Sunday, March 20, 2011

Cab Sav-y: Vertical Tasting Leads Straight Up

A nice tan is not the only thing California climate can offer. Apparently it can also provide a kick-ass Cabernet. After spending a long summer in California on tour, I discovered I could revel in its perfect balance of warm days and cool nights. Only when I was back in Brooklyn did I discover that this perfect weather did not only suit me, but the Cabernet Sauvignon grape, making for a subsequently delicious wine. This particular grape needs the day's heat to get ripe (much like myself), yet is equally in need of cool nights to procure a natural acidity. Thus I developed a crush on Califonia Cab in New York City, participating in a vertical tasting at Brooklyn Wine Exchange from Cathy Corison's Kronos Vineyard, one of the oldest for the grape in Napa Valley with 40 year-old vines. Well, thank you Ms. Corison for opening my taste buds. I've never been a huge 100% Cab fan, always tending towards the spicy, earthiness of a Syrah or Malbec on a limited menu, and if given free reign, reaching for the endless varietal blends. Suffice it to say, plainly: Cab wasn't my style. Well, styles change. Now I know that this grape can have my name written all over it.

Cathy's Cab-only organic vineyard afforded us to try this wine from the same grape and producer, but from six different vintages, which makes it a vertical tasting - a first for me. (A horizontal tasting - you guessed it - is the inverse: different wines of the same vintage.) Her love of wine making was ever-apparent with every sip I took, priding herself in attention to quality with evenly ripened grapes. And the prices reflect that; the bottles we sampled ranged $110 to $220. This tasting provided the perfect platform to really assess and compare the grape, which I so often dismissed, with itself! Its versatility in body and flavor couldn't have been better illustrated in sampling it from different years. In order: 1996, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006.

One would think that in following the "wine gets better with age" logic, the oldest would be the hands-down best and that favoritism would steadily decrease as the tastes got younger and younger. Surprise! Not so. In the end, my top to bottom ranking went a little something like this: 1998, 2004, 2006, 2000, 2002, 1996. Do you see the pattern? Don't worry, neither do I. Go figure.

Cathy agreed with me that the 1998 vintage was one of the best wines she ever made. It had the balanced complexity of power and elegance, with a lovely ripe and fruity nose shadowed by a rich hint of chocolate. Its viscosity lent itself to an extraordinarily smooth finish and pleasant softness on the palate. Too bad I didn't have the well-worth-it $138 to add it to my collection.

A close second (and at the same price) was the 2004, another vintage she was very pleased with as well, due to the ideal weather conditions during an early picking, and a not-too-hot ripening period. Presenting itself to me in dark plum form, I already expected the assertive richness it delivered. The nose was surprisingly subtle with dollops of cocoa and spice (no surprise why I favored it). But going down it tasted as bold as its color, with deep fruits and welcome spice, making it a very well-rounded bottle.

And I never would have guessed that the youngest, least mature bottle from 2006 would have placed in the top half of my preferences. At $110, this classic Cab is a keeper. It was the darkest and thickest of the bunch. As I brought it to my nostrils, I was assaulted (in the best way possible) by sun-kissed caramel. The juiciness certainly followed through to my tongue but was not overpowering. Its intimidating appearance fooled me as it was smooth and rich in the simplest way, which I really appreciated. Can't judge a book by its cover, nor a wine by its color.

While the aforementioned was more demure than it appeared, the opposite can be said for the 2000 vintage. Moving in a thin pale cherry swirl around my glass, and remaining reserved aromatically, I did not expect the layered affect it had as it traveled down. This can probably be attributed to the French oak barrels it sat in, of which I am no particular fan. Starting from the front of the palate to the back of the throat, the initial intensity and bite diminished, giving it a complex long finish. A complexity that didn't necessarily work in its favor, leaving me not sure what to think.

My opinion of the 2002 (5th in the my hierarchy) did not seem to correlate with Cathy's, as she considered this a classic vintage for her vineyard. While she described it as powerful and elegant, I would brand it with subtlety and simplicity. This also was thin like the 2000, but a darker ruby. The nose wafted of flowers and grass and the palate ripe yet light fruit. Pleasant but not my favorite; forgettable in the showcased shuffle.

And wouldn't you know it, the oldie was not my goodie. The 1996, the most expensive at $220, was my least favorite. This could be because, according to Cathy, the assertiveness of a Cab diminishes with age, and I usually tend to a bolder wine. While still a great wine along with the rest, this one had a finish of harsher tannins than I would prefer and a slight after-taste I would rather not have lingering. But I certainly could linger with its scent, smelling of aged burnt wood and fireside warmth.

Now bear in mind as with any ranking system, there is always one that comes in last. But this is only comparatively speaking, as I am putting Cab against Cab here. There is no loser when it comes to these vintages, all offering something unique, depending on the style one prefers. I am happy to report I am now hip to the Cab Sav. No longer will I shun it, for I have concluded: The breadth of this grape is as far-reaching as the vines on which it grows.