How the Mighty have Fallen (or have they…?)

#190 – November 11, 2011

Recently reviewing my seven years of newsletter writing, I was astounded to discover that I had never written about the most popular and prominent grape of them all – Cabernet Sauvignon. While I have provided tasting notes over the years for countless awesome Cabernet Sauvignon wines, the grape has never been afforded its own platform to shine in Yossie’s Wine Recommendations. So this week we return to discuss a noble varietal that used to reign king among all wines but whose popularity has waned in recent years as the preferences of oenophiles world-round have started to shift to wines of elegance, structure and food-friendliness. While these used to be the attributes of the better Cabernet Sauvignon wines, recent decades have seen, mostly in response to consumer (and Robert Parker’s) tastes, an explosion of big, bold, fruit forward and oak loaded Cabernet Sauvignon wines against which consumers have started to resist in the last decade or so.

Notwithstanding the fact that Cabernet Sauvignon was the most widely planted noble variety for most of the 20th century, it’s a relatively new varietal resulting from a chance encounter of Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc in the mid 17th century. Cabernet Sauvignon’s dramatic rise to prominence during this time period can be attributed at least in part to its place as the primary varietal in Bordeaux’s famed Left Bank wines, where it is blended with Merlot and Cabernet Franc to produce some of the world’s most illustrious wines distributed in large quantities around the world. The two primary wine-growing areas that have contributed most to the reign of Cabernet Sauvignon are Bordeaux and California where for years Cabernet Sauvignon has reigned supreme. Another area of prominence was Tuscany where Cabernet Sauvignon put the “Super” in the Super Tuscan wines we discussed in newsletter #174. The differing climates have a substantial effect on the type of wine that is ultimately produced with cooler regions such as Bordeaux yielding grapes that are harvested less ripe than their Californian counterparts who are blessed with an abundant warmth and sunshine resulting in grapes with higher sugar contents and riper fruit. One tangible effect this difference has is in the alcohol content with Bordeaux coming in around 13% and many Californian wines easily crossing the 14% into the 15% range.

The grape’s hardy physical attributes were a major contributor to its prominence, with its thick and tannin-loaded skins (with a very high seed to fruit ratio) and hardy, rot-resistant, vines contributing to the ease of its cultivation and its ability to thrive in many different climates and soils, allowed it to be planted in many wine regions around the world (to the extent it was referred to as the “colonizer grape”, with some regions sacrificing plantings of their indigenous varietals for Cabernet Sauvignon. Another positive attribute of Cabernet Sauvignon wines is its aging ability with some prime Cabernet Sauvignon-based Bordeaux wines possessing the ability for over half a century with continuous improvement over such time. While most Cabernet Sauvignon wines don’t posses these abilities (the best of Israeli versions are currently achieving a 20 year lifespan at best and even that is only for a very selected few wines), most well-crafted versions will improve over a time period of 3-10 years, metamorphosing from angular, harsh and tannic wines in their infancy to lush, elegant powerhouses of complexity once the tannin and wood integrate with the fruit and other flavor components.

Cabernet Sauvignon is also a grape about whom wine makers say “needs oak”, leading most quality Cabernet Sauvignon wines to spend substantial aging time in oak barrels which impart additional flavors and aromas commonly attributed to the varietal including smoke, tar, espresso, vanilla. The time in oak barrels also helps to soften grape tannins replacing them with oak tannin (which can have a positive or negative effect, depending on a multitude of factors). The type, size and amount of “toast” of oak barrels all have a substantial effect on the final product that gets bottles. Poorly made Cabernet Sauvignon, where the wine making has not succeeded in taming the beast, will often provide dank vegetal notes of bell peppers or cabbage resulting from the over developed pyrazines in the grape– certainly not flavors one is looking for when reaching for the king of wines.

However, while many Cabernet Sauvignon wines have the potential and actually achieve greatness, many such wines are made as Merlot twins with plenty of rich plush fruit, early drinkability and without any of the specific charms of the grape whose primary flavor is easily black currents, accompanied by blackberries, cassis, plum, cedar and green notes of mint and eucalyptus.

Over the past decade or so, a revolution of sorts has been taking place around the world (in Israel this has been occurring over the last 4-5 years) challenging Cabernet Sauvignon’s place at the top of the Vinifera pyramid. One contributor to this change has been resistance to the influence wielded by Robert Parker whom many blame for the shift toward big, fruit forward, alcoholic fruit bombs (Alice Feiring’s first book was grandiosely subtitled “How I saved the World from Parkerization”) by wine makers around the world who effectively styled their wines for his palate (and 90 plus scores). In my opinion, another factor is the increasing desire to drink wines with food and while the big tannins of Cabernet Sauvignon go swimmingly well with huge cuts of meet and fatty cheeses (fat and protein reduce the perception of tannins on the palate) the big wine tends to overwhelm many of lighter dishes, including those healthier ones that are increasingly being sought out as many people turn to healthier eating habits away from red meat and other fatty foods.

While my personal palate, together with much of the oenophilic world, has moved over the last few years away from Cabernet Sauvignon wines to drinking more Syrah, Cabernet Franc and other varietals, there are still many incredible Cabernet Sauvignon wines worthy of your attention and, given its proven aging capabilities, it is still the primary component of my cellar, promising years of pleasure ahead as the wines continue to age gracefully and mature to the perfection intended by the Cabernet Sauvignon (allowing me to store bottles from my children’s birth years for future important occasions). As every winery makes at least one Cabernet Sauvignon wine many of them incredible, it is far beyond the scope of this newsletter to even provide a respectable sampling of the varietal. Instead I have listed a few (maybe a bit more than a “few”) Cabernet Sauvignon wines I have recently enjoyed and which I think will bring you pleasure as well. As always, please feel free to shoot me an email with any questions about any specific wine, winery or other related topic.

Have a great week,

Dalton, Reserve, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2007: Like Galil Mountain and Recanati, Dalton is simply put, a great winery making terrific wines at fair and reasonable prices. While I often wax rhapsodically about their delightful Wild Yeast Viognier, this wine is well deserving of my praise and your palate. While the 2009 is already on the market, this rich and complex wine has had sufficient time for the fruit, wood, tannin and oak parts to come together in the manner intended by Dalton’s wine maker – Naama Sorkin, and the wine is well worthy of your attention. Plenty of rich black fruit, cedar, hints of blueberries and milk chocolate on both the nose and palate of this full-bodied wine, tinged with green olives and eucalyptus, roasted herbs and a bit of smoke lead into a medium finish that leave you wondering where the bottle went. While delightful right now, the wine should continue to cellar nicely for another 4-5 years.

Golan Heights Winery, Yarden, Single Vineyard, Elrom, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2008: The first release of the Elrom Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon began as a special release with the 2001 vintage but has since evolved into nearly yearly releases, as the Golan Heights Winery seemingly saturates the market with their Single Vineyard wines. However one may feel about this phenomenon, there is really no room for reservations with regard to anything coming out of the amazing Elrom vineyard and this wine is no exception – incredible. While I am not as convinced as others that every 2008 wine is an oenophilic fantasy, this wine comes pretty close. A big, rich and complex full-bodied wine that converts you to its charms the second it’s poured into your glass. Rich black fruits of blackberries, currents and sweet cherries together with gripping tannins, plenty of oak, cedar and crushed Mediterranean herbs on both the nose and palate leading into a long lingering finish of black fruit, a hint of spicy oak, chocolate and a tint of mint. With a round and mouth filling palate, this wine can actually be enjoyed now, however it would be a crime to do so as the amount of potential for growth in this wine is overwhelming and your cellaring patience will be rewarded in a few years as the various components of this wine continue to integrate and compliment each other. I’d wait at least 12-18 months before opening and would expect this wine to cellar for at least a decade.

Herzog, Haystack Peak Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2007: The last of the three musketeers among Herzog’s current single vineyard collection and my favorite of the three. Not as intense as the To-Kalon or mysterious as the Clone 6, but somewhere in between while still maintaining plenty of both with elegance and grace. A rich and medium to full-bodied wine with plums, cherries and blackberries which are matched with cigar leaf, pencil shavings and bittersweet chocolate with a pleasing overlay of not-overwhelming toasty oak. An ever-so-slightly minty finish tinged with vanilla that goes on for quite some time completes this wine. A wine to be enjoyed with like-minded folks and perfect right now with a few additional years of cellaring (if not improving) time ahead of it.

Psagot, Single Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2007: I am totally smitten with this winery which has continuously improved year over year since its founding, with the 2009 vintage being particularly fabulous. While a 2009 Single Vineyard wine was produced, the 2007 is the currently marketed vintage and is extremely enjoyable now that its been given some resting time presenting as an iron fist of power wrapped in a velvet glove of elegance. For those who care about scores, Mark Squires from the Wine Advocate gave the wine an 88 but in my opinion it deserves a much higher score. Inky black and full bodied, this wine is packed with black currents, cherries and other black forest fruits along with cedar box, sweet wood, espresso and hints of baker’s chocolate. Take it slowly with this wine as every 15-30 minutes in the glass we were rewarded with new and exciting layers that continued to reveal themselves over the course of a leisurely three hour exploration of this wine. Delightful right now with 4-5 years of additional cellaring time ahead of it.

Ramot Naftaly, Special Edition, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2009: I was really excited to find Ramot Naftaly at the Sommelier exhibition as my planned visit to the winery had fallen through a few days earlier. Founded in 2003 by its owner and winemaker – Yitzchak Cohen, who was initially assisted by Tal Pelter (from the non-kosher Pelter winery) and whose daughter currently assists with the winemaking duties. The winery has been kosher since the 2009 vintage, and is currently producing approximately 10,000 bottles annually. The soft and medium bodied wine spent 12 months in oak and provides a nice nose of black currents, blackberries, a bit of cherry along with oak and noticeable herbs on the palate, accompanied by dark chocolate, tobacco leaf, a bit of tar and wood, with soft and well integrated tannins providing a pleasing backbone for this wine. As of now, this wine is only sold in Israel but is worth trying if you get the opportunity – at around 60 NIS (~$16), is a nice bargain. Enjoyable now and not for long-time cellaring, this wine should cellar for another 2-3 years at most.

Recanati, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2010: As the winery continues its move from California to the Rhone (i.e. from big fruit forward wines to elegant wines that match nicely with food and try to represent some of Israel’s unique terroir), they continue to be both a “Safe Bet Winery” and one that provides more “YH Best Buys” than almost any other, solidifying their position as one of the best QPR (quality to price ratio) wineries in Israel. An easy recommendation at approximately $12 a bottle this is an easy-drinking and approachable Cabernet Sauvignon wine with enough complexity to provide stimulation to the serious wine enthusiast. A medium to full-bodied wine with plenty of rich black fruit on the nose, tinged with slightly spicy wood and roasted nuts, that is accompanied on the palate with herbs, pungent earth and a finish of oak, a bit more black fruit and baker’s chocolate tinged with mint. Meant for early consumption, the wine will likely hold its own for a year or two of cellaring as well.

Segal, Unfiltered, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2007: An unbelievably delicious wine whose popularity and cult-like following has unfortunately succeeded in overshadowing many of Segal’s other great wines, including one of my favorites – the single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon from the Dishon vineyard. That said, while the price point for this wine may be a bit excessive the adoration it garners is well deserved, especially if one exhibits a bit of restraint and patience. If you allow this wine some graceful cellaring time to mature and for the oak influence of 25 months of aging to recede a bit, you will be rewarded with nothing short of magnificence. Full bodied, with tons of black currents, cherries, sweet blackberry and a hint of juicy plum on the nose along with background noises of spicy oak, rich dark chocolate, all of which are enveloped with a good jolt of acid and tannin granting the wine the balance and structure to be a great wine. The palate contains more of the same with more oak, roasted Mediterranean herbs, a tinge of green and some warm spices leading into a fruit and dark chocolate laden finish with more crushed herbs and a pleasing bitterness lingering. While eminently drinkable now, I’d give this wine another year before letting it loose and it should cellar nicely for another 8 years or so, maybe longer.