A reader in the District emailed this week wondering where he could find a particular Napa Valley cabernet we recommended last year. “I'm getting low on my inventory, and I love the stuff,” he wrote. “Hooked and need more of my fix!”
His dilemma helps explain why it’s been so hard to come up with our Top 5 value cabernets. The criteria that defines the Wine for the Rest of Us Top 5 value wines is consistent quality year to year, an affordable price and wide availability throughout the greater Washington, DC area (including both Maryland and Virginia). But quintessential cabernet sauvignons to most American wine drinkers are the big, high-powered red wines from Napa Valley, and good inexpensive examples are hard to find. And often when they do appear on wine shop shelves they don’t last long.
The Archstone Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 that we called “Easily the best $7 Napa cab you’ll ever taste” last January has vanished from the market, sadly, never to return.
(Archstone was apparently an experimental label produced by a high-end California winery with access to some excess Napa cabernet and excellent Carneros pinot noir that it sold for affordable prices. But according to the distributor the 2007 cab and 2008 pinot were the only vintages produced and the label has been discontinued.)
Cabernet sauvignon is often referred to as the king of red wine grapes, made famous in its ancestral home of France as the dominant grape in many of the world-renowned (and outrageously expensive) red wines of Bordeaux. But Bordeaux reds are typically blends of cabernet with merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot and to a lesser extent malbec and carménère. Cabernet from California’s Napa Valley is what many wine drinkers think of as the epitome of the grape.
But much like California chardonnay, Napa cabernet is typically much too expensive for everyday wine drinking. So our go-to cabernets are from other parts of California, Washington state or south of the border.
Like all of our Top 5 Value Wines, these have a consistent track record of pleasing year in and year out – and aren't likely to vanish from the marketplace anytime soon. They are available in wine shops (and grocery stores) in Virginia, Maryland and the District and typically cost $10 to $12 a bottle or less. They are not in any particular order (all five are good bargains), but we start with the California reds that may be the best substitute for dearly departed Archstone Cabernet.
1. Grayson Cellars Lot 10 Cabernet Sauvignon
Like wines from the great châteaux of Bordeaux, good California cabernet can be sublime but expensive. And far too often California cab that falls in the $12 to $14 range is just okay – nothing terribly objectionable, but nothing particularly memorable or special either. Grayson Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon is an exception that proves the rule, and is increasingly available throughout the Washington area for $10 to $12 a bottle, and often on sale for less.
2. Avalon Cabernet Sauvignon California
Low-cost California cabernet rarely stacks up to comparable cabs from Chile, Australia or even Washington State (see below) just to the north. But Avalon Cabernet Sauvignon California is consistently good from year to year and widely available around town for less than $10 a bottle ($8 a bottle at Total Wine in Virginia and Maryland, $9.85 at Montgomery County Liquor stores and currently on sale for $7.69 at Chevy Chase Wine). Its consistency, affordability and wide distribution throughout the area make the California wine a no-brainer for this list, and the $16 Avalon Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley is also a worthwhile splurge, especially when it goes on sale for $12 to $13 a bottle.
Wine Enthusiast magazine awarded the 2009 vintage of Liberty School Cabernet Sauvignon 90 points and named it an “Editor’s Pick” last year. Though recent vintages haven’t gotten the attention of most of the influential wine critics (neither Wine Advocate nor Wine Spectator has reviewed it since the 1991 vintage) it has earned consistently high marks throughout this entire millennium from users of CellarTracker.com, who are typically tough scorers. Widely available for about $10 a bottle at Total Wine in both Virginia and Maryland, Liberty School Cabernet is frequently on sale in DC at Rodman’s, Chevy Chase Wine & Spirits and Calvert Woodley.
We don’t typically recommend the mass-market wines you see in every wine shop and grocery store, because they are rarely as distinctive and interesting as comparably priced wine from smaller producers. One exception comes from the mammoth Columbia Crest winery in the Columbia Valley of Washington State; in particular its current Grand Estates wines that score consistently well with the critics and are widely available throughout the Washington area for $8 to $10 a bottle and sometimes less. Columbia Crest Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley Grand Estates has earned 88 or 89 points from Wine Spectator, for example, in each of the past five years, though the 2010 vintage that you’ll find in stores now.
“Open-textured, velvety and appealing for the rhubarb pie-accented currant and floral flavors, lingering on the expressive finish against fine tannins,” wrote Wine Spectator’s Harvey Steiman in the 2010 in the December 15 issue.
“Though the Wine Advocate has been bellowing it for years, it is worth repeating: Columbia Crest is the source of some of the finest values in the world,” wrote Pierre Rovani in the April 2006 WA issue. “I am awestruck that winemaker Ray Einberger and his team can produce such quality in industrial-size quantities.”
5. Cousiño-Macul Cabernet Sauvignon Maipo Valley or Casa Lapostolle Cabernet Sauvignon Rapel Valley
You’ll likely find either or both of these ubiquitous and consistently pleasing wines from Chile in almost any wine shop, and at $8 to $10 a bottle for the entry-level Cousino-Macul Cabernet Sauvignon or about $12 a bottle for basic Casa Lapostolle Cabernet you can’t go wrong. Both earn consistently high marks from the critics; and both have somewhat more expensive siblings that can also be a great bargain when they go on sale: Cousino-Macul Antiguas Reserva ($13 at Total Wine) and Casa Lapostolle Cuvèe Alexandre ($19 at Total Wine).
Though it’s a bit more expensive, Casa Lapostolle is owned by the Marnier Lapostolle family who also controls Grand Marnier liqueur, and is the maker of some world-class wines. (Its $75-a-bottle Clos Apalta Colchagua Valley 2005 earned the top spot on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines of 2008.) We've repeatedly recommended its delicious and affordable white wines, including a perennial favorite that earned a spot on our Top 5 value chardonnays.
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