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'Big Red' still dominates wine choices
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Wine of the month
A Diehl Pfalz Gewurztraminer 2007

The wine: Fruity, spicy but nearly dry white table wine

The grapes: 100 percent gewurztraminer

The source: Pfalz region of Germany

The verdict: This wine, discovered in a local wine and cheese shop, was a great find. Gewurztraminer is one of my favorite white wines, but it’s hard to find a good quality gewurz at a sensible price. America produces few quality examples, and they are as rare as honest politicians. The great wines come from the Alsace region of France, however most cost upwards of $25 — which grates on my Scottish soul. But this German example has the good qualities of gewürztraminer — spicy fruitiness — at a reasonable price. It was perfect with a roast pork loin.

The price: About $12

The sun was heading for the horizon one afternoon recently; it was going on 5 p.m. I glanced at the bird feeder, stuck on a pole about 2 feet from our screened-in back deck.

There, regally pecking away at the assorted seeds, was the king of the feeder. He’s a benevolent bird, Mr. Cardinal. He leaned into the sunlight to give me a good showing of his brilliant crimson feathers, accented by the black eye mask.

Unlike the testy chipping sparrows and tufted titmice, that chase everyone off the feeding bar, Big Red and his spouse generously share the bounty.

But there’s no mistake who rules that particular roost.

And it’s much the same in the wine world. No matter the fads, fashions and trends, Big Red is the monarch. That’s cabernet sauvignon.

Yes, I know probably a decade and a half ago merlot dethroned cabernet in popularity. Doesn’t matter. Cab’s the king.

A bit of background: Cabernet sauvignon is the name of the grape. It’s a vinifera grape, one of the classic European wine grapes. When you see the name cabernet sauvignon on a bottle of wine, be assured the overwhelming majority of juice in that wine came from the grape bearing that name.

In the United States, the wine must contain at least 75 percent of the grape named on the label. In Australia, it’s 85 percent. In France, it’s 100 percent.

Cabernet is best known for making mouth-filling, long-lived red table wine in this country — from California and Washington state. Georgia wineries, too, produce some fine examples of cabernet sauvignon, either named as a varietal wine or in blends.

But it is in France that cabernet’s history took root. It is one of five grapes approved for producing red wine in Bordeaux, along with merlot, malbec, cabernet franc and petit verdot. Blending is the Bordeaux style, with many of that region’s big reds containing a mixture of some or all of those five grapes.

In much of Bordeaux, cabernet sauvignon — or “cab” as we winos refer to it — is the foundation of some of the great red wines that flow from that legendary wine-making region. However, winemaker David Harris, owner of Blackstock Vineyards near Dahlonega, points out wisely, “The folks at Chateau Petrus might argue with that.” And he’s right.

Petrus, one of the most prestigious of the Bordeaux wine producers, is in the Pomerol region, in which merlot rules. Does Petrus make pretty good juice? If you can find a bottle from the 1990 vintage expect to pay around $1,300.

American winemakers realized the potential of cab early on. What they did not understand in the early 20th century was how and where to plant it. Bordeaux enjoyed centuries of experience matching the grapevines to the climate and soil where they would grow best. Early California winemakers, most of whom boasted European heritage, felt the California climate in Napa, Sonoma, etc., was such that anything would grow to abundance anywhere.

Not quite.

They had yet to discover microclimates, those variations in heat and cold, sun and rain, humidity and dryness that can occur from vineyard to vineyard. Some microclimates produce great cabernet, while others do not. It was not until the great wine renaissance of the 1960s that West Coast winemakers began to understand you cannot plant cabernet and riesling in the same place.

So in the earth-shaking Tastings of Paris in the mid-1970s, it was a California cabernet sauvignon that upended the best of Bordeaux ... much to the horror and dismay of the French. If you want an interesting take on those tastings — California chardonnay also whipped butt on French white Burgundies — check out the movie “Bottle Shock.” Those tastings were a celestial moment for American wines.

What can you expect from wines based on or made exclusively from cabernet sauvignon? Wine that ages well, and wine that reflects the old axiom “You get what you pay for.” A $10 cab will not be as good as, or age as well as, a $35 cab. But you still will experience the big mouth-feel, the vague grittiness of the tannins and the rich flavors of Big Red ... and how well cabernet accompanies red meats.

In my book, cabernet still rules the roost.

Randall Murray is a Gainesville-area resident. Have a question about wine? He can be contacted at His column appears on the first Wednesday of the month.