With the new year in, it's time for this critic to reexamine some old prejudices. Yes, that means deigning to revisit merlot; it's been down long enough. It implies even seeking out leaner chardonnays, despite a predilection for odd grapes such as ribolla gialla. And it means looking to the cabernet I've ignored for years due to Bordeaux's soaring prices and California's soaring alcohol levels. Though I won't disdain Bulgaria offhand, I'm going to start with Argentina (as an antidote to malbec) and Washington. Herewith, are a few selections from the Evergreen State — which will also be the source of some of '13's makeup merlots.
Says Snooth's Christy Canterbury MW, "These are tremendously good Cabernets; they are more elegant and often more balanced that those of Napa due to a brighter acidity. They are also more realistically priced." Indeed — though she likely wasn't talking about the $10 (Central Market) 2010 House Wine Red from The Magnificent Wine Company in Walla Walla. House is a cab-dominated blend that also includes merlot, syrah (another Washington stalwart), and cabernet franc. And it's amazingly good at its price level, showing dark fruit with a touch of smoke and earth on the nose, followed by a tight display of black cherry on the palate. There's not much of a finish, but at 10 bucks I'll take a good start any day.
Columbia Crest Winery can usually be counted on for overperforming at its price point as well, and I tasted two from their lineup. The 2008 Grand Estates Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley (about $10 at Saglimbeni Fine Wines, aka Joe Sag's) needed to be decanted to wake up its somewhat brooding, dark plum and blackberry fruit; though I quite liked this one on the second day, I'd look for a newer vintage. The 2009 Columbia Crest Horse Heaven Hills Cabernet Sauvignon ($13.99 at Twin Liquors), on the other hand, was a stunner right out of the bottle, exhibiting blueberry aromas and flavors along with a touch of spice and leather and a great, creamy mouthfeel. (It was beautiful with an oozy French cheese, too.) Look also for the 2010.
The 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley from 14 Hands Vineyards ($12.99 at Twin) calls itself "rich, full bodied," but comes across light in comparison to the others. It wasn't until tasting it with a Cuban-style roast pork shoulder that the inherent dark cherry emerged over a backdrop of caramel and vanilla. As the state's most prolific producer, it's often easy to discount Chateau Ste. Michelle, but that would be a mistake; their 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon "Indian Wells" Columbia Valley ($16.49 at Joe Sag's) offered up coffee and mocha along with lively flavors of wild blackberry and, eventually, black cherry cola. There may be more fruit and spice than structural definition in these lower-end examples, but a slight uptick in price will get you a very cabby (and minty) cabernet in the form of the 2008 Mercer Estates, mostly available on premise at places such as Myron's.
If there's a lesson to be learned here, it's that, even when prices are realistic, you get what you pay for. If there's any resolution to be made for 2013, it's this: keep tasting.