By The Glass
A few good cabernets still cost $20
IN THE last few years, pricing for cabernet sauvignon has been like real estate, going through the roof. About a decade ago, $30 to $40 a bottle was the going rate for many of California's top cabernet sauvignons. Now it is near impossible to find anything good for $20.
Let me explain. It is easy to find a California cabernet for $20 or less. They are everywhere -- at supermarkets, restaurants, convenience stores and discount warehouses. Unfortunately, these wines, while technically made correctly, lack personality and soul. Most are mass-produced, homogenous and provide little or no inspiration.
A good cabernet, or a good wine for that matter, shouldn't leave you indifferent. It should make you sit up and say "wow." It should inspire you to drink another sip and make you want to talk about it. It should be anything but routine, normal and taken for granted.
A few affordable California cabs do fit the bill.
The 2003 Stephan Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon ($20) is a big, dark, brooding cabernet from Paso Robles with great concentration of black fruits, and firm tannins that are well-integrated and long. It is made by Stephan Asseo, originally from Bordeaux, France, a top-end Rhone-style wine producer in California, under his winery called L'Aventure. This wine is a side project, but will please anybody looking for a big and bold cabernet.
FINDING a good Cabernet value in Paso Robles is one thing, but finding one in Napa, where vineyard prices have gone nuts, is even harder. But I'm proud to recommend two from Napa.
The 2001 version was great. The 2002 was slightly better, but in a different style. The 2003 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Napa is again great, but a return to classicism.
The 2002 was defined by an emphasis on candied fruit combined with underlying structure. The 2003 is defined by a return to old-fashioned, quintessential California cabernet: a lovely scent of plum and vanilla; on the palate, brawny and heavy, with brilliant cassis, plum, chocolate, spice, vanilla and cedar flavors.
This wine has great structure, but is not austere in any way. Tannins are full, powerful, but still integrated. This wine is awesome now, but has the ability to effortlessly age for a decade or more like the great Mondavi cabs of yesteryear. Really a great bottle for $20.
ANOTHER suggestion from Napa is the 2003 Joseph Phelps Innisfree Cabernet Sauvignon ($20). Like Mondavi, Phelps is a long-time producer in Napa famous for cabernets. And like Mondavi, Phelps' top wines sell for $100-plus a bottle.
But in good vintages, Phelps makes an affordable cabernet, called Innisfree, of all-Napa fruit: 76 percent cabernet sauvignon, 22 percent merlot, 1 percent petite syrah and 1 percent petite verdott. This cabernet is bright and approachable with deep ruby color, aromas and flavors of cherry and blackberry and a supple earthy finish.
Compare these $20 California cabernets with most others in this price range, and you'll find that they stand out from the crowd.
Jay Kam is president of Vintage Wine Cellar.
This column is a weekly lesson in wine pairing written by a rotating panel of wine professionals. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org