February 26, 1997 in Food

Making A Case For Classy Cabernet

Leslie Kelly The Spokesman-Revie

Merlot madness reigns these days.

Wine writers from across the country have declared Washington merlots nothing short of magical. Even as the prices creep up into the $15 range, people can’t seem to get enough of this soft, fruity red. In some circles, it’s being referred to as the red chardonnay.

While all that’s fine and dandy, I’d like to make a case for cabernet.

Cabernet sauvignon has long been considered the king of red wines, the centerpiece for some of the most revered Bordeaux from France and the cornerstone of California’s wine industry. Until a few years ago, merlot played merely a supporting role to cabernet. Merlot was - and still is - widely used as a blending grape to soften the sometimes astringent quality of cabernet.

It might not be the most approachable wine, but vintners admire the depth of the cabernet grape’s character.

Rick Small at Woodward Canyon thinks cabernet has the potential to eventually replace merlot as Washington’s most distinguished wine.

“I still think this is going to be a cabernet state,” said Small, whose cab far outsells his merlot. “In the end, it’s just a better, more balanced wine.”

Michael Brunstein at Arbor Crest said that unlike the variable quality of other varietals, cabernets tend to be uniformly high-caliber.

“It’s like the difference between buying shoes at Kmart or buying shoes at Nordstrom,” he said.

Brian Carter agreed. “It’s my personal opinion that it’s a better wine,” said Carter, who makes wines under the Washington Hills, W.B. Bridgeman and Apex labels. “There’s a depth and complexity of character in cabernet that makes it a good candidate for aging.”

Today’s wine consumers want instant gratification, though. They don’t want to invest in something that’s going to have to sit in a wine cellar (or a basement closet) for years before it becomes drinkable.

A few wineries, however, will do the aging for you.

At the respected Chinook winery in Prosser, Kay Simon releases her cabernet only when she feels it’s ready to be enjoyed. This May, the 1992 Chinook cabernet will be available at the winery’s tasting room.

“It’s hard for a lot of wineries to justify the expense of hanging on to inventory, but that has always been our philosophy,” she said.

One of the reasons cabernet can come off as such a monster in its youth is that the grapes are so small. The smaller the grape, the more skin that goes into the mix. And the skins are home to tannins, the sometimes harsh-tasting compounds that give wine its backbone.

Many producers have adjusted their winemaking techniques to make more consumer-friendly cabernets. They’ve invested in equipment that gently presses the grape to minimize the amount of tannin extracted from the skin.

It’s a common practice for red wines to undergo something called a malolactic fermentation, where a microorganism is introduced to convert the sharp malic acid into a mellower, lactic acid.

Also, a process known as fining is used by some producers to soften the tannins. Sometimes egg whites are added to the wines, Carter explained: “The proteins in the egg whites attach to the tannins and then settle out into the bottom of the tank.”

Aging cabernet in oak barrels - often up to two years - gives the wine time to develop and soften. Finally, cabernet is typically blended with merlot or cabernet franc to give it added intensity.

But the real trick in making a great cabernet starts in the vineyard. Cabernet likes it hot. The ideal site will allow for a later harvest so the grape’s flavor can fully develop.

Brunstein said he’s been delighted to discover some new vineyards to use for Arbor Crest’s reserve cabernet.

And Woodward Canyon’s Small has been purchasing vineyards to ensure the quality of his fruit.

I confess that cabernet is not my favorite, but it’s not because I don’t enjoy the big, brawny flavors. The reason I don’t drink more cabernet that it’s not the easiest wine to match with food. I don’t eat much red meat, which is considered the ideal cab complement.

Simon, who is a great cook as well as a highly regarded winemaker, said she’s found that in addition to steak and lamb, cabernet works well with chicken and pasta dishes.

“You’ve got to make them fairly spicy, though,” she said.

One unexpected benefit of this recent run on merlot is that it makes the price of cabernet seem like a bargain. These days, even your everyday merlot is $12 to $15 and the better ones are $20 and up.

A recent scan of my neighborhood supermarket wine shelf showed cabs to be priced a buck or two lower than most merlots.

I try to buy some smooth cabs for dinner tonight, and save those special ones for the cellar. Here are a few recommendations: Arbor Crest’s ‘93 cabernet ($14) was a real mouthful of plum and cocoa flavors with a touch of black pepper.

The ‘94 Woodward Canyon ($32) was a lush and velvety wine with a great balance of black cherry and berry flavors and muscular tannins that seemed to relax after the wine had sat in the glass for a while. But when wine tastes this good, it’s tough to let it sit. If your wine merchant is out of this limited release, call the winery at (509) 525-4129.

Kendall-Jackson’s ‘94 ($17) was the California cab I threw into this tasting for contrast, and it was the easiest to drink initially. Its full-throttle fruitiness actually reminded me a lot of merlot. But after it had been open for a while, it lost some zing. And, it paled in comparison to the Woodward Canyon.

Other reliable Washington cabernet producers include Latah Creek, Hogue Cellars, Columbia, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Kiona and Andrew Will. (I didn’t mention Quilceda Creek or Leonetti because the wines from those small producers are almost impossible to find.)

Mark your calendar

As a sure sign that winter’s hibernation is almost over, we’re starting to see more wine events cropping up.

The new winemaker from Hedges Cellars, Pat Henderson, will pour five different releases during a special dinner March 3 at Jimmy D’s in Coeur d’Alene.

The four-course meal will start with tiny Penn Cove oysters, followed by a warm duck salad with huckleberry vinaigrette, venison osso bucco and a decadent chocolate dessert.

The cost is $50 per person, which includes tax and tip. For reservations, call (208) 664-9774.

On April 12, more than 30 wines will be poured at the “Moonlight Wine Tasting Delight,” put on by the American Business Women’s Association and the Sons of Norway Ladies Auxiliary.

Tickets are just $10, including a variety of appetizers and the chance to win door prizes. For information, call 326-9211 or 534-6936.

One event you won’t be able to anticipate is Gonzaga Prep’s annual wine tasting. The administration decided to skip the popular fund-raiser this year.

, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Leslie Kelly The Spokesman-Review

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