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Of Char and Tar

Nosing around local Cabernets

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Char. Tar. Cigar. Graphite, pencil shavings and pipe tobacco. Isn't it strange that while Cabernet Sauvignon is America's favorite red wine, many of the varietal's signature aromatics are probably not on top of most wine drinkers' "love it!" lists? Or at least, as with pipe tobacco, are declining in favor.

Syrah, at least, sometimes smells like "animal fur" even when it's really good, so why can't a nation that smooches with schnauzers get with that great grape? Cab has more cachet is why, so let's find out how some of Cabernet Sauvignon's typical aromas and flavors play out in a lineup of recent North Coast vintages.

Hess Select 2014 North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon ($19)

The "green pepper" characteristic that Cab sometimes shares with Sauvignon Blanc is easier to understand when you know that Savvy is a parent of Cab. Curiously, the black currant flavor, which is the most typical analog to the varietal's fruit and jam flavors, isn't familiar to most Americans. After some searching I found one French brand of black currant jelly on a bottom shelf at Oliver's Market and, sure enough, it's got a sweet aroma similar to blackberry, but is more savory and earthy—just like Cab. This wine sweetens up to a more minty note, finishing on a firm note of iron.

★★

Educated Guess 2014 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($25)

Cedar is nice, but it can't just be the oak barrels that contribute this typical Cabernet aroma—after all, they're oak, not cedar. But the char is all heavily toasted oak. Think barbecue—the stubborn meaty bits of char you've got to scrape off the grill. This wine coats the tongue with raspberry fruit-wrapped tannins, finishing on the hot side.

★★½

Jordan 2012 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($55)

True to house style, this is unforthcoming at first, showing only hints of gravel dust, and maybe a little sweet raspberry-flavored pipe tobacco—or "vape" flavor. But the Jordan's shyness does not mean lack of substance—it finishes with a lingering hint of sweet raspberry fruit and spice, instead of austere bitterness. I recently had the 2013 Cabernet with roast chicken at one of Jordan's harvest lunches, and it was a better pairing than the Chardonnay—go figure.

★★★

Charles Krug 2013 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($30)

Bacon, green olive and cassis? Now we're getting into something more...savory. The notes of bacon may come from oak barrels more refined in their toasting, while the savory, green olive notes are an elaboration on the green pepper trend. This wine has a silky body and intense flavors of red berries and cassis—the liqueur version of black currant. Pretty good price for the neighborhood.

★★★★

As for pencil lead, better luck next time.

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