. What a pleasure to drink! 2 ½ puffs.

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I must confess that I have a softness for Sassicaia. Though I don’t’ get a chance to drink it often, I’ve enjoyed several vintages. If Sassicaia is your style of Cabernet Sauvignon, then wine critics’ scores are completely irrelevant, as any vintage offers greatness. Gambero Rosso simply gives it Tre Bicchieri every vintage. Many consider it the greatest Italian red wine. The closest comparison I could think of to Sassicaia, not in taste, but in quality, is Lafite-Rothschild. Finesse and elegance, not power, define the wine. The 1982 Vino da Tavola “Sassicaia”, Tenuta San Guido (yes, it was a mere vino da tavola back in 1982) started out tight for a while, especially on the nose. This is an impeccable bottle as I’ve had this vintage before and it was bit more forward than this. Much later it started to open up well, with a bouquet of violets, gravel, and licorice. The fruit, ample but not big, is precise and elegant, buffered by tannins that are so filigreed I can hardly taste it separately. Everything in this wine is so cohesive; the finish so long and graceful. The group was somewhat split as to where to place this wine. Some said it was a bit light. “The finish is thin”, said one. It is obvious which camp I fell in. 3 ½ - 3 ¾ puffs.

The 1994 Penedes “Mas La Plana”, Torres was a great follow-up to the Caymus and Sassicaia to end this flight as it summed up some of the enticing qualities of the two previous wines. This is relaxed and doesn’t overwhelm, but it has great intensity of flavors ranging from violets, cassis, and earthy licorice. Concentrated and very well-balanced, with good acidity and fine tannins, it should continue to evolve well over the next several years. 2 ¾ puffs.

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By consensus, the next flight was the most interesting one of the night, showing once again that Italian wines have a way of stealing attention from the rest. First up was the "2001 Wine Spectator Wine of the Year" 1998 Bolgheri, Tenuta dell’Ornellaia. Made mostly of Cabernet Sauvignon this was undoubtedly the sexiest wine of the evening as it offered a perfume of spicy cedar scents; a soft, velvety mouthfeel; and opulent, lush flavors of plums, dark chocolate, earthy spices, and vanilla with superfine tannins. So well-proportioned and balanced (Bravo! to Michel Rolland for the brilliant blending) someone commented that it is “not gonna get better!”Indeed, as how can it top how it’s drinking right now? At almost nine years on the wine is showing no cracks and, interestingly, the 1988 version of this wine is still so youthful. What will it be in another ten years would be fascinating to see. This is not some chic Super Tuscan, this is a serious, modern-style wine oozing with class. 3 ½ puffs.

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Not as sexy, but perhaps more interesting is the 1999 Monferrato Rosso “Pin”, La Spinetta. Who could have predicted or even imagined that someone would even dare blend Cabernet Sauvignon with Nebbiolo and produce a wine of stunning character? Leave it to the Rivetti brothers to get away with the totally unexpected. The key really is that winemaker Giorgio Rivetti is a visionary with an impeccable taste, as he can compose in his head the wine and then actually make it. A “dynamite wine”, said Bill. Indeed, as it is full of surprise and energy. I think it’s not even fully integrated yet, but the layers of cassis, black cherries, earthy spice, smoke, and wood are so intriguing. What incredible depth! And the freshness of taste due to the excellent acid balance imparts a bright and youthful character to the wine. Following the progress of this wine over the next decade or so would be adventurous. 3 ½ puffs.

Sadly, the 1996 Stags Leap Cabernet Sauvignon “Hillside Select”, Shafer was marred by corked (TCA) taint. Nevertheless, its richness and power were palpable; it would have been a terrific wine.

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Finally, as it’s getting late in the evening, the 1974 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon “Martha’s Vineyard”, Heitz Wine Cellars was poured. Everyone knows the enormous reputation of this wine. For me the greatness of this wine is how it transforms pure Cabernet Sauvignon power into something sublime. I'm familiar with this wine's remarkable oxidative character, which gives an initial impression that it may be fading, yet wait for a while as it opens up gloriously; its bright eucalyptus, minty cassis flavor leads the charge. Though not a wine of great complexity, this has amazing palate presence and length. The flavors, though not overwhelming, are sustained on the palate for a good length of time and fades gradually into a smooth, velvety finish. And I can tell you that with a slice of veal chop in truffle oil, the experience is about as hedonistic as it can get! 4 puffs.

Everything else was pretty much a footnote after all these wines, except for the Port. The 1990 Coteaux d'Aix-en-Provence Rouge, Domaine de Trévallon, a 50-50 Cabernet Sauvignon-Syrah blend, was beautifully garrigue-scented, filled with floral, lavender aromas that married so well with the velvety, bright cassis and cherry flavors. Gorgeous length on the silky finish. This is starting to drink beautifully now.

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I must admit that in the rush to finish up the dinner, light up the cigars, and get on to the Port, I was not able to pay much attention to the 1992 Penfolds Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon to do it justice. The color was black purple and opaque and the nose was still dominated by the new American oak. This powerful wine appears very youthful even at fifteen years, but I’m worried about its overt oakiness.

Altogether, this was an eye-opening Cabernet Sauvignon experience. Bordeaux may be its ancestral home, but Cabernet Sauvignon has become the prestige global grape. Today, many of the most excting Cabernet-based wines are not from Bordeaux as one realizes in a wine dinner like this. Cabernet Sauvignon has succeeded enormously because of its willingness to be shaped into whatever form by its growers and makers. It is not so much a chameleon, as described by some, but an accomplice in satisfying man’s desires and imaginations. In many respects it is the wine lover’s best friend.

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And finally, to cap off another great evening, the 1977 Taylor Vintage Port, which was decanted at least 3 hours ago, was poured. Taylor, because of its drier, tannic style, has a certain affinity with Cabernet Sauvignon. In a great, powerful vintage such as 1977, this Port needs many decades to reach peak as it ages very slowly wrapped in so much tannin. But thirty years on and decanting it for a few hours appeared to do the trick on this one. The bouquet of violets and sweet blackberries is beautiful, and on the palate the opulent, massive fruit is sweetly opening up. Ah, so young still, but already so wonderful; there is much potential to look forward to in the decades ahead.





4 comments:

  1. This is the kind of evening I can only dream of! I saw a sassicaia at Bacchus and it was P9,000!

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  2. This is the kind of evening I can only dream of! And you described it so well. I could imagine myself at the table, wining and dining with the boys, except I was getting hungrier and thirstier.

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  3. I absolutely loved your wonderful description of Cabernets and the Port wine. Mouthwatering!

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  4. socky. Sorry for the late post. I must have been aslept at the wheel as I missed your comment submission! Yes, Sassicaia is unfortunately very pricey and I count each time I have it as a blessing. I did see it at Bacchus, too. Well, maybe if you can get a group of 3-5 dedicated wine lovers together to split a bottle... I love these get-togethers and the wines somehow taste better when shared.
    Kathleen. I'm glad to know you enjoyed reading the post and thank you for the comment.

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