It's not easy to find quality, inexpensive cabernet sauvignon. There's plenty of cheap cabernet out there, but most of it is either too tannic, too green (with flavors resembling bell peppers), or too grapey to bother with. In fact, this is one of the few areas where the Wine Curmudgeon has mostly given up finding decent wine for $10 or less.
When you raise the price bar to $15, the standard has always been Avalon's Napa cabernet, which offers a bit of sophistication and style with plenty of quality California fruit. I've always thought the Avalon was superior to wines that cost $20 and more.
Which is why the 337 (about $15, sample) was such a pleasant surprise. I had tasted a previous vintage a couple of years ago when my Cordon Bleu class did its red wine extravaganza, but had not thought much about it until last week. That's when I saw this bottle in the back of the wine closet and remembered that my class had enjoyed the wine. If the 337 is not up the level of the Avalon, that's not an insult. It has cherry fruit that isn't overdone and the requisite varietal characteristics — zingy tannins and a decent finish. It's a red meat wine for cooler fall nights. One note: You might find some of the 2008 vintage, which should be OK.
And the name? 337 refers to the name of the clone of cabernet used to make the wine. What's a clone? It's a version of cabernet that has been bred for a specific purpose. In this case, 337 is the clone of cabernet used to make the wine.
The setting was Fearing's, the restaurant in Dallas' Ritz-Carlton hotel that is run by Dean Fearing, one of the top celebrity chefs in the country and where you can drop $100 a person for dinner without even thinking about it. The Ritz, of course, is the Ritz. And, if that wasn't enough, some of Dallas' top wine collectors would arrive in a few minutes to attend a re-corking clinic for their vintage bottles.
Which just goes to how dedicated the Wine Curmudgeon is to his craft. I was about as far as possible from my $10 wine. But this was a chance to taste Penfold's Grange ($500, sample), an Australian shiraz blend that is one of the world's great wines. And how often does that happen?
I needn't have worried. Winemaker Peter Gago, like so many Australians, is not overwhelmed with his self-importance. How many California (or even French) winemakers who make super-premium wine would have had a thoughtful discussion about whether a $500 wine was worth $500? How many would have said, as Gago did, that the wine business needs to do more to educate consumers — to demystify how wine works. "We have a challenge globally," he said, "about spreading the word about wine, and at whatever level of wine we make."
So how was the wine? Impressive, if not nearly ready to drink. Much Australian wine is loud and boisterous, with concentrated fruit and high alcohol. It slaps you on the back. The Grange, on the other hand, was almost unfriendly, as if it wanted to size you up first. The fruit was there, and in another five or 10 years will start to show itself. Gago says the wine is hiding a lot up its sleeve, to be revealed as it ages. In all of this, the Grange truly is a great wine, a bottle to be appreciated not for immediate pleasure but for what it will become.
Texas winemakers and grape growers are slowly moving away from the traditional European varietals, like cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, in favor of lesser known grapes that are better suited to the state's hot, dry climate.
The favorites of the moment are viognier, a white grape from the south of France, which several wineries have turned into an attractive alternative to chardonnay, and the Spanish tempranillo, which has produced some fine wines in limited use. I'm not as sold on tempranillo as many others in Texas are, for it can be a difficult grape to work with in the winery and it may have ripening problems in the state.
All of which is a roundabout way to get to the Don Gabriel. Zinfandel is a grape that has been overlooked in Texas, which is kind of surprising. It's a warm climate varietal that has enjoyed great success in California, and we know much more about growing it in this country than we do tempranillo.
Because, based on the Don Gabriel ($13, sample), we should be growing more of it in Texas. Winemaker Gabe Parker makes some very interesting wines, and I've even had a pinot noir blend (unheard of in Texas) that was quite pleasant. The Don Gabriel is a fruity — yes, the traditional blueberry — with low alcohol and black pepper. It's not as jammy as California zinfandel, but that's not necessarily a problem. Unfortunately, the Don Gabriel doesn't have retail distribution, but it is available through the winery. Pair this with fall barbecue and tomato sauces.