The last few weeks I’ve had several conversations with people in the wine industry about a few winemakers in the region, one in particular, who claim to make superior wines in an “old world style”. I’ll come right out and say that their wines taste like good vinegar to me, however good vinegar makes great salad dressing.
The problem is that there is not a consumer standard for what is supposedly good or bad. It really depends on what people like me, and others who are more educated and highly paid have to write about the wines that they drink. A good score means that you have to like it because some “expert” did.
In preparing for this article I did a little research, beyond just drinking, and was reminded of a few points of reference. A few years ago there was a funny movie that was produced about winemaking, and it wasn’t that over-rated movie Sideways. The movie is called Bottle Shock. You can rent it from most local movie rental places or even download it on Netflix.
Bottle Shock, set in 1976 in California’s wine country is about the story of Steven Spurrier, a British wine merchant who sets out to prove that French wines are superior. He hosts the Judgement of Paris, the world’s first truly intercontinental judging of Cabernet and Chardonnay. The Americans beat the French, like usual, and the French whine, also like usual.
The rest of the movie you’ll have to watch for yourself. However, a few standards of what a good Cabernet are, are established during the Judgement of Paris. Those facts are pretty much immutable.
A good flavor profile for Cabernet Sauvignon begins with the grapes. Grapes that are picked right, with the right amount of sugar should have a soft vegetable flavor that is going to taste a little like Green Bell Pepper. A really established Cabernet vineyard, will produce flavors of Eucalyptus or Mint, which tells you that you are drinking pretty much the best of the best.
Spice is added to Cabernet Sauvignon through barrel aging. Depending on the wood and treatment by the cooper, barrels create different spices that will layer over the grape flavors to develop the wine’s complexity. Flavors of Vanilla, Cassis or Black Currant, Tobacco and Leather come from this aging process.
Lastly, a good winemaker balances the wine with just the right amount of tannin. Silky, smooth tannins that don’t overpower the fruit create a long and beautiful finish to the wine.
If you were wondering who won the 1976 Judgement of Paris, it was Stags Leap Vineyards, with their 1971. Stags Leap, now owned by our friends at St. Michelle, remains to be one of the outstanding examples of what a good cabernet should be. Of course, that region is full of other names such as Heitz or Rombauer.
Locally the best cabernet comes from just a few vineyards. Probably the most famous are Champoux, Seven Hills, Pepperbridge, and recently Ceil du’ Cheval. If you look on your label and see these names, you will likely be drinking what is likely to be the way a good Cabernet Sauvignon should taste.