There are everyday wines, and there are special occasion wines. Today we are talking about the later
That’s because it’s the time of year for festive dinners and multiple celebrations. Thanksgiving is just one month away and then rapid fire comes Hanukkah, Christmas, New Years, and along the way, office parties, once a year reunions, and lots of social get togethers.
Big dinners mean big wines, so this year I am focusing entirely on cabernet sauvignon. Why? Well, it’s the world’s most popular red, the most planted grape on earth, and the varietal behind the world’s most famous and collectible wines, Bordeaux, It’s the grape that made California’s wine industry relevant, and besides France and California, it is produced in excellent fashion all over the planet. But most of all it is perfect for all these great meals we have coming up.
Most traditionally, cabinet is thought of a “steakhouse wine” because it pairs so well with beef, especially well-marbled beef, which is exactly what you get at good steakhouses, USDA Prime, which is quite fatty. It’s even better with Japanese wagyu, the fattiest of all meats. Cabernet’s most defining characteristic is high tannins, and more tannic wines go well with both fattier meats and charred dishes. A famous Texas steakhouse owner once told me, “No one ever celebrated a business deal with chicken,” and there’s something behind that – in the coming celebratory season, beef is likely to be on the menu at some point. So is lamb, another quintessential cabernet food pairing.
But even if it’s not, the other thing about cabernet is that tannic wines also go great with cheeses, foods that are rich, and anything with fat, including butter and cream. That means something at pretty much every festive meal you will attend over the holiday season. It’s not the first wine you think of for turkey but if you look at Thanksgiving dinner, it’s full of things like creamed onions, creamed corn, mashed potatoes with butter or cream, rich gravy, plenty of things that add up to a rich, fatty plate. Ditto for pretty much every big celebratory meal whether beef or lamb shows up or not. Whether your centerpiece is fowl or lasagna or Jewish-style brisket, cab is going to work. It is also a high alcohol wine, which is what translates to full bodied, and again, full bodied wines go well with these dinners. Finally, cabernet’s medium acidity is enough to cut through fat and salt without overpowering. There’s a reason why better restaurants sell a ton of cabernet.
But you don’t need any food at all to enjoy a great cab. There’s a reason why this category includes the priciest and most collectible wines on earth – they are great on their own. A big, fruit forward full bodied one is a meal in a glass. There’s a reason why big cabs are often s described as “chewy.” Whether you’re watching fireworks or sitting on the deck overlooking the beach at sunset, it’s hard not to love a good cabernet.
The final festive factor? You will likely find yourself having to bring a bottle to someone’s house or event this holiday season, and there’s pretty much nothing on the list below that any host will turn their nose up at. Good cabernet is a versatile holiday dinner pick that is also good on its own and failsafe as a gift. But in compiling the list below, I put extra emphasis on food friendliness, and these are great cabs that make for great meals.
For most of these the currently available vintage is 2018 or 2019, but older is usually even better, because big cabs at rebuilt to age for years or decades. Top retailers will often older vintages of these same labels some labels. Most of these wines will keep getting better and basically age for as long as you want them to age, but most of them can be enjoyed tomorrow. The prices go down as you scroll down, so don’t be scared.
Inglenook Rubicon (2019, $225): I’m not big on “celebrity winemakers,” but Francis Ford Coppola is different, a true wine lover who parlayed his Oscar wining movie success into vines early, acquiring his first Napa Valley vineyard in 1975 with Godfather proceeds. He purchased the famed Inglenook Chateau in 1995 and later the rights to the Inglenook labels. His wine portfolio is very large and varied, but this is the flagship, and Coppola launched Rubicon in 1978 with the express purpose of creating a fine wine competitive with the world’s best, and he succeeded. In the four plus decades since, it has become one of America’s most famous, acclaimed and collectible reds, and is always produced from the very best estate grown grapes in Napa’s Rutherford. It’s a Bordeaux-style blend, and the 97-Point (Wine Enthusiast) 2019 is 81% cabernet with the balance merlot, petit verdot and cabernet franc. While it’s pure Napa – fresh, dense and fruit forward – it is also complex, with finesse and balance, not the hit you over the head manner of some New World cabs.
Patrimony Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (2018, $275): I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Pasa Robles, and while it’s no longer a hidden gem, it still gets shaded by the powerful shadow Napa and Sonoma cast over consumers reading California wines labels. But Pasa Robles wines keep getting better and better, and Patrimony is a great example of why you sometimes need to look beyond the place name when choosing an exceptional wine. Brothers Daniel and George Daou are legendary winemakers most famous for arduously and scientifically seeking out the very best terroir plots for the particular grape varietals they want to grow, and chose the Adelaida District as the optimum spot to create world-class Bordeaux-style blends. I had the pleasure of co-hosting a Japanese wagyu and wine pairing dinner with them in Vegas several years back and came away hugely impressed. The 2018 is their most elegant Patrimony Cabernet to date, merging a great tannin structure with a layered and complex rainbow of flavors that explode in the mouth, with chocolate, blackberries, cedar, blueberries, caramel and more. It’s hard not to drink but if someone brings you a bottle, you can keep it for decades.
Quilceda Creek Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (2019, $225): Going even further afield from Napa and Sonoma, this is the cult winery – one of the oldest family-owned and operated wineries in Washington – that put the state on the luxury wine map, Quilceda Creek makes nothing but the most acclaimed Cabernets in the Pacific Northwest, and was founded in 1978 with the single-minded purpose of making world-class cabernet. It produces some of the most highly coveted and collectable cabernets in the nation and is sort of wine nerd favorite, with the vast majority sold through a membership cub, and they all sell out. Quilceda makes special releases like seasonal and single clone, single vineyard cabs, almost all 100% cabernet sauvignon – even their one blend, CVR, is an unusually high 90%. But this label, Columbia Valley Cabernet, is the original 100% cabernet that made them famous – now in its 41st release. It quickly sold out though the winery’s club sale, but can fund it at online retailers. Bring it to an oenophile’s house and watch their eyes grow huge.
Frank Family Vineyards Winston Hill Cabernet Sauvignon (2018, $175): Frank Family reds have long been a favorite of mine – and a perennial favorite of top steakhouse wine lists. They are big classic Napa cabs that are luxurious but offer a solid value proposition for how reliably good they are. But this is a step up, and Winston Hill is the family’s original estate vineyard, just 25-acres of hand-terraced vines with coveted southwestern exposure planted in well-drained volcanic and sandstone soils. The rationale behind this label is to only use the very best fruit they grow, picked at optimal maturity. It’s a refined Bordeaux-style blend with 89% cabernet, softer and more Old World-style than most on this list, with pronounced black currant, very food friendly and ready to drink. Only 500 cases were produced, and it has consistently scored 95-points.
Antica ‘Townsend’ Cabernet Sauvignon, Atlas Peak, Napa Valley (2019, $150): A Super-Tuscan by way of Napa? Not exactly, but Antinori is arguably Italy’s top fine wine producer with many great labels, and helped usher in the “Super Tuscan” revolution of the 1970s, in which producers broke beyond the sangiovese-only restrictions of the Chianti regulations and started adding other grapes, most notably cabernet. Antinori’s flagship Super Tuscans, Tiganello and Solaia, have become among Italy’s most coveted and collectible labels, but the family also makes great wine in Napa, where they bought a top 24-acre cabernet parcel from June Townsend in 1998, keeping the family name. The Antica is a single-vineyard 90% cabernet and 10% cab franc, with a relatively high 14.7% alcohol content, giving it a big, full-bodied depth and intensity while remaining well balanced. It’s dark, with lots of dark cherry, dark chocolate and currant, very good with rich food but also delicious on its own. Interestingly, older recent Antica vintages, 2014-2018, are readily available at substantially less than the current release, in the $80-$120 range. (For an actual Italian Super Tuscan-style option, scroll down to the Aska)
Addax Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (2018, $135): Once a columnist for Wine Spectator magazine, Russel Bevan taught himself to make wine in his garage and has gone on to a storied career as one of the industry’s most sought-after winemakers for various boutique producers, and has crafted an incredible fifteen 100-point wines. For the past decade, Bevan has been the winemaker at artisan winery Addax, which specializes in sourcing grapes from Napa’s finest vineyards, for this one Oakville’s Trench, a cabernet hotspot that has fueled several of his perfect scores. This one is a Bordeaux-style blend of 75% cabernet but with more New World flair, dark, dense, full bodied, with dark fruits and a little bit spicy fantastic on its own, and also really versatile with food, even lighter mains such as roast chicken.
Gamble Family Vineyards Family Home Cabernet Sauvignon (2016, $130): For a Napa Valley spin on the farm-to-table concept, look no further than the Gamble Family, which has been farming here since 1916. Third-generation farmer Tom Gamble launched the vineyard, and grows grapes on 175-acres of prime estate vineyards from several of Napa Valley’s most respected AVAs. But this flagship is entirely from the Gamble’s 3.5-acre Family Home Vineyard – and is easily the coolest looking bottle on this list (important for gifting), with wax capped top and no label, direct gold printing on glass. Less than 700 cases produced, and the oldest “current” release on this list. Its 100% cabernet heavy on the fruit – strawberries, dried berries, figs, raspberry – but softer on the palate than most Napa pure cabs, at a lower 14.1%.
CADE Estate’s Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain (2018, $120): Famed boutique wine San Francisco wine shop PlumpJack was founded in 1992 by current California Governor Gavin Newsom, and has grown from a small retailer into an impressive collection of wineries, boutique hotels, restaurants and bars. One of its top wineries is CADE Estate, perched on Napa Valley’s famous Howell Mountain, with a state-of-the-art facility producing this Estate Cabernet in the Bordeaux-style (87% cabernet plus malbec, petit verdot and merlot). Thinking of serving a standing rib roast or such? This weighs in at a whopping 15.6% alcohol, which is huge, resulting a truly full-bodied wine with thick, velvety mouth feel and firm tannins that can stand up to the richest, fattiest meat you can throw at it, while showcasing classic Napa fruitiness and plenty of spice- clove, cinnamon, black pepper.
Cliff Lede Roundabout Midnight, Rock Block Series (2019, $110): With a uniquely colorful owner who blasts rock music during tours of his winery decorated with signed guitars, the winemaking team here is an interesting bunch, and every year, they create a special small-lot “mashup” of two or more special “Rock Blocks” from their estate vineyard, each of which is named after one of founder Cliff Lede’s favorite rock songs. This one combines Yes’ Roundabout and Eric Clapton’s After Midnight, both in the prestigious Stags Leap District. It’s hard to beat Director of Winemaking Christopher Tynan’s colorful description: “This hedonistic elixir unleashes an exceptional fragrance of violets, blackberry preserves, slate, and unctuous warm plums. Dark and brooding, the satiny entry continues seamlessly across the palate whilst flavors of cedar, lilac, and black licorice candy dance and sing effortlessly to a long and energetic finish.” Perfect if you are invited to dinner at a music lover’s home.
B Cellars 2019 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (2019, $110): B Cellars is a young Napa winery with a very environmentally-friendly state-of-the-art facility and twin focus on sustainability and food-centric artisan wines. They take both very seriously, and both are very important, but for my purposes today it’s the culinary side that moves the needle, and the tastings they do at their winery reflect this, very elaborate with gourmet amuse bouches to complement each taste, in order show off their commitment to hand-crafted, complex, beautifully balanced, wines. This is the middle of the road of their luxury price points with grapes from some of Napa’s finest Cabernet sites. Ripe fruit, a little but spicy and earthy, which pairs well with game meats, pork and wild poultry in addition to beef.
Sullivan Rutherford Estate Coeur de Vigne (2019, $110): The Coeur de Vigne is a reliable Bordeaux-style blend that consistently scores in the mid-90s pretty much every vintage. The 2019 is 88% Napa cabernet and the balance petit verdot, cab franc and merlot. It is tighter than most of the other wines here with berry fruit that’s on the tarter side. Winemaker Jeff Cole is known for wines with structure and density, and this is all that, chewy and full bodied with plenty of tannins, a wonderful accompaniment to red meat, especially grilled or charred meat and lamb.
Great Picks $100 Or Less
Nicholas Catena Zapata ($100, 2018): Wine lovers have long known that the best values often come from places outside Western Europe and the United States, and one of the biggest success stories of our lifetime is Argentina. In turn, this wine is the biggest success story in Argentina. Nicholas Catena Zapata is the father of the Argentine wine industry, an economist who learned the business in Bordeaux in the 1970s, especially the most important lesson of them all, the significance of terroir. He returned home dedicated to planting the right grape varietals in the right places. Legendary Financial Times wine columnist Jancis Robinson wrote, “Nicolás Catena Zapata is justly credited with putting Argentinean wines on the world map – by the best expedient of focusing entirely on quality. It’s great to know he has started a wine dynasty, too.” That dynasty is led by his daughter, Dr. Laura Catena, a physician who created the Bordeaux-style Nicolás Catena Zapata to honor her father, with the first vintage in 1997. Since then, it has become the nation’s most famous label and the first luxury Argentinean cuvee to be exported around the world, and in recent years has routinely scored 95-98 points with top critics. It may be the best value on this list, along with the lowest alcohol (13.9%) and the least Cab – 65% with 35% malbec. While malbec is one of the six grapes allowed in blending Bordeaux, it’s rare in France and rare in California, and gives this a distinctly Argentinean twist. Malbec goes better with poultry and pork and leaner cuts than cab, which is great with beef, and Argentineans eat more than twice as much red meat per capita as Americans so it’s not surprising that this is an executional food wine, and a very versatile one that can equally wow guests for your Thanksgiving dinner or Christmas roast. Once again, the scores are in and they are stunners: 97 (Wine.com), 96 Robert Parker, James Suckling and Decanter.
Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon (2019, $100): Widely available for $10-30 of the list price, this is the epitome of a luxury value proposition, a “second wine” to the fabled Rubicon at the top of this list. Inglenook Estate founder Gustave Niebaum brough cabernet cuttings to Napa from Bordeaux in 1941, and kick stared the greatness of what is now Francis Ford Coppola’s prized estate. It’s a slightly Bordeaux-style blend with the vast majority Cabernet (96%) and the rest a small touch of cab franc, all from Rutherford. The deep ruby color is so impressive you might look at it a long time before tasting. Its relatively lower alcohol (14.2%) and medium tannins give it a softer mouthfeel and make it more versatile with a wider range of less fatty proteins, but still easily holds up to big time steaks. Balanced, with good structure, just a solid example of classic California cab without overpowering, and another bottle anyone will be happy for you to bring to dinner.
Elyse Morisoli Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (2018, $85): Elyse Winery has quietly been making standout wines for almost 40 years, but popped into the news when musician Adam Duritz of Counting Crows bought in as a partner, and acclaimed frequent 100-point winemaker, Russel Bevan (see Addax above) joined. Throughout the decades Elyse has maintained strong relationships with top growers and vineyards where each varietal showcases its purest characteristics, like Marisoli. It’s silky, fruity and rich, but very approachable for a Napa cab, more sipping then chewing, and while it goes great with food, it’s really easy to drink on its own.
Double Diamond Oakville Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (2019, $80): Napa legend Fred Schrader founded Schrader cellars in 1988, and with winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown, scored an unprecedented record 35 100-Point scores from the industry’s top critics. Schrader launched his Double Diamond brand in 2011, again with Brown making the wines, using exclusively grapes from prime vineyard estates in Napa Valley’s renowned Oakville AVA, including the ultra-prestigious To Kalon Vineyard. The result is big time California Cab with a relatively small-time price tag, and also one that is exceptionally ready to drink immediately and in the next few years rather than the big structure built-for-decades-of-ageing styles.
Adaptation Cabernet Sauvignon (2018, $78): Within the PlumpJack family of wineries, the superstar is Odette Estate, a super pricey collector wine. Jeff Owens, who crafted Odette’s first 100-point winner, now heads up Adaptation, representing the perfect entry-point to the Odette style and one of the most accessible in the PlumpJack Collection of Wines. 80% cab, the rest merlot and petite sirah, luscious is the best word to describe it, with a gorgeous silky texture. The fruit and berries you expect in Napa cab is there, but it is very complex and layered with herb and floral tones too, delicious with food and half the price of many comparable regional competitors.
Cabo de Hornos Cabernet Sauvignon ($2018, $70): We’ve got Argentina covered, so can’t overlook Chile, the other powerhouse South American wine producing nation. The Andes are the second highest mountain range on earth after the Himalayas., and the designated DO Cachapoal Andes Valley region feature excellent soil for grape growing with volcanic soil, clay and fragment gravel. Grown 1500 feet above sea level, the fruit here is also affected by the sweeping winds that come down the mountain, resulting in very slow ripening and a very pure expression of Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon. Deep, dark ruby with lots of ripe fruit and darker berries (blueberries, blackberries, black currant), balanced and elegant, with middle of the road alcohol (14.6%). It is another versatile and delicious medium to full bodied food wine that can serve multiple dinner roles this holiday season.
ASKA Bolgheri Rosso DOC 2018 (2018, $36): Italians have long been big on regulating proscribed areas of superior grape production, and consumers get confidence from these DOC or DOCG seals assuring a high level of viticulture. The Bolgheri Rosso DOC is one of the newest regulated regions, created in 2011 to accommodate the trend towards Super Tuscans, blending grapes other than the prevailing sangiovese (Chianti) famously grown in this region, which birthed the very first Super Tuscan, highly collectible Sassicaia. Famed Italian wine house Banfi makes the ASKA here from predominantly cabernet sauvignon with a bit of cab franc, and the result is one of the most affordable and versatile food wines on this list. It is well rounded but not as huge as some of the California entries, well suited for everything from steaks to the Thanksgiving spread, with velvety tannins and notes of red berries, and plum. It scored an impressive 93 points from noted critic James Suckling and often sells for even less than its very reasonable list price.