“In Europe we thought of wine as something as healthy and normal as food and also a great giver of happiness and well being and delight. Drinking wine was not a snobbism nor a sign of sophistication nor a cult; it was as natural as eating and to me as necessary.” — Ernest Hemingway
When you walk into a major wine warehouse, it can be pretty intimidating. There are wines from all over the world with labels in foreign languages (literally and figuratively), and your only guide to finding what you want are the section names (Cabernet, Merlot, France) and perhaps a guy that wants to sell you wines that he thinks are great because the girl he had on a date last night thought he was awesome because he sounded confident ordering a Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
I imagine this happens all the time, and most likely one of two things will happen. You will either gravitate toward that Merlot you had last week that you thought was ok with your grilled pork chop, or you will follow the advice of the in-store guy and buy whatever he recommends.
For some people, this might be ok. This book is written for the others, the ones who want to dive a little deeper, understand what they are buying and why; those who want to explore some new areas and be turned on to wines they might have overlooked.
I was the guy that used to walk into the store and take one of the two aforementioned actions. But the more I did it, and the more I explored, the more knowledge I acquired of the top wine growing regions and what to expect from each one. I was able to pair wines far beyond the Merlot – Pork chop because I had a wider base of wines to choose from. It sparked the beginning of a life long journey into the world of wine, and one that I want to share with you in the pages that follow.
Since I’ve been on this journey I’ve taken every opportunity to try new wines from different areas. With every trip to the store, a new bottle would find its way into my cart, one that I didn’t know anything about. And it took years, but it was a lot of fun. And this journey still continues today as I explore wines from up and coming areas like Croatia, Hungary, South Africa and Canada.
I don’t want to attempt to dump every piece of knowledge on every single area. Instead, I want to go freestyle, a little off the cuff, with very little research and just throw out some suggestions for wine exploration that I think can build the foundation for a larger wine study over many years.
I toiled at great lengths on how to lay this book out. My first draft was organized by wine region, but then I quickly learned that it might prove too overwhelming and you really have to dig into each area deeper before you grasp what makes it stand out. Then I thought about varietal organization but I thought some people might get turned away or skip parts on grapes with weird names, even if they are grapes that person might enjoy.
So I settled on a hybrid of the two, which seems to be the way many wine shops also go. They have a Cabernet Sauvignon section and a French section that includes many Cabernet based wines. It’s inevitable that there will be a little overlap but whenever I begin to feel I am approaching repetition, I will try to dig into that subject even deeper to highlight key differentiating points. I also wanted to accomplish this in as few pages as possible, just hitting the highlights, the base knowledge that can help you get started.
There are a ton of books on wine out there that list every single region and grape across the entire globe. They are encyclopedic in the size and style. This isn’t one of those books. This is a quick hit. Intentionally a short burst of information to spark a larger exploration.
Ultimately, your growth in wine knowledge is going to be up to you and your success dependent on your commitment. This guide should help. I hope you enjoy.
Cabernet Sauvignon is the mother of big red grapes. It’s generally full bodied with flavors of blackberry, cherry and black currant with some undertones of plum and black licorice, depending on the region the grapes are from and what types of oak were used in aging.
Cabernet Sauvignon is ideally paired with red meat like steak, roast beef, short ribs or beef stew where the wine can really stand up to the abundance and depth of flavor from the food.
Some of the most popular areas where Cabernet Sauvignon is grown is in the Napa and Sonoma valleys, where Napa really reigns (in my opinion) as the dominant force. There are multiple areas inside Napa that are worthy of exploration including Rutherford, Oakville and Stag’s Leap as well as all of the hilly areas surrounding the valley that produce excellent Cabernet (Howell Mountain, Diamond Mountain, Atlas Peak). In Sonoma make sure to explore Dry Creek Valley and Alexander Valley for great Cabernet.
Many of the big names in Napa and Sonoma produce special blends frequently led by Cabernet that include other grapes such as Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and you are now seeing a rise in Malbec. Some of these wines, such as the Joseph Phelps Insignia, can run upwards of $200 and are really spectacular.
A good tip is to find vineyards such as Joseph Phelps, Franciscan, Chimney Rock or Heitz who are known for their higher end red blends but offer straight Cabernet wines for much less. The grapes that are grown for the high end blends are likely grown within eyeshot of the lesser priced Cabernet bottles, so they can be excellent values.
Great Cabernet can also be found in the US from Washington State has positioned itself favorably in recent years. You’d be remiss not to try Cabernet as well as other reds from here.
Cabernet Sauvignon is prevalent in Bordeaux, France and is frequently blended with other Bordeaux varietals including Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. The left bank area of Bordeaux is world renowned for producing some of the finest Cabernet dominated wines in the world, and while prices can run high you can find areas tucked in the middle of the big boys that produce great Cabernet blends for under $25 such as the Medoc (pronounced May-Dock) region. I would recommend trying wines from almost any Chateau in the Medoc or Haut-Medoc regions. Bordeaux Superior too is an additional value area to explore. Cabernet is also grown, albeit in smaller quantities, on the right bank of Bordeaux (the two “banks” are separated by the Garonne River) where the blends are more Merlot based with smaller parts Cabernet Sauvignon, and they are excellent wines as well.
I’m also a big fan of Cabernet Sauvignon grown in Argentina and Chile. The Mendoza area of Argentina, which is known for its Malbecs (we will cover those soon) produces world class Cabernet Sauvignon with lots of character. Two other areas of Argentina to keep an eye out for are Salta and Patagonia which you are seeing pop up in more stores around the US. Great wines. Maipo Valley in Chile is a monster Cab area and the wines are big in the mouth and on flavor. They are fantastic with hearty red meat meals and you can find several for under $10, but they really get good in the $20-50 range.
The Coonawarra region of South Australia is another world famous Cabernet Sauvignon growing region. Some major names from here are Penfolds, Mildara and Parker and prices are going to start at $15 and go into the several hundreds. You will also find Australian Cabernet blended with Shiraz, which also grows well in Australia and the combination is perfect.
If you were interested in the blends I mentioned from Napa Valley, you may also want to explore what’s become known as Italian “Super Tuscans.” These are hearty red blends from Italy that include a good chunk of Cabernet Sauvignon, along with Merlot and Sangiovese. These are lovely wines and can run the gamut from $8 to $500 or more. I find many in the $10-20 range to be excellent bargains. One of my favorite wines of all time is a Super Tuscan, the 2007 Antinori Solaia. Granted it’s not inexpensive but it’s worth every dollar.
South Africa is another area to keep an eye on. They are producing some fantastic Cabernet there, and because it is still a bit off the radar, the wines are typically very good values.
Your Cabernet Sauvignon Check List:
– Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
– Napa Valley Red Blend
– Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon
– Washington State Cabernet Sauvignon
– Left bank Bordeaux (St Julien, St Estephe, Margaux, Medoc)
– Right bank Bordeaux (St Emillion)
– Cabernet Sauvignon from Mendoza, Argentina
– Cabernet Sauvignon from Maipo Valley in Chile
– Cabernet from Coonawarra (South Australia)
– Italian Super Tuscan
– South African Cabernet Sauvignon
Fast Fact: The lead singer of rock bands Tool and A Perfect Circle, Maynard James Keenan, founded Caduceus Cellars in Arizona, defying many who believed that good grapes couldn’t be grown in the desert. But after a string of successful releases, including Cabernet Sauvignon and some red blends, Keenan has firmly planted Arizona on the wine growing map (and the wines are excellent, try them).
Cabernet Franc is a fun one to experiment with. It’s a grape that is typically associated with Bordeaux blends, where it really shines, but in recent years you are seeing more and more straight Cabernet Franc bottles. And I’m fan. Cabernet Franc is kind of a little brother to Cabernet Sauvignon. They share some similar characteristics (red/black berry fruit) but Cabernet Franc is generally a little softer, not as dominant, and exudes more pepper, spice and earthy tones.
On a recent trip to Napa, I found more and more of the winemakers offering straight 100% Cabernet Franc bottles. One that stands out that I enjoyed was The Fury from Revolver Wine Company (and they have a great little tasting room in Yountville). Cabernet Franc is typically priced less than Cabernet Sauvignon since it hasn’t yet achieved the same level of fame (and arguably, finesse). You will find a few Cabernet Franc bottles starting around $10 with many hovering around that $40-60 mark.
I’d recommend trying to find a straight 100% Cabernet Franc bottle to start with so you get a good idea what the grape tastes like. California, Washington State and France’s Loire Valley (prominent area is Chinon) are good places to start. From there, you can begin to enjoy the nice red wines that are blended with Cabernet Franc, especially many of the Bordeaux wines. It will be easier to pick out the Cabernet Franc characteristics and you will begin to determine if you like blends with more or less Cabernet Franc.
Your Cabernet Franc Check List:
– California Cabernet Franc (you should be able to find a few that are 100% Cabernet Franc)
– Bordeaux blend that includes Cabernet Franc
– See if you can find a Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley in France. Chinon is a popular region for Cabernet Franc and one of the more widely available in the US
– Cabernet Franc from Washington State (see Walla Walla)
– Up and coming Cabernet Franc region: Canada
Merlot was enjoying a nice run until a single line in a little movie called SIDEWAYS quickly changed people’s opinion of this great varietal. But if you’re willing to pass up one of the wine world’s biggest and most important grapes because Miles prefers Pinot Noir then you might want to skip this section.
Merlot is often the dominant grape in some of the most prized wines in the world. The right bank of Bordeaux is loaded with Merlot and produces world class Merlot heavy wines. The Pomerol and Saint-Emilion areas of Bordeaux offer excellent wines consisting mostly of Merlot. In fact, Chateau Petrus, which is one of the most expensive wines in the world, is almost all Merlot based.
I think the Merlot grown in France tastes great, a little more rustic and old world than the fruit forward Merlot we enjoy in the US. In all its incarnations across the wine growing world, Merlot brings a softness to wines starting with its floral nose. In the mouth, Merlot is not quite as heavy as Cabernet Sauvignon, being more medium in body to Cabernet’s full body. Flavors to expect are blueberry, blackberry and plum. These characteristics are why it’s such a perfect blending grape although good Merlot can stand just fine on its own.
In addition to France, you can find great Merlot blends from Italy, such as the Super Tuscans we covered in the Cabernet Sauvignon chapter. Again, these start at $10 for decent, highly drinkable bottles.
In the US, Merlot is a really good bargain in my opinion right now, perhaps a slight result of the “Sideways effect.” You just don’t hear about people getting excited about Merlot as much as you used to. And the wine selection at restaurants for Merlot tends to number significantly smaller than for Cabernet Sauvignon. But the US produces some excellent Merlot that’s as good on its own as it is with a blend.
The two primary areas to note are California and Washington State and both have some sub-regions that you will want to explore. In Napa, be sure to try Merlots from Rutherford and Oakville. Spend a little time browsing your Merlot aisle and you will quickly realize that big Cab names like Freemark Abbey, Duckhorn and Stags Leap Winery offer bottles of Merlot priced less than half of their Cabernet Sauvignon. And while these places may be best known for their Cabs, their Merlots aren’t bad at all for the money, and their Merlot is used in their higher end blends of “Meritage” wines (rhymes with Heritage). On the Sonoma side, you will want to try Merlot from Alexander Valley, Russian River Valley (Longboard Vineyards is a good one/good price) and Dry Creek. In the central coast area of California, you can find quite a few good value producers of Merlot.
In Washington State, Merlot grows plentiful in the Columbia Valley, Horse Heaven Hills and Red Mountain areas. Chateau Ste. Michelle is a recognized name and it should be easy to find their Horse Heaven Hills Merlot which is typically under $20. From Columbia Valley, check out Columbia Winery and Seven Hills. I know Hedges (great producer) makes some awesome red blends from Red Mountain that are worth checking out.
Your Merlot Check List:
– Bordeaux from Saint-Emilion
– Bordeaux from Pomerol
– Italian Super Tuscan (blend from Tuscany that includes Merlot)
– Napa Merlot from Rutherford and/or Oakville
– Sonoma Merlot from Alexander Valley, Russian River Valley and/or Dry Creek
– Washington State Merlot from Columbia Valley and/or Horse Heaven Hills
Fast Fact: Merlot is the most widely planted grape from the Bordeaux region of France.
Syrah or Shiraz, as it’s known in Australia, is the same grape but some of the differences in taste between regions are so great that it might lead you to believe otherwise.
Syrah is a big red, typically full bodied with pepper, chocolate and dark fruit flavor; Syrah is noted for its spicy character, particularly Australian Shiraz. These wines are often blended with different grapes (red and white as we’ll cover) although they can stand nicely on their own. I find them to be very food friendly as well, perfect with grilled meats, barbeque, sausage or roast pork.
There are four regions where Syrah is best known: the Rhone region in France, all over Australia including the famed Barossa Valley, Argentina and in the US.
Rhone Valley in France
The Rhone Valley in France offers high quality wines for the money and you should be able to find quite a few different bottles at most stores in the US. I will get into more detail on the Rhone Valley in the France section that follows, but this is prime growing territory for Syrah. In Northern Rhone you find more straight Syrah wines while in the Southern part you will find blends that utilize Syrah as well as Grenache and smaller parts Mourvedre, Cinsault and Carignan.
An interesting practice that you see in Northern Rhone is the blending of small parts of white wine (mostly Viognier) with Syrah which brings new layers of complexity and style. This is also popular in Australia.
Shiraz has become the powerhouse grape for Australia and some world famous wines have been produced as a result. Shiraz is grown all over Australia but I’m going to focus on three big areas that will help you get acquainted with these wines: Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale and Clare Valley.
Barossa Valley is probably the most popular region for Shiraz in Australia and bottles should be plentiful at your wine shop. These wines are also amazing bargains, with some bottles priced at $20 tasting like they cost $50. It’s a fun world to explore too because the Australian winemakers use a lot of creativity with their bottle labels. Some Barossa Valley wines to note would be: Earthworks, Yalumba, Penfolds and Wolf Blass.
McLaren Vale is an Australian region on the rise with more and more bottles seemingly on the shelf every trip I make to the store. d’Arenberg Stump Jump is an awesome bottle from here that costs under $15. Clare Valley is solid too. One of my favorites from here is the Jim Barry, The Lodge Shiraz.
In Australia, you will also find many Shiraz blended wines. As noted, we’re seeing more and more Shiraz Viognier bottles, and since Cabernet Sauvignon grows so well, the Shiraz/Cab blends are really excellent too.
Syrah from Argentina is huge on flavor. It doesn’t hold anything back and with the right meal to complement their boldness, these wines are awesome. You’ll find blends from Argentina as you do with many of the other regions. Make sure you experiment with these wines. The South American style Syrah might be right up your alley (I love to throw them in the mix occasionally). Montes makes a nice one for under $20.
Syrah in the United States
This is one that you’re going to have to explore. In the US, Syrah takes on many different characteristics in the areas of the country where it is grown.
California is an important region, namely Napa and the Carneros area. You will find these wines priced all over the place, starting around $10 on the low end. Over in Paso Robles, there is a group known as the Rhone Rangers, who are popularizing the grapes made famous in the Rhone region of France. Syrah would certainly fall into this camp, and you will find excellent Syrah blends from this part of California. Some top names to look for are Justin, Terry Hoage (you might know him) and Tablas Creek (personal favorite).
Syrah also does great in Washington State particularly in the Walla Walla, Horse Heaven Hills and Yakima areas. Many of these bottles will run between $30-50 but the climate in Washington State is really perfect for this varietal and the wines are highly enjoyable as a result.
Your Syrah/Shiraz Check List:
– Syrah from Northern Rhone Valley in France (Cote Rotie, Hermitage)
– Syrah from Southern Rhone (Cotes du Rhone, Chateauneuf-du-Pape)
– Australian Shiraz from Barossa Valley
– Australian Shiraz from McLaren Vale
– Australian Shiraz from Clare Valley
– Syrah from Argentina
– California Syrah from Carneros
– California Syrah from Paso Robles
– Washington State Syrah
Fast Fact: Petit Sirah is a different grape than Syrah (not a smaller version of Syrah). It is a cross of Syrah with another grape, Peloursin, and it is most popular in California and Australia.
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