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Santa, Bring Me a Great Big Cab


We're entering the Cabernet time of year. When the weather gets chillier and the food gets heavier, the big reds come out.

This is especially true just before the holidays, for reasons that have nothing at all to do with climate. As prices for top-flight California Cabernet Sauvignons enter the stratosphere, the wines become more special-occasion gifts than beverages.

Knowing this, the wineries hold back much of the really good stuff, hoping that some wine-lover has been good enough to merit a special gift from Santa.

This column reviews some notable Cabernets I've tasted recently, but it also offers previews of some of the really big-deal wines that are just now being released. Though I've tried them all, I haven't yet had the opportunity to taste them thoroughly, so I'm presenting them as first impressions without ratings. Because they are so much in demand, the wines might disappear before I can do full tasting notes.

* 1997 Buehler Vineyards, Napa Valley, $18. This compact, ripe and reasonably fruity wine sets ripe black cherry fruit and hints of currants against complex notes of clay, chocolate and loam. It is of medium-full body and medium depth, and it should age well for a half decade or more.

* 1997 Cakebread Cellars, Napa Valley, $36. Someone could argue that this wine is too expensive for what it offers, and I might agree, except that its predecessors have aged, and this one clearly needs up to a decade in the cellar to open up. A bit of a risk, it will appeal to the legion of Cakebread fans nonetheless.

* 1998 Carmenet Winery "Dynamite," North Coast, $18. "Dynamite" gets good scores for its ripe and rich delivery of black cherry fruit sweetened by vanilla oakiness and given a slight extra bit of range from hints of loam and roots. It can use a couple of years of aging, but its firm structure will help it stand up to chunky beef and lamb roasts even now.

** 1997 Karl Lawrence Cellars, Napa Valley, $40. Admittedly, this wine is in short supply, but the name is worth remembering because the winery is making very good, age-worthy Cabernet from grapes grown on some of the best vineyard land in the Napa Valley, and it's selling it for a lot less than its competition. Buy it if you see it.

** 1997 Merryvale Vineyards "Beckstoffer Selection," Napa Valley, $45. With 31% Merlot in its makeup, this wine cannot be labeled Cabernet, but it's the Cabernet that dominates in the ripe, chewy, heavily tannic body and it's the Cabernet that will be there when the wine comes around in a decade.

*** 1997 Joseph Phelps Vineyards "Insignia," Napa Valley, $100. This is among the half dozen best wines I've tasted this year. Though it has a full retail price of $120, it often goes for $100, and one discounter has had it for $80. None of those prices is cheap, but not many wines are "Insignia's" equal. It is deep, complex, fruity and balanced all at once. Its opulence never runs to heaviness, and its tannins are evident but not pushy. Some folks will drink this wine in the next few years because it is delicious today. I am saving mine for much later because I think it will get better and better-- and better than the best is hard to find at any price.



1997 Beaulieu Vineyard "George de Latour Private Reserve," Napa Valley, $100. In the last decade, Beaulieu has planted clones of Cabernet Sauvignon and improved its barrel-aging regimen. Here, in the 100th-anniversary bottling of arguably the most famous California Cabernet in existence, the winery may have produced its best wine in 25 years.

1996 Kenwood Vineyard "Artist Series," Sonoma County, $70. In this vintage, Kenwood's top-of-the-line Cab is a ripe, generous, full-bodied wine with deep fruit tasting of raspberry and currant filled out by hints of sweet spices and creme bru^lee. This wine may be a little more direct and forward than some its pricey peers, but its delivery of opulent Cabernet flavors will help it draw a crowd of admirers.

1997 Joseph Phelps Vineyards "Backus Vineyard," Napa Valley, $100. There will be plenty of takers for this deep, rich, solid Cabernet, whose plummy, curranty and caramelized oak flavors just go on and on. A bit more blunt in its tannins than Phelps' admirable "Insignia," this nevertheless may beat its sibling in sheer intensity.


Definition of Symbols

* * * A world-class wine, superb by any measure, the top 1% to 2% of all wines tasted.

* * An exceptional wine, well worth the effort to find, 10% to 12% of wines tasted.

* An admirable wine, tasty, focused, attractive, about 25% of wines tasted.

No Rating: The best are quite pleasant and can be good buys when moderately priced.

$ Good value for the money.

x Below average quality, to be avoided.

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