What's your ceiling for a decent cabernet sauvignon? Ten? Twenty? A thousand? The price spread for the world's most popular red is almost as wide as the income disparity between me and the Wolf of Wall Street (or me and Leo DiCaprio). Of necessity, I'm a hound for value, and I will never be able to afford four-figure Lafite unless I employ the five-finger discount.
It's not the same with most other wine styles, where the difference between best and bargain might be $50 rather than orders of magnitude. And yet, cabernet is also distinguished by the fact it can yield satisfying, varietally authentic wine at every price point.
The consummate red for juicy steak, it's usually full-bodied and firm, imbued with such flavours as blackcurrant, black olive, cedar, dark chocolate, mint and vanilla. There can be a big difference in quality from producer to producer, of course, but price also largely is a function of vineyard real estate costs.
So, when I'm counting dollars, I tend to resort to what I call my regional hierarchy of cabernet value. At the bargain end are Chile and Argentina. At the luxury end: Napa, Sonoma, Tuscany and the elite classified-growths of Bordeaux. In the middle you'll find Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the so-called petit chateaux of Bordeaux (the unfamous names often selling for less than $30). Yes, it's an exceedingly rough map, and I'm sure many cab fans would rearrange the order and add other options. But when you enter a wine store without much time to spare, it helps to start with a strategy.
Not surprisingly, two of the best-buy cabernets I sampled recently – most to be released this Saturday at Ontario Vintages stores, and some available elsewhere as indicated – were Argentine.
Finca Sophenia Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Argentina
Score: 91 Price: $17
The Finca Sophenia Estate, which began exporting only in 2004, got its start with the help of famed Bordeaux-based consultant Michel Rolland. Vilified by some as a dark force behind wine's supposed global homogenization thanks to his extensive international work, he undeniably possesses a golden touch. This reserve, which benefits from the clear skies and character-building cool nights of a 1,200-metre-high site near the Andes, shows a round, velvety mid-palate set against a firm tannic spine, with intriguing notes of tobacco and cedar in the distance. My kind of "mountain dew." Distributed in Alberta by Whitehall Agencies.
Santa Rita Medalla Real Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Chile
Score: 90 Price: $17.95
Santa Rita is the big Chilean brand best known for keeping bargain hunters well slaked with an array of consistent and impressive values that cost less than this. Medalla Real is a gateway line into Chile's higher end, where I think the country can compete with Bordeaux as well as any other. This 2009 is ripe and succulent, with sweet raspberry-syrup and cherry-candy fruitiness. Yet it's hardly a training-wheel pop wine. There's classic Chilean structure here, with firm tannins and acidity and a lively grace note of mint. $22.99 in B.C., $23.95 in Manitoba., $26.27 in Newfoundland.
Nickel & Nickel Kelham Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, California
Score: 94 Price: $119.95
The label's hand-sketched type and grapevine graphic will be familiar to fans of another Napa cult winery, Far Niente. The latter estate was restored and brought to prominence by the late Gil Nickel, whose son, nephew and widow are partners in this sister Napa property, which opened just before Nickel died of cancer in 2003. (Tourist alert: Nickel, who earned his wealth in his family's Oklahoma wholesale-nursery business, left behind a beautiful classic-car collection that's parked in a mini museum at Far Niente.) Dedicated to small-lot, single-vineyard wines from some of the highest-real-estate locales in Napa, Nickel & Nickel is not for bargain hunters. But this gem from the Kelham Vineyard in the heart of the valley is much better than a few other three-digit Napa cabs I've had recently. Big on chocolate as well as currants, blackberry and vanilla, it is built around a solid tannic spine and serves up a dusting of baking spices to round out the luscious cake-like experience.
Hedges Family Estate Red 2011, Washington
Score: 91 Price: $32.95
This is a cabernet in the Bordeaux spirit rather than in a technical sense. In other words, it's a blend, with cabernet sauvignon leading the way at 44 per cent. The rest is merlot, syrah, malbec and cabernet franc. I like the way it builds in weight as well as intensity, starting almost medium-bodied, with lively cherry-cassis fruit, then growing in size as the tannins and cedary oak come into play. A wine with dramatic arc.
Château La Gravette Lacombe 2010, Bordeaux
Score: 92 Price: $19.95
Talk about an international-style cab. This Bordeaux red based mainly on cabernet sauvignon tastes like it could have come from California – or the Starbucks headquarters in Seattle – with its big chocolate-coffee mocha core and vanilla infusion. Smoother than you'd expect for an affordable Cru Bourgeois, it nonetheless retains our interest with a pleasant tannic grip and subtle notes of sage and rosemary.
Sumac Ridge Cabernet Merlot Private Reserve 2011, British Columbia
Score: 89 Price: $14.99 in B.C.
A Bordeaux-style blend led by cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc along with merlot, this red from a cool vintage for the Okanagan does a fine job of imitating the Médoc. Medium-bodied and very dry, with light powdery tannins, it offers fresh berry fruit dusted with cedar, tobacco and spices. Good value. $14.99 in B.C., $14.39 in Saskatchewan., $15.99 in Man. sumacridge.com
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The Flavour Principle, by Lucy Waverman and Beppi Crosariol, was named best Canadian Food & Drinks Book in the 2014 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. Published by HarperCollins.