It is often said that a definition of a smart person is one who agrees with you. I ran across a brilliant guy the other day. At least I ran across one of his articles. The guy is the Executive Wine Editor of Food & Wine magazine, Ray Isle. For the March issue, Mr. Isle wrote an article in praise of powerful Cabernet Sauvignon. Like I said, a brilliant guy; we agree. Good Cabernet Sauvignon doesn’t have to be soft; it can be, but it can also be a powerful wine.
His premise is that good Cabernet Sauvignon is getting a bad reputation among certain sommeliers and other wine elites. I like to use the phrase wine elites. The primary characteristic of a wine elite is that he (or she) loves to tell you what to like. If you don’t agree with them, they love to feel superior about it. I had assumed that an Executive Wine Editor of a well-regarded food & wine publication might well be a wine elite. Apparently I was wrong. Apologies to Mr. Isle.
The sommeliers’ problems with powerful cabs like Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon are an all too familiar refrain. The flavors are too intense, they are too full bodied, too much fruit, too much oak, yadda, yadda. What they are saying is they don’t like new world wines. Yawn. So what else is new? It is primarily new world wines that display these powerful characteristics. A big reason for this is that grapes usually don’t have a problem ripening in this hemisphere. In fact, the problem for winemakers here can be that sometimes the grapes can get too ripe. This can mean high sugar levels, which means high alcohol levels. And alcohol levels have been climbing in recent years.
What I don’t have a problem with is intense flavors. The key, as Mr. Isle correctly points out, is balance. Any good Cabernet Sauvignon is balanced. Balance can be achieved with several subtle characteristics, and it can be achieved with several powerful characteristics. If any of those characteristics – flavor, body, etc. – is out of whack, then you have a clunky wine that is not pleasant to drink.
One spurious complaint of those who would tell us what to like is that big wines don’t pair well with food. Mr. Isle called this poppycock. If this were not a family publication, there would be other more pithy descriptions that could be used. One cab/food match that comes immediately to mind is a grilled strip steak. I’m not talking about a pan sauté here, I’m talking proper grilling. On a very hot grill, at least at first. This will put a good char on the steak, and then it can be moved to a cooler area of the grill. Done right, this will produce a beautiful, full flavored, juicy hunk of meat. Absolutely perfect for a big, powerful Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.
As I have mentioned elsewhere on these pages, I happen to like big, buttery, oaky California Chardonnay (gasp!) with certain foods, among them roast turkey or chicken. The buttery toastiness of the wine is a perfect compliment to the rich toastiness of the bird and its trimmings. In addition, many people tend to forget that Americans like to drink wine by itself. If you are having some wine while hanging out with friends, you don’t want to have to go into a trance to figure out what the wine tastes like. If you like big, drink big. Don’t pay any attention to the wine elites.