There are few things I enjoy more during these winter months than sitting next to my nonfunctioning fireplace and savoring a big glass of robust red wine. And for me, no wine screams snowy weather more than Cabernet Sauvignon. The driving force behind Bordeaux’s best, the king of Napa Valley, Cab reigns supreme, producing arguably the most complex, expressive (and expensive) wines in the world.
Cabernet Sauvignon in particular has extraordinary aging potential: The greatest Bordeaux evolve beautifully in the bottle for decades and decades after the grapes are harvested. When drunk young, Cab has a reputation for tasting a bit “tight,” meaning its flavors seem compacted or closed-off. One easy way to combat this problem is through aeration, a process that exposes the wine to oxygen, also known as allowing the wine to “breathe.” Aerating is easy and literally begins the second you uncork (or unscrew) the bottle. I will often pour red wine into a decanter — a special vase for wine — to reveal more surface area and speed things up. Decanters come in all shapes and sizes — some are truly works of art — and can add extra flair to the table next time you host a wine night. But if you’re a chronic procrastinator, a nifty (albeit somewhat controversial) device called an aerator will get the job done on the spot. Since I only have one decanter and two Cabs, tonight I’m using my Soirée aerator, a round glass bulb with spiky indentations that attaches to the end of the bottle, softening the wine as you pour.
This evening, my friends and I are starting off with a bottle of Bordeaux before enjoying some Napa Cab. Situated on the southwestern French coast, Bordeaux is France’s largest wine region. Its chateaux collectively produce more than 700 million bottles a year, ranging from historically and internationally celebrated first-growths to food-friendly table wines. Whereas its rival region Burgundy creates single-varietal, hyper-terroir driven wines, Bordeaux firmly believes the greatest wines are created through blending a combination of five different grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec. The Gironde River divides Bordeaux into the right and left banks. Traditionally, a left-bank Bordeaux will be primarily composed of Cabernet Sauvignon, while a right-bank will feature more Merlot. Although supplying a very similar flavor profile to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot is often described as rounder and more velvety. Nevertheless, even wine experts have difficulty differentiating between Cab and Merlot in blind tastings. Cab Franc, the third most important varietal, notably contributes violet and spice notes.
But, despite being from the left-bank, the Château Hanteillan 2010 I’m sampling has a pretty even split between Cab and Merlot. 2010 has been revered as one of the greatest vintages of all time for Bordeaux, and this bottle does not disappoint. A silky, luxurious Bordeaux, the Château Hanteillan exhibits a bouquet of blackberries and mocha, paving the way for an earthy experience on the palate. This wine will taste great today or after a few years in the cellar.
The saying goes that “Cab is King” in Napa Valley. The most widely planted red grape in California, Cabernet Sauvignon is responsible for bringing international acclaim to the American wine industry. Napa winemakers will often make Bordeaux-style blends with California grapes, sometimes titled “Meritage,” but are more likely to offer a single-varietal wine. That said, American law states that for a wine to be labeled as a varietal, only 75% of the wine must be that grape. So, a lot of California Cabs are secretly blends as well. The Aviary Vineyards “Cabernet Sauvignon” 2011 that I’m drinking tonight is indeed 88% Cab, with hint of Merlot and Petite Sirah. In the Napa fashion, this Cab is more succulent and masculine than the Bordeaux. The wine boasts aromas of plum, currant, tobacco and pepper on the nose, all of which carry to taste. A powerful and classic California Cabernet, the wine demonstrates a long, lush finish.
So when you buy your valentine a box of chocolates next Friday, consider picking up a bottle of Cab to go along. The traditional rule for pairing with dessert is never to have the food be sweeter than the wine. Doing so will cause the wine to taste unpleasantly bitter, even if that truly isn’t the case. Cab drinks beautifully alongside dark chocolate, and together they can provide all the right ingredients for a decadent and romantic Valentine’s Day for you and that special someone — or to warm you up during any chilly night in with your besties.
Both the Château Hanteillan 2010 (Haut-Médoc, Bordeaux) $21 and the Aviary Vineyards “Cabernet Sauvignon” 2011 (Napa Valley, California) $20 are available for purchase at The Wine Thief (181 Crown St., New Haven).