What Am I Tasting?

This weighty red shows dark fruit, tobacco and wood notes, with a bright finish ... Play the game!

June 26, 2020

Our blind tasting game—without the tasting! Can you identify a wine just by reading its tasting note? We post real Wine Spectator reviews. You use clues such as color, aromas, flavors and structure to figure out the grape, age and origin. Good luck!

Tasting Note: This is brimming with steeped fig, black currant and plum fruit, inlaid liberally with lively bramble, sweet tobacco and roasted apple wood notes. Shows heft and weight, but delivers bright cut through the finish. Rock-solid.

And the answer is...


Variety

Our full-bodied mystery wine shows dark fruit, herbal and roasted wood notes, along with enough acidity to give it brightness. Let’s narrow down our options.

We can start by eliminating Pinot Noir. Although Pinots can show our note’s acidity, they are lighter-bodied, rather than rock-solid. And our note’s dark fruit flavors and tobacco element are not a match for Pinot’s red berry and mineral notes.

Grenache, or Garnacha, can show our wine’s fruit notes, but it’s not typically as weighty our wine. And Grenache typically leans more toward red fruit flavors and refined tannins, while its characteristic pepper or spice note is missing here. Let’s move on.

Zweigelt is also more typically associated with red berry flavors, but plum and dark berry are not out of line. Zweigelts can show pronounced acidity, but they’re also on the softer, silky side, not weighty or rock solid . This isn’t a good match, either.

Mourvèdre, also known as Monastrell, is often used as a blending grape to add body, dark berry, meaty and herbaceous notes. Our wine is missing both Mourvèdre’s signature meaty accent as well its pronounced violet aroma.

Currant and plum flavors are hallmarks of Cabernet Sauvignon, along with earthy tobacco accents and aromas of toast or wood conferred by oak aging. While Cabernets tend to be on the full-bodied and structured side, they can have plush tannins and can be balanced by bright, moderate acidity.

This wine is a Cabernet Sauvignon.

Country or Region of Origin

Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the world’s top international grapes, and grows best in warmer climates and in well-drained soils. Nevertheless, while several producers grow Cabernet in Spain, it is not as significant there as grapes like Tempranillo, Garnacha and Monastrell, and it is more likely to be used in blends. Similarly, while Oregon produces some Cabernet, the region’s climate is more suited to Pinot Noir, and the state doesn’t produce nearly as much Cabernet as neighboring Washington. There are Cabernet plantings in Austria as well, but they represent a small fraction of the country’s red wine output, and we would expect more mineral, spice and green vegetal notes from an Austrian Cabernet.

Cabernet Sauvignon is native to France, and the grape continues to thrive there in blends, especially on Bordeaux’s Left Bank. Cabernet from Bordeaux tends to be made in a leaner, Old World style, with more focus on mineral, spice, vegetal and earth notes than on expressive fruit or oak notes. But in warmer California, Cabernet is generally made in a New World style, with emphasis on ripe fruit notes, oak accents and full body. California is the better match for our mystery wine’s style.

This Cabernet Sauvignon is from California.

Appellation

Knowing that we’re in California, we can eliminate France’s Alsace, Spain’s Jumilla, Austria’s Steiermark and Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

This leaves us with the California appellations Rutherford and Trinity Lakes. Trinity Lakes is a small, mountainous AVA in Northern California, bordered by the Trinity and Lewiston lakes. The cool-climate region produces some red wine from its few vineyards, but it’s not known for Cabernet. Rutherford is a warm region at the center of Napa Valley with loamy, sandy soils that are ideal for Cabernet. The Cabernets made here tend to be medium- to full-bodied and complex, with currant and plum flavors, herbal accents and balancing acidity.

This Cabernet Sauvignon is from Rutherford.

Age

Our Cabernet is still brimming with fresh fruit flavors, lively accents and full tannins. It shows no signs of significant bottle age, which could be indicated by dried fruit notes or savory hints of mushroom and leather, so it is likely not more than five years old. (Tobacco leaf notes can indicate age, but the tobacco element in our wine is described as sweet, which suggests it’s still on the fresher end of the tobacco spectrum.) Conversely, most Cabernet Sauvignons are aged for 18 to 24 months in barrel.

While 2017 had a good growing season in Cabernet’s key regions, October wildfires made this one of the Golden State’s most difficult recent vintages. The results are lush Cabernets with blue and black fruit, mineral accents and rich hints of cocoa and spice. 2016 was the last vintage of California’s years-long drought, but without the significant heat spikes previous years had suffered. Many top Cabernets from 2016 saw a combination of red and dark berry flavors, often with iron, loam and earth accents underscoring the wines’ dense texture. A cold spell during 2015’s flowering season reduced yields, and the lower crop ripened rapidly. The year’s top Cabernets are full-bodied with black currant notes, accented by herbal and smoky wood aromas, and many finish with bright, cutting acidity. There were heavy rains in early 2014, followed by warmer conditions that led to an early harvest and to harmonious Cabernets with rich fruit and hints of coffee and licorice. The 2015 vintage is our best match.

This California Cabernet Sauvignon is from the 2015 vintage, making it five years old.

Wine

This is the Frank Family Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford Reserve 2015, which scored 92 points in the Feb. 28, 2019, issue of Wine Spectator. It retails for $95, and 1,000 cases were made. For more on California Cabernet, check out senior editor James Molesworth’s tasting report, "A Benchmark Year," in the Nov. 15, 2019, issue.

—Aaron Romano, associate tasting coordinator