News From Terre Haute, Indiana

April 18, 2009

WINE: Cabernet — the big wine that gets all the attention

By Howard Hewitt

TERRE HAUTE — Cabernet Sauvignon – even the name sounds royal. That’s appropriate for a wine often thought of as the King of Red Grapes!

Cabernet, or “Cab,” is the world’s best known grape varietal. It is the big wine that gets all the attention, headlines, and often sells for really big bucks.

Now let’s be honest here, Cabernet is not what I’d recommend for beginning wine drinkers or even novices. It’s very difficult to find good ones under $20 and it is generally a big-flavored, very tannic, red wine.

But it is the wine most people have heard of and read about. It is the primary grape in the great French Bordeaux wines and it dominates California’s Napa Valley. It is the one red wine most often put away in the cellar to age for a few years, or many years, before drinking.

It’s a hearty grape that is easy to grow, at least in comparison to many others. It likes warm climates and has spread to every major wine growing region of the world.

And you can’t go to any grocery and not find a Cab on the shelf. In a wine shop you’ll find Cabs from around the world.

There are many big wines that are actually blends with Cabernet. The traditional Bordeaux blend has long been Cab, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot. Now days you might find just about any red wine grape blended with Cabernet to soften the big grape’s flavor.

Being a big and brawny grape it’s the wine you want with a great steak. Cabs are usually very dark wines with a flavor of cherry, bell pepper or even green olive. You can almost always taste the oak used in the aging process on the finish as you swallow the wine.

And frankly, there are a lot of bad Cabs out there on the supermarket and wine shop shelves as well.

I waited 10 columns into this adventure in wine writing to just tackle Cabernet. I’d suggest if you have been drinking Merlot, Malbecs, Syrah and other varietals and have not yet tried Cabs then you are ready to get started.

I’d point you toward Washington State Cabernets initially. I’ll recommend what I think is a very good one below. The Washington Cabs seem more “ready to drink” than many you’ll find from California. They are a bit softer and smoother.

General guidelines never work, but if I was to offer just one I’d say buy a Cabernet that is at least three years old.

If you’re not prepared to buy red wine and set it aside for 2-3 years, minimum, then the 3-year rule works well. The bigger the Cabernet the smoother and richer it will become with age.

There are some very palatable Cabs coming from Argentina and Chile. You won’t find many Indiana Cabernets but there is one I can recommend. Huber Winery’s 2006 Cabernet is surprising for a Hoosier Cab at just under $20.

There is nothing better with a steak off the grill than a really big and smooth Cabernet. For most of us the really good Cabs are going to be at or above the top end of what we want to spend on wine.

The greatest glass of wine I’ve ever sipped was the iconic Joseph Phelps Insignia from Napa Valley. The current release, a 2004 Cab blend, retails at $225 a bottle! And, that isn’t the top end of what you’ll pay for the signature Napa Valley wines but it does give you a clue.

If you want to buy a really good Cabernet for a special occasion, there are many really great Napa Cabs in the $40-$60 range. Joseph Phelps, Cakebread Cellars, and Chappellet are three I have tasted and think are superb. All three are found in better Indiana wine shops.

But most of us aren’t buying too many bottles at that price point, especially in these economic times. There are good Cabernets out there under $20. And I’d love to hear your recommendations. I’ll include your favorite Cabs in a future column. Just drop me a line with the winery name, vintage year, and where you bought it, with your comments at:

The best two Cabs I’ve ever tasted under $20 are below.

Howard Picks:

n Duck Pond 2004 Cabernet – This Washington state Cabernet tastes like $30-$40 wine. It’s big and smooth and ready to drink. I paid $10.99 at an Indianapolis shop and was astonished by the quality.

n Green Lion 2005 Cabernet – This Napa Valley Cabernet is a bit bigger than the Duck Pond but also unbelievable wine for around $20. It’s a little harder to find than the Duck Pond but it is available in Indiana. Look for the funky and color label done by the same artist who once did album covers for The Beatles!

Remember to check out my wine blog, Grape Sense a Glass Half Full, at for regular wine reviews.


Note: Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

Many people believe some of the best Pinot Noir is being produced in Oregon. I visited wineries and even talked with some of the owners and winemakers April 8 and 9. I have reviews and updates from both days on my blog.