Perhaps no red wine grape is desired more by the in-the-know, impress-my-clients, conspicuous consumption types than the vaunted Cabernet Sauvignon. Indeed, Bordeaux – considered the most illustrious wine-growing region in the entire world – cultivates and promotes this storied grape with great success. The formula is largely a combination of historic expertise, marketing savvy and a unique haughtiness.
Then, in the 1970s, California’s Napa Valley stepped up and exemplified this grape’s success in the New World. It was only 40 years ago that California Cab would never have been considered at a table across the big pond – or at a tony Manhattan dinner party. No, back then, California wine was probably enjoyed under bridges as much as under cover with rebellious oenophiles.
But, the Judgment of Paris changed everything: French Bordeaux’s new nemesis, the Napa Valley, had the expanse of property, climate and a dynamic American marketing engine to propel it to stardom.
Hats should be tipped to those pioneering vintners who realized they had something special in cultivating this storied varietal The only problem: many wines from Napa Valley – whether 100-percent-varietal or Cabernet-dominant meritages – are on the auction block (or the local shelf) for exorbitant prices. The stakes are high in Napa, as are the yields and score-driven tension during every harvest.
There’s the other side of Napa Cabs that, while not “bum wines,” are certainly nothing to get excited about: High yields produce lakes of bulk juice. So, the lower-end Napa Cabs are uninspiring. What about changing the location – even slightly? Would that help achieve value? It just might work.
“The vigorous nature of Cabernet Sauvignon [allows it to] thrive in a multitude of environments and climates,” says Michael Taylor, Wine Director at Del Frisco’s Steak House Chicago on Oak Street. “It picks up the individual terroirs from the different soils and produces a stylistically different wine from Napa or Bordeaux. Personally, I find that very exciting.”
Below are some of the higher-quality Cabernet offerings from around the world. They aren’t trying to produce the next Parisian uprising, but are still focused on elevated quality – without, of course, an excessively elevated price:
Casa Silva Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva: From the Colchagua Valley of Chile, this Latin American standout has potent aromas of dark cherry and subtle aspects of pipe tobacco. Flavors are of intense, dark fruit – but structure reins them in nicely. Pleasant tannins mark the finish. Great wine to serve with a strip-loin roast and buttered, boiled potatoes. $10.
Foxglove Cabernet Sauvignon: A Californian, but from Paso Robles – a region still fighting for recognition when compared with Napa Valley. It’s all black fruit and intriguing herbal elements of thyme and a bit of black pepper. Medium- to full-bodied, it can be enjoyed now, or even aged a couple of years. Serve with roasted or grilled beef, accompanied by rosemary-roasted potatoes. $13.
Happy Canyon Vineyards “Chukker” Santa Ynez Valley: This Cab/Cab Franc mix is another example of how just some winding, California miles can trim more than a few dollars off the price of Cab-based wines. Sometimes, great things happen when the most banal of branding-speak is stripped away. The “Chukker” is fermented in stainless steel and best served with a slight chill. Dark berries and rhubarb are the dominant notes on nose and palate. Meant to be enjoyed young, have it with a grilled lamb and just about any starch. $13.