Once upon a time, wine preferences, accurate or not, were drawn along gender lines. Those days have passed as such assumptions have proven false, but growers of one wine in particular still use gendered terminology to describe how grapes grown in one place can produce a wine fundamentally different in character from grapes grown just a short ways away.
It’s cabernet sauvignon — one of the most popular wines in the world and a major export from California wineries — though which winery you pick makes a big difference.
All wines are subject to their particular terroir — where it is grown, what conditions exist and how the wine is blended. Traditionally, cabernet sauvignon lovers have extended this further, denoting cabs as “masculine” or “feminine” based on traits acquired as a result of where they’re planted.
Whether you want to perpetuate that notion is your call, but there’s no denying an understanding of its principles will help you do a better job of picking the right wine for you and your drinking companions.
Two California wine-growing regions exemplify the difference best: Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley.
A Napa cab has been cultivated inland, growing in the light of abundant sunshine that bakes the vine-covered valley during the day and settles through the night. As a result, that valley’s cabs are big, broad wines with elegant structure and a dominating presence — characteristics that put them in the category of “masculine” reds.
Sonoma Valley is one step closer to the coast, with a more temperate climate and cool morning fog and sea breezes that temper the daily heat. Wines from there are not as strident as their Napa counterparts. Instead, they blossom with a fruit-filled presence, and are traditionally referred to as “feminine” reds.
So picking up a bottle of California cabernet sauvignon isn’t as easy as it looks — the terroir makes all the difference. To help you draw your own comparisons, we’ve collected examples of both, exemplifying the aforementioned bold or blossoming characteristics.
Highway 12 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon ($17) is blended from grapes grown in the Arrowhead Mountain and Sangiacomo Vineyards. Fruit-forward in the now familiar Sonoma style, the wine’s deep cherry notes, supported by pronounced tannins, deliver a fine, supple finish.
Kunde 2013 Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon ($22) presents with a raspberry and tobacco nose that give way to flavors of cherry and spice. Strident tannins gained from macerating the wine over its skins give the cab its tensile strength.
Francis Ford Coppola’s 2013 Director’s Cut Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($23) represents an intersection of preferences between Ford’s filmmaking and winemaking worlds. Dark fruit flavors mix with earthy minerals and hints of anise and cocoa thanks to the addition of small amounts of malbec and cabernet franc in this delightful wine.
Simi 2013 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($25) comes from one of the area’s oldest wineries. Black pepper, plum and cherry sparkle on the silky palate of this bright, full-bodied wine.
Louis M. Martini 2013 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($28), from another of the valley’s oldest winemakers, trades on its dark fruit flavors and note of truffles, herbs and smoked cedar to deliver an expansive, well-structured wine.
Buehler Vineyards 2013 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($25), produced with 9 percent merlot grapes, offers abundant dark fruit aromas and flavors with a touch of licorice and graphite on the palate that will soften as the wine breathes and will further develop as it ages.
Girard 2013 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($28) offers a Bordeaux-style blend of 79 percent cabernet sauvignon, 7 percent merlot, 6 percent cabernet franc, 5 percent petit verdot, and 5 percent malbec. The wine’s complex nose contains hints of vanilla bean, baking spice and a host of others, with a palate heavy with cassis, blackberry and mocha.
Franciscan Estate 2013 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($29) delivers a bouquet of aromas, including vanilla, blackberry, tobacco and leather. Cherries, spice and a hint of black pepper brighten the palate on this well-structured wine.
The Hess Collection 2013 Allomi/Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($30) combines 11 percent petite syrah and 3 percent petit verdot in its blend, resulting in a full-bodied luscious wine with the classic cab profile and lush mouthfeel.
Robert Mondavi 2013 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($30) blends 8 percent merlot and 5 percent cabernet franc with its signature grape. Plum, blackberry and herb flavors dominate the nose and palate, with silky tannins supporting a long, lingering finish.
Michael Muckian is an award-winning Madison-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in multiple local, national and international publications. In addition to business and finance topics, he also writes about food, wine, travel, theater, music and visual arts.