Southern cans to rival Malbec

Many in the wide world of wine consider cabernet king. With the exception of the occasional wedding, VV isn’t much given to royalty; besides, cabernets are simply often too expensive, too full of themselves, too long to come to maturity. We’re also a little annoyed that so many winemakers think they need to hang their Stetsons on the popular grape in order to be taken seriously. Why not Agiorghitiko for a change?

Just kidding about the Agiorghitiko, though with more Greek wines coming to market, we’ll address all of them at some point. But just to prove that we can be flexible, VV sought out some entry-level cabernets that are decently priced, ready now, widely available (mostly), and worth drinking. And we looked south. Way south.

Australia wasn’t ignored on purpose; there are many worthy cabs from Down Under, including the ever-popular Wolf Blass and d’Arenberg. But these tend to be heavier, fleshier wines, and, as summer has arrived both early and with a vengeance, we were looking for lighter wines that could profit from a little chill. From the high-altitude vineyards of Argentina come many cabernets that can give the country’s signature grape, Malbec, a run for its money.

The 2009 Crios de Susana Balbo Cabernet Sauvignon Mendoza ($15.99 at Whole Foods) is from the winemaker’s junior label, and it regularly receives high critical ratings. This vintage scored a 90 from Wine Advocate, and though we think that’s a tad generous, we also really liked the wine for its tobacco, cedar, and earth nose (we might even toss in a little bacon) and its flavors of dry, black fruits touched with a suspicion of chocolate. As with all the wines tasted, it went into the refrigerator for about 20 minutes before evaluating.

You will have to do some looking to find the Argentine cabs; everybody wants to sell you Malbec. The Chilean counterparts are easier to source. We found the 2008 Chono Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva Maipo Valley ($12.99 at Central Market) to be an extremely friendly wine for all its unfiltered posturing and its ten months in French and American oak. The nose is bright and berry-like with a whiff of vanillin and maybe a little white pepper. On the palate we got approachable levels of tannin, deep plum, and a little black currant, plus a whisper of cedar. In all, it seemed perfect for lighter foods on the grill — say maybe a little quail marinated in olive oil, garlic, and rosemary. The label is good, too — not an inconsequential consideration when picking from a supermarket shelf.

If we think of South Africa at all, and we should, for the wine industry there is older than that of either Argentina or Chile, it’s likely to be for Chenin Blancs. But cabernets also thrive in vineyards with maritime exposure, and the Excelsior label is consistently rated a “best buy” in the wine press. Their 2008 South Africa Cabernet Sauvignon ($12.99 at CM) exhibited a dark and deeply fruity nose coupled with cedar, graphite, and a little menthol — not to mention a transient whiff of typical South African funk. At 14.5-percent alcohol it was the “biggest” wine of the trio, and the bigness continued into the palate with a little meatiness and more-elevated cassis and blackberry. This is the one to have if you’re blowing it all for a steak to grill and have little scratch left for the wine.

After this trio was put to bed, another South African cabernet appeared at the new Tuesday night tasting event at Saglimbeni Fine Wines. On sale for the near future for $11.97, the 2008 Warwick First Lady was tighter and more focused than the Excelsior — more conventionally cab-like, in other words. Try both.

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