Wines made from 100 percent cabernet sauvignon are common these days. But that hasn't always been the case. In Bordeaux, for example, where cabernet has been grown since the 18th century, it is nearly always blended with at least one other grape.
Part of the reason is climate: Unreliable conditions in Bordeaux mean that some varieties ripen better than others in a given year. But another reason is that vintners knew that cabernet sauvignon could often be improved by adding some other grapes. Cabernet franc, for example, adds savory aromas, while merlot and malbec can add lusciousness.
There are places in California -- Napa Valley, for example -- where cabernet sauvignon on its own is often the complete package: structured, yet fleshy and inviting. But that's not necessarily the case everywhere. In the recent Central Coast Wine Competition, held in Paso Robles, I tasted a couple of dozen cabernets from the 2009 and 2010 vintages, as well as a similar number of Bordeaux-style blends, whose vintages ranged from 2006 to 2010. As a group, the blends performed much better. They were more complete, complex wines.
For example, take the wine judged to be the best in the Bordeaux blend class -- the 2007 Pedregal Cache ($25), a blend of two-thirds cabernet sauvignon and one-third merlot from Paicines, in San Benito County. The wine is structured and lively, but it also has a density and richness that make it very alluring.
I was also a big fan of the 2008 J. Lohr Cuvee St. E ($50), a Paso Robles blend of mostly cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon that was inspired by the wines of St. Emilion, on the right bank of Bordeaux. The wine has the fragrance and elegance of cabernet franc, coupled with the weight and structure of cabernet sauvignon.
Jeff Meier, J. Lohr's director of winemaking, says this particular wine is one of his favorites because of his love for cabernet franc. "With the blends, it gives you more opportunity to play with flavor profiles," he says. "It's a little bit more freeing."
All of the aforementioned wines were awarded gold medals. (Bordeaux blends are sometimes labeled as "Meritage," and those wines were in a separate category, which I didn't judge.)
There were, of course, some cabernet sauvignons that held their own. The 2009 Le Vigne "Kiara Reserve" Cabernet Sauvignon ($20), which won best-of-class honors, is more than 99 percent cab, with a tiny splash of cabernet franc. The wine is ripe, dark and concentrated, with considerable tannin. The 2009 B&E Vineyard Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($25), which is all cab, offers lively black fruit with a note of anise.
But some of the best wines in the cabernet category contained sizable amounts of other grapes. (A wine labeled as cabernet sauvignon is required to be just 75 percent cabernet.) For example, the 2009 Vina Robles Cabernet Sauvignon ($24), a gold medalist, is 15 percent petit verdot and 10 percent tannat; the wine is rich, dark and lively, with dark fruit, a hint of mint and firm structure. The 2009 Lucas & Lewellen Valley View Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($27) from Santa Barbara County contains portions of merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot and malbec. That wine had an interesting note of cracked pepper.
To be eligible for the Central Coast Wine Competition, a wine must be made from grapes harvested in the Central Coast American Viticultural Area -- which stretches roughly 250 miles from the Bay Area to Santa Barbara County -- or in Ventura County. As has been the case in past years, most of the entries were from wineries in San Luis Obispo County, although chief judge Bob Foster says that participation from wineries elsewhere along the Central Coast has been increasing.
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Judges named the 2010 Alapay Cellars Jamieson's Vineyard Pinot Noir ($48) as the best wine of the competition. The wine, made from grapes grown in Edna Valley, is rich and spicy, with cherry and raspberry flavors, a peppery note and supple texture. Best white was the 2009 Zocker Riesling ($20), a racy wine scented with lime and lime oil.
Among the whites, I loved the 2011 Kenneth Volk Malvasia Bianca ($24) from San Bernabe Vineyard in Monterey County. Malvasia is an intensely fragrant grape, and the wines can sometimes be a little overbearing and heavy. But this one is spot on, with a lot of floral character and fresh white peach flavors. Also excellent were the 2011 Zocker Gruner Veltliner ($20), with its spicy lime and apple flavors; the 2011 Claiborne & Churchill Dry Gewürztraminer ($20), a gewürz with the typical rose petal, lychee and spice notes; and the 2011 LaZarre Albarino ($22), which is lively and fresh, with white fruit and citrus.
Two other reds worth noting are the 2009 Bon Niche "L'entree" Malbec ($45), which is a real mouthful, with ripe, dense boysenberry fruit and spice, and the 2010 Eberle Barbera ($28), a fresh, lively wine packed with blueberry fruit.
Some of these wines will be released in the next few months. And some of them don't get much distribution in the Bay Area. But they're worth looking for if you make the trip to Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo.