Food & Drink

The Grapevine: Why many cabernets are more than cabernet

Wines made from 100 percent cabernet sauvignon are common these days. But that hasn't always been the case. In Bordeaux, for example, it is nearly always blended with at least one other grape.

Part of the reason is climate: Unreliable conditions in Bordeaux mean that some varieties ripen better than others in a given year. But another reason is that vintners knew that cabernet sauvignon could often be improved by adding some other grapes. Cabernet franc, for example, adds savory aromas, while merlot and malbec can add lusciousness.

There are places in California — the Napa Valley, for example — where cabernet sauvignon on its own is often the complete package: structured yet fleshy and inviting. That's not necessarily the case everywhere. In the recent Central Coast Wine Competition in Paso Robles, I tasted a couple of dozen cabernets from the 2009 and 2010 vintages, as well as a similar number of 2006-2010 Bordeaux-style blends. As a group, the blends simply were more complete, complex wines.

Take, for example, the wine judged to be the best in the Bordeaux blend class, the 2007 Pedregal Cache ($25), a blend of two-thirds cabernet sauvignon and one-third merlot from Paicines, in San Benito County. The wine is structured and lively, but it also has a density and richness that make it very alluring. The 2008 Whalebone “Bob Wine” ($30) from Paso Robles, which is about three-quarters cabernet sauvignon and onequarter merlot, with a splash of petit verdot, is dark and rich, but there’s also an intriguing savory note to keep things interesting. And there was the more opulent, spicy 2007 Still Waters Clone 3 Cuvee ($34), which is based on merlot and malbec.

I was also a fan of the 2008 J. Lohr Cuvee St. E ($50), a Paso Robles blend of mostly cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon that was inspired by the wines of St. Emilion, on the right bank of Bordeaux. The wine has the fragrance and elegance of cabernet franc, coupled with the weight and structure of cabernet sauvignon.

All of the aforementioned wines were awarded gold medals. (Bordeaux blends are sometimes labeled as “Meritage,” and those wines were in a separate category, which I didn’t judge.)

There were, of course, some cabernet sauvignons that held their own. The 2009 Le Vigne “Kiara Reserve” Cabernet Sauvignon ($20), which won best-of-class honors, is more than 99 percent cab, with a tiny splash of cabernet franc. The wine is ripe, dark and concentrated, with considerable tannin. And the 2009 B&E Vineyard Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($25), which is all cab, offers lively black fruit with a note of anise.

But some of the best wines in the cabernet category contained sizable amounts of other grapes. (A wine labeled as cabernet sauvignon is required to be just 75 percent cab.) For example, the 2009 Vina Robles Cabernet Sauvignon ($24), a gold medalist, is 15 percent petit verdot and 10 percent tannat; the wine is rich, dark and lively, with dark fruit, a hint of mint and firm structure.

Reach Laurie Daniel at