If you've been following along here at Wine Time on the Eating Our Words blog, you know that we don't drink a lot of Californian Cabernet Sauvignon at our house. Fact of the matter is we rarely drink monovarietal (i.e., a wine made from a single grape variety) Cabernet Sauvignon at all.
Cabernet Sauvignon (please don't say "Cab"!) is a robust tannic grape variety, most famously used in Bordeaux as one component in a blend of the three primary grapes of the appellation. Cabernet Sauvignon gives the wine its tannic structure, Merlot gives it fruit flavors, and Cabernet Franc gives it acidity and some aromatic character.
Of course, I am simplifying the equation here and there are many other variables that go into the formula, depending on the growing sites (in St. Emillion, growers favor Merlot, for example) and the growers and winemakers themselves (the 1961, Château Cheval Blanc that Merlot-hater Miles covets in the movie Sideways is actually made from Merlot and Cabernet Franc!).
Honestly, most of the Cabernet Sauvignon grown in Napa Valley and vinified as monovarietal wine tends to be too tannic and concentrated for my taste. In my view, this is more the legacy of the Napa Valley "brand" and predominant commercial style than it is of the land. When the luxury wine industry expanded in Napa Valley in the 80s and 90s, most of the carpet-bagger investors were Wall Street blowhards who embraced that age-old motto of rich folk: Bigger is Better (sound familiar?).
When my wife and I found ourselves in a fat cat steakhouse the other night, at a business/social dinner where politesse was the least expensive menu item, we ordered a glass of the 2005 Heitz Cabernet Sauvignon to go with my garlic-smothered steak (I had no idea the "Cowboy Ribeye" would be served that way!).
Having grown up in California, I know the wine well. The Heitz style -- dating back to the winery's launch in 1961 -- is much more balanced than a lot of the wine I've tasted from California recently. The fruit, while present in the mouth of this wine, is not concentrated and bombastic. And the judicious use of oak aging doesn't overwhelm the wine with vanilla and cedar flavors the way some of the more flashy Napa Valley bottlings of Cabernet Sauvignon roll these days. And the wine had ACIDITY! The lack of acidity, I regret to report, is one of the defining elements of the contemporary California style. It seems that the powers-that-be (read a bunch of men so rich that they don't have anything better to do than to blow their money on a trophy winery) believe that we shouldn't have acidity in our wine. I'm happy to report that Heitz hasn't subscribed to this misguided dogma.
At around $50 a bottle retail in the Houston area, Heitz is beyond the reach of our family household budget for wine (our Saturday night wine never exceeds $35 these days and most days we spend $15-25 on a bottle; $15 is the new $10, btw). But our server graciously poured a glass of the $30 by-the-glass Heitz charging us the half-priced happy hour cost (happy hours at fine dining destinations are a great way to taste wines that you normally cannot afford).
At $15, the 2005 Heitz delivered a true taste of California, with the elegance and class that the Napa Valley brand rightly deserves and commands.