Six reasonably-priced bottles to age for a special occasion

Here are some West Coast Cabs that are age-worthy but,relatively speaking, won't break the bank.

Chateau Ste. Michelle Meritage 2002 (Columbia Valley, WA; $48). A massive meritage blend fromWashington's premier big winery. Packed with fruit and tannin, butbalanced.

Clos du Bois "Marlstone" 2002 (Alexander Valley, CA; $50). Majestic structure for thefuture, but plush fruit for right now ― plums, blackcurrants, and wild berries.

Groth Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 (Oakville, Napa Valley; $55). Grown in the same neighborhoodas $100-plus cult Cabs, Groth is a deal. Great structure and solidripe berry fruit.

Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 (Napa Valley; $25). Martini reds have a solid track recordfor aging. This one is full of cassis and firm but balanced ―a steal.

Sequoia Grove Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 (Napa Valley; $32). Solid structure; luscious cassis, cocoa,and vanilla; excellent acidity.

Silverado Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 (Napa Valley; $40). Silverado has long produced elegant NapaCabs with impeccable balance, fruit, and structure.
Karen MacNeil

New buzz for California cabs

Not long ago, if you walked into a wine shop looking for a goodCabernet that would age well ― a special bottle to hang ontofor a child's graduation, say ― the clerk's advice wouldlikely be: Drink California Cab now, but buy French Bordeaux to putaway. Today, thanks to a recent restaging of a legendary 1976California versus France tasting, you might hear something new.

Thirty years ago, at the "Judgment of Paris," a CaliforniaCabernet (Stag's Leap Wine Cellars 1973 S.L.V.) stunned the judges― many of whom were French ― by scoring higher than anyBordeaux in the lineup. According to Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible and longtime Sunset contributor, right after outrage in France camedisbelief. It was a fluke; a New World wine couldn't possibly havefairly swept the field.

The French found a way to live with it, though. Their theory:All about fruit, California wines show well when they're young.More minerally, with firmer tannins, Bordeaux are made to age.Stage the tasting with some years on the wines, and the Californiawines wouldn't hold up.

The proof was in the bottle this year. The organizers of thatParis tasting gathered the original 10 wines and two panels ―one in London and one in Napa ― to blind-taste them again,for a 30th anniversary reality check. MacNeil tasted alongside theNapa panel at Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food & theArts. "Many in the room expected the results to flip-flop," shesays. At the very least, she expected to be able to write in hernotes about a given wine, "Probably California … "

But as in the first round, it was virtually impossible todistinguish the California wines from the French ones. And thistime around, California took not just the top spot; it took thefirst five places. The highest-scoring wine: 1971 Ridge MonteBello Cabernet Sauvignon (which had finished fifth in the 1976tasting). And it's not even from Napa; it's from the Santa CruzMountains.

Will new wines age as well?

Of course, that was then, and this is now. It's no secret thatCalifornia vintners are making wine differently than they did inthe '70s. Our taste (or our critics', or both) runs to wines withbigger, riper fruit (which translates to more alcohol and lessacid) and mellower tannins. Since the trio of critical elementsthat wine needs to age well consists of solid fruit, good acid, andfirm tannins, newer West Coast Cabs almost certainly won't live aslong.

With the renewed attention on aging, MacNeil believes "vintnersjust might say, 'You know, we're making wines that are toooutrageous. We've abandoned something valuable we should get backto.'" She expects some vinters to pull in the reins a little bit onbig, ripe fruit and build wines for a slightly longer haulagain.

Even so, considering how well California's wines, fruit-driveneven in 1976, have held up for 30 years, you might just hear thatwine shop clerk say something until now uncommon: "Take a bet onCalifornia."

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