Thursday, May 18, 2006

Viernes de vinos

Del WSJ de hoy:

A Good U.S. Cabernet Is Hard to Find

Search for Under-$20 Bottles
Yields Sweet, Plain Wine;
A Reason to Miss 1983

On April 11, 1983, while watching the Academy Awards -- "Gandhi" was the big winner that year, beating out "E.T." -- we opened a 1979 Zaca Mesa Cabernet Sauvignon from Santa Ynez Valley that we'd bought two months earlier for $6.99. "Delicious," we wrote in our notes. "Huge, rich, fruity. Powerful, yet with finesse."

We went back and looked at those notes a couple of weeks ago because we wanted to convince ourselves that we weren't crazy. Reasonably priced American Cabernet Sauvignon really was good once, wasn't it?

Obviously, if we have to go back to an Oscar broadcast co-hosted by Liza Minnelli, Dudley Moore, Richard Pryor and Walter Matthau to remember tasty, affordable Cabernet, this is not a good sign. But our experience with Cabernet under $20 has been troubled for a long time. After large blind tastings over the past several years, we have suggested skipping the inexpensive American Cabernet aisle because far too many taste simple, sweet, creamy, overly alcoholic and, generally, like wines made with no passion and little regard for the consumer. There are some good ones, of course, but we have found there are better bets elsewhere in the wine store.

A Proud Tradition

It's always painful to write that. After all, not only is Cabernet Sauvignon the grape of the world's greatest red wines, but it has a long and proud tradition in the U.S. Even under $20 -- and, after all, $20 might not be what it used to be, but it's still $20 -- we expect Cabernet Sauvignon to offer some layers of complexity, some structure, some interest, and certainly some tasty fruit.

The last time we conducted a broad tasting of inexpensive American Cabernet was more than two years ago, so we thought we'd try again. We focused on the vintage that you are most likely to see on store shelves today, 2003, which was generally perceived as a good year. We bought more than 50 wines. Most were from big names, but a few were less widely available. As always, we were simply trying to get a sense of the state of the Cabernet art at the moment. We tasted the wines in blind flights over several nights.

With the newspaper so filled with bad news these days, we wish we could offer a respite. But we can't. This was, once again, a deeply disappointing tasting. The wines were sweet, simple and just not very pleasant. More than half of them rated just OK or worse, a terrible outcome. Many simply didn't taste ripe, "like the winemakers don't trust the grape or the consumer," as Dottie put it at one point. Even among those we found passable, too many tasted like simple Merlot, with broad, grapey tastes instead of the more-focused, more complex tastes we expect from Cabernet Sauvignon.

Showing What's Possible

It needn't be like this. In tasting after tasting of inexpensive Cabernet, one of our favorites has been Gallo, and it was again this year, which goes to show what's possible even in large quantities (60,000 cases of this one). And it's possible for smaller producers, too: Another of our favorites this year was Barnard Griffin from Washington state; 5,269 cases of this were made, and distributed nationwide.

Our best of tasting: Chateau Ste. Michelle from Washington, which was classy and reminded us what good Cabernet can taste like. In our notes on this wine, we even used the word "interesting," which is certainly something we'd expect in a good Cabernet. Over the years, we have consistently liked Ste. Michelle's Merlot as well.

So, for now, we would continue to skip the American Cabernet aisle when we're shopping for wines under $20. But we assure you we will keep tasting them and report back in another couple of years.

The Dow Jones Inexpensive Cabernet Sauvignon Index

In a blind tasting of American Cabernet Sauvignon under $20 from the 2003 vintage, these were our favorites. In general, inexpensive Cabernet Sauvignon is made to be drunk right away, but if you find a bottle you like, tuck one away for a year or so and see how it develops.

Chateau Ste. Michelle 'Indian Wells' (Columbia Valley)
Very Good Best of tasting. Lovely nose of rich fruit and tobacco. Far more interesting than others, with dense-packed, dry fruit, good texture and a nice balance of ripe grapes and oak. Tastes expensive.

Michael Sullberg (California)
Good/Very Good. Best value. Pretty, dark, rich color. Tightly wound fruit, good acidity and some earth underneath. Real wine and a great deal.

Alexander Valley Vineyards 'Wetzel Family Estate' (Alexander Valley)
Very Good A grown-up wine, with dark, tight, dry fruit, a good oak-fruit balance and some interesting layers. Could age.

Barnard Griffin (Columbia Valley)
Good/Very Good. Pleasant, with some blackberry fruit and a nicely dry finish. No real complexity, but lovely to drink, with broad, fruity tastes.

Francis Coppola 'Diamond Collection Claret/Cabernet Sauvignon' (California)
Good/Very Good. Nicely round and pleasant, with an interesting hint of herbs and a drying finish. Reliable name.

Gallo Family Vineyards 'Sonoma Reserve' (Sonoma County)
Good/Very Good. Well-balanced, with some stuff underneath and a dry finish of spices and herbs. As Dottie said, "It's criminally easy to drink, but not simple." Perennial favorite.

R.H. Phillips Vineyard (California)
Good/Very Good. Friendly wine. Light, smooth and easy, with some raspberry fruit. Try this with hamburgers or spicy pasta.

Rodney Strong Vineyards (Sonoma County)
Good/ Very Good. Quite soft, like a Merlot, but some nice spices, pepper and earth make it interesting. Blackberry fruit. Easy to drink. Perennial favorite. Drink now.

NOTE: Wines are rated on a scale that ranges: Yech, OK, Good, Very Good, Delicious, and Delicious! These are the prices we paid at wine stores in New Jersey, New York and Virginia.

* We paid $13.99 for Alexander Valley, $12.99 for Barnard Griffin and $11.17 for Coppola, but these prices appear to be more representative. Prices vary widely.


Anonymous Sergio Flores said...

Hello. I am a wine-chauvinist. I buy very rarely, mostly as gifts to friends or acquaintances, but I always buy Chilean wine. I have never had any complaints, not even from those souls who pride themselves in their ability to tell their friends "Shove off! That stinks!" Why buy overpriced California wine (a lot of glass, very few diamonds) when Chile produces so much that is so good at such great prices?

Then I notice that wine brings out the little Chauvin in most people. Name a wine-producing region, and people from there will immediately claim that theirs is the best wine. Even the ones who do not drink.

12:19 AM  
Blogger ramiro said...

Hello Sergio:
I don't think California wines are overpriced (not for me anyway, I live in California) There are really good values out there for California wines. I'm not a wine expert, but I enjoy the idea of exploring different wines from different regions of the world. Each region has its charming appeal.
By the way... what's your favorite Chilean bottle?

11:16 AM  

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