Keeping Warm with Napa Valley Cabernets

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By Josh Perilo

The air has finally become crisp and blustery. The leaves have all but been completely shed from the trees in Central Park. New York City's requisite two weeks of fall weather have come and gone and we are hurtling, full speed, into winter's icy clutch. This only means one thing as far as I'm concerned: It's Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon time!

It's not like I plan this yearly obsession. I wouldn't by any stretch call myself a "fan" of Napa cabernets. Throughout most of the year, I might even say I find them somewhat annoying. Many of this area's most coveted wines are over-extracted, almost syrupy bottles of thick juice with tannins so rough right out of the bottle that you may as well gargle with sandpaper afterwards.

There's something about early winter, though, that makes all of these qualities work. The chill in the air that makes the pile of merino wool sweaters under your bed look cozy and inviting does the same thing to Napa cabernets - they're the warm and cozy winter mufflers of the wine world.

So, to celebrate the kickoff of the cold- weather season, I offer you my favorite Napa cabernets for this year.

There is a decades-old myth that Napa Valley cabernets are prohibitively expensive across the board. While there are scores on which you could easily spend hundreds of dollars per bottle, there are five times as many that are a fraction of the price and are still very, very good.

The Beaulieu Vineyard Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 ($16.99 at Garnet Wines and Liquors, 929 Lexington Ave., betw. 68th and 69th Sts., 212-772-3212) is one of those wines. The brand's ubiquitous red "BV" on every bottle may scare away the connoisseur in each of us, but if you think about it, there's a reason why you can find it everywhere: It's damn good. Cedar and pipe smoke on the nose give way to crushed mulberry and currants up front on the palate. The mid holds together with tight tannins and the finish unfurls, long and full, with woody notes and more currant.

It isn't all woodshop-inspired flavors in modern Napa cabernets, though. There are plenty of easy-to-drink bottles from the famous valley that feature fruit, fruit and more fruit as their main event. Take, for example, the Sterling Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 ($18.95 at Sherry-Lehmann Wine and Spirits, 505 Park Ave. at 60th St., 212-838-7500). The nose gives this wine away right from the first pour. Cherry pie and wisps of vanilla bean greet you at first sniff. On the palate, the fruit flavors continue, with baked blueberry and cinnamon throughout and even more cherry on the finish. Although I would personally like a tad more tannic structure, this wine will certainly do the trick if you want a glass of cab sans food.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are a handful of Napa producers that are embracing the old-world style of cabernet made popular by the Haute Medoc area of Bordeaux. The Mount Veeder Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 ($37.99 at Beacon Wines and Spirits, 2120 Broadway at 74th St., 212-877-0028) couldn't be more Bordelaise if it were wrapped in a French flag and served with a country pâté. Wet earth and old leather are the primary notes on the nose right out of the bottle, but it starts giving up mild cedar scents once it opens up. The palate is complex and equally earthy, starting with hay and clay notes up front. The middle has a mild cassis flavor backed by bracing tannin, and the finish becomes herbal and spicy with swirling flavors of rosemary, black pepper, rose petal and burnt sage. This wine is a must for herb-crusted lamb chops.

With something for virtually every palate and pocketbook, Napa Valley's cabernets aren't just for collectors anymore. But don't expect to share a bottle with me come March or April. By then I will have packed my cabernets away for the following winter, along with my wool suits and long underwear!

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