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Fall Color Report

From the Vineyard

by Paul Franson

Cabernet Sauvignon - the king of wines

The most popular varietal red wine in America is Cabernet Sauvignon.

In fact, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot are all cousins from Bordeaux. Cabernet Sauvignon is the king of wines, a major component in some of the world's most famous wines, like Chateau Lafite- Rothschild and Chateau Margaux, though the most expensive of all, Pétrus, is primarily Merlot.

Cabernet Sauvignon is also the highest production variety in California. In Napa Valley, fine Cabernet has become as prized as in Bordeaux and tiny "cult" producers can sell their wines for hundreds of dollars per bottle.

All members of the Cabernet family can exhibit green, herbal characteristics, if grown in excessively cool regions, are picked underripe or come from vines that produce too much crop. If not skillfully made, they can also be excessively tannic and require long aging, but Cabernets well made from the proper locations demonstrate why the wines are in such demand by wine lovers.

Cabernet Sauvignon, one of the major grape varieties used in Bordeaux, has become the grape of choice in Napa Valley. There are a number of reasons it has become preeminent, unlike in Bordeaux, where many wines have little if any Cabernet Sauvignon in them but are blends of related varieties.

Historically, Cabernet Sauvignon didn't ripen fully in cool years in Bordeaux and other varieties did, and they were used to create a balanced wine. It almost always ripens fully in most of California, however, creating a good wine on its own. In addition, that style is preferred by many critics and consumers.

In the right location, which includes much of Napa County, Paso Robles, Lodi and parts of Sonoma County, a Cabernet Sauvignon that's picked ripe can be an impressive wine, and that style has become the epitome of California wines. These highly extracted, dense wines tend to be high in alcohol, however. A few decades ago, the standard wine—including Cabernet—had an alcohol level of 12.5 percent. The fashion is to let the grapes get riper to obtain more intense fruit and avoid any trace of vegetal, "green" flavors that were once characteristic of most Cabernets.

Many growers also starve the vines for water, which concentrates flavors and sugar. If they watered the grapes, the alcohol would be lower. The standard is now about 14.5 percent alcohol, and many wines are even higher.

Many people find these wines taste hot and unbalanced, so some producers use artificial means of removing alcohol or even dilute the grape juice with water during fermentation to compensate for the dehydration.

These riper wines also have more subdued tannins, the bitter flavors that once were softened by long aging. Winemakers have learned other techniques to reduce harsh tannins, and most Cabernets today can be drunk and enjoyed soon after release. Many peak in a few years and then head downhill.

Many producers also add other varieties to obtain desired flavors. Petite Verdot, for example, not only provides intense purple color but violet aromas, while Merlot is softer. Cabernet Franc ripens at a cooler temperature, and Malbec can take even more heat.

The Cabernets of Napa Valley come in many styles, from lean, traditional "European" styles mostly from older winemakers to easy-to-drinkyoung styles to massive cult favorites that are better in tastings than with dinner, since they overwhelm most food.

The leaner wines tend come from cooler regions like southern Napa and mountainous areas. There are more than 500 wineries (and far more labels) in Napa Valley, and almost anyone can find a style they like.

Paul Franson is a writer living in Napa, CA. ~

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