Ken Robertson

Cabernet Sauvignon: A red for all reasons

Mention Cabernet Sauvignon to most wine lovers, and likely, one of the first things many will think of is that high quality means high prices. Although there’s some truth to that, there still are some real bargains out there in the world of Northwest Cabernet Sauvignon.

In this issue of Wine Press Northwest, our call for entries netted 136 wines from Washington, Oregon and Idaho, which were judged by two panels of four judges each. The result was that 24 of the wines were judges to be “Outstanding!” our magazine’s equivalent of worthy of a gold medal.

That means 17.6 percent won our top rating, which is a bit higher than the supposed benchmark that about 10 to 12 percent of wine judged in a particular competition should be gold-worthy.

As one of the moderators of our two panels, I thought the judges were pretty tough. There were, for example, no wines that all four judges agreed were worth the top rating, which would be the equivalent of a double gold medal. And that was true for both panels. The wines came from very good vintages to exceptional — 2012 to 2016. And the grapes were grown in some of the Northwest’s best American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), including Red Mountain, the Walla Walla Valley, the Horse Heaven Hills and the Yakima Valley.

Among the top-ranked wines, prices ranged from an easily affordable $13 up to $160, which isn’t the sort of wine most of us can afford — or choose to pay — unless it’s a truly important and memorable occasion.

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Since Cabernet Sauvignon has become Washington’s most-planted red wine grape and also most in demand, prices certainly have risen, sort of in tandem with Oregon’s favorite red wine, Pinot Noir.

Still, many top-quality Cabs remain surprisingly affordable. Out of those top 24 wines, five of them sell for under $25. And only three are in that $100-plus category. To top it all off, the judges’ favorite is one of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates’ new labels, INTRINSIC Wine Co. The 2016 Cabernet was crafted by the highly regarded Juan Muñoz Oca and sells for but $22.

He clearly gathered some of the best red wine grapes from the thousands of Columbia Valley AVA acres in Ste. Michelle’s portfolio, crafting a final blend of 96 percent Cabernet Sauvignon with 4 percent Cabernet Franc. Since there were 130,000 cases made of this one, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding it.

Our frugal readers also will want to check out the $13 offering from Waterbrook Winery made by John Freeman, also from Columbia Valley fruit. Freeman’s work has revived this historic label and turned its wines into great values at modest prices. This one also should be easy to find, since Freeman made more than 9,600 cases and Waterbrook is widely available.

And should you have a special occasion for which price is no object, try that $160 wine from DeLille Cellars, its 2014 Grand Ciel Cabernet Sauvignon, made by Chris Upchurch from Red Mountain grapes.

For those who pay close attention to what AVAs grow the best grapes, there will be few surprises in the results. Washington’s all-encompassing Columbia Valley produced 13 of the top 24 wines, followed by four from the Horse Heaven Hills, three from Red Mountain, two from the Walla Walla Valley, one from the Yakima Valley and one labeled only “Oregon” but came from the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley.

Interestingly, the wines fell almost perfectly into a classic bell curve. The “Recommended” wines, our equivalent of a bronze, totaled 19, and the vast majority slotted into the “Excellent” category, our silver.

Don’t regard those classifications lightly. There were some in both categories that one or two judges regarded highly. And as a panel moderator, some of those are wines I’ll be seeking out. Your individual preferences are the most important factor for stocking your individual cellar.

Wine words: Diurnal temperature variation

In plain English, this really means daily temperature swings, but science types often have a language of their own, and they use this phrase to describe the drop in temperature that occurs from one day’s high temperature to the next day’s early morning low.

For grape growers, it’s an important number. When summer temperatures reach into the mid-90s and higher — sometimes up to 20 degrees higher in Eastern Washington, Eastern Oregon and Idaho — the night-time cooling allows grape vines to take a deep breath and recover from the day’s heat. The vines virtually shut down at about 95 degrees.

As the grapes ripen in August, September and into October, cool nights help preserve the acidity winemakers desire to balance the ever-growing sugar content of the grapes. Without acidity, wine tastes flabby, dull and uninteresting. If you doubt it, try a several-year-old Southern California Viognier grown in a hot climate with little night-time cooldown. The last time I made that mistake, the Viognier (which I shall not name) was, at best, unappealing.

In our grape-growing areas where 100-degree temperatures can drop by 40 degrees overnight, that means the crisp acidity remains in our delightful rosés, Rieslings, Chardonnays and even in our long-hanging red wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot.

Washington’s Red Mountain AVA, the state’s hottest grape-growing region (and perhaps the Northwest’s as well) thus can produce great Cabernet Sauvignon. And, with less fanfare from wine writers, it also can turn out amazing Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc late harvest and ice wine.

If you doubt that, try Kiona Vineyards and Winery’s ice wine or its late harvest “Fortunate Sun,” made in years when our late fall temperatures don’t dip low enough to freeze its Chenin Blanc grapes on the vine. Or Henry Earl Estates’ 2016 Quintessence Sauvignon Blanc. The acid-to-sugar balance is superb, much like the ice wines of the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia.

KEN ROBERTSON, the retired editor of the Tri-City Herald, has been sipping Northwest wines and writing about them since 1976.

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