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Originally published Saturday, February 26, 2011 at 7:01 PM

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Wine Adviser

Tasty California merlots and cabs for under 20 bucks

Seattle Times wine columnist Paul Gregutt blind-tasted a selection of widely available California brands, focusing only on their varietal cabs and merlots, and was pleasantly surprised to find some standouts.

Special to the Seattle Times

Pick of the week

Round Hill 2008 California Merlot; $8

ROUND AND fruity, nice cherry and sour-plum fruit flavors, a hint of residual sweetness, good mouthfeel and surprising length. At this price, it's a fine value. (Unique distributes)

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THE QUEST for quaffable, value red wines leads inevitably to California, where the country's two most popular varietals — merlot and cabernet sauvignon — are grown in abundance. Big vineyards yield big crops that often produce high-volume, low-cost wines. But good as the more expensive California reds can be, all too often the cheap stuff is thin, formulaic and tricked up with added color, special yeasts, oak flavorings and residual sugar.

I blind-tasted a selection of widely available California brands, focusing only on their varietal cabs and merlots, and was pleasantly surprised to find some standouts. Granted, these wines are not priced at the Two Buck Chuck level; not even close. You really have to pay a little extra to work your way past the worst of the watery plonk. But nothing here will break the bank, and the best bring solid fruit flavors, light tannins and balanced, clean finishes.

Note that the varietal labeling guarantees only that 75 percent of the wine is made from the grape named. The terms reserve or old vines or select are, for all intents and purposes, meaningless because they are completely unregulated.

Overall, the merlots were better than the cabs, which quickly became boring and tannic. All flights were tasted blind, then revealed and organized by preference for a final taste-off. Included were wines from Bin 36 (Hahn Family), Cellar No. 8, DFV (Delicato), Glen Ellen, Happy Camper, Oak Grove, Parducci, Round Hill, Rutherford Ranch and Sebastiani.

Suggested retail prices ranged from $8 to $19. Quite honestly, price seemed irrelevant; paying more or less did not prove an indicator of potential quality. Unless you are willing to pay $25 and up for your California cabernet, you may as well stick with the $8 to $12 stuff. I've listed the recommended wines in the preferred order, best first.

MERLOTS

(DFV) 181 2008 Lodi Merlot; $11

Firm and nicely structured, with clean cherry and berry-fruit flavors, balancing acidity and lightly toasty tannins. A drying finish leaves a hint of fruit leather.

Rutherford Ranch 2008 Napa Valley Merlot; $16

Cocoa/cinnamon spice highlights surround the pretty cherry fruit. Round, light and sweet around the edges, this sets the fruit against natural-tasting acids, with a crisp, clean finish.

Sebastiani 2007 Sonoma County Merlot; $16

A dry, somewhat austere style, with cassis and hints of barrel. The nose and flavors weave threads of black cherry, red licorice and milk chocolate; it fades into a citric, chewy finish.

Glen Ellen 2008 Proprietor's Reserve California Merlot; $5

A $5 reserve? Whatever. Once past the rather aggressive scents of vanilla and cut tobacco, you find a quaffable though very light wine, with delicate raspberry fruit flavors.

CABERNET SAUVIGNONS

Parducci 2007 Mendocino County Cabernet Sauvignon; $11

Though hard and closed down at first sip, this opens into a satisfying wine with substantial tannins and pleasing varietal fruits — black cherry and cassis — finishing with black licorice and coffee grounds. The most detailed and dense wine of all the cabs.

Bin 36 2007 California Cabernet Sauvignon; $16

There is an opening whiff of plastic or rubber around tight black-cherry fruit. Substantial in the mouth, with hard but polished tannins. This should be decanted; breathing brings in black olive, smoke and coffee liqueur flavors.

(DFV) 337 2008 Lodi Cabernet Sauvignon; $15

A hard shell of tannin circles moderately ripe black cherry and grapey fruit flavors. A dusting of baking spices sweetens the finish.

The revised second edition of Paul Gregutt's "Washington Wines & Wineries" is now in print. His blog is www.paulgregutt.com. E-mail: paulgwine@me.com.

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About Wine Adviser

My column is all about sharing the joy of exploring all the world of wine. I want to guide people to make inspired choices, and encourage them to try as many different styles of wine as they can. I will always seek out the best wines at the best prices. Wine Adviser runs on Sunday in Pacific Northwest Magazine.
paulgwine@me.com

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