Not only is Cabernet Sauvignon the most popular red wine, it’s also one that is best suited to gift giving. It’s a wine that everyone knows and understands. Big, rich and bold, it’s the archetype of red wines that is perfect for the cooler months that lie ahead. While Cabernet does get a bit of a bad rap as being ubiquitous, that doesn’t mean that that all Cabernet is the same.
There are fascinating differences between producers in the same region, and of course between regions. While much of the world has adopted a certain style for their cabernet, favoring richness of fruit and tenderness of tannin over something a bit more rustic and complex that doesn’t leave us without ample choices this holiday season. If you are looking for a cabernet this gift giving season might I suggest looking beyond the obvious and searching out producers who continue to produce wines that show hints of herbaceousness. Wines that capture the beauty of Cabernet’s power without surrendering to the lack of detail that power can bring to the table. There are many regions for you to choose from; from Napa Valley, to South Africa great things are happening with today’s Cabernet.
Nothing says Cabernet like Napa says Cabernet. It has been home to some of the most successful wineries in the US for decades, and has been the source of some terrific wines over the years, so its reputation is duly deserved. Though it has also been the poster child for both over the top wines of excess and pricing that has but a fleeting association with reality. None the less, if you’re giving a gift, putting a bottle of Napa’s finest Cabernets on the table does carry a significant impact and to be truthful, those overwrought wines that don’t do much for me do have a huge audience. Still, I will always seek out wines that harken back to the great Napa Cabs of the past, if only in spirit. Here are five worth tracking down.
2009 Martin Ray Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Reserve $18-$22
Martin Ray is a famous name from the past better known for his wines from Santa Cruz fruit. Today’s incarnation offers a broad array of wines and this little number carries the Napa tag along with a reserve designation so it looks particularly prestigious, even if it doesn’t break the bank. It’s a lovely wine, clean and sleek while marrying gentle sweet oak to fresh blackberry and black currant fruit.
2010 Elizabeth Spencer Special Cuvee Cabernet Sauvignon $30-$40
Elizabeth Spencer may not be a terribly familiar name to the Cabernet drinker, though her Sauvignon Blanc has been a perennial favorite of mine. That same style that makes her Sauvy so attractive works wonders when applied to Napa Valley Cabernet. Here’s a wine that unites fruit from throughout the valley and the result is one slightly lean, finely focused red fruited wonder that is supple but not soft and just invites one to keep drinking the bottle.
2010 Freemark Abbey Cabernet Sauvignon $35-$40
While my tastes run a bit outside the mainstream when it comes to Napa Cabernet there is no denying the appeal of the softer, lush, explosively fruity style that is the current paradigm for success. Usually this is accompanied by a mighty price tag but that's not the case with valley veteran Freemark Abbey who’ve bottled a fabulous offering in 2010. Rich and creamy, and ready to be consumed now and over the next several years, this is one little powerhouse of a wine that never loses focus in the mouth.
2007 Smith Madrone $36-$50
Smith Madrone make, for my money, one of the few collectable Cabernets from Napa worth the tariff. It’s a bit of a throwback wine, rustic some might call it. It doesn’t hide it’s slight herbaceousness, nor does it come with pre -softened tannins. What it does deliver is a lively, earthy, focused mouthful of Cabernet fruit that needs a few years to round out into form but then evolves in classic form for two decades. It is the golden age of Napa Cabernet in a bottle.
2007 Dunn Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley $65-$85
As much as I love Smith Madrone, Dunn has them beat, though for a price. Dunn’s wines are for me the top of the heap. Have an aged example of either the Napa bottling or the more massively constructed and somewhat more expensive Howell Mountain and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Both are tight wines, though the Napa is in no way a second wine to the Howell Mtn. It’s a little softer, particularly in a ripe vintage like 2007 which you might begin enjoying before it’s tenth birthday; lightspeed when it comes to these wines. Just big, rich, complex and yet fresh Napa Cabernet that should be in every wine lover’s cellar.
Sonoma, home to the greatest expressions of Zinfandel in the world and producer of notable Pinot Noir often gets short shrift for their Cabernets. It shouldn’t be that important, after all the county is well suited to so many varieties that you’d think skipping one could be forgiven; but it is Cabernet we're talking about. It’s the yardstick by which wine regions are measured, and trth be told Sonoma has some fine dirt for Cabernet. The Alexander Valley for instance, long well regarded for their cherry fruited Cabernets, softer than those in Napa and historically easier on the wallet. And then there are plenty of hillside locations, not as concentrated within an appellation as across the mountains but spread out and affording producers a wide palette with which to create their masterpieces. Look hard enough and you’ll find some stunning cabernets in Sonoma at very attractive prices
2010 Alexander Valley Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon $16-$20
AVV has been producing wonderful cabernets for decades and their base bottling continues to be one of my favorites. Unfussy and pure with an attractive herbaceous edge, soft tannins, and a texture that is almost lush, it never fails to impress a crowd.
2009 Stuhlmuller Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley $28-$40
This is my kind of Cabernet. Light around the edges, complex and with a texture that is so clear and bright, I can understand why it continues to fly under the radar. It’s not a style that is going to win competitions, unless that competition is to see which bottle at dinner will be emptied first. Red fruited and velvety, it requires that you pay attention to it but when you do it delivers a first rate Cabernet experience.
2010 Rockpile Cabernet Sauvignon Rockpile $45-$48
This will be a hard wine to track down but it’s a classic mountain Cabernet. rich and rugged with gorgeous herbal, herbaceous, and spice tones framing the core of black cherry and black currant fruit. There’s even a leathery note of dried black olive lurking in there. Today the wine is more about promise and potential, all tightly wound up and moderately tannic but the finish, long , pure and amply fruited shows what awaits the patient. Leave this for 3 to 5 years to allow it to develop to its full potential.
2009 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma Mountain $45-$60
And speaking of Sonoma Mountain Cabernet, this is one of the wines, along with those old Louis Martini’s of course, that put them on the map. A bit of a dichotomy this one is. Restrained on one hand with gently ripe fruit and a dry character, and a bit extreme on the other with tannins that seem fairly imposing when compared to today’s crop of wines. Patrick Campbell, the winery’s founder and winemaker sold the estate in 2011 after nearly 30 years of making wine from his well tended 11 acre property. While the new owners are determined to build on the foundation’s Patrick laid, it’s hard to see how much they can do to improve the wines. His final vintages should reward cellaring and are a connection with a time of simpler winemaking.
2009 Agharta Mountain Terraces Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon $65
Picking up where Laurel Glen has left off, we’ll end this list with a very ambitious project from Pax Mahle, whose own Wind Gap label is all about delicacy and experimentation. Here on the other hand you have classic Sonoma Mountain Cabernet. Rich, bold even, and packed with fruit and sweet oak all framed by hints of herb and earth. This is ambitus on many levels, and the price is one of them but if you’re looking for something special for the Cabernet lover on your list this is a really exciting find.
Paso Robles and the Santa Cruz Mountains
Of course Cabernet is not confined to California's north coast. It thrives across the state, though we can’t just include every region that produces Cabernet. We’d run out of space and end up with a list that included far too many wines that are beyond challenging to find. To my mind there are two other regions in the state that demand inclusion on this list: Paso Robles and the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Paso Robles is a hot, dry place, which is good on one hand, producing ripe fruit packed with rich flavors, plenty of sugar, and if you’re judicious with the watering, small berries. the results can be fabulous; powerful wines that are lush and structured. Though there is the risk of overdoing, which sadly, for my palate, is the case with many of the high end wines produced there. The lower end examples though can be terrific, packing in all the richness and depth of versions that would cost multiples more if they were able to attach the Napa moniker to their names.
Santa Cruz on the other hand is all about cool climate Cabernet. There are two true standout producers there and fortunately for all of us they both produce what we could call value wines. I am tempted to recommend all their wines, but I have to refrain, though I might sneak in an extra recommendation if I have to. These wines are simply stunning and rank among the best Cabernets from california year in and year out.
2010 Eberle Vineyard Selection Cabernet Sauvignon Paso Robles $16-$24
Gary Eberle was the driving force behind the creation of the Paso Robles appellation, and the winemaker of one of the region’s greatest wines, the 1977 Estrella River Cabernet. Buy that wine if you find it, or don’t since I’m always looking for more. Instead, try this value play. rich with fruit, carrying a light roasty edge typical of the region, in the mouth this is supple, medium bodied and so well balanced. There are hints of green herbs and some tannins to smooth out, but nothing a rib eye can’t handle.
2010 J. Lohr Hilltops Cabernet Paso Robles $20-$35
J. Lohr has to be one of the most consistent producer in California, always delivering what their customers are looking for. Specifically: well-priced, rich, varietally correct wines that are fun to drink. While these wines tend to be more fruit forward than I prefer, leaning towards the blueberry shake end of the spectrum, the appeal is there. They are rich and soft, with phenomenal depth of fruit considering the price points. Decidedly richer, and smoother than the Eberle, when tasted together this is a fine contrast that can help one understand the potential of Paso Robles.
2009 Mount Eden Domaine Eden Cabernet Sauvignon Santa Cruz $28-$40
If you’re looking for one of the best values in Cabernet in this country, you’ve jusy found it. Yes the wine is not cheap, but it blows the doors off of wines costing twice the price. It’s a sleek, cool, crisp example of cabernet in all it’s leafy, red fruited, angular tannin glory. To a certain extent that’s due to it being produced for early appeal, as opposed to the more concentrated and rigid Mount Eden Cabernet, $55 to $75 for the same vintage. This is a case very like that with Dunn’s two cabernets. They are not designed to be qualitatively different, just to serve different purposes. . Domaine Eden’s purpose seems to be to delivery immediate joy.
2010 Ridge Vineyards Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Santa Cruz $35-$55
Like the Domaine Eden above, Ridge’s Estate Cabernet is not their Monte Bello’s second wine but rather a different expression of Cabernet. And if I may allow be to digress a bit. I have a rule for myself which I tend to use here on the site as well. A limit for wine. Roughly $100 a bottle though I sometimes cross that line just a bit. $125 is more like a hard line in the sand, though I rarely have come that close to it over the last several years. There are simply too many great wines that don’t cost that much so there’s little to motivate me. Ridge Monte Bello
is one of the greatest wines produced in this country and it is worth the price. That price, roughly $120 and up, vintage dependant, is steep but the quality of this wine makes it a world class value.
Of course value is relative, and $120 and up is rarely seen as a value, so we have Ridge’s Estate Cabernet to enjoy. Slightly austere and taut, it’s a great introduction to the Rdge style and while it lacks the power, depth and complexity of the Monte Bello, is it a wine that will age well for a decade or longer. It has the freshness of a Santa Cruz evening, with wonderfully precise red currant fruit touched with the coconut and vanilla notes of American oak ageing.
Washington state is to California Cabernet, and even more so California Merlot what Oregon is to their Pinot Noir. A counterpoint, though admittedly with less contrast. Oregon’s Pinot’s are grown near the rain soaked coast while Washington’s wines come mostly from the warm, desert interior. The results tend to be rather rich and powerful wines, though there is that issue of sunlight hours that comes into play once again. I need to write a book about the difference sunlight makes at latitude, but there’s not time for that here. Instad let’s just say that Washington’s wines tend to have the power and richness of a warm climate, yet with finesse and elegance that is the envy of most warm climate growing regions.
2010 Novelty Hill Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley $19-$28
It’s been a decade since I first tasted one of Novelty Hill’s wines, a Syrah in case you're wondering, and they’ve been a consistent, if hard to track down, producer since then. The wines seem to share a richness, and depth of flavor layered over structure that makes them easy and enjoyable to drink upon release. Clean and sleek in a modern style, this is emblematic of the today’s Washington State style.
2010 Seven Hills Cabernet Sauvignon Seven Hills Vineyard Walla Walla Valley $25-$45
More earth driven, leaner and firmer in style than the Novelty Hill, Seven Hills’ Cabernets tend to be excellent values, showing off great complexity and depth of flavor at their price points, but lacking the weight and richness that distinguish many washington Cabernets. I like the sleek texture of these wines and find them to have an old world feel with a fine bend of earthy, savory elements on the palate along with graceful and fresh black currant fruit.
2009 Gramercy Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley $40-$50
We take a step into a more age worthy style of wine with this bottling. Deep and dark on the palate with lots of crushed rock embedded in the mysterious depth of fruit. This is a powerful wine and one that somehow bridges the gap between Napa’s bold fruit and Bordeaux’s rigid structure. I’ve never had a Gramercy Cellars Cabernet that was mature so i’m only guessing here, an educated guess if you’ll allow it. My gut tells me great things are going to happen with this wine, just lay it down for 5 to 8 years.
2009 Dunham Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon XV Columbia Valley $42-$50
If the Gramercy Cellars sounds imposing try this Dunham instead. It’s the complete opposite in style. Plush, soft, chewy with fruit not tannins,and copious amounts of fruit at that. It’s kind of culty in style in that it’s a powerhouse of fruit and sweet toasty and vanilla oak influence, but if hedonistic Cabernet is your thing, this is your wine.
2009 Betz Family Winery Pere de Famille Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley $65-$80
And here is where it all comes together. The richness, lush feel, and caressing nature of the Dunham married to some, but not all of the structure, minerality and complexity of the Gramercy. Already balanced, though as the baby fat here fades the tannins will become more pronounced, and complex with savory, oaky and earthy accents framing the gorgeously ripe black currant and black raspberry fruit. This has an almost sweet/tart dynamic going on the mouth, though it’s actually sweet/tannic. None the less it is thoroughly engaging and a fascinating wine to enjoy over the course of an evening, though it does seem tougher by that last glass than the first, which of course bodes well for the future. A wine to drink from 2017-2024 and a testament to the high quality coming out of Washington these days.
Yes, they make Cabernet in other places as well. We tend to have a very provincial focus when it comes to wines, forgetting perhaps that while most Bordeaux may not technically be Cabernets, they are mostly Cabernet derived or at least heavily influenced. And beyond even the most obvious, there are some striking examples of Cabernet coming from around the globe. Consider what’s happening in the Southern Hemisphere. From Chile to South Africa, and Australia there are too many great wines to count, each distinctive in their own right and worthy of attention. I could probably write a page of recommendations for each, but sadly there is neither time or space for that today.
2010 Casa Lapostolle Cuvee Alexandre Cabernet Sauvignon Apalta Chile $17-$25
Chile has been producing world class wines for well over a century, though their real success in penetrating world markets can be measured in decades. That success brought the money to fund a renaissance of sorts for the Chilean wine industry and they have moved quickly into the 21st century with producers like Lapostolle leading the way. What we have here is sleek, polished example of Cabernet that is packed with fresh black currant fruit, framed gently with a touch of oak and lovely high toned green herb notes. It’s clean, bright, and just savory enough to be compelling, all for a very affordable price. It is a great taste of what chile has to offer.
2010 Rust en Vrede Cabernet Sauvignon South Africa $24-$40
South Africa’s shortish growing season, fine weather and complex soils produce Cabernets that are ripe, firm, and smoky with plenty of the herbal accents that can make Cabernet so attractively complex. They tend to be rather old school in style and Rust en Vrede’s wines epitomize this. While they may not please all palates those looking for an old school style of wine should be thrilled with this Cabernet. It’s a firm, tannic wine with lenty of ripe fruit but wonderful tobacco, herb and mineral notes that keep it interesting and engaging, not to mention very food friendly
2009 Thelema The Mint Cabernet Sauvignon South Africa $32-$50
A step up in intensity, though not riper per se, Thelema’s the Mint is a robust Cabernet, rich with plush fruit and yet packed with herbaceous character. Plummy yet full of red fruit and chocolaty oak, it has a certain modern feel to it but the spice and herb notes lend it that old world edge that I find so appealing. Easy to drink today, don’t be fooled into thinking that this won’t improve in the cellar. i wouldn’t mark it as a long term cellar candidate but I can see this getting even better with 2 to 5 years in the cellar.
2008 Yalumba The Signature Cabernet Sauvignon Barossa Australia $35-$50
Australia has had a hard time with their wine industry over the last decade or so. They developed a reputation for producing fruit bombs, which was partially deserved, but as is often the case in situations like this that reputation spread to wines that were produced in a more restrained style. their Cabernets for example. While there are plenty of massive Cabernets in Australia there are also plenty of examples like this one from Yalumba. Wines that see plenty of oak, adding a certain sweetness to them, but at the same time wines that retain glorious herbaceous and spices notes that help to balance their formidable fruit and lend freshness to the palate. This is a grand Cabernet for the cellar that is already drinking well and that should continue to improve over the coming 5 to 7 years.
2010 Penfolds Bin 407 Cabernet Sauvignon South Australia $47-$75
One of the symptoms of Australia’s decline in the US market is that many of the smaller producers have disappeared from our shelves. Thankfully producers like Penfolds remain to remind us of the glories of Australia. While far from Penfold’s flagship Cabernet , the 407 does show off the classic house style.It’s polished and refined, ready to drink today yet destined for a long life. The balance here is lovely and the freshness really striking. It’s a wine that has been aged in American oak, as is the tradition in Australia, so it is to a certain degree a throwback wine, one replete with firm tannins and mint shadings framing the firm black currant fruit. It’s a wine that you can drink today or cellar for happily ten years.