BY DUNCAN CHAISANGUANTHUM
If you consider yourself an Accomplished Wine Person (AWP), you should probably stop reading now. This column is not for you. Don’t feel slighted — for two years you had Justin Dillon, who rivaled most professional enologists. (“Enology” or “oenology,” both pronounced een-ology, is the SAT vocab word for the science of wine and winemaking, from the Greek for “wine,” oinos.) Josh Solomon, the current wine columnist with whom Mike and I alternate weeks, is a closet sommelier posing as a law student (yes, he actually is a law student). Suffice it to say that you AWPs have gotten your due.
Thus, we’re writing a column for Ordinary Wine Guys and Gals (OWGGs). If you enjoy trying to discern currant from cloves from kerosene but words like “Pouilly-Fuisse” perplex you, greetings: You are an OWGG. Together we OWGGs will explore practical, affordable wine enjoyment and education, and when it’s all over the AWPs will have nothing on us.
We review two California cabernets this week, both available at the Harvard Provision Company, that are disappointments. Well, both were drinkable, much like water: No matter how much you drink, it just isn’t very interesting. The least objectionable was a 1998 Robert Mondavi. Sweet on the nose (“a little sweet, even for a woman,” noted our duly designated female), with plenty of berries and dark cherry. Deep purple in color with a slight brick overtone, medium-thick legs. Less sweet and light on the palette, and mildly astringent. With this Mondavi loser, you’ll not spend all night plumbing its intricacies. In fact, if some well-meaning person should give you a bottle, the plumbing is the most appropriate place for its contents.
The other Cali cab was a 1999 Murphy-Goode. Even more like water than the Mondavi, it was tart and acidic on the nose. The acid followed onto the palette, accompanied by hints of strawberries left in the fridge too long. If given a bottle, hit the donor on the head with it (not too hard — don’t hurt the bottle) and return it for a refund.
Knowing good cabernet sauvignon is knowing how great wine can be. We have always been partial to these reds because they contain a complexity and pretension that many reds and most whites lack. Understandably, the cab grape is the basis for some of the finest wines from California’s Napa Valley, the Bordeaux region of France and southern Australia. Cab also blends well with other grapes such as merlot (the classic Bordeaux blend), cabernet franc (known as “meritage”), and shiraz (known as “Cabernet Sauvignon/Shiraz”).
But like the hot girl you ogle in class that either has a boyfriend or personality issues, or not uncommonly, both, the catch is simple – cabs are expensive relative to many other varietals. Wine producing is apparently not a pro bono endeavour: wineries charge more for wines labeled as “Cabernet Sauvignon” because they can. (Incidentally, a bottle need only be comprised of 75% of that varietal to be labeled as such.) My experience has been to seek cabs in the $20-$30 sweet spot. Sure, paying more does not necessarily entail a better bottle. The $10 bin will have the occasional Anna Kournikova, but the $40 bin will also have the occasional Anna Kournikova. But there is enough consistent quality in the $20-30 range to make it useful guidance for affordable, well-made cabs.
1998 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon ($38). Widely regarded as the Yale Law of California winemaking, Mondavi disappoints today. The wine exhibits a strong nose of berries and hints of mild spice. The structure is decent with balance among alcohol, acid and its slightly tannic finish. However, the wine lacks the cornucopia of subtle flavors that distinguish exceptional wines. From first taste to finish, the Mondavi is annoyingly sweet, despite the Sweet Tarts I had before guzzling.
1999 Murphy-Goode Cabernet Sauvignon ($23). If Mondavi is the Yale Law of California winemaking, Murphy-Goode is the NYU of California reds. Typically known for its fumé blanc and other whites, Murphy-Goode is a relative newcomer to reds. Unsurprising for a young wine, this cab is very acidic and tart, unbalanced, and probably should be aged or decanted before consumption.