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 Wine Curmudgeon, who usually knows no fear when it comes to tasting wine, was a bit wary of the Geyser Peak. A decade ago, when I started writing about cheap wine, this was one of the first ones that impressed me. It was in the first couple of $10 Hall of Fames, and I've always had fond memories of it.
But, for a variety of reasons, I haven't tasted the Geyser Peak ($8, purchased) much over the past several years, and wasn't sure what to expect this time. I didn't want to be disappointed if the wine wasn't what I remembered it being, or if my palate had gone in one direction and the wine had gone in another.
Not to worry, though. The Geyser Peak was all that it ever was — solid, dependable, $10 wine that succeeds in being more than some wines that cost twice as much. It has lots of lime, a bit of a middle (not something many $10 wines have), and a long, lime pith finish. Chill and serve with salads, grilled shrimp, and roast chicken — almost any white meat dish, actually. A candidate to return to the $10 Hall of Fame.
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.
One of the tenets of the Wine Curmudgeon's faith is that wine writing is not rocket science, and that anyone can write a wine review. Like this. Or this. This comes from regular visitor Karen Kimbrough, about the Portuguese Fado Ros 2009:
"A glass of Fado Ros 2009 from Portugal, about $10 a bottle, is refreshing and dry with no sharp edges, and soft with hints of berries."
Finding a quality $10 malbec is difficult; finding a quality $10 torrontes makes the malbec search seem easy. That's because torrontes, which is malbec's white grape counterpart in Argentina, is in short supply. The best torrontes grapes are used to make pricey wines, and even some of the least of the grapes end up in those pricey wines.
Fortunately, Argentine producer Fincas Ferrer has found a way around this problem. The Accordeon ($10, sample) is not only one of the best-made torrontes I've had, but it's a steal at this price. I tasted the wine at a lunch with winemaker Miquel Salarich and several other Dallas wine writers, and we took turns asking Salarich if this wine was really only $10. He just smiled and said yes.
Torrontes, when it is done well, should be floral and fruity. Sometimes, the wine is off-dry, with a hint of sweetness, but this is often used to mask the wine's faults. The Accordeon is bone dry, though still low in alcohol, and it has peach fruit and an almost riesling-like oiliness (which is a good thing) as well as a classic peach pit finish. It's just not a simple, fruity white wine; there's much more to it than that.
Drink this wine chilled on its own, or with any kind of spicy food. Highly recommended, and almost certain to show up in the 2011 $10 Wine Hall of Fame.