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[Photo: Robyn Lee]

Last week, we kicked off the Serious Eats Amateur Wine Taste-Along with Chardonnay; this week, we're crossing over to reds and giving Cabernet Sauvignon a go. 

If you only learn about a handful of red wine grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon should be at the top of your list; it's one of the most widely planted grapes in the world. It's the result of a cross between Sauvignon Blanc (used to make white wine) and Cabernet Franc (red); wine historians believe that this cross occurred in Bordeaux, a region now long famed for its Cabernet Sauvignon blends. (Since French wines are labeled by region, rather than by grape, any wine called a Bordeaux just means that the wine is from that area. However, nearly 90% of the wine from Bordeaux is red, and Cabernet Sauvignon dominates Bordeaux reds; it's often blended with Merlot or Cabernet Franc). 

Today, Napa Valley produces Cabernet Sauvignon now widely believed to rank up there with the best French bottles, and this grape grown almost everywhere wine is made: from Australia to Lebanon, Sonoma to Tuscany, Washington to Argentina. Since the grape has a particularly thick skin, it's more resilient—less likely to rot or frost—which has helped it flourish in a huge range of conditions and climates. 

So What Does It Taste Like?

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Cabernet Sauvignon on the vine. [Photo: Maggie Hoffman]

While these wines show staggering diversity, Cabernet Sauvignons are, in general, big, tannic wines—the kind of thing you drink with steak, not fish. (Tannins are those astringent compounds that dry out your mouth in red wine—and tea. If you've ever had a sip of red that made the inside of your mouth feel dry, that's the tannins at work.) Words like juicy or berries, which might come to mind with, say, a Merlot, are less likely to occur to you as you're drinking a Cabernet Sauvignon. It's more likely to be currant or tobacco or green pepper. (Of course, every wine tastes different; and every taster perceives them differently).

But that tannin concentration means three things for Cabs. One, they age well; mellowing over time. The top examples of Cabernet Sauvignons are the kind that might drink best decades from their bottling date. Two, since aging in oak barrels helps softens those harsh tannins, Cabernet Sauvignons (and blends) are often oaked, just like many of the Chardonnays we tasted last week. When oaking is done well, the wine can feel softer or fuller in the mouth, with notes of vanilla and spice; generally speaking, aging in newer oak barrels imparts more of that oaky flavor, and aging in older barrels, less. Finally, Cabernet Sauvignons are often blended with other grapes (Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Franc; the list goes on) for a rounder wine with more fruit elements.

Our Wines This Time

In this tasting, we're hitting three continents: Europe, with a Cabernet Sauvignon from the Languedoc region of France; California, with one from the Napa Valley that's mostly Cab with a bit of Merlot, and one that's a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from Sonoma, Napa, and Lake County; a Cab from the Horse Heaven Hills in Washington; and one from Argentina.

French: Baron Phillippe de Rothschild Cadet d'Oc 

Our French selection is a Baron Phillippe de Rothschild Cadet d'Oc Cabernet Sauvignon 2009. Let's take that long name apart for a moment.  Baron Phillippe de Rothschild is one of the most famous names in winemaking, a Frenchman who took over his family's Château Mouton Rothschild vineyards and established them as some of the finest in Bordeaux; he also began to sell a lower-priced Bordeaux under the name of Mouton Cadet that's now one of the most widely selling wines in the world.

The wine we'll be trying, the Cadet d'Oc Cabernet Sauvignon (about $10), is from Langeudoc Roussillon—a region running along the southern Mediterranean coast that's France's biggest wine producer. Rothschild has a number of wines from the Pays d'Oc that are branded by varietal (that is, grape; here, the Cabernet Sauvignon).

Argentina: Crios De Susana Balbo 

Argentina's Mendoza province is by far the country's most prolific wine producer; while it's often associated with Malbec, it has a substantial Cabernet Sauvignon output, too. We're trying the Crios De Susana Balbo Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 (about $15); Susana Balbo is one of the more acclaimed producers in Mendoza, despite the low prices of many of the bottles that emerge from this winery.

California and Washington: Raymond, Mount Veeder, Columbia Crest 

A single grape can grow differently under different conditions—even in two neighboring regions like Napa and Sonoma Valley. That's the rationale behind the 2008 Raymond Family Classic Cabernet Sauvignon (about $30), which blends the same grape, grown in three regions: Napa, Sonoma, and Lake County. We're also trying a 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon blend from Mount Veeder Winery (about $30), in the western part of Napa; it's 82% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, and 3% other red varietals. It's aged in oak for 24 months; 91% French oak, 84% new.

Finally, from Washington, we've got the 2008 Columbia Crest H3 Horse Heaven Hills Cabernet Sauvignon, from the sandy-soiled Horse Heaven Hills region of Washington (about $11). You might think of Washington as all rain and grey skies, but in the eastern part of the state, the hilly landscape is incredibly dry (about 8 inches of rainfall a year) and wines are often grown on southern-facing slopes to maximize natural sunlight. This wine in particular is aged in French and American oak, 40% of that new, for 14 to18 months.

So, as always, grab these wines, or any Cabernet Sauvignon you choose; give 'em a taste; and join us back here next week to chat about them!

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