A cabernet sauvignon for an occasion

Frank Altamura, the winemaker at his eponymous property in California, is a farmer at heart. ”The big fun is in the vineyards,” he says.

With no formal winemaking training, he learned by doing, first at Sterling Vineyards and then at other notable Napa Valley properties: Trefethen, Caymus, and Dunn. He and his wife, Karen, founded their winery in 1985 on land in the hills in the southeastern corner of the Napa Valley that the Altamura family has owned for 150 years. Twenty years later, it remains a small winery producing about 3,000 cases of cabernet sauvignon annually from about 65 acres of vines. (For comparison, Château Lafite-Rothschild, one of Bordeaux’s most famous properties, produces about 20,000 cases of wine a year.)

Although California winemakers use the same red grapes as their counterparts in Bordeaux, some winemaking practices differ. In Bordeaux, winemakers blend wines made from up to five grapes — cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot, and malbec — to achieve the final product. It is rare to find a red Bordeaux made exclusively from one variety. The final blend has broader, more interesting flavors than any of the individual wines. Blending wine is also common in California, even in those wines labeled with a single grape name, such as cabernet sauvignon. (By law, only 75 percent of the wine must come from the grape listed on the label.) But many California producers, such as Altamura, make wine exclusively from cabernet sauvignon.

Altamura’s 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon is a staggeringly sumptuous wine with great power and complexity. The vineyard achieves the broad layers of flavor by blending different batches of cabernet sauvignon made from grapes grown in different parts of the 400-acre property. Each vineyard contributes subtle differences to the wine because of different soil, elevation, and exposure to the sun, according to Altamura.

The resulting blend is silky and supple. Its price means most of us will save it for a special occasion, but when that time comes, it will be a great match for a celebratory steak or rack of lamb.

Altamura Vineyards and Winery, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2001 (about $69). Distributed by Martignetti Cos., 800-872-9463.

November 10, 2005