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January 29 - February 5, 1998

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Hailing Napa cabs

Cabernet sauvignon from Napa is America's great wine

Uncorked by David Marglin

Wine, like Seinfeld, is a show about everything and nothing. To some (on some days, to me) wine is everything. Then again, it's just a beverage. It's liquid. You drink it, it becomes but a memory. And wine is a show -- the list, ordering, presentation of the bottle, cutting the foil, uncorking, decanting, pouring a little to taste, swirling, sniffing, sipping, aerifying, swallowing, proclaiming, pouring, pronouncing, prognosticating, pontificating, (hopefully) ordering more.

In America, the star of the show is Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon -- Napa cab. (Wine folk love abbreviations.) Right now, Napa Valley cabs, especially the incredible '94s, are hot. Lots of great wines are made in Napa Valley, from lots of different grape varieties, as the weather is almost always perfect for many grapes. But it's cabernet that is the most celebrated.

Cabernet sauvignon (the grape) has its origins in Bordeaux, where it's the primary variety used in most of the great red wines of that region. But red Bordeaux is always a blend, usually of the following five grapes: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, malbec, and petit verdot, usually in respective percentages of around 80, 11, 5, 4, and 1 to 2. California's innovation was to distinguish its wines by focusing on the grape variety: hence the 100-percent cab. These tend to be big, even overwhelming wines, which work best with some form of red meat or cheese. Me, I'll drink straight cabs with pizza or fish, but the nuances and passion of these wines come through best when they're paired with pungent flavors.

Napa cabs don't come cheap. The starting price for really good bottles is $20. (I can recommend some decent Napa cabs under $20, which give a sense of the grape, but right at $20 the wines start to be worth twice that.) Why all the fuss? Napa cabs are bold, they are brash, they are peppery, but they can be elegant and demure too, in the sense that they hide their fruit. They exude complexity. The fruits are lush: currants, berries, some say cherries and plums. People talk of oak and cedar, tar and molasses, tobacco and tea. I have heard tell of maple syrup and mint flavors, vanilla and licorice, leather, cocoa and pecans, even cigar boxes.

Cabs bring out the most epic descriptions because they offer so many flavors and so many enticing nuances. Cabs are also power wines, for those who can afford it (or who are on an expense account). But caveat emptor, because a lot of people -- indeed, a lot of enthusiastic wine people -- don't have the taste for cab. A lot of modern winemaking technique is going into making these Napa monsters more accessible, faster. Vintners are removing tannins and softening the taste, so that the wines will be more ready on release, less in need of aging. A lot of these youngsters still need big air, though, so get them open as early as possible before drinking.

As usual, these recommendations are subject to availability and some price fluctuations. Check with your local retailer.

**1995 Hess Select ($12, Wine and Cheese Cask, Somerville)

When you see Hess Select cab from a decent year, you'll want to buy it, because it's released mostly to restaurants. This is an unassuming little table wine, with loads of fruit, especially these elusive strawberry undertones. A soft nose.

**l994 St. Supery ($15, the Wine Press, Brookline; Wine and Cheese Cask)

A supple but somewhat nondescript little number, with easy floral flavors that are broad and inviting. A good cab to begin with, and a mellow finisher.

**1995 William Hill ($15, all over)

A round, blueberry flavor that starts out robust and then sort of descends into innocuousness. A decent cheese-and-crackers wine with a nice label.

***1993 Hess Collection ($20, Wine and Cheese Cask)

This is a wonderfully full wine, with smooth oak and vanilla, that open up new vistas of flavor in the mouth. Always a value, Hess Collection is worth the price. Trust me: you must find this and consume.

*** 1994 Oakville Franciscan ($21, Marty's Liquors, Allston and Newton)

A mama '94, with loads of spice and fruit (overt strawberry: yum!). This wine has a solid structure, tons of tannin, and character to spare. A stunner to drink or hold.

***1994 Truchard ($27, Marty's, Wine and Cheese Cask)

Gentle moss and earth give way to light tar and smoked oak. Some chocolate. This keeper drinks well now, but it's such a huge, outdoorsy wine that I would put a bottle or two away for a rainy day, or a blizzardy night. It's selling fast.

David Marglin can be reached at wine@phx.com.


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