Wines of the Week

The Many Kinds of Cabernet

Mostly, when we hear the word “cabernet,” we immediately think of Cabernet Sauvignon.  That’s reasonable, because Cab Sauv is the big dog in the red wine world.  Most of the finest, longest-lived wines are made from this grape, which is known as one of the six “noble” varietals.  (The others are Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, and Pinot Noir).

However, there’s more than one kind of Cabernet to enjoy.  One of my favorites is the somewhat obscure alternative of Cabernet Franc.  This grape also makes big, bold reds, just like its genetic cousin. The difference is that, while a really fine Cabernet Sauvignon can cost hundreds, a decent Cab Franc will cost a fraction of that.  Bargains abound.

 Sidebar:  the real fame of Cabernet Franc comes from the role it plays in the so-called “Bordeaux blend.”  Wines from France’s justly-famous Bordeaux region generally consist of a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and yes, Cabernet Franc.  The grape gives Bordeaux wines a measure of finesse, and an interesting, subtle, peppery edge.  Vinified on its own, it produces a wine that ranges from medium to full-bodied.  We enjoy drinking it alone, as well as pairing it with grilled meats and similar dishes.

 The spiritual home of the Cabernet Franc grape is right in the middle of France’s Loire valley.  I wrote a bit about the Loire over 18 months ago, and at that time I was enchanted with the beautiful, crisp, fruity Sauvignon Blancs that made the region famous.  (Still enchanted, by the way).  But even though the region is known for white wines, the Cab Francs from the central part of the valley can be blockbusters.

 Since I spend a good deal of time inspecting the selections on local wine store shelves, I’ve recently noticed a flood of very respectable, highly rated wines in the under-$20 range.  And, since most people may not recognize the names of the somewhat obscure winegrowing regions, those who do (that’s us) can pretty much have our pick. 

The big bargains right now are coming from the aforementioned regions of Chinon and Bourgueil, and also from another central Loire region called Samur-Champigny.  This area is mostly known for sparkling wines, and for whites made from the Chenin Blanc grape.  The red wines are made from Cabernet Franc.

A castle tower in Chinon...and you should see the chateaux

So…what’s it taste like?  When sampling wine, it’s helpful to remember that there are five major characteristics to look for:  fruit, floral, spice, vegetal, and oak.  Most Cabernet Francs offer fruit flavors of black currant, raspberry, and plum.  Floral notes are usually of violets.  The spice flavors are often reminiscent of black licorice, and aging in oak barrels imparts flavors of vanilla, coconut, and sometimes caramel.

Here are my favorite new discoveries, all under $20 a bottle.

Reserve des Vignerons 2009 – This Cabernet Franc from Samur Champigny was a nice surprise.  We enjoyed it with grilled salmon.

Vignobles du Paradis Cuvée Signée Chinon 2009—This is one of the wines I discovered in Fort Lauderdale.  Bought a bottle, tried it, went back and bought a case.

Two other great finds:  JV Fleury Carianne 2009, a blend of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre from the Cotes du Rhone area, and Jean Marie Arnoux Vacqueyras 2007, a Grenache-based wine from the Southern Rhone.  The 14.5% alcohol content makes this a big, bold 

Mendocino Makes a Mark

Pax Syrah Mendocino County Alder Springs Vineyard 2006

I’ve been visiting California wine country for over fifteen years and somehow never made it up to the Mendocino area.  Looks like I’m going to have to make the trip because the wines coming out of there are nothing short of stupendous. 

Cousin David (pictured here with his incredibly fabulous wife Caroline) turned me on to Pax wines a few years ago, and we bought some together.  They’ve been resting in my cellar ever since, but last night I took the plunge and opened a bottle.  What was I waiting for?

Well, I knew these would be big wines and require some time in the bottle to develop, but the waiting is over.  I’m going to be hitting the rest of the bottles on a regular basis.

The Alder Springs Syrah (only 428 cases made…maybe that’s why I was saving it) is a deep ruby color in the glass, with a very subtle nose of smoke and dark flowers.  On the palate, there’s earth and dark flowers, some black pepper, blackberry, and perhaps a little creosote, with very well-integrated tannins.

The wine lingers on the midpalate, rather than farther back, and is relatively chewy even though it’s medium-bodied.  Wish I had more.  WW 93-94

Meet Mike Smith – Ordinary Name, Extraordinary Wines

The Envy Winery in Calistoga

If you take Route 29 up through Napa Valley, go through the blinker light at Calistoga, and continue past Petrified Forest Road, you’ll come to a little street called Tubbs Lane.  It is here, at Envy Winery, that Mike Smith does his thing.  And what a thing it is.

Mike makes some of the most blockbuster wines to come out of the area, and the only bad news is that he doesn’t make enough.  Not surprising, considering that he performs every aspect of the winemaking operations his own self.  But the good news is you can probably get some.

Debi in the barrel room with Mike Smith

On a trip to the area in January Mike was kind enough to host us in the barrel room, and even nicer enough to pour samples of his latest efforts.

Quivet Cellars Kenefick Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 –Dark purple in the glass, with ripe tannins that help it drink well at this young age.  The flavors are of dark plum, smoke, and sage.  A great effort.  WW 94-95

Mike pours for Debi.

Myriad Beckstoffer Dr. Crane Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 – Another deeply colored, inky effort with profound dark fruit flavors and hints of sage on the long finish.  WW 94-95

Myriad Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 —  I love Spring Mountain, because some of my favorite wines come from there.  This is a new favorite.  There’s more fruit and minerality on the nose than in Mike’s other efforts, which makes it sort of a more “typical” Napa Valley Cabernet, but the big up-front fruit is the only typical thing about it.  There are deep flavors here, and a lingering finish.  WW 94

He's very handy with the wine thief. We love him for that.

I don’t know much about Mike’s distribution, because, as I said, his production is limited.  Still, it’s worth trying to get your hands on some.  Try contacting Mike at

Do you know the way to Beaujolais?

Until now, I’ve never been a big fan of the Gamay grape, especially since I got tired of the hype surrounding the annual release of Beaujolais Nouveau every November.  The wines always seemed a bit insipid to me, thin and fruit-juicy with no dimension or complexity.

I’m happy to admit that I was wrong, and happier to admit that certain appellations in this particular area of Burgundy are turning out wines that are not only well worth drinking, but stupendous bargains as well.

In my sampling, I’ve more or less concluded that the wines from Morgon and Moulin-a-Vent generally have more stuffing and concentration than those from Fleurie, Chiroubles, and the other districts.  Now that the 2009 vintage has been lauded as “the vintage of a lifetime” in the area, some very worthy examples are showing up on the shelves.

First is the George Duboeuf Moulin-a-Vent 2009, which retails for maybe $15-$16.  Nicely concentrated, it has a good tannic grip which gives it some structural muscle, and flavors of cherry and blackberry.

We’ve already gone through a case of it.

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