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Serious Eats Amateur Wine Taste-Along: Cabernet Sauvignon Report

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[Photo: Robyn Lee]

In this week's Serious Eats Amateur Wine Taste-Along, we tackled Cabernet Sauvignon: one of the world's most widely planted varietals, and, in the right hands, the grape behind some of the world's most highly acclaimed wines. Of course, we're tasting a little below that price range; we got our hands on some California, Washington, French, and Argentine bottles. What did we like? What did you like? Read on.

French: Baron Phillippe de Rothschild Cadet d'Oc 

Baron Phillippe de Rothschild Cadet d'Oc Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, from Langeudoc Roussillon, was our first selection. While we weren't expecting too much for $10, and the wine was absolutely drinkable, it still wasn't our tasters' favorite.

It's jammy on the nose, but not at all in the mouth; once you taste it, it's got concentrated flavors of raisin and currant, a little smoky, a little taste of licorice. "It's like port, but less sweet," said one taster. The tannins (those dry-your-mouth-out compounds) were particularly strong here; overbearing, many tasters felt. "This tastes like the peel of something," one person noted. "Like chewing on grape skin." But even with all of that going on, the wine seemed somewhat simple (one taster used the word "boring"); it faded surprisingly quickly on the palate, leaving you with no particular finish (other than the need to reach for the water glass).

Argentina: Crios De Susana Balbo 

Sometimes, all you want of a cheaper wine is that it's easy-drinking and enjoyable enough; while no one thought the Cadet d'Oc could be called "easy drinking," many felt that way toward the Crios De Susana Balbo Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 (about $15), from Argentina's Mendoza region. There are some pretty distinctive Cab flavors: the smell is quite vegetal, green bell pepper, while others smelled dried plum and apricot. ("Balsamic vinegar, but only in the smell," offered one taster.) But the taste is more coffee and cocoa, making us think of espresso beans, though without any of that bitterness. What really struck us, though, was how it was a much lighter wine—so much so that several tasters said "I wouldn't have known this was a Cabernet." If you're looking for big structure and bold tannins, this is not your wine.

California: Raymond, Mount Veeder, Columbia Crest 

The two wines from California were the priciest we tried, but also the favorites. The 2008 Raymond Family Classic Cabernet Sauvignon (about $30), which uses grapes from three regions—Napa, Sonoma, and Lake County—was one our tasters liked right away. (Cabs are often blended with other grapes; here, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petite Sirah.) It's got a lot of fruit but remains quite dry (that is, not sweet), tasting like ripe Bing cherries and raspberries without any of those fruits' sticky sugars; it's balanced by a leathery, smoky aspect that we quite liked. That said, some found this wine a bit intense on the alcohol; though 14.1% isn't as high as some California Cabs, some tasters felt it a bit harsh, with the sharp bite of alcohol a little more apparent than they'd like.

That wasn't the case with the 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon blend from Mount Veeder Winery (about $30); while the alcohol is quite high, 14.5%, it doesn't taste that boozy; the alcohol is actually less noticeable than in the Raymond. This wine blends Cabernet Sauvignon with Merlot, and it's the most fruit-forward wine we tried, by a long shot. (Fruit-forward just means fruity. But it's more fun to say.) It's less tannic than some of the others, and has a bit of vanilla on the nose, as well as a tobacco taste that balances the fruit. A number of these wines changed significantly as they opened up (that is, were exposed to air); both of the Californias, in particular, mellowed quite a bit, the tannins and alcohol seeming less aggressive.

While tasters were split on which of these two they preferred—some finding the Raymond a little harsh, some finding the Mount Veeder a little light—nearly everyone picked these two wines as their favorites.

Washington: Columbia Crest

What about Washington? The 2008 Columbia Crest H3 Horse Heaven Hills Cabernet Sauvignon was one of the cheaper wines we tried (about $11), but was the clear runner-up to the Californias. It smells like vanilla and nutmeg—the result of oaking—but not in an overbearing way; it's a light-drinking wine that's fruit-forward but still less fruity than some, with mellowed tannins and a smoky, earthy, "beef jerky" taste on the tongue. The tasters who didn't like it found it too light—as it opens up, it lightens even more, and the finish is quite short. But with a lot to recommend it and no clear flaws, it's a good buy in the budget range. "This just tastes like a really good cheap wine," one taster said.

What We'd Buy

Last week, we all agreed on one favorite cheaper bottle and one favorite pricier one; this week, there was a little more room for debate.

While the two California Cabs were the most expensive we tried, they were also the indisputable winners; while some liked Mount Veeder, others the Raymond, just about everyone would rather take home one of these California bottles than any other. Still, the price differential is a big one. In terms of value-for-satisfaction, Washington's Columbia Crest came out on top, that $11 bottle being the clear winner of the $15-and-under set. But many tasters preferred the Californias to the extent that they might find the price difference worth it. In my world, $30 retail is a real chunk of change to pay for wine, and I'd probably taste around a bit more before I sprung for one of those two bottles.

How About You?

What Cabernet Sauvignon have you tried recently—these bottles, or others? Come chat about the wines you've loved, and the ones you haven't.

Next week, we're on to Pinot Noir; and then, as July descends, rosé, for your summer drinking pleasure.

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