Featured Wine: Cabernet Sauvignon blends

We opened up two “Cabernets” from two seemingly very different regions Saturday night: the Freemark Abbey 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley from the USA in the Northern Hemisphere, and the Lake’s Folly Hunter Valley Cabernets 1997 from South East Australia in the Southern Hemisphere. The former hails from one of the world’s most renowned areas for Cabernet Sauvignon, is sourced from half a dozen vineyards, and is easy to find due to there being over 15,000 cases of the stuff (as but one part of the company’s vast portfolio); the latter is among the only Cabernet blends produced in the Hunter Valley, is the product of a single vineyard, and is virtually impossible to find outside of the winery and its mailing list, there being just 3,000 cases of it (and this accounting for 75% of the winery’s total production). In addition, the vintages were markedly different in the two regions: ’97 was hailed for its high yields and opulent fruit in Napa; in the Hunter Valley down under, it was a (comparatively) wet vintage, maybe the weakest of the last decade, calling into question the ageing potential.

But opened alongside each other, the exuberantly minty aroma of ripe (New World) Cabernet jumping straight out of each bottle – suggesting, perhaps, that there is a New World philosophy of wine-making that renders a Cabernet-dominated wine so readily identifiable whichever hemisphere it hails from. Time then to look at their similarities. The Freemark Abbey includes some 17% Merlot, and 8% Petit Verdot/Cabernet Franc in with its Cabernet Sauvignon; the Lake’s Folly has 7% Merlot, 10% Petit Verdot, and 11% Shiraz, this significant minority one reason it chooses to call itself “Cabernets” rather than “Cabernet Sauvignon.” Both were aged primarily in French oak – the Freemark for longer, though the Lake’s Folly in newer and smaller barriques.

Lake’s Folly was named, tongue-in-cheek, by and for the wine-maker, a professional doctor whose decision, back in the early 60s, to plant Bordeaux grapes in the Hunter Valley (an hour or two north of Sydney), was written off as madness. There hadn’t been a new winery opened in the area for some 40 years, in part because few people drank still wine back then, and even those who did refused to believed that the region could produce quality Cabernet. To this day, there is very little red wine from the Hunter Valey that is not Shiraz. Anyway, Dr. Max Lake proved the naysayers wrong, making his wine on weekends, and winning awards, acclaim and iconoclastic status until he eventually passed on the business to his son. (The business was purchased in 2000, but judging by the web site, which offers tasting notes and vintage reports all the way back through the ages, little seems to have changed.) The Lake’s Folly 1997 Cabernets offered up, alongside the mintiness, some tobacco, some cherry, some blackcurrant. None of it was abrasive or austere like Bordeaux can be, or overwhelming like Napa. Very smooth on the palate, quite juicy, succulent, well rounded and really quite adorable, it was nonetheless a little light, lacking not so much in complexity as in weight. (The alcohol content is listed as only 12.4%, though there was no shortage of tannin at the bottom of the bottle.) It’s not the Lake’s Folly you would plan on bringing back from your Millennium holiday in Australia and cellar for the best part of ten years if you had other vintages to choose from, but we didn’t: this was the only wine on sale when we visited in January 2000. (The highly regarded Chardonnay, of which there’s barely 1000 cases, was entirely sold out.) My bottle was individually numbered #226, and I’m thrilled to have finally drunk it; based on this particular sample some 11 years after a relatively weak vintage, I can only hazard how fantastic it must be in the good years.
The history of Freemark Abbey is even more esoteric, dating back to 1886, when Josephine Marlin Tychson became the first woman to build and operate a winery in California. After the inevitable break for Prohibition, the original winery was purchased and re-named in 1939 – not for any religious connections but as a combination of the investors’ names. A partnership (as opposed to a big business) took over in 1966 and helped secure its reputation as one of Napa’s oldest, biggest and most consistent wineries. The Freemark Abbey 1997 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon proved itself a particularly fine wine – riper and richer than the Lake’s Folly, more full-bodied, but not over the top: one reason I’ve always been fond of this particular wine (apart from its reasonable price, generally around $35 on release) is that it’s made in a deliberately restrained style for the Napa Valley, the alcohol content kept low (13.9% on the ’97), the oak influence modest. Certainly, it was an exuberant wine, still in a surprisingly forward and fruity stage, with bittersweet chocolate, cinnamon and black cherry mixing in with the light touch of vanilla and a welcome herbaceous touch thanks to the Cab Franc. The acidity still quite pronounced, the tannins having resolved, the finish long and seductive, it was a splendid advertisement for that minority of Napa Valley Cabs that are understated and yet have legs: though there’s a general perception that Napa Cabs don’t have the long-term potential of great Bordeaux clearly, this particular vintage has many, many happy years ahead of it.

Typically, I don’t drink too much Cabernet Sauvignon. Though I don’t dispute its status as the King Of Grapes, it’s the one wine that presents a difficult match for vegetarian food. (Plus, good examples tend not to come cheap.) But these wines each went perfectly well with a spicy braised eggplant/mushroom dish with risotto rice; they were also proof of the rewards – indeed, the fun – that can be had from ageing a couple of bottles a few years.

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