Mastering Differences between California Cabernet Blend & Barolo

I live in Vail Valley, Colorado. It’s a very special gastronomic community filled with creative chefs and talented sommeliers. We are blessed to count Master Sommelier Sean Razee, Vail Resorts‘ Mountain Dining Beverage Director, among the oenological dwellers of our valley. That means whenever I am in need of oenological wisdom, Sean is my “go-to” professional. Needless to say, his tireless support of local charities in planning and executing their fundraising dinners is a delight to witness.

While writing a chapter in my book “A Labor of Love: Wine Women of Piemonte,” I got I stuck on a question regarding the differences between California Cabernet Blends and Barolo. My ability to explain the differences leads me, an attorney, to paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous line, “I know it when I see and taste it.” So who better to turn to than Sean for a more detailed explanation? No one in my universe is better at mastering differences between these two wines.

What I got was a 455 word education. And this is one education I definitely wanted to share. Sean graciously agreed to allow me to guest post his response to my question. I hope you enjoy the primer. I certainly did!

Suzanne: “How would you describe the difference between a California Cabernet Blend and Barolo?”

Sean Razee: 

Immense differences exist between California Cabernet Blend and Barolo. These differences are apparent in the color, flavor profile and structure of the wines. Some differences are due to climate differences between California’s Napa Valley and the northwest Italian region of Piemonte (specifically the Langhe). Differences in vinification also make the wines distinct from one another.

California Cabernet Blend

I would describe a California Cabernet Blend (in youth) as a deep ruby color with black fruits (currant, plum, cherry).

There should be a whiff of green herbs (tobacco, mint) with dark chocolate and coffee. The oak on the wine is prominent, displaying new French oak barrels (smoke, toast, vanilla, baking spices). Earthiness is not prominent.

The structure of the wine is medium-plus to high tannin (silky) medium to medium-plus acidity, with medium-plus to high alcohol.

Cabernet is a thick-skinned grape of high color pigmentation. The vinification methods used in production extract large amounts of tannin from the skins. A fruity and a silky, smooth palate dominates the wine. The tannin in a California Cabernet Blend tends to be “fully ripe” which gives the wine’s tannin a silky feeling on the palate.


For Barolo (made from 100% Nebbiolo), the color is more garnet to light ruby with red fruits as opposed to black fruits (cherry, raspberry, pomegranate). The fruits are sometimes both ripe and dried (with some age). There can sometimes be notes of spice, anise, tar, leather, and balsamic. Notes of volatile acidity are common giving the wines a lifted, perfumey aroma. Some producers are using some new French barrels, adding the corresponding flavor profile of those barrels. However, the traditional production methods do not lend oak to the flavor profile.

Unlike a California Cabernet Blend, a Barolo might be bone dry, with high tannin, high acidity and medium-plus to high alcohol.

Nebbiolo is a thin-skinned grape with light color that contradicts the wine’s weight and aggressive tannin. It is highly aromatic and driven by non-fruit characters. Unlike the tannin in a California Cabernet Blend that possesses silkiness virtually upon release, the tannin in Barolo may need years to soften. This is historically why Barolo was required by law to age for many years before release. With today’s viticultural and vinification techniques though, this has changed a bit and Barolo is becoming much more approachable in its youth.

This last part of my Nebbiolo description (underlined) leads to why many people who like new world, California Cabernets do not like Barolo. For a person that wants a “smooth” wine, with high color, high extraction, high fruit content, high alcohol, silky tannins and some sweetness to the wine, Barolo is almost the antithesis of this model. Barolo is light colored, highly aromatic, is non-fruit driven, and has an aggressive tannin and acid profile.

– Sean Razee, Master Sommelier

Master Sommelier Sean RazeeMaster Sommelier Sean Razee, Beverage Director, Vail Resorts Mountain Dining. Photo credit: Vail Resorts

For more information on Sean Razee, please visit my profile of him, “Courting Sommelier Excellence.”

Barolo - Chiara Boschis of E. Pira e Figliarolo from famed producer Chiara Boschis of E. Pira e Figli. Photo Credit: Alisha Quinn Bosco

 Schweiger Vineyards' Dedication, Napa Valley Cabernet blendSchweiger Vineyards’ “Dedication,” an example of one of Napa Valley’s distinctive California Cabernet Blends.
Photo credit: Schweiger Vineyards

Suzanne's blog post was originally published on her own site Wine Families of the World and is republished on Wine Pass with her permission.

Last modified onMonday, 07 September 2015 12:24
Suzanne Hoffman

After over two decades in Switzerland, my husband Dani and I returned to America, settling in the heart of the Colorado Rockies.  But my heart was still in the vineyards of Piemonte, Italy and Valais, Switzerland.  In 2012, I turned a page in my life story, giving up my life as an attorney.  In my newest – and happiest – chapter of my life, I revel in capturing the human stories of food, wine and travel as an entrepreneurial writer.  Wine families are my passion.  It’s their stories of triumph and heartbreak that often span centuries I want most to tell to entice readers to meet them, travel their regions and enjoy their bewitching wines.

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