The New Mecca for Cabernet?

What’s your go-to wine region for great cabernet sauvignon? Pretty soon, it might be somewhere in Argentina. Even facing tons of foreign competition, the variety and value down south are hard to beat.

Cabernet, the so-called king of grapes, made its name in Bordeaux and the rest of the Gironde centuries ago. Now, however, pure cabernet wines are hard to find. Pauillac, St. Julien and Graves are among the appellations that use primarily cabernet in their blends, but there aren’t many opportunities to enjoy the grape’s rich, special character on its own. Moreover, the top makers of these wines charge a pretty penny, and the best of the more pedestrian brands rarely make it to these shores.

A few decades ago, California stepped into the breach with pure cabernets and Bordeaux-style blends. Napa and Sonoma have churned out millions of bottles of big, beefy cabernets and rather fewer with more restrained, Old World style. Yet there’s a certain sameness to these wines; their terroir is limited in its variation, and the wines seem built for reliable fruit explosions more than anything else. Sometimes we want those fruit explosions, but sometimes we want something a little different.

Enter Argentina. According to the most recent report of the National Institute of Viniviticulture, 17 percent of red wine vines in Argentina were cabernet sauvignon at the end of the 2010 vintage. This was equivalent to almost 18,000 hectares, or more than 68 square miles. That may not sound like much, but consider that most of those 68 square miles are spread over seven provinces: Mendoza, San Juan, La Rioja, Catamarca, Salta, Rio Negro, and Neuquen.

This week we tasted some older Mendoza cabernets that are coming into their peak years for drinking enjoyment. The styles and flavors were all over the map, from the classic bell pepper note in the 2008 Pulenta Estate to the fresh-cut oranges in Walter Bressia’s 2008 Urraca. Our best-value selection was the 2007 Chakana, 87 points for less than $10 a bottle, with jammy tomato flavors typical of a hot vintage. How’s that for variety?¬†Salud!

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