Two years ago I wrote a column about my search for a good Pinot Noir for less than $20 a bottle. It hasn’t been easy: Pinot Noir is a grape of notoriously variable quality that requires ideal conditions to develop, and the wines are both more complex and more expensive to produce. Cabernet Sauvignon is a much simpler and harder grape variety. And yet, as I discovered in this column, finding a good, cheap cabernet can be just as difficult, if not more so.
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Cabernet Sauvignon is native to Bordeaux, France, and is one of the most popular and widespread grape varieties in the world. They can be found wherever winemakers want to make their brand or a lot of money, and they produce both good and bad wines. The former are made from grapes grown on large plots of land and carefully tended vineyards, fermented and aged in expensive French oak. These come from highly productive vineyards, machine processed grapes, fermented oak chips and worse.
Mega Purple, for example, is one of the many additives brand name manufacturers use to make wine dark and sweet and help mask the green or spicy flavors of unripe grapes. But I was not interested in wines made from a sweet mixture of oak chips and sugar, I was interested in wines made from grapes that had reached physiological maturity and had been stripped of their excess oak. This has eliminated most of the popular brands of cabs on the market today.
The Cabernet Sauvignon grape variety
produces both sublime and poor wines.
I began my search with a maximum price of $20 per bottle, but quickly raised it to $25 when the selection proved insufficient. I bought 17 bottles from various wine regions in California and Washington State, as well as Australia, Argentina, Chile and even a wine from South Africa. Unfortunately, this specimen, Stark-Conde 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon from the Stellenbosch area ($17), proved a deterrent to further exploration of South African Cabernet.
The four Chilean Cabernets proved even more disappointing. I remember Chilean Cabernets being quite good, or at least not as aggressively grassy and spicy as the wines I used to buy. The 2017 Postolla Cuvée Alexandra Cabernet Sauvignon ($20) is an aromatic blend of tobacco and dill. Los Vascos Grande Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 ($12) and 2016. The Cabernet Sauvignon Montes Alpha ($19) was just as big and green.
I found some pretty good California wines, including a 2017 St. Louis. Francis Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon ($20) was slightly tannic and had nice red and black fruit; the 2017 Louis M. Martini Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon ($17) had sweet tannins and notes of cocoa and red fruit. I’m even happier that I found five Cabernets that really impressed me: three from California and two from Australia.
They were wines with real varietal character, lively acids and unadulterated fruit in the oak; all but one were also relatively low in alcohol. The 2017 Aerena Red Hills Lake County Cabernet Sauvignon ($25) was a lush and powerful wine, so well balanced that the 14.5% alcohol content didn’t seem excessive, perhaps because it was made by a wine superstar.
Cabernet. Mr. Pott discovered that Cabernets cost up to $215 a bottle for his clients in Napa. How did he come up with the idea of making wine accessible to everyone?
Mr. Pott told me he chose this wine after seeing the Red Hills Winery in Lake County. I was there at Christmas 2014 and found it absolutely breathtaking: super ferruginous soil, dotted with obsidian, he recalls. Mr. Pott worked with the owners of Blackbird Vineyards in Napa on the Lake District project. It’s a project we appreciate, and making good wine in this category is a real challenge, he said.
Another respected winemaker from Napa,
I made one of my favorite wines, the 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon from Oberon Napa County ($20). Mr. Coltrin produced many expensive wines, including the late Robert Mondavi. Unfortunately, their price makes them unaffordable for many drinkers, he said. With Oberon, she reaches a much wider audience: It is, according to the terms of
a drink that family and friends can share.
had been involved in winemaking for decades before he and his late wife, Susan, founded Wine Tutorial in 2004. The fruit of his excellent 2018 Napa Valley Textbook Cabernet Sauvignon ($25), a lush, vibrant red, comes from several connections. Some of the grapes were purchased on a contract basis and some on a handshake agreement, he said. Mr. Pei emphasized the sweetness of the wine and its relatively low alcohol content (less than 14%): I am tempted to ask the growers to put up some more canopies to give the grapes more shade. I’m also used to choosing before my neighbors do.
A cool climate
The Western Australia region has helped keep my two other favorite Cabernets in line, according to their winemakers : Ringbolt Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($17) and Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 ($20), 14% and 14.1% alcohol, respectively.
The Ringbolt winemaker, noted that her wines retain their acidity and tannic structure with very little intervention. Very little new oak is used either (6% for the 2018 vintage). The resulting Cabernet Ringbolt is juicy and fresh, bursting with red and black fruit.
2017 Vasse Felix Filius is slightly more discreet, structured and tannic, but just as good. We do not use heavy new oak so as not to mask the purity of our beautiful fruit, the Cabernet. Our wine is aged for 12 to 15 months in old oak to ensure that the wine has a moderate breath and tannins, explains winemaker Wass Felix.
All our Cabernets are organically grown and produced with a minimum of intervention.
Margaret River’s conditions are clearly suitable for Cabernet, and the low cost of producing the grapes makes it possible to sell good wines at reasonable prices. If only there were more Margaret River Cabernets on the American market, my search would be easier, but they are still quite rare in the United States. Only 1,000 cases of this 2018 Cabernet Ringbolt were shipped to the United States. Hopefully, the United States will be a growing market for us, Ms. Hewlett wrote. Fraser.
After tasting 17 Cabernets, only five or six of which are wines I would like to drink again, I think Cabernet may be one of the best grape varieties in the world, but is not always considered as such.
ENOFILE / CHEAP-CABERNET
1. 2018 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Textbook, $25
Made from Napa’s diverse fruit sources – 15 different vineyards – this elegant wine has notes of dark red fruit and spice, to be exact. At 13.3% alcohol, it is also a very versatile and lively drink.
2. 2017 Aerena Red Hills Lake County Cabernet Sauvignon, $25
Superstar Aaron Pott, wine consultant in Napa, has fallen in love with Red Hills Vineyard in Lake County, the source of this soft, full-bodied and balanced wine.
3. 2018 Oberon Napa County Cabernet Sauvignon, $20
During his long career, winemaker Tony Coltrin has made many small and expensive Napa Cabs, but also wines like this easy-drinking Oberon that are just as worthwhile and more affordable.
4. 2018 Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon Ring, $17
Black currants and cherries drip from this lively Cabernet from the Margaret River region, where winemaker Heather Fraser says temperate ocean conditions make for a nice, long and consistent ripening season.
5. 2017 Vasse Felix Félix Margaret River Filius Cabernet Sauvignon, $20
Filius is an entry-level Cabernet from Vasse Felix, the founding vineyard of Margaret River, Australia. The wine is well-structured, with firm tannins and great purity of fruit, all wrapped in an excess of oak.
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