Red Wine For Dummies

Overview

If you're interested in expanding your wine horizons to include the reds, such as Merlot, Pinot Noir, or Cabernet, Red Wine For Dummies will help you through the maze of red wines. Wine connoisseurs Ed McCarthy and Mary Ewing-Mulligan have tasted their way through the wine-growing regions of Northern California and France (as well as Oregon, Washington, New York, Australia, South America, and South Africa). The result of their ventures is a handy guide featuring more than 1,000 red wine recommendations, tips to ...
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Overview

If you're interested in expanding your wine horizons to include the reds, such as Merlot, Pinot Noir, or Cabernet, Red Wine For Dummies will help you through the maze of red wines. Wine connoisseurs Ed McCarthy and Mary Ewing-Mulligan have tasted their way through the wine-growing regions of Northern California and France (as well as Oregon, Washington, New York, Australia, South America, and South Africa). The result of their ventures is a handy guide featuring more than 1,000 red wine recommendations, tips to help you pair red wine with food, a complete glossary of wine jargon, and a helpful wine vintage chart. You won't want to explore the world of red wine without this handy reference at your fingertips.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780764550126
  • Publisher: Wiley, John & Sons, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 10/1/1996
  • Series: For Dummies Series
  • Edition description: 2ND
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 5.45 (w) x 8.31 (h) x 0.82 (d)

Meet the Author

Ed McCarthy, a certified wine educator, writes for The Wine Enthusiast and Wine Journal.
Mary Ewing-Mulligan, a Master of Wine, owns New York’s International Wine Center.
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Table of Contents

Introduction.

PART I: A Course of Red Wine.

Chapter 1: A Wine of a Different Color.

Chapter 2: Red, Redder, Reddest.

Chapter 3: What a Difference a Grape Makes.

Chapter 4: The Seven Classic Types of Red Wine.

Chapter 5: Red Wine with Meat — and More.

PART II: A World of Red Wine.

Chapter 6: Cab and Merlot Lead the Way in California.

Chapter 7: California Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, and Company.

Chapter 8: Oregon, Washington, and Long Island Red Wines.

Chapter 9: Seeing Red Down Under: Australia, South America, and South Africa.

Chapter 10: Vin Rouge Begins with Bordeaux.

Chapter 11: The Other Great French Reds: Burgundy, Rhône, and Company.

Chapter 12: Vino Rosso, Vino Tinto, Vinho Tinto.

PART III: The Part of Tens.

Chapter 13: Ten Little-Known Red Wines Worth Knowing.

Chapter 14: Answers to Ten Frequently Asked Questions about Red Wine.

Chapter 15: Ten Hands-On Wine-Tasting Exercises.

PART IV: Appendixes.

Appendix A: Pronunciation Guide to Red Wine Terms.

Appendix B: Glossary of Red Wine Terms.

Appendix C: Contact Information for Wineries Whose Wines Are Available Only (or Mainly) by Mailing List.

Appendix D: Red Wine Vintage Chart: 1975–1995.

Index.

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First Chapter

Chapter 4
The Seven Classic Types of Red Wine

In This Chapter

  • The most important types of red wines in the world
  • The flavors of Beaujolais, Rioja, and California Cabs
  • Wine names in Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Chianti
  • Clues for deciphering wine labels

It's as true for wine as it is for literature, film, and art: Anyone who wants to be truly knowledgeable must study the classics. We spend this entire chapter describing and defining seven classic types of red wines because these wines form the comparative background against which nearly every other red wine can be understood. When you are familiar with these seven types of red wine, you become fluent in red wine.

What Becomes a Classic Most?

The classic red wines of the world are unique types of wine that owe their character to specific grapes (or combinations of grapes) grown in specific places. These wines are prototypes that inspire winemakers in other parts of the world and spawn admiring imitators.

Some of the classic red wines of the world -- such as red Bordeaux and red Burgundy -- have existed for a few hundred years, but others, such as California Cabernet Sauvignon, evolved more recently. Whether old or young, these classic types of wine are not static; their styles change gradually as times and tastes change. But each type of wine remains a distinct idiom.

Style, more than quality, is at issue in our discussion of the classic red wine types. True, many individual examples of these classic wines achieve such heights of quality that they can very well be nominated as Greatest Red Wine in the World. But we believe that the seven types of wine we call classic reds are even more important for their individual expression of grape variety and growing conditions than for their quality. In fact, we believe that each classic type of red wine is so individual that it is entitled to make its own rules and be judged by its own standards, not measured impersonally against external criteria of quality.

A fancy term for "Everything that makes a wine what it is"

The quality and style of every wine are the result of a complex bundle of influences that prevail upon the wine from the moment of its conception as a bud on a grapevine. These influences include (but are by no means limited to)

  • The grape variety itself
  • The fixed characteristics of the place where the grapes grew (soil, slope, altitude, and directional facing of the vineyard; typical climatic pattern of the region; how densely the vineyard is planted; and so on)
  • The variable characteristics of the place where the grapes grew (the weather in a particular year, how much crop the vines bear in a particular year, how the vines are maintained, how and when the grapes are harvested, and so on)
  • The winemaking (the list of winemaking variables is almost endless)

Fortunately, a single word exists for this whole bundle of influences. (Of course, it's a French word.) That word is terroir (pronounced terr wahr).

Unfortunately, not everyone who talks or writes about wine agrees on the beginning and ending point of the influences encompassed in the concept of terroir. Some people use the word terroir to represent the entirety of developmental influences on a wine; other people use the word as a synonym for growing conditions (both fixed and variable) of the grapes. In this book, we use the term terroir in the latter, more limited sense: the growing conditions of grapes that influence the wine made from those grapes.

Bordeaux, Toujours Bordeaux

The reasons that red Bordeaux is a classic type of wine are quite understandable. The best wines from Bordeaux are long-lived wines (20 to 40 years of life is typical) that just seem to get better and better with age. These wines are the ultimate collectibles. What's more, they have been famous and beloved among wine connoisseurs for more than two centuries. (Thomas Jefferson made his first purchase of Bordeaux wine while visiting France in 1784.)

Bordeaux wines come from the Bordeaux region in western France -- France's largest official wine region (see Wine For Dummies, Chapter 10). In this region, wineries call themselves châteaux (the singular is château), and the brand names of the wines are, therefore, usually Château This or Château That (with a few exceptions, especially among less expensive wines). See Figure 4-1 for an example.

The large Bordeaux region is subdivided into districts and villages (also known as communes); in addition to its brand name, each Bordeaux wine carries the name of either the village where the grapes grew (such as St.-Julien or Pomerol), or the district where the grapes grew (such as Médoc or Haut-Médoc) or the name of the large region itself: Bordeaux. (The smaller the geographic location, the finer the wine is presumed to be, generally speaking.)

Multiplicity of grapes, terrains, and wines

Through trial and error over the centuries, the winemakers of Bordeaux have narrowed the red grape varieties in their vineyards down to five, three of which are the most important. These five grapes, in approximate order of importance, are

  • Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Merlot
  • Cabernet Franc
  • Petit Verdot
  • Malbec

All red Bordeaux wines are blends of wine from at least two, and commonly three, of the grapes in the preceding list.

Because the Bordeaux region is situated on the Atlantic coast of France and subject to unpredictable maritime weather (such as rain in the middle of the summer or at harvest time and cool, damp ocean winds), the grapes ripen very differently from year to year. Occasionally, a warm, sunny summer and a dry autumn bring perfect ripeness and richer, fuller-bodied wines than Bordeaux customarily makes. The norm, however, is temperate weather and moderate ripeness, resulting in medium-bodied red wines.

Because Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the main grape varieties of many red Bordeaux wines, the wines can be tannic (see Chapter 2). The amount of tannin varies a great deal, though, according to the ripeness of the grapes and the specific blend of grapes in any one wine. (Merlot is less tannic; more Merlot in the blend makes a softer wine.)

Because Bordeaux is a large area, the soil and other precise details of the terroir (growing conditions) vary from one district or village (and even one property) to the next. In the best vineyards, the grapes are able to ripen better, and the wines tend to be richer and more intense than wines from other areas. That's the main reason that the price of red Bordeaux wines is so variable: from about $6 a bottle to more than $90 a bottle when the wines are first released. (The best wines increase in price as they get older.)

The range of Bordeaux styles

All this variability in weather, grape blend, terroir character, quality, and price makes it a little difficult to pin down the style of red Bordeaux wine as an absolute. In fact, red Bordeaux is a range of wines encompassing many different quality, intensity, and price levels. The extremes of the range set the stylistic parameters of red Bordeaux.

At one end of the spectrum are dark, concentrated, fully dry wines with ripe fruit but just as much rich tannin and plenty of new oak. When these wines are young, they have aromas and flavors of black currants, plums, cassis, spice, and herbs; with age, they develop cedar, tobacco, and leather notes. At the other end of the spectrum are light-bodied, supple, smooth, dry red wines with subdued aromas and flavors that can be fruity, spicy, herbal, or vegetal.

The middle ground of this range -- the typical red Bordeaux wine -- is a dry, medium-bodied, firm, and somewhat austere red wine with complex, but only moderately intense, aromas and flavors of black currants, plums, herbs, vegetation, and cedar. Speaking more creatively, we can describe red Bordeaux as a polished and refined wine that is somewhat reserved and ungiving, especially when it is young, but harbors subtle complexities that can intrigue and fascinate wine drinkers who give it adequate attention. (Our favorite anthropomorphic comparison is a well-mannered, intelligent, but politely reserved lad who just finished boarding school.)

For specific recommendations of red Bordeaux wines to try, turn to Chapter 10.

Red Bordeaux wine at a glance

Where from: The Bordeaux region in western France

Grape variety: A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with Cabernet Franc and sometimes one or two minor grapes (Petit Verdot and Malbec)

Style of wine: Medium-bodied, dry, fairly tannic, and austere with moderately intense, complex aromas and flavors of black currants, plums, herbs, vgetation, and cedar

Price range: $6 to more than $100 a bottle

Recent good vintages (the finest vintages appear in bold type): 1994, 1990, 1989, 1988, 1986, 1985, 1982

Where to turn for more specific information: The section "Bordeaux, the Red Wine King of France" in Chapter 10

Burgundy the Beautiful

Along with Bordeaux, red Burgundy wine is a pillar that upholds the image and reputation of French red wine around the world. But Burgundy is a very different kind of wine from Bordeaux. If Bordeaux is a well-mannered, reserved sort of fellow, Burgundy is a sensual, earthy, but capricious beauty that, at its best, can exert a bewitching power over those who taste it.

Red Burgundy wine comes from the Burgundy region of eastern France. The vineyard properties in that area are much smaller than in Bordeaux, and the wineries are more modest. Instead of Château Anything emblazoned on the label of a Burgundy wine, winemakers give the wine name the most prominence and list their own names (the brand name) in smaller print, often at the bottom of the label as if it is an afterthought. (Domaine is the word they use for winery.) For example, a wine name such as Musigny might appear front-and-center on the label in 24-point type, and then low on the label the producer's name, Domaine Whatever, appears in 12-point type.

Place-names, place character

The name of a red Burgundy wine is the name of the place where the grapes grew. That place is sometimes just the region itself, Burgundy (or its French translation, Bourgogne, pronounced bor guh nyeh) -- but in many cases, the place (and the name of the wine) is a district, a village, or even a specific vineyard. About 380 possible place-names probably exist for red Burgundy wines. Any one producer might make five or ten (or more) different red Burgundies, each named after the specific place where the grapes grew.

The Burgundians make such a big deal about the grapes' location because the location seriously affects the taste of the of the grapes and, therefore, the final wine. Of course, vineyard location (and the soil and microclimate specific to that location) always affects the taste of grapes everywhere -- but in Burgundy, all the more so.

Differences from one vineyard to the next are particularly evident because only one red grape is grown in all 380 individual red Burgundy locations. That grape is Pinot Noir (see Chapter 3).

The style of red Burgundy wines

Because Pinot Noir is not a tannic grape, most red Burgundies are only moderately tannic unless the winemaker uses some technique to purposely increase the wine's tannin level. (Aging the wine in new oak barrels is an example of this kind of technique, as is letting the grape stems remain with the juice during fermentation.) Besides being low in tannin, most red Burgundies tend to be fairly high in alcohol, have firming acidity, and have much less color than Bordeaux wines.

The intensity of aroma and flavor in red Burgundy wines varies with the vintage, the vineyard location, and the age and quality of the wine. The nature of the aromas and flavors also varies. Some wines exude a fresh, fruity character that suggests berries (all sorts of berries, from raspberries, cherries, and wild strawberries to blackberries). Other wines have a more subdued berry character along with earthiness, such as woodsy or autumnal aromas, smoky character, or mineral notes.

The composite style of red Burgundy wine is (as generalizations go) that of a fairly full-bodied, generous wine with moderately intense flavors of berries and earthiness.

Although red Burgundy in concept is fairly straightforward -- one grape, one region, and, for the most part, one traditional way of making wine -- individual wines show great differences in quality and style (within the stylistic range of red Burgundy). Besides varying according to where the grapes grew, Burgundy varies a great deal from producer to producer, according to how much care the producer takes in growing the grapes and translating the grapes into wine, and according to the producer's personal stylistic preferences. The wine of a great producer, from a great vineyard, in a great year, can be one of the most memorable wines you ever enjoy; an ordinary Bourgogne, from an ordinary producer, in an average year, on the other hand, can be disappointing.

Our discussion of red Burgundy in Chapter 11 explains how you can recognize the better vineyards and lists some good producers.

Red Burgundy wine at a glance

Where from: The Burgundy region of eastern France

Grape variety: Pinot Noir

Style of wine: Fairly full-bodied, ample and generous, with moderately high alcohol, low to moderate tannin, and moderately intense aromas and flavors of berries and earth

Price range: $10 to well more than $100 a bottle

Recent good vintages (the finest vintages appear in bold type): 1993, 1991, 1990, 1989, 1988, 1985

Where to turn for more specific information: The section "The Magic of Red Burgundy" in Chapter 11

Il Magnifico Chianti

Chianti (key AHN tee) is Italy's most famous type of wine by far. Six hundred years of history and sporadic periods of enormous popularity in export markets all over the world have made Chianti the very symbol of Italian wine for most people.

We first knew Chianti many years ago as a pizza wine, light-bodied and oh, so easy to drink. Chianti is still that. But the serious side of Chianti is evident more and more these days in many first-rate, concentrated wines that are worth every penny of their $20-and-up price tags.

Chianti wine comes from the Chianti district of central Italy. The large area where grapes for Chianti legally grow is divided into several subzones. The label of each Chianti wine indicates which subzone grew the grapes for that wine; the least expensive wines are usually labeled just Chianti; better wines indicate a specific subzone, such as Chianti Classico or Chianti Rufina (ROO fee nah), on their labels.

Chianti is a DOCG wine, meaning that it is officially ranked at the highest level possible among Italian wines. (DOCG stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, translated as "Regulated and Guaranteed Place Name.") See Chapter 8 of Wine For Dummies for a complete explanation of wine-ranking systems in Italy and the rest of Europe.

Of producers and grapes

A winery in Chianti often goes by the name castello or villa; the brand name of a Chianti is, therefore, often Castello Something or Villa Something Else -- although many famous Chiantis carry only a family name, such as Antinori or Ruffino, as their brand. Most producers make at least two different Chianti wines:
  • A lighter Chianti wine to drink when it is young
  • A more serious Chianti wine that is labeled with the word riserva (see Figure 4-2)
Some producers also bottle a single-vineyard Chianti made only from the grapes of a specific vineyard they own -- as opposed to their other Chiantis, which are made from the grapes of several vineyards.

Chianti is traditionally a blended wine, made primarily from the Sangiovese grape (pronounced san joe VAY say; described in Chapter 3), along with the local red grape called Canaiolo (can eye OH loh) and small amounts of two local white grapes, Trebbiano (treb bee AH noh) and Malvasia (mahl vah SEE ah). But the best Chianti wines these days, especially in the Chianti Classico subzone, contain little or no wine from white grapes, and some are made entirely from the noble Sangiovese. (Some of these top wines have a little Cabernet Sauvignon blended in.) The wines with no white grapes in their blend are naturally richer and fuller than those containing white grapes.

Dry, crisp, and harmonious

Like most Italian red wines, Chianti is high in acidity -- a real virtue with food. It is usually medium bodied (although the less expensive wines can be light bodied), and it doesn't have much tannin or a very dark color unless the winemaker uses Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend or ages the wine in new oak barrels (a high price is often a tip-off to that style).

Chianti wine is always dry. In fact, Chianti is one of the driest types of red wines you can find; nothing about Chianti gives the slightest impression of sweetness or juiciness (again, a virtue with many foods). The best wines deliver a wonderful sense of gracefulness and harmony when you taste them.

The aromas and flavors of Chianti are subtle and fine rather than intense. A hint of cherry is common, as well as a nutty character and what we call a dusty smell, suggestive of dry earth. The Italians claim that Chianti smells of violets, but we have never been able to capture that scent.

Chianti wines vary a great deal because the Chianti district is large, the climate and soil vary from one subzone to another, and many winemakers disagree on the exact style of Chianti they like to make. Chiantis range from pale, light-bodied, quaffing wines that cost as little as $6 a bottle to concentrated, medium-bodied, riserva-style or single-vineyard wines that cost as much as $25. The better Chiantis from a good producer and a good vintage benefit from a few years of bottle-age. But most Chianti wines can, and should, be enjoyed young, while they are fresh, vibrant, pretty, refreshing, so easy to drink, and . . . wait, we feel a corkscrew emergency coming on!

If you're eager to open a bottle of Chianti yourself, turn first to Chapter 12, where we list our favorite producers.

Chianti wine at a glance

Where from: The Chianti district in the region of Tuscany in central Italy

Grape variety: Primarily Sangiovese, used alone or with Canaiolo or other red grapes in small amounts, and/or two kinds of white grapes in very small amounts

Style of wine: Light-bodied to medium-bodied, with crisp acidity, low to moderate tannin, very dry texture, and subdued aromas and flavors of cherry and nuts

Price range: $6 to $25 a bottle

Recent good vintages (the finest vintages appear in bold type): 1994, 1993, 1990, 1988, 1985

Where to turn for more specific information: The section "Tuscany: The home of Chianti" in Chapter 12

Rioja, Spain's Own Classic

Rioja (ree OH hah) is Spain's answer to Chianti: It is the best-known and best-loved type of Spanish red wine, the one red wine type from Spain that has found a home for itself on restaurant wine lists and retail shelves all over the world.

Rioja wine comes from the Rioja wine region of northeastern Spain. Three subzones exist there, and the climate and soil profile of each zone influences the quality and character of its grapes. Most Rioja wines are blends of grapes or wines from more than one subzone, although some bodegas (as Spanish wineries are called) make their wine entirely from the grapes of a single area -- but the name of that area is usually not identified on the label of the wine.

Rioja is a blended wine not only in its geography but also in its grape content. The grape most often associated with red Rioja is Spain's great Tempranillo (tem prah NEE yoh) grape, which forms the base of most of the finest Rioja reds. But Tempranillo is usually blended with Grenache (known in Spain as Garnacha) and two other local red grapes, Mazuelo (known elsewhere as Carignan) and Graciano. Some Rioja reds are made almost entirely from Grenache (see Chapter 3 for descriptions of Tempranillo and Grenache).

Depending on which grapes go into a Rioja red blend and where in the region those grapes have grown, the style of red Rioja wine varies. Those wines with a high percentage of Grenache, for example, usually are higher in alcohol, less tannic, and less fruity than those wines with less Grenache.

Rioja wines also vary considerably in style according to how long they age at the winery, in oak barrels and in bottles, before they are released. Although you usually can't know the grape blend and the subzone(s) by studying the label of a red Rioja, at least you can figure out the age-style of the wine.

  • Rioja wines with at least two years of aging at the winery are labeled crianza (often you see this word not on the main label but on a colorful sticker on the back of the bottle).
  • Wines with at least three years of aging are labeled reserva.
  • Wines with at least five years of aging are labeled gran reserva.

The longer a wine ages at the winery, the less fresh and fruity its aromas and flavors are; with age, the wines develop increasing complexity and subtlety, with aromas and flavors of leather and tobacco and other nonfruity characteristics.

The producers of red Rioja aren't precisely in agreement (to say the least) about how to make the wine of their region, and their disparate beliefs result in distinctly different styles of wine under the name Rioja -- even within wines of the same age classification. At one extreme, the wines are deeply colored and show concentrated fruit flavor along with an oaky character; at the other extreme are wines that have lost their adolescent fruitiness in favor of a complex, silky dimension.

Red Rioja wine in its most classic manifestation is a medium-bodied, soft, and mellow type of wine with only moderate levels of tannin. This wine has wonderful vanilla aroma and flavor that comes from the barrels in which the wine ages and, depending on how mature the wine is, it can have aged aromas such as leather or decaying leaves or more youthful aromas and flavors of dried red fruits. Nuance is the hallmark of classic red Rioja wine.

Chapter 12 contains a listing of several Rioja producers whose wines we recommend.

Red Rioja wine at a glance

Where from: The Rioja region of northeastern Spain

Grape variety: Tempranillo, often blended with Grenache and, less so, with Mazuelo (Carignan) and Graciano -- all considered native Spanish varieties

Style of wine: Medium-bodied, soft, and silky with low tannin; its aromas and flavors (vanilla and spice) usually derive as much from wood-aging as they do from the grapes themselves

Price range: $6 to $25

Recent good vintages (the finest vintages appear in bold type): 1994, 1993, 1992, 1990, 1989, 1988, 1982, 1981

Where to turn for more specific information: The section "The Red Wines of Spain" in Chapter 12

Beaujolais, the Carefree Wine

Light-hearted. Approachable. Friendly. Unpretentious. Easy to like.

If Beaujolais were a person, he would be the perfect next-door neighbor (especially if he were handy with tools). As a type of wine, Beaujolais (boh jhoe lay) is as close to all-purpose, down-to-earth enjoyment as it comes.

Beaujolais wine hails from the Beaujolais district of eastern France. Technically, this area is part of the Burgundy region, but Beaujolais is a distinctly different type of wine from what we call red Burgundy. For one thing, it's made from a totally different grape variety, Gamay (see Chapter 3). Elsewhere in the world, the Gamay grape isn't high on winemakers' lists of grapes to try growing, but in the Beaujolais area, it shines.

Although all (red) Beaujolais wine comes entirely from the Gamay grape, Beaujolais actually comes in three different versions, according to the soil in which the grapes grow and the winemaking technique.

Grapes grown on rich, clay soil that makes a lighter-bodied wine are usually destined either for basic Beaujolais wine or for Beaujolais Nouveau, an extremely young wine that's released each year in late November, just weeks after the harvest. Beaujolais Nouveau is the lightest, freshest, and least serious style of Beaujolais. Special winemaking techniques make the wine drinkable and delicious at such a young age.

Grapes from specific areas in the northern part of the Beaujolais district, where granite and schist soil builds more intensity and concentration into the wine, become Beaujolais-Villages wines. These are medium-weight Beaujolais wines, with more character than basic Beaujolais or the Nouveau style.

The finest Beaujolais wines come from ten vineyard areas surrounding specific villages in the northern part of the Beaujolais district. These wines don't even say Beaujolais on them, because they are named for a more specific geography -- the village in which the grapes grew, such as Fleurie (pronounced fluh ree; see Figure 4-3) or Chiroubles (sheh roob'l). These cru Beaujolais, as they are collectively called, are the fullest, most concentrated, and most intense version of Beaujolais. (For a complete listing of the ten crus and general information on enjoying Beaujolais, see the Beaujolais section of Chapter 11; for a description of each of the ten Beaujolais crus, see our book Wine For Dummies, Chapter 10.)

Beaujolais wine at a glance

Where from: The Beaujolais district in the southern part of the Burgundy region in eastern France

Grape variety: Gamay

Style of wine: Light- to medium-bodied dry wines with crisp acidity and low to moderate amounts of tannin; aromas and flavors are pronounced and fruity; usually unoaked

Price range: $6 to $15 a bottle

Recent good vintages: 1994, 1990, 1989

Where to turn for more specific information: The section "Beaujolais: Easy-drinking and affordable" in Chapter 11.

Even at its most intense, however, Beaujolais is not a big, full-bodied type of wine. Beaujolais wines are light- to medium-bodied with crisp acidity and moderate tannin; their pronounced aromas and flavors are fresh and grapey, unmarked by oakiness (except in an occasional cru Beaujolais). Although Beaujolais wine is fruity and easy to drink, it is also dry.

California Cabernet Sauvignon Wine

Considering that most wineries in California are barely 20 years old, you might think that we're premature in including California Cabernet wine among the classic types of red wine in the world. But in the short modern history of California winemaking, the state has managed to make a type of wine that is stylistically unique -- and so good that winemakers from all over the world have been influenced by its style.

Technically speaking, any wine made from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes (see Chapter 3) and grown in the state of California is a California Cabernet Sauvignon wine. That's a huge amount of wine, and not all of it is particularly good. What we refer to as classic are the better California Cabernet wines -- roughly speaking, those priced at $12 a bottle and up.

U.S. law permits winemakers to make Cabernet wine with as little as 75 percent Cabernet juice. The usual blending partner in Cabernet Sauvignon wines is Merlot (and -- surprise, surprise! -- the usual blending partner in Merlot wines is Cabernet Sauvignon). As the winemakers of France's Bordeaux region discovered many decades ago, Merlot and Cabernet complement each other beautifully.

Top regions and districts

California is a big place (30 percent bigger than the entire country of Italy) with a big variety of microclimates and soil types. The best Cabernet Sauvignon grapes grow in areas that are warm but not too warm, where climatic idiosyncrasies such as morning fog or cool, high-altitude nights enable the grapes to ripen fully but not so quickly that they lose their fresh flavor.

Napa Valley is such an area -- or maybe we should say areas, because several distinct terroirs that are ideal for Cabernet grapes exist there. These areas include the following:

  • The Stags Leap District in eastern Napa (see Figure 4-4)
  • The Rutherford and Oakville areas on the valley floor
  • Howell Mountain in the east
  • Spring Mountain and Diamond Mountain in the west

Sonoma Valley's two ideal areas for Cabernet are Sonoma Mountain and Alexander Valley. The Santa Cruz Mountain vineyards (south of San Francisco) are another important source for high-quality California Cabernet grapes.

Good Cabernet Sauvignon wine also comes from grapes grown in the warm inland section of Mendocino County and the Paso Robles area of Santa Barbara County.

California Cabernet wine varies in style according to exactly where the grapes grow. The wines from some areas (such as the Stags Leap district) have very soft tannins, for example. The wines from other areas (such as the mountain vineyards) are toughened by firm tannins.

The common chord

Most good California Cabernet wines have these characteristics in common: deep, dark color; intense aromas (usually of ripe black currant fruit); intense, fresh flavors of ripe berry and plum fruit (usually spiced with oakiness); full body derived from high alcohol and tannin; and rich, velvety texture.

Many of California's best Cabernet wines are so richly fruity that they are delicious when they are young, even if wine critics and winemakers advise that the wines need more age to reach their peak of enjoyment. The hallmark of California Cabernet wine, in fact, is its irresistible, delicious fruitiness. That intensely fruity character is exactly what has caused winemakers from elsewhere in the world to rethink their own wines -- and what has already made California Cabernet a classic type of red wine.

For practical advice in buying California Cabs, don't miss our list of recommended wines in Chapter 6.

(This chapter has been abridged.)

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