Premium Cabernet Sauvignon

November 24, 2011
Reported by Steven Elder

When November rolls around, it’s time to put away the light, bright wines of summer and turn towards the consoling presence of big reds —something warming to linger over in the cold weather. A determined group gathered at the Vendange Institute to do just that, tasting through a line-up of 12 Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated premium wines, carefully selected over the past year by Guild Director Robert White.

There was no gentle warm-up for our pallets—not a single white wine in sight—it was straight into four dark, tannic wines that were as close as we would get to “small” wines in this tasting. This first flight was in fact only small in price (relatively speaking)! All the wines showed deep colour, good body and hefty alcohol—and all were within a dollar of $35 in price. The clear favourite, selected by more than half the group, was the Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2007, admired for its approachable character, ripe fruit and general balance. The second favourite was a rival from Sonoma—the Beringer Cabernet Sauvignon Knights Valley 2007, declared to be a “fruit bomb” in the best sense of the expression.

The two other wines in the first flight were not as popular, but each held a valuable lesson. The third favourite was a deeply coloured, ripe, oaky and age-worthy wine from Ontario: the Palatine Hills Cabernet Sauvignon Proprietor’s Reserve 2007, which spent 22 months in French oak, and held its own next to these Californian wines. Last, and least as far as this group was concerned, was the Jack London Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley 2006. Perhaps it was the difference in age, but this had an earthy and mineral driven character to put one in mind of traditional French winemaking—proving that style can’t always be relied upon as guide to origin.

The second flight presented four wines a step up in depth and complexity. It also illustrated the depressing truth that while the most expensive wine is not always the best, it very often is. Over half the group picked as their favourite the deceptively easy drinking Cakebread Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2006, which clocked in at exactly double the next most expensive wine in the flight. And what do you get for that extra $50? A wine both seductive and deep, full of chocolate, coffee and spice flavours.

Two other wines in the second flight were also generally admired. The first was the Stonestreet Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley 2005, which offered many similar characteristics as the Cakebread: a complex nose, ripe cherry flavours, and suggestions of chocolate and mint. From Australia, the Barossa Estate Ebenezer Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 was praised for its balance and structure. Both these wines offered considerable pleasure and complexity at half the price or less of the Cakebread.

In the midst of all these relatively young wines was a ringer: the 1997 Mas La Plana from Miguel Torres made from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from Penedès, Spain. It offered classic mature flavours of earth, mushrooms, leather and spice. Really quite textbook for those who appreciate aged wines.

Bad news again on the quality-to- price-ratio front in the third flight: the decided favourite, chosen once again by over half the group, was three times the price of the second priciest. The favourite was the Schafer Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District Napa Valley 2005, priced at a modest $259. Those who preferred it mentioned its balanced, “yummy and chewy” character; and certainly the 32 months this 100% Cabernet Sauvignon wine spent in new French oak smoothed off any rough edges.

Interestingly, there was another Shafer wine in the flight which presented a contrast in style: the One Point Five Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District Napa Valley 2006. Although a vintage younger, it had more pronounced earthy and mineral notes, with the ripe fruit running beneath. It tied for second favourite with yet another Napa wine, the Joseph Phelps Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2006. Many felt that among these big wines it was giving the most present enjoyment: ripe fruit, balanced acidity and good length with ripe tannins.

Rounding out the flight was the Concha y Toro Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, which has been declared the top Cabernet from Chile by both Le Grand Bob (AKA Robert Parker Jr.) and Wine Spectator. It held its own in this company, with deep colour and extraction, super ripe fruit, and mineral complexity. Recognized as a relative good buy among these wines.

To clear our heads between flights, Robert asked the group what wines we liked with a traditional turkey dinner. What a range of responses! German Riesling, Chablis, oaky Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer for white; aged Bordeaux, Pinot Noir, Côtes du Rhône, Rioja and Primitivo for red. Isn’t wine a beautiful thing?

Thank you to Robert White for his diligence over many months to put together this wonderful line-up of wines.

Flight 1

  • Beringer Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, 2007, Knights Valley, $34.95, 352583
  • Palatine Hills Estate Proprietors Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, 2007, Niagara, $35.09
  • Kenwood Jack London Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, 2006, Alexander Valley, $34.95, 944843
  • Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon, 2007, Napa Valley, $34.95, 255513

Flight 2

  • Stonestreet Cabernet Sauvignon, 2005, Alexander Valley, $39.95, 4002
  • Barossa Valley Estate Ebenezer Cabernet Sauvignon, 2004, South Australia, $39.95, 39537
  • Miguel Torres Mas La Plana Cabernet Sauvignon, 1997, Spain, $49.00, 70433
  • Cakebread Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, 2006, Napa Valley, $99.95, 710426

Flight 3

  • Concha y Toro Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon, 2006, Chile, $69.95, 315176
  • Shafer One Point Five Cabernet Sauvignon, 2006, Napa Valley, $79.95, 45476
  • Joseph Phelps Cabernet Sauvignon, 2006, Napa Valley, $74.95, 710426
  • Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon, 2005, Napa Valley, $249.00, 735712