Red wine cornerstone is a superstar
By Josh Perilo
Recently, I talked a little about an obsession I’ve had: Comparing different wine varietals to different genres of popular music. Any critic loves making lists and metaphors, and, even better, lists of metaphors. I started by laying out my thoughts on why I think Merlot could be compared to Pop Rock. This week, I present my second thesis: Cabernet Sauvignon is Hard Rock, or in classic terms, good old-fashioned, straightforward rock ‘n’ roll.
Cabernet Sauvignon stands tall as the cornerstone of red wine grapes today. Its big, meaty tannins are fuzzed-out guitar licks, squealing from feedback. The oak barrels they age in are distortion pedals, bending the notes of flavor. The dark berry fruit blasts forth like an overcranked Marshall stack, blasting into an audience of thousands at Red Rocks.
These are rock star wines. And I’m not talking about the lead singer of Maroon 5 or Nickelback, either. This is the rock star that played Altamont and Woodstock. The first one. This is Jimi-frigging-Hendrix.
This is Cabernet Sauvignon.
The left bank Bordeaux producers make wines that are, by law, at least 51 percent Cabernet Sauvignon. Many of them are made up of almost all Cabernet Sauvignon. These are our old-school grandfathers of rock. Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry are the big, bad boys of the Haute Medoc. Elvis Pressley’s “That’s Alright, Mama” is the great Chateau Latour. These are the architects of the style that was to come and the style that created what a Cab was “supposed to taste like,” just as Chuck Berry created the idea of what a guitar lick in a rock song was supposed to sound like.
If you listen to the first jangly riffs to The Kingsmen’s version of “Louis, Louis,” you are hearing the first serious vintners in Napa Valley in the early 1970s tasting their brand-new Cabernet Sauvignon. It was modeled after the classics in Bordeaux, just as the Kingsmen’s noisy garage band classic was modeled after the blues riffs that came before them. There was a new take, though. Something that’s more forward and more accessible. Maybe simpler and messier, but something that the world would sit up and take notice of immediately.
As the Napa Cabs evolved and became more complex, carving out an identity of their own, they moved from the “garage rock” versions of their early incarnations and into more sophisticated takes on what became known as rock ‘n’ roll. The California “Cult Cabs,” as they became known, were the next step in the evolution of Classic Rock. The fruit got bigger, the structure more refined, and a masterpiece like Diamond Creek’s “Gravelly Meadow” becomes the Sticky Fingers of Napa Cabs. Ultimate wines that tend to define the grape varietal are common among these cult wines. Take the ultra expensive and untouchable Screaming Eagle. Quite simply, the liquid version of Houses of the Holy.
As Cabernet moved across the West Coast, it lightened its step and took itself a little less seriously. By the time it reached Santa Barbara and Santa Ynez Valley, the grapes were riper and higher in alcohol, and the fruit was juicier and simpler, if not more fun to enjoy. These Cabs rollick along your palate like a scratchy LP of “Sweet Home Alabama.” Just enough twang to remind you it isn’t Napa, but the classic roots-rock structure of the Cab is still there to hold everything together.
In the ’80s, the winemakers of Tuscany, Italy, began experimenting with Cabernet. It was against the law to call these wines anything other than “red table wine,” so they were unofficially labeled “Super Tuscans.” This unorthodox take on Cab was a redux on the classic format of the Cabs from the past. The first Super Tuscan was Tignanello. Those first squealing notes blared out again from an overpumped amp, just like they did when The Kingsmen reinvented rock music. Only this time it wasn’t Napa, and it wasn’t the Kingsmen either. It was The White Stripes’ “Dead Leaves on the Dirty Ground.” The volume knob was up to 11, and the wine world would never be the same.
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