Friday, December 22, 2006

A Textbook Cabernet: the 2002 Peter Lehmann Barossa"

I've been pretty remiss in my coverage of cabernet sauvignon, one of the world's greatest red grape varietals. A fascinating post by Fred Koeppel on his relatively new blog, Bigger than Your Head, wonders if cabernet sauvignon truly is the king of grapes, the "stake in the ground" that shapes what we think red wine should be. That was my inspiration to pull out this wine and a flank steak from the deep-freeze and remind myself what the grape is all about.

One of the reasons that I don't drink much cabernet is that it is not the most versatile wine when it comes to pairing with food--though I would be grateful for any suggestions apart from "grilled red meat" that people feel goes well with the varietal. We don't eat as much red meat--grilled or otherwise--as we used to, and so cabernets have become relative rarities in my wine storage and on my table.

The food pairing problems stem in part from cabernet's varietal characteristics. Typically, cabernets exhibit flavors of green pepper, bay leaf, and currant. With processing, they can take on notes of vanilla, oak, and smoke. With bottle age they acquire flavors of earth, leather, and cedar. These flavors are often big and overpowering, and are the preamble to a dry, even astringent tannic finish. Cabernets are wines that are well-suited to years of cellaring to soften, integrate, and mellow out the flavors. Heavily oaked cabs, or those grown in warm weather regions, can sometimes be jammy and extracted, thereby loosing most of the vegetal greenness typical of the grape.

The 2002 Peter Lehmann Barossa Cabernet Sauvignon is a textbook cabernet with very good QPR. It cost me $15.99 in a small independent grocery store, and a quick look at Wine-Searcher revealed that there are bottles for sale all over the US for between $13 and $18. The 2002 growing season in the Barossa Valley was very cool, which makes this cabernet sauvignon much more typical of an old world wine in flavors (though it is still a substantial 14.5% alc/vol). True garnet in color, when first opened it had pronounced aromas of green pepper. After 20 minutes in the glass, currants and bay leaf aromas developed. These aromas were echoed in the flavors, along with a touch of tar (from 12 months in French and American oak) and cedar (from bottle age).

This wine has all the classic varietal characteristics of a cool-weather cabernet. I find it interesting that my fellow wine lovers over on Cellar Tracker! find this wine "thin" and a bit green--perhaps because they are used to the fruitier flavor profile of a Napa cabernet. The 2002 Peter Lehmann "The Barossa" is not huge, it's not over the top, and it's still probably a bit young. If you buy a bottle or have one in your wine rack already, I'd keep it in a cool place for another 2-3 years. I suspect with some more bottle age the cedar notes would develop and be in better balance, and this wine would be excellent. If you want to drink it now, remember that it will be at its best with food: grilled meat like lamb, sausages, or beef accompanied by simple sides (we had it with baked sweet potatoes with cracked pepper and sea salt and some steamed haricots verts).

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