Because we are located in Napa Valley, we admit we can get a little Napa-centric sometimes. So, let’s take a step back for a minute for a lesson on the major appellations in California for Cabernet Sauvignon and their characteristics.
Cabernet Sauvignon is a steady performer across much of California’s extensive winegrowing regions and, in varying degrees, produces wines of extraordinary depth, richness and quality. Local climate and soil play a major part in how the finished wine tastes, and we will examine in some detail how this manifests itself in many of California’s important Cabernet-producing areas.
Any study of California’s Cabernet-producing regions must begin with the Napa Valley. Cabernet is King here, and the story of the wine and the pioneers who put Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon on the map is outlined elsewhere in this study. The varietal reaches its greatest heights in the thin soils and warm climate here, producing ripe, full-bodied wines of great intensity and depth of flavor. Subtle changes in taste and style may also be seen in certain microclimates within the valley. Wines from the Stag’s Leap District (home of the 1976 Paris Tasting winner and the Steltzner Vineyards wine offered in this study) tend to be more supple than the deep, complex, structured wines from Rutherford, with brighter fruit and more polished tannins. Chiles Valley, down the road in St. Helena, is known for ripe, layered fruit in its elegant, age-worthy Cabernets. And from the hillside vineyards in the Spring Mountain District come bold, intense and deeply flavored Cabernets brimming with cherry and berry fruit flavors.
Sonoma County is not strictly an appellation, but many wines blended from fruit grown in various parts of the county are covered by this designation, and these wines can be extraordinarily complex and rewarding. Many western coastal enclaves of the county are often too cool to fully ripen Cabernet Sauvignon, but in warmer pockets further inland such as the Alexander Valley, the climate is ideal for big, rich, ripe Cabernets with definitive ‘earthy’ characteristics.
Mendocino County takes in the northernmost appellations of the greater North Coast and is likewise used to designate wines that don’t fully fit a specific appellation. Unlike the Napa Valley, Cabernet is not a dominant grape here as parts of the county are better suited to cool climate varieties like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. But in the warmer inland valleys such as the Anderson Valley and the upper Russian River Valley, Cabernet grapes ripen slowly and completely, producing deep, flavorful, well-balanced wines with supple tannins and good structure.
Rugged and mountainous, the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco have long produced rich, distinctive wines. The cool climate here, again, can cause problems for the slow-ripening Cabernet, but certain well-chosen sites protected from the wind and exposed to long sunny days can produce extraordinarily deep and layered wines. Summertime heat can aid ripening, delivering bright fruit on a wellbalanced frame.
Southeast of Sacramento, in the Sierra foothills, is Calaveras County, a part of ‘Gold Rush’ country that once saw grapevines planted alongside the mining claims. While an inland appellation, the altitude in the foothills provides ideal growing conditions for wine grapes, and the county has seen a resurgence of vineyards here over the last decade. Cabernet Sauvignon does extremely well here as the combination of sunny days and cool nights can bring the fruit slowly and evenly to full ripeness before the threat of frost. Calaveras Cabernets are medium-bodied, ripe and elegant, and very approachable in their youth while maintaining a degree of ageability.
The generic California Appellation covers the entire California region and is used on wines that blend grapes from any two or more of the appellations noted above. Blended wines bring together the distinctive characteristics of different areas and often result in delightfully layered wines where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. This is especially true of Cabernet Sauvignon which seems to take on the distinctive personality of the region in which it is grown better than any other variety.
Basil steals the show in this lovely recipe highlighting the sweet, tender herb which is so bountiful this time of year. The combination of the refreshing, crisp lemon and cool, sweet basil make this an excellent match with Sauvignon Blanc.
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil
1/3 cup chopped green onions
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon lemon pepper
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 (6-ounce) skinless, boneless chicken breast halves
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh basil
2 tablespoons low-fat mayonnaise
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
3/4 teaspoon bottled minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon olive oil
To prepare chicken, combine first 6 ingredients in a large bowl. Add chicken to basil mixture, turning to coat.
Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Coat pan with cooking spray. Add chicken to pan; cook 8 minutes on each side or until done.
While chicken cooks, prepare aioli. Combine 1/4 cup basil and remaining ingredients in a small bowl, stirring with a whisk. Serve with chicken.
Wine Pairing Recommendation: Vina Sutil Sauvignon Blanc (Chile)
Noticeably less acidic than New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, this Chilean shines a yellow gold color with hints of green. An expressive nose of citrus and tropical fruit leads you to a palate replete with herbs, grapefruit and ripe pineapple, along with notes of fresh grass. Well-balanced and lively in the mouth, it has a good acidity and a long finish.
Only $15.99 Bottle
As our experiences increase with wine tasting and we get more comfortable, we sometimes develop limited explanations or make associations according to our present knowledge of wine.
For example, I recently had the pleasure of pouring wine on behalf of Winetasting.com for hundreds of people at the Fancy Food Show in DC. I had many people ask, “Is that wine sweet?” My answer was, “Well, it depends on how you define sweet. Do you mean sweet like sugar or sweet as in a wine with lot of forward fruit?” I was able to ascertain by their answer what they perceived as sweet, but I realized that I did not know myself what the technical definition of a “sweet” wine is.
This experience made me realize how important it is that we continually seek to refresh and increase our level of wine knowledge. Wine is a complex subject that requires continual education which is also what makes it so intriguing. I found this refresher on fruit, alcohol, acidity and sweetness, the four main components that create the flavors in wine, to be particularly helpful.
The one fruit that wine seldom tastes of is grapes. That is why wine has fascinated the world for centuries. But why is that? It is because of the fermentation and aging processes involved in winemaking that produce an enormous array of chemical compounds which take the flavor of wine way beyond grapes.
Alcohol is a product of fermentation when yeasts act on sugars present in the grape juice, resulting in alcohol. Because the level of alcohol is directly related to the level of sugars present, the riper the grapes, the higher the alcohol...as in the case of late harvest and dessert wines. Alcohol is what gives a wine its weight and body. It is what contributes to the mouthfeel and balance and helps the wine to age gracefully.
Acidity is necessary to both flavor and for its preservative qualities. Acidity is also what makes a wine taste refreshing and balances the fruit flavors with the weightiness of alcohol. Acidity comes mostly from grapes, and partly from the fermentation process. The main acids present in wine are tartaric acid, malic acid, and lactic acid.
Sweetness in wine is optional. Yeast, if left to itself will usually ferment all the sugar present and turn it into alcohol. The definition of sweetness is measured in grams per liter of residual sugar. A wine can be legally dry with up to 10 grams per liter of residual sugar. A medium-dry wine can have between 10-20 grams of sugar, a medium-sweet wine will have 20-30 grams per sugar and a sweet wine will have 30 grams per liter, maybe more.
One of my early memories as I was beginning to appreciate wine was my first lesson in cork taint. I had just sipped from a freshly poured glass of red wine, replying with the standard polite, beginner’s head nod as I tried like hell to identify the “cherry” and “plum” flavors I had heard so much about. Meanwhile, my seasoned co-worker sniffed her glass and replied, “Ick. This wine is corked!” and proceeded to toss the wine down the kitchen sink without even sipping. Corked? What did this mean? Whatever it meant, it was obviously bad and I quickly followed suit.
We’ve all heard the expression no doubt at some point but what exactly, does the term “corked” mean?
Cork taint is most commonly produced when naturally-occurring airborne fungi are exposed to chlorine compounds, which are then converted into chloroanisole. The result is called TCA (feared winemaker speak) and is responsible for most of the cases of cork taint.
So what does it smell like and how do you detect it? Think fungi. People commonly describe it as a damp, dark moldy basement, moldy newspaper, wet cardboard or mushrooms. There is great debate as to whether you can detect cork taint by sniffing the cork (and I will let you be the judge) but there are two sure fire ways that do not:
1) Its an expensive wine and therefore less prone to cork taint. Sorry. TCA is a naturally occurring fungi and does not discriminate.
2) There are bits of cork in the wine or crystals on the cork. Nope. The bits of cork are likely caused by a dry cork and the crystals are formed as a result of tartrate crystals which form when tartaric acid and potassium combine in chilly conditions.
So how many wines are affected by cork taint?
There is much debate as to how many corks TCA effects. It really depends on who you ask. For example, the Cork Quality Council finds that TCA only affects less than 1% of all corks while the wine industry estimates between 3-5%. Yet, in 2005 Wine Spectator concluded that of 2800 bottles tested, 7% were affected. I would guess somewhere in the middel - it does not seem coincidental to me that each statistic conveniently benefits each.
My advice is to keep tasting and developing trust in your own judgement. Developing your palate is a journey and like life, sometimes we need to be reminded of the bad times to appreciate the good times.
Question...While reading about this topic I found several articles which debated as to whether smelling the cork could indicate a problematic wine . Does anyone think one way or the other on this?